Yesterday I previewed the South African Conference for the 2012 Super Rugby season, you can give that a read here. Today we look at the other two conferences in New Zealand and Australia and evaluate each team’s chances for success this season with the first game due to kick off in a few hours.
New Zealand Conference Preview
1- Canterbury Crusaders  11-4-1 (61 Points)
2- Auckland Blues  10-5-1 (60 Points)
3- Otago Highlanders  8-8 (45 Points)
4- Wellington Hurricanes  5-9-2 (42 Points)
5- Waikato Chiefs  6-9-1 (40 Points)
Traditionally the dominant force in both club and international rugby the New Zealand sides experienced a rather barren season by their lofty expectations. The Crusaders season was derailed from the outset as the home city of Christchurch was hammered by massive earthquakes that forced them to play their games at alternate venues all season. Of course that only served to bring the star studded Crusaders lineup back to the pack as they still won their conference and were upset in the final. Most of the pain experienced during the year was offset last October as the national side were crowned World Champions after 24 years of disappointment. The whole country will once again be back behind their teams hoping they will be able to manufacture a similar outcome to the All Blacks.
Starting at the top, the Canterbury Crusaders are the most dominant franchise in the history of Super Rugby, having won seven titles and appeared in another three finals, it’s easy to see why teams are continually trying to knock them off their perch. In 2012 the story will be no different as at each position group they possess at least one player who is a regular contender for an All Blacks jersey. Captain Richie McCaw (regarded as THE dirtiest player in world rugby) is a turnover machine in the rucks continually managing to steal the ball from unsuspecting opponents using methods are right in that grey area between legal and illegal, and some that are blatantly illegal, of course if you ask him, he never does a thing wrong. Their backline is lead by the best player in world rugby for the last five plus years in Dan Carter who is almost automatic with his kicking and has an amazing vision with the ball. Even with their home stadium still out of commission, the Crusaders will at least be settled at their home ground for this year and will run away with the New Zealand conference this year.
Beaten semi-finalists in 2011, the Auckland Blues are the best challengers to the Crusaders supremacy in New Zealand and have been somewhat successful in their own right winning three of four finals they have appeared in. The Blues lineup includes some high quality players lead by captain and hooker Kevin Mealamu as well as center Ma’a Nonu in the backline. Their biggest hole as it stands is likely to be their lack of a quality five-eighth as they go with the youngster Lachie Munro. The Blues will most likely get one of the three wildcard spots available and do their best to push the Crusaders all the way.
The Waikato Chiefs made a big splash in the offseason acquiring former Crusader, former rugby league superstar, part-time boxer and full-time public enemy in Australia Sonny-Bill Williams. Who is a raw but very talented centre with a crunching tackling style and uncompromising forward running style in attack. 23 year old flyhalf Aaron Cruden is backing up from a crazy season in 2011 where, in the space of three weeks he went from an afterthought to starting in the World Cup final and he is now looking to build on and becomes New Zealand’s number 2 flyhalf option behind Dan Carter. The Cheifs will try to utilise the strength of their inside backs and that will drive them right to the brink of finals contention before falling just short.
Based on the southernmost part of New Zealand the Highlanders are lead by four All Black veterans in prop Andrew Hore, scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan, flyhalf Colin Slade and winger Hosea Gear. The combination of Cowan and Slade off the back of the ruck is crucial to the success of this franchise for 2012 as they will be able to find the weakness in the opposing backline and attack it until it breaks. The two biggest games for the Highlanders this season will be in week 3 when they host the Crusaders at their home field and in week 20 when they travel to Brisbane to face the defending champion Reds. Positive results there will help drive this team back into the finals picture this season.
Our final New Zealand team has experienced a couple of down years lately after a period of relative success since 2003 where they were regular finals contenders usually falling to the Crusaders (a problem most teams in Super Rugby seem to have). After finishing 4th in their conference last season the Hurricanes will be aiming for a higher finish this year if for no other reason than for local bragging rights. The key players are lock Jason Eaton, who is a lineout specialist, centre and captain Conrad Smith who will be asked to gain as many metres as possible whenever he touches the ball and finally fullback Corey Jane is going to have to be on top of his game starting attacks as he receives kicks from opposing teams.
Australian Conference Preview
1- Queensland Reds  13-3 (66 Points) – Champions
2- New South Wales Waratahs  10-6 (57 Points)
3- Western Force  5-9-2 (37 Points)
4- ACT Brumbies  4-11-1 (33 Points)
5- Melbourne Rebels  3-13 (24 Points) – Debut Season
The World Cup year for Australia may have ended with a disappointing semi-final exit and third place finish at the main tournament however the club season certainly saw some encouraging signs for the future as the Reds won the nation’s first Super Rugby title in 10 years braking a long spell of mediocrity while the national side won the Tri-Nations trophy in a dramatic final game in Brisbane. Of course for all the positives there were plenty of negatives to take from the season as well as traditional powerhouses the ACT Brumbies suffered a player exodus and slumped to a disappointing 13th place finish. Melbourne debuted their new side in the 15-team competition and they struggled to find form on the road however they were competitive (if not successful) at home which is something to take.
For the defending champion Reds, the focus must remain on building on the last two seasons of growth where they excelled playing attacking rugby and solid defense. Since the hiring of Ewen McKenzie two seasons ago the Reds notoriously shaky defense has been shored up thanks to a back to basics approach of good, solid tackling technique and plain old desperation. They have suffered a big blow however with star fly half Quade Cooper suffering a torn ACL in October ruling him out for the opening six rounds of the tournament. Last year Cooper both wowed and bewildered fans with his risky play (that came off more often than not) and his absence may not be as bad as first thought as the team showed last year that when Cooper was having an off game (and he had a couple) the rest of the team was more than capable of standing up and helping their star man out. Look for captain James Horwill (who was 4 years ahead of me at the same school) to step up and marshal his forward pack to give the exiting young backline featuring Will Genia and Digby Ioane plenty of chances to score tries. This team is built around depth and it will be business as usual as the Reds should win the Australian Conference again.
Traditional Queensland rivals, the New South Wales Waratahs are up next in the preview and their squad is very talented on paper. However injuries are already playing a massive role in their 2012 campaign with several key squad members likely to be out for the early rounds thanks to niggling injuries that have carried over. The forward pack is lead by former national captain Rocky Elsom who has a knack for creating turnovers out of nothing in the ruck and the Waratahs will be relying on that skill to come through again. The backs have been hit very hard already this season with wingers Lachie Turner and Drew Mitchell missing for this weekend at least as well as key playmaker Berrick Barnes who is the textbook playmaking five-eighth who loves to make things happen. New South Wales are likely to be the Reds biggest challengers this year and they will be doing their best to make a run in the finals.
Traditional powerhouses in Australian rugby, the ACT Brumbies were disappointing at best in 2011 but they will be doing their best to rebound this year. The draw has been kind to them as they get their bye out of the way early in week 2 and are able to build some momentum in the key middle rounds. The Brumbies are forced to go with an inexperienced squad this season, losing several players to clubs all over the world. The best player is Wallaby mainstay Pat McCabe who has a crunching tackle in his arsenal which will leave a few opposing centres battered and bruised. Hopefully the Brumbies have better luck this season putting out a consistent starting fifteen but they are likely to be resigned to a mid-table finish at best.
Over in Perth the Western Force are a franchise in major trouble, their biggest players have all left the club for greener pastures (be it playing time or a bigger bank account). They may have lost some talented players but this is where the mettle of a team gets tested and if they can respond and come out as a cohesive unit each week then they will be competitive in most games. Flanker David Pocock is regarded as one of the best players in world rugby and is capable of winning a match on his own just with his ability to create turnovers and draw penalties. Pocock will be leading the Force forward pack this season and will be giving his all to keep his Wallaby jersey ahead of some of the emerging young talent. The Force team can only do so much with the limited talent available on the field and unfortunately for them it will be a tough season for the Perth fans to endure.
In their first season the Melbourne Rebels had some bright moments, their first win in week 2 was certainly a memorable moment as a last second penalty goal put them over the line. New signing and Australian rugby whiz-kid James O’Connor looks to step into the inside centre position outside of flyhalf Danny Cipriani and form a lethal dual playmaking threat that will possess enough firepower to score points that keep the team in it. Finishing off a lot of the set moves will be fellow new signing Kurtley Beale who is a very good all around player and can slide in any of the outside back positions. Look for some better performances on the road this year as the Rebels look to lift themselves off the foot of the table.
Round 1 Picks
N.B: Home team listed first, picks in bold.
- Blues vs Crusaders
- Brumbies vs Force
- Bulls vs Sharks
- Chiefs vs Highlanders
- Waratahs vs Reds
- Stormers vs Hurricanes
- Lions vs Cheetahs