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RUGBYPASS+ Stilted Super Rugby Pacific kicks off exactly when needed

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Stilted Super Rugby Pacific kicks off exactly when needed
3 months ago

There’ll be some relief when Super Rugby Pacific finally gets underway in New Zealand this weekend, after all the hurdles faced just getting to the start line.

You could hardly get a greater contrast than with June 14, 2020, when the Blues and Hurricanes ran onto Eden Park and the rest of the rugby world watched on in various shades of envy.

The sun was shining, the stadium was packed, and nearby bars and restaurants were in full swing as a nation celebrated fending off a virus that had forced sport in most other parts of the world to either be called off, or at best played behind closed doors.

Fast forward to February 2022 and the rest of the world has moved on, while New Zealand seems to be caught somewhere between where we were two years ago, and where nearly everyone else is now.

Over the weekend we watched Six Nations rugby played out before noisy, heaving crowds, and the Superbowl in LA before in front of over 70,000 live fans. Meanwhile, the season in New Zealand will kick off with a match between the Highlanders and Chiefs in front of nearly no one at a club ground in Queenstown, the heart of a New Zealand tourist industry on its knees.

Queenstown might make for a fantastic backdrop for Super Rugby Pacific, but a lack of crowds won’t help the atmosphere. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

What was originally to be an historic season-opener between the Blues and Moana Pasifika in front of a big vibrant crowd at Mount Smart, is now postponed, due to an outbreak in the MP ranks.

The six NZ-based teams are in Queenstown bubbles for the first three weeks, the cost of which, and the inability to recoup through ticket sales is taking the franchises closer to the wall.

The Pacific part is also on hold, with current restrictions rendering cross Tasman competition impossible. The hope is for games in April, but that will require some leeway from decision-makers in government who are wary of rubber-stamping anything that might be perceived as a special favour towards sporting teams.

It all sounds a bit bleak, but at least rugby fans will soon have something to divert the attention away from Omicron case numbers, protesters snarling up the centre of Wellington and rising interest rates.

A couple of big-name players are back from their “sabbaticals” in Japan – most significantly, Brodie Retallick – but the biggest “new” names to watch out for are Pablo Matera and Roger Tuivasa-Scheck.

And there is plenty to look forward to.

For starters, there is the arrival of Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua, a long-overdue acknowledgement of the massive imprint players from those nations have made to Super Rugby over its 27-year history.

A couple of big-name players are back from their “sabbaticals” in Japan – most significantly, Brodie Retallick – but the biggest “new” names to watch out for are Pablo Matera and Roger Tuivasa-Scheck.

While his teammates have scattered in a northerly direction after the demise of the Jaguares, Matera has grabbed a chance to play for the Crusaders, with Argentina’s best player providing a massive boost to the champions’ already powerful ranks.

As always, pre-season chat is about whether they can be denied another title, and opponents might sniff a chance to dent their aspirations in the early weeks with the absence of Richie Mo’unga.

Richie Mo’unga’s absence will inevitably be keenly felt by the Crusaders in the early stages of the competition. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Mo’unga is the latest top player to have been allowed an extended break, again arousing questions over how much of Super Rugby NZR is willing to sacrifice on the altar of All Blacks success.

As an All Black, some still regard him as jury-out, but Mo’unga has been the best player in Super Rugby for three years, and the Crusaders are rarely the same without him.

Still, the Christchurch outfit has the right to start as favourites, and it’s a matter of who is best equipped to challenge them.

The Blues have strong credentials, despite losing Gerard Cowley Tuioti and Patrick Tuipulotu to Japan.

Fingers are crossed that the postponed Moana Pasifika game will give Beauden Barrett the time he needs to fully recover from his concussion issues and give the Blues what they didn’t really get from him two years ago, but eyes will flicker back and forth between him and Tuivasa-Scheck.

The Highlanders have lost the talismanic Ash Dixon amongst others, but should never be disregarded, especially with Tony Brown calling the shots, and will welcome back the brilliant Folau Fakatava to give them a one-two punch at halfback any team would envy.

RTS is a great buy, albeit a few years later than when Steve Hansen wanted him, and the hope is he will provide the X-factor missing from the All Black midfield since the departure of Ma’a Nonu.

It would be very wrong to place too much on pre-season form, but the Chiefs showed off enough depth of talent in the Ofa Atu Tonga match at Mount Smart to suggest the absent Damien McKenzie might not leave much of a hole, and with Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick hopefully back to their old form, their fans have every right to be excited.

Having lost Ngane Laumape, the injury to TJ Perenara is a big blow for the Hurricanes. They have some great ball-carrying forwards but will need to front up at set-piece.

The Highlanders have lost the talismanic Ash Dixon amongst others, but should never be disregarded, especially with Tony Brown calling the shots, and will welcome back the brilliant Folau Fakatava to give them a one-two punch at halfback any team would envy.

It would be unfair to expect too much, too soon from Moana Pasifika. They’ve had a limited build-up and their televised hit out against the Chiefs revealed a lack of synergy, especially at set-piece. Their enforced isolation won’t have helped, but there is talent aplenty in their attack, and hopefully opportunities will present themselves for the likes of Solomone Kata, who provides a Laumape like presence in the backline.

Former Warrior Solomone Kata will represent Moana Pasifika in their first season of Super Rugby Pacific. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The focus of this piece is the New Zealand teams, but it really stood out last year just how much Kiwis had missed playing the Aussies.

The Reds with their very settled and strong squad and Kiwi fan icon Brad Thorn at the helm, are the team most expected to head the Australian threat, the Brumbies will always be respected, and have the exciting Jesse Mogg back from France, and by adding Izack Rodda and Manasa Mataele, the Force have bolstered an already strong roster.

It might be too soon to pick a winner, but a top four of the Blues, Crusaders, Chiefs and Reds appeals, with the Brumbies, Force and Highlanders heading the scramble for the rest of the top eight and the playoffs.

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