Pack down with tips for all seven matches of the 2020 Super Rugby season’s opening round, featuring a Friday night Aussie derby and a huge assignment in NZ for the Waratahs.
History: Played 32: Chiefs 20 V Blues 11 (1 Draw)
Last meeting: Round 14, 2019: Blues 23 d Chiefs 8 at Eden Park
Final Thoughts: Perennial underachievers the Blues kick off the 2020 Super Rugby season with a home clash against the Chiefs. Plenty is expected of the Leon MacDonald-coached side, however, following the capture of superstar Beauden Barrett. But he will remain on ice until April, with Stephen Perofeta getting first crack in the No.10. Meanwhile, the departure of Augustine Pulu, Sonny Bill Williams and Ma’a Nonu leaves the Blues inexperienced in other backline spots.
In a relatively stable forward pack, MacDonald has sprung a surprise by picking Hoskins Sotutu at No.8 ahead of Akira Ioane.
The main storyline around the Chiefs – quarter-finalists in 2019 – is the return of coach Warren Gatland and flyhalf Aaron Cruden. Cruden will still the season on the bench, alongside Anton Leinert-Brown. Damian McKenzie is back from a long injury layoff in a huge boost for the side.
The Chiefs’ 14-match unbeaten streak against the Blues came to an end via a 23-8 loss at Eden Park last season. It was just the second time in the last 15 encounters between the nearby rivals decided by a 13-plus margin.
It was also the second of just two wins the Blues have achieved in their last 27 against their fellow New Zealand teams.
Expect this go down to the wire again, but the Chiefs look to hold the edge by virtue of their experience.
19:15 (AEDT), Fri 31st Jan @ GIO Stadium, Canberra
History: Played 33: Brumbies 24 V Reds 8 (1 Draw)
Last meeting: Round 18, 2019: Brumbies 40 d Reds 27 at GIO Stadium
Final Thoughts: The only Australian team make the 2019 Super Rugby finals, the Brumbies are after a fast start in their bid to retain the conference title. The loss of Wallabies forwards Rory Arnold, Sam Carter and David Pocock will be difficult to overcome for a side that has traditionally built its game around a strong pack.
Christian Lealiffano and Henry Speight have also depart, with ex-NRL centre Solomone Kata their most notable backline signing. Kata will make his Brumbies debut on the wing, with strike weapon Tevita Kuridrani in the No.13.
Speight has joined the Reds, while James O’Connor returns to Brisbane to soften the blow of Samu Kerevi’s exit to Japan. But after a 6-10 season in 2019, it shapes as another tough year for Brad Thorn’s team with inexperienced halves and no big forward-pack additions.
The Brumbies are 14-3 at home against the Reds since 1996. They carved out a 40-27 final-round win last year in Canberra to avenge a 22-point earlier in the season at Suncorp Stadium.
This is potentially a good time to get the Brumbies at home – where they went 8-2 last season – but the Reds are lacking in too many areas to back for an upset.
04:10 (AEDT), Sat 1st Feb @ Kings Park, Durban
History: Played 32: Bulls 20 V Sharks 9 (3 Draws)
Last meeting: Round 7, 2019: Bulls 19 d Sharks 13 at Kings Park
Final Thoughts: The Sharks and Bulls were South Africa’s two representatives in the 2019 Super Rugby playoffs; both lost quarter-finals Down Under.
The Sharks have brought Sean Everitt on-board as coach. Their front-row stocks have been depleted by the departure of Tendai Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen, while Springbok flanker Sikhumbuzo Notshe is the most notable signing.
The Bulls have been hit by an even more dramatic post-World Cup exodus, with Schalk Brits, Lood de Jager, Duane Vermeulen, RG Snyman, Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel leaving gaping holes in their roster. They have recruited predominantly from lower-tier competitions.
The Bulls have a very handy record in this rivalry, including wins at Kings Park in 2018 (40-10) and 2019 (19-16).
Both new-look sides can expect to be rusty. But the Bulls have had the nucleus ripped out of their team and may struggle first up.
14:45 (AEDT), Sat 1st Feb @ Level5 Stadium, Fukuoka
History: Played 5: Rebels 5 V Sunwolves 0
Last meeting: Round 15, 2019: Rebels 52 d Sunwolves 7 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium
Final Thoughts: The Sunwolves will need to draw on all of their reserves of character to compete in 2020 ahead of their already-confirmed axing at the end of the season. They will hope to parlay the goodwill from Japan’s World Cup run into a strong season, but the squad is unrecognisable to the Sunwolves’ 2019 vintage (who won just two of 16 games) with only a handful of players remaining.
The majority of their recruits are expat Kiwis and Aussies with modest profiles, along with ex-Springbok JJ Engelbrecht. Key players Shota Horie, Michael Leitch, Hayden Parker, Rene Ranger and Akihito Yamada will be sorely missed. But the biggest loss is arguably coach Tony Brown, who is replaced by Naoya Okubo.
The Rebels absolutely bottled a gift-wrapped opportunity to play in their first Super Rugby finals last year losing their last three games. They threw in the towel, conceding 125 points in their last two against the Crusaders and Chiefs. Adam Coleman, Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Jack Maddocks are big losses.
Plenty of teams have been caught out by the underdog Sunwolves, but the Rebels are not one of them. They boast a perfect 5-0 record in the rivalry – winning all five matches by 20-plus points – and prevailed in both clashes last year by a combined 94-22.
There’s still enough talent in Melbourne to make an impression this year, while the Sunwolves are destined to be on the end of some horrific scorelines.
17:05 (AEDT), Sat 1st Feb @ Trafalgar Park, Nelson
History: Played 24: Crusaders 19 V Waratahs 5
Last meeting: Round 6, 2019: Waratahs 20 d Crusaders 12 at SCG
Final Thoughts: The Crusaders are chasing an unprecedented fourth Super Rugby title in 2020. The Waratahs, meanwhile, are ahead of only the lowly Sunwolves in the Australian Conference betting stakes.
The Crusaders have farewelled All Blacks Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Matt Todd, Kieran Read and Ryan Crotty. But that merely gives their young guns who have filled in so well previously – the likes of Ethan Blackadder, Braydon Ennor and Whetu Douglas – the chance to nail down permanent spots. The All Blacks’ decision to overlook Scott Robertson as coach is a coup for the Crusaders.
The Waratahs have replaced their Cantabrian coach, Daryl Gibson, with another in Rob Penney. They will look to move on from the Israel Folau debacle with the acquisition of Jack Maddocks, but the departure of Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Tolu Latu and Sekope Kepu will be harder to overcome.
The Crusaders have won 14 of their last 17 against the Waratahs. But the ’Tahs inflicted one of the Crusaders’ paltry two defeats in 2019, a 20-12 result in Sydney.
The Waratahs are a definite dark horse in the Australian Conference, but they are unlikely to trouble the all-conquering Crusaders at this stage of the season.
00:05 (AEDT), Sun 2nd Feb @ Newlands, Cape Town
History: Played 20: Stormers 11 V Hurricanes 9
Last meeting: Round 6, 2019: Hurricanes 34 d Stormers 28 at Westpac Stadium
Final Thoughts: The Hurricanes have been the undisputed second-best team in Super Rugby during the recent Crusaders reign. But moving into the post-Beauden era shapes as a huge challenge for incoming coach Jason Holland.
The ’Canes have otherwise managed to retain the core of their squad. Their campaign will be driven by TJ Perenara, Jordie Barrett, Ngani Laumape, Ardie Savea and Dane Coles. Tyrel Lomax is a great addition to the front-row.
The Stormers – a disappointing 10th last season with a 7-1-8 record – also have a new coach, with John Dobson replacing Robbie Fleck. Unlike the other South African sides, however, they have managed to retain the bulk of their World Cup squad stars. Damian de Allende and Eben Etzebeth are notable exceptions, but they have emerged comparatively unscathed. Consequently, the Stormers are well ahead of the other South African teams (the Jaguares excluded) in Super Rugby title betting.
The Stormers hold the head-to-head advantage in this rivalry 11-9, but the Hurricanes have won their last three – including a 34-28 come-from-behind victory at home last season.
This is a very tough first-up test in the Republic for the Hurricanes, who have a habit of starting the season slowly. The Stormers deserve their favouritism here.
08:40 (AEDT), Sun 2nd Feb @ José Amalfitani Stadium, Buenos Aries
History: Played 9: Lions 6 V Jaguares 3
Last meeting: Round 6, 2019: Lions 47 d Jaguares 39 at Emirates Airlines Park
Final Thoughts: The Lions lost their mantle as the South African Conference’s dominant team, missing the playoffs with an 8-8 record. The Jaguares eagerly took up top standing, producing a superb 11-5 season and making it all the way to the final, where they were gallant against the Crusaders.
The Lions chalked up a pair of wins over the Argentine outfit – 25-16 in Buenos Aries and 47-39 in Johannesburg – in the opening four rounds of the 2019 season. But both teams’ fortunes changed dramatically from that point.
The Jaguares have maintained a more stable roster than most, but the exit of Tomas Lavanini to England will be keenly felt. The line-up will still predominantly made up of first-choice Pumas internationals though.
Elton Jantjies is the Lions’ only 2019 World Cup squad member remaining after the departure of hooker Malcolm Marx and flanker Kwagga Smith. Former Springbok forwards Willem Alberts and Jannie du Plessis could prove handy pick-ups, however.
The Jaguares are the undisputed team to beat in the South African Conference and will be difficult to topple at home.