How will the 2017 Super Rugby season unfold and who is most likely to be crowned champions by winning the Grand Final? Each franchise's chances is rated in this team-by-team guide to the new season.
The 2016 season saw the introduction of two new teams, in the Jaguares and the Sunwolves, the return of a familiar team – the Southern Kings, as well as a brand new conference system. There have been substantial changes across all teams, particularly in Australia and William Hill
have taken a look at how the different Conferences are shaping up and made some predictions.
After a disappointing year for Australian rugby, this Super Rugby campaign looks as important as ever, particularly with a SANZAAR decision due in March about the future of the game in Australia. A lot can change in a year and with so many squad changes, it could be a changing of the guard as the Brumbies weaken and the Reds look to wind back the clock to 2011.
Last season: 2nd in Conference – did not play finals.
The Waratahs have traditionally been the most under-performing of the Australian sides; they have often had the best roster in the country and one of the best in the competition, yet have missed the mark on too many occasions. Last season was no different and the Tahs will have to address some significant weaknesses if they are going to step it up and return to the top of the Australian Conference. They definitely have the side to do it and are strengthened by the return of Sekope Kepu, Taqele Naiyaravoro and the signing of sevens star, Cameron Clark. The obvious loss is the departure of Kurtley Beale to the Wasps, but last season saw some young talent introduced and prove that they can step up to Super Rugby level. If the likes of Irae Simone, Jack Dempsey, Andrew Kellaway and Jed Holloway fulfil their serious potential, they have the experience in Michael Hooper, Israel Folau, Dean Mumm and Bernard Foley behind them to go a long way in this competition.
Player to watch: Jack Dempsey
2nd: QLD Reds
Last Season: 4th in Australian Conference.
The Reds have been on the slide since famously winning the competition in 2011. Poor performances drew both crowds and players away from the franchise and the Reds have carried a fairly mediocre roster in recent seasons. This year’s signings however, should excite the Queensland faithful and bring the crowds back to Suncorp Stadium. Coach Nick Stiles has opted for experience to attempt and re live the glory days and on paper it does look impressive. Returning to Ballymore are the likes of Quade Cooper, Steven Moore, Leroy Houston and Scott Higginbotham and they’ve also secured the signature of evergreen flanker George Smith. Karmichael Hunt is finally starting to look like a rugby player and from all reports is in for a big year. The Reds look to be experiencing a renaissance, and although it might take time, the Wolf thinks the Reds can turn it around and will be challenging for top spot in the Aussie Conference in 2017.
Player to watch: Quade Cooper
3rd: Melbourne Rebels
Last season: 3rd in Australian Conference.
The Rebels enter their seventh year in the competition with a team bolstered by young talent and x-factor. The Melbourne based side showed glimpses of being capable of matching it with anyone last season, fighting with the Brumbies and Waratahs for top spot in the Australian Conference and even leading the conference at the halfway mark. Eventually a string of losses to quality New Zealand outfits saw them settle for third in the Aussie Conference and left fans lamenting another below par season. The loss of experience in Tamati Elison, Adam Thompson, Mike Harris and Luke Jones will hurt a side that will have to face 3 Kiwi teams in the first seven rounds. Coach Tony McGahan has looked to the next Generation of stars including Under 20’s prodigies Jack Maddocks and Tyrell Lomax as well as ex-NRL star Marika Koroibete, who is tipped for big things in 2017. If Captain Sean McMahon and young gun Reece Hodge can lead from the front, the Wolf believes the Rebels might shock a few sides this year but can’t see them changing their inconsistent ways.
Player to watch: Marika Koroibete
4th: ACT Brumbies
Last season: Quarter finalist
The Brumbies were carrying the hopes of a nation last season before bowing out in the quarter finals to the Highlanders. This season the men from the capital are set to lose a host of experience, including captain Steven Moore and other Wallabies Matt Toomua, Joe Tomane and David Pocock. A pre-season injury to Argentine import Tomas Cubelli has added to their depth concerns, with inexperienced halves their biggest issue at this stage. A strong forward pack led by Scott Fardy, Sam Carter and Scott Sio should keep them competitive but the Wolf doesn’t see Steven Larkham’s men competing for a finals berth.
Player to watch: Scott Fardy
5th: Western Force
Last Season: Last in Australian Conference.
It’s an important year for the Western Australian side. The Force only won two games last season and it showed in crowd attendances as the ‘sea of blue’ slowly started to dwindle away. The Force are still struggling to attract top talent across the Nullarbor, which, coupled with financial difficulties has left their future in massive doubt. The signing of Tatafu Polota-Nau adds to their already solid forward pack, whilst try scoring NRL sensation Curtis Rona will look to combine with Dane Haylett-Petty who had a storming rookie international season in 2016. Even with some solid recruiting, the Force should still struggle as the Wolf doesn’t see enough points in them, and sadly fears for the club’s future.
Player to watch: Adam Coleman
New Zealand Conference
If the NZ Conference wasn’t already entertaining enough things step up a notch in 2017 thanks to two words – Lions tour. Competition for a spot in Steve Hansen’s squad for the June series will be fiercer than ever.
Last season: Minor premiers and Champions.
Last year’s champions will be looking to go back-to-back with one of the most exciting rosters in Super Rugby history. They have finished minor premiers two seasons in a row and it’s this sort of consistency that will have the other 17 teams seriously worried. There forward pack boasts the best hooker in the world in Dane Coles as well as the dynamic openside flanker Ardie Savea. However, it’s looking at their backline where it starts to get really scary. All blacks TJ Perenara, Cory Jane and Julian Savea will be looking to perform in order to guarantee a spot against the lions. Add into the mix the return of excitement machine Nehe Milner Skudder and you start to see some cricket scores being racked up in windy Wellington. Oh and if that’s not enough, they also have the best player on the planet, Beauden Barrett running the show from 10.
Player to Watch: Ardie Savea
Last season: 2nd in Conference, Semi Finalist
The return of local legend Tony Brown as coach sees renewed optimism on the streets of Dunedin and after keeping 32 members of the squad who went close last year I certainly wouldn’t be betting against the ‘Landers going all the way. Their one major off-season signing came in the form of rampaging Blues winger Tevita Li who is set to cause destruction on the end of a backline that features Ben and Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Lima Sopoaga and crowd favourite Waisake Naholo. The draw hasn’t been two favourable for the Highlanders however, and in the first 7 rounds they face all 4 of their NZ rivals.
Player to watch: Ben Smith
Last season: 4th in Conference Quarter finalists
The most successful team in Super Rugby history will turn to former favourite son Scott Robertson as coach this year and after an improved season in 2016 things are looking up for the Christchurch based side. The departure of Nemani Nadolo to Montpellier could be telling as he was influential for the Crusaders in his 3 year tenure in the garden city. He will be replaced by former Wallabies superstar Digby Ioane but at 31 years of age and after spending 4 years in Japan and France the Wolf wonders if the man who introduced us to ‘the turtle’ dance move in 2011 has still got what it takes. Further complicating matters, inspirational captain Kirean Read has gone under the knife during the off season and is not due back until April. All black second-rower Sam Whitelock will take the reins in his absence.
Player to watch: Israel Dagg
Last season: 11th best record overal but last in what was the toughest Conference.
Tana Umaga begins his 2nd year in charge of the Blues after a vastly improved season last year. When you look at the squad the Blues have assembled one word springs to mind “power”. Sonny Bill Williams joins the likes of Jerome Kaino, Steve Luatua, Rene Ranger and young guns Reiko and Akira Ioane and will help ensure that every team that visits Eden Park will be left battered and bruised.
Player to watch: Sonny Bill Williams
Last Season: 3rd in Conference. Semi final.
Unfortunately the Chiefs could struggle a bit in 2017, not because they are a bad side, but simply due to the fact they will suffer the injustice of having to face all NZ teams twice. The Waikato based outfit will rely heavily on the halves pairing of Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow and with no obvious replacements, will be praying that both remain intact for the entirety of the competition. All Blacks Brodie Retaillick and Sam Cane will be looking to impress ahead of the Lions tour in June and make sure to keep an eye on the incredible talent of Damien McKenzie at fullback.
Player to watch: Damien Mckenzie
African 1 Conference
Last season: 2nd in Conference. Did not play finals.
Traditionally a Super Rugby powerhouse, Wolfy expects the Bulls to bounce back in 2017 after missing the finals last season. The acquisition of Springbok lock Lood De Jager will further bolster the Bulls’ monster pack and with gun fly half Handre Pollard captaining the side this year, I suspect they will be hard to beat, particularly on the Highveld in Pretoria.
Player to watch: Handre Pollard
2nd: The Stormers
Last season: 1st in Conference, lost in first knockout round
After crashing out badly at home in the quarter-finals last year, the Stormers will be looking to make amends this time around. A lot of pressure rests on the shoulders of Eben Etzebeth in the wake of the departure of veteran Schalk Burger. They have made a couple of exciting signings in Scottish centre Huw Jones and world sevens superstar Seabelo Senatla strengthening their already backline which already boasts Springboks centres Damien Allende and Juan De Jongh.
Player to watch: Seabelo Sentala
3rd: The Cheetahs
Last season: 3rd in Conference
The Cheetahs will struggle again in 2017 particularly after losing Lood De Jager to rivals the Bulls. After winning only 4 games last season (two against the Sunwolves) and with no major signings over the off season, the Cheetahs are next to no chance of playing finals and the Wolf expects that they will be one of a handful of teams in the mix for the wooden spoon.
Player to watch: Sergeal Peterson
4th: The Sunwolves
Last season: 4th in Conference
The Sunwolves will look to build on a number of positives following their inaugural season, but they will struggle again especially as the draw now sees them play all 5 New Zealand sides. The off-season saw the side say Sayonara to their two best backs in Tusi Pisi at flyhalf and exciting winger Akihito Yamada which will be tough to overcome and they have dipped into the talent pool in their domestic competition in search of replacements. SANZAAR’s initiative to take Super Rugby to Japan is a great idea and was supported by packed stadiums for all home games in 2016, but it pains the Wolf to say that his cousins from Tokyo will again struggle in 2017.
Player to watch: Fumiaki Tanaka
African Conference 2
Last season: 1st in Conference, Lost the Final
Arguably the story of Super Rugby in 2016, The Lions went from been perennial cellar dwellers to the envy of the competition playing the sort of Rugby the Harlem Globetrotters would be proud of. They looked more like a team from NZ than South Africa in 2016, which is backed up by some impressive stats, leading the competition in most tries (81), defenders beaten (484) and metres gained (an incredible 9,685). Perhaps even more impressively, they managed to put 42 points on both the Crusaders and the Highlanders in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively. Despite all this, the Lions still came up short in Wellington in an entertaining Super Rugby final so will be hungrier than ever to go one better in 2017. The management in Johannesburg have gone with the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mantra and named a relatively unchanged squad for the upcoming season. The Wolf is predicting the Lions to roar again in 2017.
Player to Watch: Elton Jantjies
Last season: 4th in Conference
Predicting the Jaguares to finish above heavyweights the Sharks might seem like a bit of a strange call but I feel that the Argentines have too much test match experience not to come good in their second season in Super Rugby. After a very disappointing inaugural year in which they only managed 4 wins, it won’t be hard for the Jaguares to improve in 2017. There is a lot of up and coming talent progressing through the ranks in Buenos Aires and they have managed to hold onto big name veterans in Creevy, Sanchez and Hernandez.
Player to Watch: Santiago Cordero
Last season: 2nd in Conference, lost in first knock-out round
The Sharks will begin their season in Australia with matches in Brisbane and Canberra and will then have to travel to Japan and Argentina later on. This will take a toll on the Durban based outfit and I suspect they won’t be as dominant as they have been in previous years. Typically there squad is characterised by a mammoth forward pack and this year will be led by ‘the beast’ – Tendai Matawira. The loss of JP Pietersen and Wille Le Roux in the Back line will hurt the Sharks significantly and I don’t think they will be able to create enough points to be competitive in 2017. Despite this, there games are always worth a watch however thanks to their stunning matchday cheerleaders.
Player to watch: Patrick Lambie
Last season: Last in Conference.
2017 will be the Kings’ second consecutive season in Super Rugby and the Wolf is not expecting much at all. They struggled massively last year due to management’s inability to attract a decent squad to Port Elizabeth. Once again they have struggled with recruitment of players in the off season and I’m sure the Australian teams are licking their lips at the prospect of getting to play the Kings for the first time since 2013.
Player to watch: Schalk Ferrira