Thomas Woodward takes a look at 7 reasons why you should watch the Super 15 this season…
Having successfully defended the title of champions in 2013, can the Chiefs of Waikato replicate the form of the past two seasons? With a strong All Black contingent, including the likes of Aaron Cruden, Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick the squad remains formidable. However, will the departure of inspirational captain, Craig Clarke, to Connacht prove detrimental to the chief’s title ambitions?
With a World Cup rapidly approaching, but time still remaining for players to settle into the international environment; Steve Hansen, Heyneke Meyer and Ewan Mckenzie will no doubt regard this season as the perfect opportunity to develop their nations’ brightest prospects. It will be fascinating to see if Ardie Savea can reproduce his ITM cup form and possibly follow in his brother’ Julian’s footsteps by earning an All Black cap. The young flanker certainly has the athletic ability, possessing remarkable speed for a back row player. Savea is just one of many promising individuals who look set to throw their names in the hat for RWC 2015 selection.
While rugby traditionalists may bemoan the reduced emphasis on scrummaging, and at times, fragile defences of the tournament; as a spectacle of attacking rugby it often can’t be surpassed. The likes of Israel Folau, Willie le Roux and Ben Smith are capable of splintering the best defences in world rugby so to see them perform week after week, in arguably a less a pressurised environment, will be a pleasure.
While players from the Super 15 have flocked to the Japanese professional league for the financial allure, there appears to be a positive movement in the opposite direction. Japanese stars Fumiaki Tanaka and Shota Horie, performed admirably in last year’s tournament for the Highlanders and the Melbourne Rebels respectively. This trend looks set to continue, with the Brumbies recent acquisition of fly-half Harumichi Tatekawa. The selection of players from lower tier rugby nations in such a high quality tournament is hugely beneficial to the global game, particularly with Japan hosting the World Cup in 2019. These players will not only develop themselves through experience at this standard, but may also bring a greater level of expertise when returning to their national setup.
Golden Lions return
After the tenacious Southern Kings were relegated in 2013, Johannesburg outfit the Golden Lions return to Super Rugby in 2014. The 74-14 hammering of Samoa in the summer, suggests that the Lions will bring physicality and a competent set-piece; however whether they possess the requisite firepower in the backline is a concern. Elton Jantjies returns from the Stormers to steer the ship at fly-half and could prove instrumental in guaranteeing the Lions’ place in next year’s tournament.
Although it may seem narrow minded to single out an individual, kiwi Benji Marshall is an exceptional case. There have been some notable converts from rugby league in recent seasons; including Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Folau. However, Marshall could be a player to rival the success of these two if he can transfer his league abilities, which include a precocious passing game and at times freakish skill, to the Blues this season. There has been some debate over his likely position, but coach, John Kirwan, has stated that Marshall is likely to play at 10, which is a daunting task for a player with limited experience. Irrespective of where he plays in the back line, Marshall is likely to generate a great deal of publicity and excitement in New Zealand. His legendary status could also inspire more league fans to take up the game of union.
Under Ewan Mckenzie Australia experienced a revival towards the end of last year, particularly through victory in Cardiff. Given their positioning in the same World Cup pool, English and Welsh fans will no doubt be watching with interest to see if the likes of Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Michael Hooper will continue this resurgence for their respective franchises.