The best and worst teams in this year's Super Rugby Pacific
With the first-ever edition of Super Rugby Pacific just around the corner, the RugbyPass Round Table writers from New Zealand and Australia – Alex McLeod (AM), Ben Smith (BS), Tom Vinicombe (TV), Nick Turnbull (NT), Jack O’Rourke (JO) and Jordan King (JK) – deliver their verdicts on how the upcoming 2022 season will pan out.
Which team will win Super Rugby Pacific 2022
AM: Take your pick between the Blues and Crusaders. The safe bet would be to back the latter side, who have won five titles in as many years and are undoubtedly the most successful team in Super Rugby history.
With head coach Scott Robertson still at the helm and Richie Mo’unga – aside from the opening three weeks of the season – running the cutter, it’d take a brave person to rule them out from clinching yet another piece of silverware.
However, the Blues are the only team with the depth and quality of personnel to deny their historic rivals another championship.
Leon MacDonald’s side have a backline headlined by Beauden Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Caleb Clarke, while their forward pack features eight past or present All Blacks, as well as a few future internationals.
Add in the fact that the Blues now have title-winning experience after breaking their 18-year championship drought in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman last year, and they have all the ingredients needed to tip up their Christchurch-based counterparts.
BS: The Blues. After all the moves they’ve made over the past few years, they have the team to finally bring a fully fledged Super Rugby title home. Beauden Barrett is back at 10 with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Rieko Ioane and Caleb Clarke outside him. If that backline can’t fire, the attack coach needs to be put out to pasture.
The Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders have younger squads that aren’t established yet. There has never been a better time to derail the Crusaders dynasty than now with Richie Mo’unga sitting on the sidelines for the start of the season and out of form All Blacks everywhere across the roster.
The Blues have to get it done. If not now, when?
TV: After almost two decades of disappointment, the Blues finally look like they have the personnel at their disposal to win a Super Rugby championship (last year’s Trans-Tasman title not withstanding).
Much of their success, however, will depend on they run in the No 10 jersey and with Beauden Barrett still dealing with concussion symptoms from the November test series, that means one of Harry Plummer or Stephen Perofeta would have to step up their game considerably.
The Chiefs are the other side who look to have grown in stature during the off-season and, unlike the Blues, they have a recent history of success over the Crusaders – a team the Blues haven’t bested since 2014.
All-in-all, it would take a brave man to bet against the Crusaders continuing their recent success, although it’s worth noting that their recruitment hasn’t quite been as impressive over the past two years, which could come back to bite them down the track.
In 2022, however, they still easily have the firepower needed to secure another title.
NT: For me, it is a three-horse race between the Crusaders, Blues and Reds, but I am tipping the Crusaders to be champions yet again.
Pertinently, the Crusaders retain so much quality and All Black experience in the engine room, the halves, the midfield and out wide.
There are no signs of their hunger abating, nor have they neglected their development players coming through the system and have arguably the best front and back office in the business. Where is their weakness?
JO: For the sake of an entertaining and competitive season to usher in a new era of Super Rugby Pacific, it would be great from an Australian perspective if the Brumbies were able to win the title.
They have the pedigree to do it and have a great looking squad on paper. In recent memory, the Brumbies reached the Super Rugby semi-finals in 2019, were competitive before Super Rugby was forced to pause due to the outbreak of Covid, and went on to claim the inaugural Super Rugby AU title.
Last year, they finished as Super Rugby AU runners-up and managed two wins over New Zealand opposition in last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
If they can beat most of the Australian teams and newcomers Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua, it will set them up for finals run.
With some exciting recruits this year and a team stacked full of Wallabies, it looms as an important season for the men from Canberra as they farewell coach Dan McKellar.
JK: It’s hard to go past the Crusaders with no apparent weak spot across the park and depth to patch any inevitable injury holes.
Last year’s champions went on to win their fifth-successive title without the likes of Joe Moody, Tom Christie, Jack Goodhue and George Bridge for decent chunks of the campaign, and nearly all of them will be on deck for the first month in Queenstown.
Throw in the recruitment of former Argentinian skipper, Pablo Matera, squad familiarity and their invaluable experience in big games, you’d be foolish to put your money elsewhere.
Which will be the best and worst Kiwi teams?
AM: As explained above, the best Super Rugby Pacific has to offer this year is the Crusaders and Blues, who will jostle with each other for the mantle of New Zealand’s best team.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you exclude Moana Pasifika from the Kiwi franchises, then the worst side in the country may well be the Hurricanes.
Young playmaker Aidan Morgan is one player who could perhaps add some spice to Jason Holland’s side, but, by and large, there hasn’t been a whole lot of player movement to suggest the Hurricanes will improve from their average showing last year.
BS: As the Blues are my pick to win the competition, they have to be considered the best Kiwi team. The worst performing Kiwi team will either be the Highlanders or the Hurricanes.
The Canes usually don’t have any problems bullying the Highlanders so the men from the South will likely finish last of the New Zealand teams.
TV: The Crusaders really lack any weaknesses across the park, and with Scott Robertson forever finding ways to innovate, it would take a monumental effort for any Kiwi team to finish ahead of the Crusaders on the overall ladder.
Richie Mo’unga’s early season absence, however, could mean some teams get a bit of a head start over the red and black machine.
On the other end of the ledger, the Highlanders and Hurricanes will likely again be fighting it out to avoid finishing as the bottom New Zealand side (aside from Moana Pasifika, who are going to struggle in their debut campaign).
The Highlanders have lost Josh Ioane to the Chiefs, but otherwise should be a stronger side than in 2021 thanks to the raft of players they’ll have back from injury this year.
The Hurricanes, on the other hand, probably haven’t strengthened their resources significantly in the off-season and 2022 could be another struggle.
Thankfully for the Kiwi sides, however, the eight-team play-offs set-up means all five should qualify for the knockout stages of the competition.
NT: The Crusaders will be the best for all the reasons I’ve pointed out previously. As for the worst? Well, worst isn’t a word I’m comfortable using, but Moana Pasifika will struggle. Seldom do new teams entering into established competitions dominate.
Despite having a number of experienced players within their ranks such as former Wallabies Sekope Kepu, Christian Leali’ifano and Samoan international Jack Lam I suspect they will not lack in the motivation, but perhaps depth and overall experience and that will be telling.
JO: The boring answer is that the Crusaders will continue to set the standard for the competition. What everyone is more excited about is seeing the Blues in action.
With Beauden Barrett hopefully back for most of the season and the high-profile recruitment of Roger Tuivasa-Scheck, the Blues finally have all the pieces to make a title run in an expanded competition format.
At the other end of the ladder, the Hurricanes will struggle this season. Their off-season losses haven’t been offset by any stunning recruitment coups. Even in an expanded finals format, I am predicting that they will struggle to make the eight.
JK: While the Blues made huge strides last year and got the monkey off their back with the Super Rugby Trans-Taman triumph, the Crusaders are still the gold standard and will hold that mantle until anyone can beat consistently.
Putting Moana Pasifika to the side, it pains me to say that the Hurricanes are probably going to be the next worst team.
Their lack of height in the second row and size in the loose forwards you’d have to say would work against them and the inexperience across the backline is also a concern. The talent is there, but as we all know, it can only get you so far.
Which will be the best and worst Australian teams
AM: As has been the case for the past couple of years, the Reds and Brumbies will start the year lightyears ahead of their fellow Australian sides.
The Reds, in particular, look a quality outfit that have developed a strong sense of identity under the guidance of head coach Brad Thorn, and if their large cohort of Wallabies stars and prospects remain fit and healthy, they could do some damage this year.
By contrast, the Melbourne Rebels probably have the weakest squad in Australia, and maybe even the whole competition.
The defection of star wing Marika Koroibete to Japan is a particularly significant loss for first-year head coach Kevin Foote, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of star power left at AAMI Park to fill his void.
BS: I expect the Brumbies to get back to the top of the Australian pile. They have the pack to dominate the rest, with Wallabies Scott Sio, James Slipper, Folau Fainga’a up front, Darcy Swain, Pete Samu and Rob Valetini.
They have Nic White orchestrating play from the base with flyhalf Noah Lolesio ready to make an impression after being dropped from the national side. Len Ikitau is the best defensive centre in the world, and they have former Red Chris Feauai-Sautia and Irae Simone to compliment him.
The Queensland Reds have continuity within the squad that won the Australian competition last season. With Thorn at the helm, you would expect a settled side that is looking to repeat last year’s success. This year they have the extra challenge of taking a few Kiwi scalps to try make it back into the playoffs so have plenty more to play for but I expect the Brumbies to get payback.
It usually takes multiple years to build a contender so while the Waratahs are unlikely to go winless, it is even more unlikely for them to go from worst to first under first year head coach Darren Coleman.
I can’t see the Rebels or Force being the best squad with a lack of Wallaby talent on their rosters, while the Drua are an unknown quantity.
TV: There’s been little movement in the off-season that would suggest any considerable change-up in the fortune’s of Australia’s five sides.
The Reds and Brumbies will again fight it out for pole-position on the ladder while the Western Force have lost some key experience and could find themselves fighting it out with the Waratahs and Rebels for one final spots in the quarter-finals.
The Reds may have the wood over their Australian opposition in their head-to-heads thanks to the pace they bring to the game, but you get the feeling that it may be the Brumbies who are the best set up to compete with the New Zealand sides.
With the conference system of old chucked out, that will put them in the best position to emerge as the highest-ranked team in Australia.
And what of the Fijian Drua? While they may struggle in their first season of competition, they certainly have the firepower to cause a few upsets and it wouldn’t be a major shock to see them sneak their way into the quarter-finals late in the piece.
NT: The Reds machine will roll on. Brad Thorn and his ‘way’ is now well-established and has delivered domestic success in Australia, the challenge for his side is to now consistently defeat Kiwi opposition.
Some of his domestic rivals are less established. I think Darren Coleman will do a fine job rebuilding the Waratahs. He is a winner, but not in year one.
Dan McKellar will ensure the Brumbies will be competitive as ever and they will want to deliver him a domestic title in his final year before moving into the Wallabies set up full-time. They will push the Reds.
Melbourne Rebels boss Kevin Foote is still in his infancy as a Super Rugby head coach and Tim Sampson’s Western Force could be challenged by Covid managed issues in Western Australia due to their state governments polices on how to deal with the virus.
However, like Moana Pasifika, I think the Fijian Drua will struggle for similar reasons.
JO: While I am tipping the Brumbies for the title, the Queensland Reds are in for a great season. There is plenty to like about the Reds with Brad Thorn in charge.
This is the season to truly test their mettle against the New Zealand sides after years of setting their foundations. It is time to deliver.
Their 2021 Trans-Tasman record doesn’t make for great reading, with one win over the Chiefs. I expect that record to improve, and the Reds will be neck-and-neck with the Brumbies for best Australian side.
The Rebels will continue to be perennial under-achievers and may end up being the worse of the Aussies.
Despite a backline featuring a number of Wallabies, their forward pack lacks punch against bigger opposition and will impede the side from really getting their season going
JK: Excluding the Fijian Drua from the conversation like I did with Moana Pasifika previously, the Waratahs look to me as being the ones who will find wins hard to come by.
Success for them will be having a better season than what happened in 2021 – that shouldn’t be hard though.
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