Long winter wait for Super fans ends this weekend
The long winter wait for fans of free-flowing Southern Hemisphere rugby comes to an end a little earlier than usual this weekend when what looks like being a wide open battle for the 2013 Super Rugby title gets underway.
Over six gruelling months, hundreds of players will squeeze their hulking frames into aircraft and rack up thousands of air miles to take part in 130 matches which will determine the pre-eminent provincial side south of the equator.
Australia alone gets the season underway this weekend but the smart money will again be on the champions emerging from either the New Zealand or South Africa conferences – as they have in all but three of the 17 years of the competition.
The Waikato Chiefs may have lost a little stardust with the return of Sonny Bill Williams to rugby league but their stunning title triumph last year was also built on grunt up front and there will be plenty of that still in 2013. The bookmakers make the seven-times champion Canterbury Crusaders favourites, but the upstart Otago Highlanders will provide another South Island challenge if they can sustain their challenge over a whole season.
The South Africa conference will boast a new team in the Southern Kings but their title challenge is again likely to come from the Sharks, runners up for the fourth time last year, as well as the Stormers, while no one will ever write off the Bulls.
The British and Irish Lions tour looms large over the competition in Australia, where the depth of the five teams will be sorely tested. Warren Gatland’s team arrive in early June for a five-week tour that includes matches against all five Super Rugby sides and three Tests against the Wallabies.
The timing of the tour has necessitated a rejigging of the fixtures list with Australian sides beginning this weekend, while teams in New Zealand and South Africa will get underway next week. There will also be further split rounds around the June international window and any injuries sustained in that period could prove crucial when the competition resumes.
Critics of the expansion of the competition from 12 to 14, then 15 teams in 2011, have pointed to the lack of resources in Australia, where the sport competes with three other football codes. Results on the field supported those arguments last year when just one team, the 2011 champion Queensland Reds, made the play-offs.
The Reds finished third courtesy of winning the Australian conference, but their final points tally of 58 was only the fifth-best in the competition.
Super Rugby Previous winners
2012 Waikato Chiefs
2011 Queensland Reds
2004 ACT Brumbies
2003 Auckland Blues
2001 ACT Brumbies
1997 Auckland Blues
1996 Auckland Blues