There’s only a matter of days left until the world’s most entertaining club rugby competition kicks off. Confusing format aside, this season is set to be the best yet with three new teams entering the fray (The Sunwolves, Jaguares and Southern Kings).
Prepare yourselves for highlight reels filled with sublime skills, sensational tries and big hits. The New Zealand franchises are looking to pick up from where they left off last season and dominate the competition.
Here is a look at how their pre-seasons have gone thus far.
Desperate to put last season’s dreadful showing behind them, the Blues have acquired a new coach in the form of All Black great Tana Umaga. They have also been bolstered by the return of Rene Ranger, who will form a formidable midfield pairing with George Moala.
Add to that the Ioane brothers and Ben Lam, who have been wreaking havoc on the HSBC World Sevens Series and we could see some breathtaking performances from what is undoubtedly a very talented back division. The likes of Patrick Tuipolotu, Charlie Famuina, Steven Luatua and captain Jerome Kaino are really going to have to step up and give these exceptionally talented backs a good platform.
Given their big wins so far this pre-season, a 56-7 win over the Rebels and a 40-12 win over the Hurricanes, one wouldn’t be blamed for expecting big things from them. Their final pre-season game is on Friday against the Chiefs.
After a decent season where they got to the play-offs (getting knocked out by eventual winners the Highlanders), the Chiefs are looking to get back to winning ways this coming season. Though they have lost Ben Tameifuna, Taneru Latimer and Liam Squire, the Chiefs have still got a very good pack that has only been made stronger by the acquisition of All Black forwards Dominic Bird and Nepo Laulala.
The return of Tawera Kerr-Barlow who missed all of last season after suffering a nasty break will be a welcome boost as will that of 2011 World Cup winner Stephen “the Beaver” Donald. These two will add a lot to the talented set of backs that the Chiefs already possess.
Expect a lot from youngsters like Damian McKenzie, James Lowe (who unfortunately suffered a big injury in the second half of last season) and Seta Tamanivalu as they look to stake a claim on an All Blacks jersey. An impressive 17-12 victory over the Waratahs in their first pre-season match was a good marker for the men from Hamilton and they will need to be on their toes when they face the Blues on Friday.
Having lost some quality players like Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter, Nepo Laulala, Luke Whitelock and Dominic Bird, the Crusaders have had to work hard this off-season to make sure they will be a force to be reckoned with. They have recruited heavily in their search for a new fly-half leaving Richie Mo’unga, Ben Volavola and Marty McKenzie to fight it out for the number 10 jersey.
Apart from that they have kept faith in the group that they have and will look to their key players such as Kieran Read, Nemani Nadolo, Ryan Crotty and captain Samuel Whitelock to step up and provide some big performances. They got their pre-season games off to a good start with a 31-3 win against the Reds and a hard fought 19-19 draw with the Highlanders. They should do well in this very competitive pool.
The champions have enjoyed an eventful pre-season, involving a hard-fought loss to Paris-based Racing Metro in Hong Kong and a tough draw with the Crusaders (played on a repurposed grazing paddock). They have slowly been integrating their All black stars back into the roster and will be expected to field a full strgnth side against the Waratahs on Friday.
Sadly, they have lost squad and fan-favourite Richard “the Barracuda” Buckman for the entire season due to injury.They have on the other hand made notable acquisitions, with back rowers Dominic Bird and Liam Squire joining the ranks. Expect to see their workman-like pack and livewire backs set the competition alight once again.
Last but not least we take a look at the Hurricanes, who have had a relatively quiet pre-season with only one hit out so far (the 40-12 defeat to the Blues). Due to the loss of their legendary All Black centre pairing (Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, a lot of responsibility is going to fall on the shoulders of highly rated NRL recruit Ngani Laumape and Matt Proctor as they try and fill in the gap left by the pair.
They do, however, have a host of ever improving All Black stars at their disposal and no doubt will be heading into the season with an extra sense of purpose after their loss in last year’s final.
Gavin Nyawata, Pundit Arena