Gear up for a derby-packed Round 1 with Super Rugby tips for all seven matches, kicking off with a Chiefs v Highlanders blockbuster and featuring a daunting assignment for the Waratahs against the Hurricanes.
History: Played 31: Chiefs 18 V Highlanders 13
Last meeting: Round 17, 2018: Chiefs 45 d Highlanders 22 at ANZ Stadium (Suva)
Final Thoughts: The Chiefs (11-5) and Highlanders (10-6) both produced their customary strong regular-season campaigns in 2018 before dipping out in the quarter-finals. Both teams have lost key players – the Chiefs farewelled Liam Messam, Tim Nanai-Williams, Charlie Ngatai and Toni Pulu, while Highlanders linchpin Lima Sopoaga took the cash offshore – and have recruited only modestly.
Sam Cane is still out for the Chiefs and Damian McKenzie has been rested. They have three newcomers in the backline, including flyhalf Orbyn Leger. The experience of Brodie Retallick and Anton Leinert-Brown becomes vital. Josh Ioane gets first crack at the Highlanders’ No.10 jumper, while Aaron Smith will come off the bench in a side that is otherwise near enough to full-strength.
After losing the previous six encounters between the sides, the Chiefs have won the last three. They pulled off a 27-22 come-from-behind win in Hamilton in Round 7 last season, before romping to a 45-22 victory in Fiji in Round 17 courtesy of a 42-0 first half.
With so many absentees and new combinations in the Chiefs’ line-up, the Highlanders look like the way to go as only narrow outsiders.
19:45 (AEDT), Fri 15th Feb @ GIO Stadium, Canberra
History: Played 15: Brumbies 9 V Rebels 6
Last meeting: Round 13, 2018: Rebels 27 d Rebels 24 at GIO Stadium
Final Thoughts: The Brumbies were knocked off their Australian Conference perch in 2018, missing the finals for the first time in six years with a dismal 7-9 record. The Rebels lost their last three games to agonisingly miss a maiden playoffs appearance on for-and-against.
David Pocock is on deck for the Brumbies, who have added James Slipper to a Wallaby-stacked tight-five. Christian Lealiifano will skipper the side from flyhalf, while Toni Pulu shapes as an outstanding buy on the wing. Quade Cooper suits up for the Rebels for the first time in the biggest make-or-break signing of 2019; Reece Hodge is missing from their potent backline due to injury.
The Rebels’ 27-24 upset of the Brumbies in Round 13 last season was just their second victory in seven visits to Canberra. The Brumbies carved out a 33-10 win in Melbourne earlier in the campaign.
Expect the Brumbies to grind the Rebels down with their set-piece superiority and Pulu to star on club debut.
17:35 (AEDT), Sat 16th Feb @ Eden Park, Auckland
History: Played 32: Crusaders 21 V Blues 11
Last meeting: Round 19, 2018: Crusaders 54 d Blues 17 at AMI Stadium
Final Thoughts: New Blues coach Leon MacDonald will be banking on young flyhalf Otere Black and all-time great All Blacks recruit Ma’a Nonu to steer their campaign. But despite their mouth-watering array of talent, fans and pundits have been burned too often by the Blues’ penchant for flattering to deceive.
Two-time champs the Crusaders are unsurprisingly warm title favourites again. But they will start the season without rested All Blacks Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Codie Taylor.
The Crusaders have won 11 of their last 13 against the Blues, including the last eight straight. Last season the Crusaders scored a nervy 32-24 win at Eden Park but dished out a 54-17 hiding in the final round in Christchurch. The Blues have also lost a staggering 19 consecutive games against their fellow Kiwi sides.
If there’s a time to get the Crusaders, it’s now while they are under-strength. But their depth is unparalleled in Super Rugby and they will find a way to get over the Blues.
19:45 (AEDT), Sat 16th Feb @ Brookvale Oval, Sydney
History: Played 23: Hurricanes 13 V Waratahs 10
Last meeting: Round 7, 2017: Hurricanes 38 d Waratahs 28 at Westpac Stadium
Final Thoughts: The Waratahs took out the Australian Conference last year and reached the semis after upsetting the Highlanders in the first week of the playoffs. They have added to their backline depth with Wallabies Adam Ashley-Cooper and Karmichael Hunt, who will form a new midfield combination with Kurtley Beale out injured.
The Hurricanes had the second-best regular-season record in 2018 but drew the short straw taking on eventual champs the Crusaders in the semis. They have maintained a relatively stable squad, though Julian Savea and Brad Shields have headed overseas. Beauden Barrett will be rested initially – which could see ex-Highlanders and Sunwovles No.10 Fletcher Smith start this week – while lock Sam Lousi’s injury will force an engine-room reshuffle.
The Waratahs have won six of their last 10 against the Hurricanes, but the ’Canes have won the last two. The ’Tahs boast a 7-4 home record in the rivalry. The teams’ last eight encounters produced totals of 45-plus points.
The Waratahs went 6-3 at home last season – including a pair of wins over the Highlanders – and are good value with a sizeable start.
21:55 (AEDT), Sat 16th Feb @ Singapore National Stadium
History: Played 3: Sharks 3 V Sunwolves 0
Last meeting: Round 4, 2018: Sharks 50 d Sunwolves 22 at Kings Park
Final Thoughts: Though they finished last again, the Sunwolves enjoyed by far their best Super Rugby season to date in 2018 with three wins. Those three victories came in their last three games at home. The Japanese outfit have had a high turnover in their squad but have added top-class Kiwis such as Rene Ranger, Dan and Kara Pryor, and Paulasi Manu – there’s every reason to expect them to be better again in 2019.
The Sharks scraped into the playoffs last year despite losing more games than they won, and are on the last line of betting to win the South African Conference after losing several experienced players and recruiting modestly. Curwin Bosch and Marius Louw miss this trip with injury niggles.
The Sharks have won all three previous clashes with the Sunwolves, including a 38-17 thumping in Singapore in 2017. All three games produced totals of 55-plus.
The Sunwolves are impossible to resist here, though, after their home heroics last season.
02:15 (AEDT), Sun 17th Feb @ Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
History: Played 31: Stormers 18 V Bulls 12 (1 Draw)
Last meeting: Round 12, 2018: Stormers 29 d Bulls 17 at Newlands
Final Thoughts: The Bulls and Stormers both finished in the bottom half last season with unflattering 6-10 records. But they shape as the Lions’ biggest challengers for South African Conference supremacy in 2019.
The Stormers have seen several key players depart, headlined by Springboks winger Raymond Rhule. Lions prop Corne Fourie is the only recruit of note. The Bulls have picked up former Springboks Schalk Brits and Cornal Hendricks.
The Stormers have won seven of their last nine against the Bulls. The rivals each picked up a home win over the other last season, the Bulls prevailing 33-23 at Loftus Versfeld and the Stormers turning the tables 29-17 at Newlands.
The Bulls went 5-3 in Pretoria last season and look a better prospect of starting the season on the front foot.
08:40 (AEDT), Sun 17th Feb @ Estadio Jose Amalfitani, Buenos Aries
History: Played 7: Lions 4 V Jaguares 3
Last meeting: Quarter-final, 2018: Lions 40 d Lions 23 at Emirates Airlines Stadium
Final Thoughts: The Lions and Jaguares both produced 9-7 records last season, but the Lions took out a third straight South African Conference crown with a superior bonus points tally before going on to lose a third straight final. The Jaguares will be buoyed by their maiden playoffs appearances, however.
The Lions look vulnerable after losing South African Test stars Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Ruan Dreyer and Rohan Janse van Rensburg to English clubs. But their attacking firepower remains the equal of any side in the competition. The Jaguares have farewelled Nicolas Sanchez, Leonardo Senatore and Juan Martin Hernandez, on top of a coaching change with Gonzalo Quesada succeeding new Argentina coach Mario Ledesma.
The fast-starting Lions put away the Jags 40-23 in a Johannesburg-hosted quarter-final later in 2018. But all seven of the teams’ previous meetings were won by the home side, with the Jaguares chalking up a 49-35 win over the South African conference heavyweights last season.
That trend between the sides looks a good chance of ending here, though, with the Jags to endure a few teething problems with newcomers in key positions.