Charge of the heavy brigade

Australia
The Queensland Reds are the defending champions for the first time since Super Rugby went professional in 1996. Last year they were the surprise package as the halfback partnership of Will Genia and Quade Cooper cut a swath through opponents. Cooper injured his knee in the World Cup semifinal against New Zealand and is missing from the opening stanzas of the season.
Coach Ewan McKenzie’s job is to paper over the cracks and prove that last year was not a flash in the pan.

The Reds’s first opponents are their traditional rivals, the Waratahs. The New South Wales team have a new coach in former Wallaby hooker Michael Foley and want to fight their way out of the mediocrity that has assailed the franchise since the turn of the century. Foley’s first shot at big-time coaching is likely to be laced with disappointment.

The Brumbies also have a new coach in Jake White. The man who guided the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2007 has a much smaller talent pool to draw on than he is used to, but his sometimes radical ideas will find receptive ears in Canberra. He tried and failed to urge Clyde Rathbone out of retirement. The former Wallaby wing played under White as captain of the South African under-21 team that won the World Cup in 2002.

The Brumbies were the standard-bearers for Australian rugby in the early years of professionalism and with White at the helm they may get back to the top, but it will take a few years.

The Brumbies play the Force first and need to make a statement of intent because the Force and the Rebels are likely to prop up the local log again this year. The Rebels endured a torrid debut season, not least because of the antisocial behaviour displayed by their imported England flyhalf, Danny Cipriani. Amazingly, Cipriani is still with the Melbourne-based side, who lost all three their pre-season warm-up games and look set for more of the same in the real thing.

New Zealand
The laying to rest of a World Cup bogey that lasted a quarter of a century should provide the impetus for an all-out Kiwi assault on the title this year. The Crusaders and Blues meet at Eden Park four months after the All Blacks beat France there in a classic final.

The Crusaders are again without a home this year because aftershocks still batter Christchurch. It scarcely affected Super Rugby’s most successful franchise in 2011. They still reached the final and only lost to a late penalty goal by Quade Cooper.

Latterly the Crusaders’s game has revolved around the power of their pack, with the Franks brothers and Wyatt Crockett carrying all before them in the front row.

The Blues have flattered to deceive in recent seasons and the same is likely to be true in 2012. Their proven match winners—Keven Mealamu, Ma’a Nonu, Isaia Toeava and Jerome Kaino—were all integral to the World Cup-winning squad, but the rest of the squad lacks the depth necessary to win a title.

The Chiefs look set to be genuine contenders—the squad is full of World Cup winners and the biggest off-season signing of them all, Sonny Bill Williams, has turned his back on the Crusaders.

Liam Messam leads from the back row and the back line includes young Aaron Cruden, who replaced Dan Carter at the World Cup.

The Highlanders won half their games in what was a season of building for the franchise in 2011. They should be competitive this year.

The Hurricanes will be led by All Black centre Conrad Smith in their opening fixture against the Stormers in Cape Town. Smith and fullback Cory Jane are the key backline players for the ‘Canes, but overall they look ill-equipped to progress from pool play.

South Africa
Inevitably, off-field politics has dominated the build-up to the season. The talk is not about who might win, but who might be relegated in favour of the Kings for 2013. It is the job of the franchises to close their eyes and ears to this nonsense and get on with the job.

The Lions are the Currie Cup champions and the early weeks of the season will be crucial for John Mitchell’s men. The draw has been kind and they play three of the other local franchises, as well as the Hurricanes, before they are required to travel overseas. If they are genuine contenders, we will know that in the first month.

The Bulls have had a major clear-out of personnel and this will surely be a year for rebuilding rather than contending. The structures put in place by Heyneke Meyer and refined by Frans Ludeke should ensure they are competitive, but too many superstars are missing for them to be anything more than that.

The Cheetahs were well beaten by the Bulls in pre-season play and they, too, are missing a number of stalwarts. Sarel Pretorius, who was the form scrumhalf in the local game last year, has signed with the Waratahs and Riaan Viljoen has moved to the Sharks, taking his mighty kicking boot with him. If there is to be a relegated team in 2012, the Cheetahs will probably be it.

The local challenge should be spearheaded by the Stormers and the Sharks. The former have lost the great Jacque Fourie to Japan and have decided to replace him at outside centre with Bryan Habana. It may be a short-lived mistake. Elsewhere they are well equipped to fight for a play-off place.

How the Sharks do may depend on how many prop forwards are still standing come the season break in June. They have a potentially thrilling backline—the halfback combination of Freddie Michalak and Pat Lambie is one to relish—but if they cannot secure the ball upfront it could be another frustrating season for John Plumtree’s men.

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