Super Rugby 2018 preview
By Graeme Peacock
Last Updated: 17/02/18 7:10am
The Super Rugby season is nearly upon us again as the best sides from Argentina, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa battle it out for the top provincial prize in southern hemisphere rugby.
On Saturday you can catch the Stormers v Jaguares on Sky Sports Action from 1pm, while the Lions v Sharks is live on Sky Sports Mix and Action red button from 3.15pm on the same day.
SANZAAR has made significant changes to improve the tournament. The competition was once the jewel in the crown of franchise rugby on a global level and the proposed changes will aim to shake things up and return it to its former glory.
The silky skills of Beauden Barrett and Israel Folau, thrown in with the power and grunt of players like Agustin Creevy and Eben Etzebeth make Super Rugby a mouth-watering spectacle.
The games are played in some of the greatest cauldrons of the sport, from the All Blacks' fortress Eden Park to the picturesque Newlands, all adding to the drama of this flagship event.
Kiwi sides have dominated Super Rugby throughout the years and sides like the Stormers and Brumbies will be looking to break this stranglehold in 2018.
Here's all you need to know ahead of its return this weekend...
The restructured competition means the amount of teams has been reduced from 18 to 15 sides.
The franchises who have lost out are the Western Force from Australia, as well as the Southern Kings and Cheetahs from South Africa. Both South African teams are now plying their trade in the northern hemisphere's Guinness PRO14 with mixed fortunes.
The reduction in teams means there will be three conferences instead of the four from last season, which will be divided up as follows:
- Australian Conference - Brumbies, Melbourne Rebels, Reds, Waratahs (all Australia), Sunwolves (Japan).
- New Zealand Conference - Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes (all New Zealand).
- South African Conference - Bulls, Lions, Sharks, Stormers (all South Africa), Jaguares (Argentina).
Super Rugby will also see an adoption of some law changes that were announced by World Rugby in July 2017.
The facets of the game where changes have taken place are the tackle area, the ruck and the scrum. SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos is on the record as stating he 'hopes these changes will lead to a better flowing game'.
- The tackler must get up before playing the ball and can now ONLY play the ball from their own side of the tackle "gate".
- A ruck will now commence when AT LEAST ONE player is on their feet and over the ball, which is on the ground along with any tackled player and tackler. At this point the offside lines are created.
- Players on their feet may use their hands to pick up the ball as long as this is immediate. As soon as an opposition player arrives, no hands can be used.
- A player can no longer KICK the ball out of a ruck. The player can only hook it in a backwards motion.
- There will no longer be a signal from the referee. The scrum-half must throw the ball in straight but is allowed to align their shoulder with the middle line of the scrum, therefore allowing them to stand a shoulder width towards their own side of the middle line.
- Once the ball touches the ground in the tunnel, any front-row player may use either foot to try to win possession of the ball. One player from the team who put the ball in MUST strike for the ball.
- The No 8 is now allowed to pick the ball from the feet of the second rows.
Teams to Watch
Reigning champions the Crusaders will be the ones to beat. The most successful franchise in Super Rugby history, they are currently coached by Scott Robertson and proved too good for the Lions at Ellis Park in last year's final, winning 25-17. Former Munster and Ireland fly-half Ronan O'Gara is now also part of the coaching set-up.
The 'Saders boast current All Black captain Kieran Read and lock Sam Whitelock in an extremely good pack, which is complemented by some young exciting backs.
Runners-up in last year's event, the Lions play an exciting brand of running rugby which South African sides are not renowned for. It will be interesting to see how the side from Johannesburg perform under new coach Swys De Bruin after the departure Johan Ackerman to Gloucester.
Players like Kwagga Smith - man of the match for the Barbarians against New Zealand in November - Jaco Kriel and Elton Jantjies, mark the side from the Highveld as a group who should be pushing for top honours once again.
Last year's semi-finalists are the team to watch, and play a fantastic brand of rugby.
Coach Chris Boyd takes over as Director of Rugby at Northampton Saints after this Super Rugby season, and will be looking to make his last coaching campaign a successful one.
Any side that contains the Barrett brothers, the Savea siblings, as well as the likes of Dane Coles and Vaea Fifita will be a tough team to beat.
Players to Watch
Atu Moli - Chiefs
The New Zealand conveyor belt consistently produces quality backline players, but the player to watch this season is tighthead prop Moli.
The Chiefs frontrower weighs in at 128 kilos and was a non-playing "apprentice" during the Rugby Championship before he toured with the national side at the end of the year.
The physically imposing Moli is versatile and can play on either side of the scrum. The 22-year-old is mobile and prominent in the loose and the 2018 Super Rugby season will be key for him if he harbours ambitions to become a permanent fixture for the All Blacks.
Ned Hanigan - Waratahs
The young utility forward from the famous Randwick club has made an impressive start to his professional career.
Hanigan can play both lock or blindside flanker and had a fantastic 2017 season, earning the "Rookie of the Year" at the Rugby Australia awards. The mobile 6'4" Waratah is a strong ball carrier and a great lineout option. Hanigan will be looking to start where he left off last season.
Warrick Gelant - Bulls
The Bulls No 15 has been earmarked for higher honours for some time after featuring strongly for South Africa in junior age grade rugby.
Gelant can play anywhere in the back-three, has bucket loads of pace and a great sidestep. Add this to a strong kicking game and it's clear why he is so highly rated in South Africa. The 22-year-old finally received his opportunity for the Springboks during the autumn internationals and will be a key figure in 2018 for John Mitchell's charges if he stays injury free.
Tune in from 1pm on Saturday to catch the start of the 2018 Super Rugby season as the Stormers face Los Jaguares live on Sky Sports Action.