Super Rugby Pacific preview: Blues seek title repeat
Slowly but surely, Super Rugby is returning to normal.
Regional tournaments in New Zealand and Australia – two nations that have dominated the competition since the start of the Super 12 era in 1996 – have been the norm since the COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2020 season early. Great Rugby. And while last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman brought clubs from both countries together again in a competition, it still didn’t quite feel the same.
With two brand new teams in the mix as well as old and new favourites, the competition – rebranded as Super Rugby Pacific – appears to be returning to its earlier roots as a multinational competition. Moana Pasifika (a team made up largely of players from the Pacific Islands) as well as Fijian Drua, the country’s first Super Rugby team in its history, will test their might against some of the best and brightest talent in world rugby. Faithfuls like the Blues, Highlanders and Crusaders will look to navigate through the rest on their way to hopeful glory.
The Super Rugby Pacific first round begins on February 18 and 19 and can be streamed right here on FloRugby. See the program here.
Here we have an overview of what to expect for each team in the competition.
NOTE: Last season’s rankings are from Super Rugby Trans-Tasman 2021.
Blues (New Zealand)
Last season: First place in competition, final champions
A look into the future: The Blues beat the rest of the field en route to their third Super Rugby title and first since 2003, unbeaten with the competition’s best points differential (+119) and best defence, allowing just 79 points the entire season. The team is still loaded and should be one of the favorites to repeat, with 12 current and former All Blacks, including first five stars Beauden Barrett and one of the best wings in the world in Rieko Ioane. Former lock keeper and captain Patrick Tuipulotu left to play in Japan, leaving the Blues to secure two possible All Black replacements Luke Romano and compatriot James Tucker, who played for the Crusaders and Brumbies respectively. last season in Super Rugby
Highlanders (New Zealand)
Last season: Second in the competition, finalist
A look into the future: The Highlanders were one of three teams to sit tied with the Blues on 23 points going into the final. They had the chance to topple the eventual league winners in the final but failed to do so thanks to a 10-point outburst from the Blues in the final 10 minutes – a frenzy that robbed the Highlanders of their first Super title Rugby since 2015. Fortunately, the team returns as captain and legendary All Blacks half-back Aaron Smith along with top five Mitchell Hunt. Hunt finished third in all of Super Rugby last year in total points scored as one of the competition’s best kickers (22 conversions, five penalties).
Crusaders (New Zealand)
Last season: Third place in competition
A look into the future: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on a place in the final and a chance to win an unprecedented fourth straight Super Rugby title. They were tied with the Blues and Highlanders at 23 points, but didn’t have a big enough point differential to give themselves a chance for more silverware. With 12 current All Blacks on the roster, you would be making a big mistake if you assumed the Crusaders would no longer be at the heart of the title fight. Top five and All Black Richie Mo’unga (68 points) led the competition in points while teammate and compatriot Sevu Reece led the tries with six, both of which are back in the fray for 2022. Locks and New Zealand internationals Scott Barrett (who is captain) and Sam Whitelock will run the Crusaders’ engine room as the team look to regain the upper hand in Super Rugby.
Hurricanes (New Zealand)
Last season: Fourth place in the competition
A look into the future: The Hurricanes’ game week four loss to Australia’s Brumbies sidelined a promising start in which the team had won their first three games. With the dominance of the top three teams, it was going to be nearly impossible for coach Jason Holland’s team to get back into contention for a place in the final. Hooker Dane Coles has always had it in fits and starts, as the former World Player of the Year nominee finished with four tries last season despite turning 35 in the offseason. Flanker Ardie Savea is captain, after a great year in which he captained the All Blacks for the first time against Australia and South Africa in 2021.
Chiefs (New Zealand)
Last season: Fifth place in the competition
A look into the future: The ‘weakest’ team in the New Zealand competition were still a strong team, losing just one game (against the Reds in the third leg) and having a high point differential at +59. The Chiefs have just found themselves stuck in a Super Rugby season where a few teams have made the rounds of the competition, meaning their run for the team’s first title for two consecutive years in 2012 and 2013 will now have to start again in 2022. All Blacks captain and loose striker Sam Cane is returning from an injury that sidelined him for most of the Chiefs 2021 season, while half-back Brad Weber will be co-captain (along with Cane) in his eighth year with the team.
Last season: Sixth place in the competition
A look into the future: The Brumbies’ Achilles’ heel in 2021 was the lack of killer instinct in attack, finishing tied for the league’s worst offensive record (82 points) in a tally that included just 12 tries. It’s no surprise, then, that the team have opted to transfer their attacking prowess for the coming year, such as longtime Reds wing and Wallabies international Chris Feauai-Sautia and Samoan international Rodney Iona, a center who previously played for the club from 2014. -16. Australia captain and international Allan Alaalatoa returns to the prop, hoping to say goodbye to coach Dan McKellar as he leaves to take up an assistant coaching role with the Australian national team after the season.
Queensland Reds (Australia)
Last season: Seventh place in the competition
A look into the future: The Reds managed and won the Super Rugby AU season which preceded the Trans-Tasman, but did not repeat the feat in the latter competition despite winning against the Chiefs. However, when processing its Super Rugby history, the Reds’ seventh-place finish was their best since finishing fifth in 2013, after nearly a decade of trampling the pecking order in competitions. Utility fullback James O’Conner has been the team’s leading points scorer in his last three competitions and will no doubt be a major force again as one of the team’s undisputed leaders.
Western Force (Australia)
Last season: Eighth place in league standings
A look into the future: Although it was a momentous occasion to see the team back in Super Rugby last year after being kicked out of the competition in 2017, Force remained winless and tied for the lowest score (with Brumbies) of the 10 teams. Coach Tim Sampson and his team decided to poach a player from one of the league’s most successful teams last season – Fijian winger Manasa Mataele, who scored 80 points in 23 appearances for the Crusaders since 2017 – in order to help solve these score problems. Scrum-half and captain Ian Prior is still around as a vital veteran of the side which reached the 100 Super Rugby game mark against the Crusaders last season.
Melbourne Rebels (Australia)
Last season: Ninth place in the competition
A look into the future: The Rebels were beaten 50-3 by the Blues in the first week of the competition and things didn’t improve much from there. To make matters more problematic, COVID-19 restrictions have had the biggest impact on the Rebels of any team in the competition, as three matches last year had dates, venues or both changed. . Melbourne will be hoping for more stability for the 2022 season, and it starts with centre/top five Reece Hodge returning to his past form for the club. He suffered a knee injury in April last year which sidelined him for the rest of the Super Rugby season, and if he doesn’t suffer any setbacks in 2022 he could be put into production such as his 345 total points scored for the Rebels from 2016-19. .
New South Wales Waratahs (Australia)
Last season: 10th place in competition
A look into the future: The last Australian team to win the Super Rugby final (in 2014), the Waratahs have had a miserable 2021 season which has anchored them to the bottom of the table, despite being Australia’s top scoring team with 127 points. It was an atrocious defense that brought New South Wales on, with the team awarded 265 points, by far the worst record in the division. In response, the team opted for a total overhaul for 2022, with the departure of 17 players from last season’s squad and the arrival of a new coach, Aussie Darren Coleman, who led the LA Giltinis to a Major League Rugby title in the United States last season.
Moana Pasifika (New Zealand)
Last season: New team
A look into the future: Originally created for a solo match against the Maori All Blacks in 2020, this team, organized by New Zealand Rugby and composed mainly of players from various island nations (including Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands), was granted a license to play Super Rugby last year. The team will be based in Auckland and play at Mount Smart Stadium, with former Highlanders boss Aaron Mauger as the team’s inaugural head coach. Outside of New Zealand, Samoan and Tongan players are the most represented on the list, with Samoa full-back/open half D’Angelo Leuilla one of the most notable names after being part of the squad. Waikato team that won NPC Bunnings this season.
Fijian Drua (Fiji)
Last season: New team
A look into the future: The second of two new Super Rugby teams this season was founded in 2017 and previously competed in the Australian National Rugby Championship until the competition ended in 2019. All but one of the players on the list call the Fiji at home, although the team will play most of its home games in 2022 in Australia with hopes of playing more games in stadiums on the islands. Drua knows some of the Australian teams in the competition (like Western Force) from his time at the NRC, where they won the Championship in 2018. Can that success translate to Super Rugby?