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Super Rugby Pacific 2024: Crusaders to crumble, Brumbies will shine

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Mark Nolan/Getty Images and Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

The RugbyPass Round Table writers answer the big questions ahead of the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season.  Ben Smith (BS), Finn Morton (FM) and Ned Lester (NL) weigh in on a range of topics and make their predictions for the season.

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Which teams will be the best and worst Kiwi sides?

Ben Smith: The Crusaders have long been the benchmark for the entire competition under Scott Robertson, but they have looked off the pace in their pre-season fixtures.

Yes, it’s only pre-season but without Richie Mo’unga, the best player in Super Rugby for about seven years straight, the Crusaders are officially in re-build mode under Rob Penney. Other key losses include strike weapon Leicester Fainga’anuku and stalwart lock Sam Whitelock.

The best side will be decided between the Blues and Chiefs, with the Auckland-based club looking the best so far in pre-season. The Blues have looked slick in Japan with a host of young players gelling under first year coach Vern Cotter. The new version of Caleb Clarke looks in ominous form with a slimmer frame adding more speed.

Last year’s runners up Chiefs are expected to be strong but have lost a number of key players. Sam Cane is on a sabbatical, Brad Weber and Brodie Retallick have gone overseas. They still have a strong young pack with Samisoni Taukei’aho, Ollie Norris, Josh Lord, Tupou Vaa’i, Luke Jacobson, and a star-studded backline with plenty of strike power in Damian McKenzie, Shaun Stevenson, Emoni Narawa.

The Hurricanes are potentially going to be the worst of the Kiwi sides with only one true star player in Jordie Barrett. After receiving a pre-season shellacking from the Highlanders, it does not look promising. Ardie Savea will miss the entire season on sabbatical and they have a new head coach.

The Highlanders look like they’ve improved from last year’s disastrous season. Some young homegrown talent combined with some smart signings, Timoci Tavatavanawai and Tanielu Tele’a, poses a threat to the other sides.

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The Canes and Landers will fight it out to avoid being New Zealand’s worst performing side.

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Finn Morton: Every Super Rugby Pacific squad looks a little bit different in 2024. With legends departing and youngsters eager to forge their own legacies, now is the time to stand up and be great. But when it’s all said and done, the Chiefs will reign supreme.

The Clayton McMillan-coached Chiefs fell painfully short of championship glory last time out – the fairytale end to a practically perfect season wasn’t to be. With the best forward pack in New Zealand leading the way, the lethal halves combination of Cortez Ratima and Damian McKenzie will work wonders as they’re unable to unlock the very best of a star-studded backline.

But when there’s a winner, there must be a loser. No, that’s not referring to the ‘runner-up’ in the New Zealand conference necessarily, but rather the heavily-favoured hare who will fall well short of expectations, hype and history.

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The Crusaders are the hare that will lose badly in the race against the Chiefs. Without the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Sam Whitelock, Leicester Fainga’anuku and coach Scott Robertson, this team will struggle to establish their own identity – as seen in spurts during their Northern Tour to Munster and Bristol.

In the absence of Mo’unga, coach Rob Penney must turn to unestablished playmakers Taha Kemara or Rivez Reihana – at least until Fergus Burke returns from injury. With a backline that may include the likes of Ryan Crotty and Manasa Mataele, with all due respect, the Crusaders will struggle to keep up with the flair and youth of their Kiwi foe.

Ned Lester: Championship pedigree is so often forged in the throws of a devastating loss, and for the Chiefs, they’ve earned their stripes and have now claimed the favourites tag to win the competition.

The squad were on fire in 2023, and the confidence of going nearly undefeated over 18 weeks mixed with the sourness of being pipped at the final hurdle is a potent concoction, ripe for going one step further. Out of all the Kiwi teams, the Waikato squad are the best placed to replace their departing All Blacks, with a small army of quality locks to step in for Brodie Retallick and a hot contender for All Blacks duties in Cortez Ratima to replace Brad Weber.

The absence of Sam Cane will be noticeable but at least partially obscured by the continued growth of Samipeni Finau and Luke Jacobson, however after boasting the strongest reserve unit in the competition in 2023, the team’s losses will be most felt in the final 20 minutes, and that is a concern to their title aspirations.

On the flip side of that coin is the Highlanders, a squad that waved goodbye as 16 players walked out the door following the 2023 campaign. 16 players. That’s a lot.

The team’s improvement in performance from their first pre-season match (a 36-28 comeback win over Moana Pasifika) to their second (a 52-19 thumping over the Hurricanes) was impressive, while simultaneously implying the need to keep pre-season results well within pre-season context – given it was the Hurricanes’ first crack of the year.

The young Highlanders looked enthused, hungry and capable of finding their dangerous runners via their two quality playmakers at 10 (Ryhs Patchell) and 12 (Sam Gilbert), but a sustainable recipe for success has got to be considered some time away for the team yet.

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Which teams will be the best and worst Australian sides? 

BS: You can’t go past the Brumbies as Australia’s best side after consistently putting up winning seasons year after year. They’ve lost halfback Nic White to the Force and Pete Samu to France but they have the best pack by far.

Allan Alaalatoa, Lachlan Lonergan, Darcy Swain, Nick Frost, Tom Hooper, Rod Valetini, the Brumbies are stacked where it matters. Flyhalf Noah Lolesio has returned after a short stint in France, while there is enough quality out wide with Len Ikitau anchoring at centre.

The Waratahs should be able to challenge the Brumbies as the next best Australian side. The Brumbies have the edge up front but the Tahs have more talent in the backs, with halfback Teddy Wilson an exciting prospect to challenge Jake Gordon. Mark Nawaqanitawase was the Wallabies’ best player last year, while Max Jorgensen is a prodigious talent at fullback.

The Rebels have put together an impressive roster with Wallabies in Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, and discarded wing Filipo Daugunu. Australian Sevens and U20 outside back Darby Lancaster is a real weapon. The Gordon brothers should progress another year with Mason joining Carter in the top squad. There is enough there to compete with the top Australian sides but they are probably the third best.

The Queensland Reds and Western Force will likely battle it out to avoid being the worst Australian side. The Force just don’t have enough world class players in the tight five while the Reds are in that same boat.

FM: It would be an incredible upset if the ACT Brumbies don’t rank above the other four Australian Super Rugby Pacific sides at the end of the regular season. While veterans Nic White and Pete Samu have left to pursue other opportunities, the core of the squad remains largely the same.

But Ryan Lonergan holds the key. Lonergan, who was included in Wallabies’ squads last year but never took the field, will need to step up without Nic White to call upon. Not only will Lonergan do that, but a potential Test debut could be on the cards under new coach Joe Schmidt.

Noah Lolesio, Tom Hooper, Corey Toole and Andy Muirhead are all also backing up this season. This is a team that will not only take pole position out of the Australian sides, but the Brumbies are a very real chance of winning it all this season. You can screenshot this.

At the other end of the Australian standings will be the NSW Waratahs. How the mighty have fallen. While it’s important not to read too much into pre-season results, there’s something undefined about the Tahs. The battle between Tane Edmed, Will Harrison and Jack Bowen for the No. 10 will be interesting, and all three men could very well get a run in 2024. But that hypothetical chopping-and-changing at one of the rugby’s key positions is not a good omen – it’s a concern

Angus Bell and Langi Gleeson will spearhead the makings of a solid forward pack, but the strength of the Waratahs’ schedule will mean that they likely struggle.

A trip to Brisbane to face the Reds in a State of Origin-esque grudge match is a tough start to the campaign, and it doesn’t get any easier with three matches against Kiwi opposition on the bounce. From there, the pressure will only continue to build. The Tahs will struggle this season, unfortunately, whereas the Brumbies are ready to push on for glory.

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NL: Success is bred in culture, and the Brumbies have Australia’s best. The prospect of being resigned to an eternity of semi-final eliminations – at best – has Stephen Larkham’s men, along with the general Australian rugby public, desperate for a taste of finals footy.

The various X-factor players the team possesses can damage any side in the competition, but what the Brumbies really need in the big games, what’s really their bread and butter, is execution in the nitty-gritty aspects of the game. The patience, relentlessness and composure to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, while the hopes of so many rest on their shoulders will likely define the team’s success in 2024.

Meanwhile, the Western Force brought in some quality names over the offseason, but none that are in their prime. Harry Potter and Ben Donaldson might well prove that statement wrong, but the age profile of the newcomers tends to be either 24 and under or 33 and over, which isn’t exactly a recipe for immediate success.

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