Panel: The good, bad and ugly of Super Rugby

(L-R) Stephen Donald,James Lowe and Aaron Cruden celebrate the try from Seta Tamanivalu (13). Photo / Getty Images.
(L-R) Stephen Donald,James Lowe and Aaron Cruden celebrate the try from Seta Tamanivalu (13). Photo / Getty Images.

This year's Super Rugby competition is about one-third of the way through so we thought it was time to quiz our rugby boffins about the new format and some of the other talking points so far.

1. There was a fair bit of consternation of the new format before the season kicked off. What is your impression of it now?
Gregor Paul: It has conformed to every expectation. The Sunwolves and Kings have been as bad as expected, the Jaguares have struggled more because of the travel and the Australian and South African conferences have been generally weak. And, just as predicted, the New Zealand sides are playing well - fast, highly skilled, intense rugby. It's a two tier competition that rewards mediocre teams.
Patrick McKendry: It has become clearer, but it's still flawed. For example, the Stormers - likely to be in the playoffs mix - don't play a New Zealand team in round-robin this season. They do play the terrible Sunwolves twice, though. Crazy.
Wynne Gray: This fragmented, unbalanced conference system is playing out as I feared. The New Zealand derbies are terrific, games involving a New Zealand side interesting but other games are competition wallpaper until the playoffs.
Kris Shannon: It's completely unbalanced, with New Zealand sides smashing one another while one conference avoids them entirely.

The Stormers, for example, easily own the competition's best defence, and will no doubt continue their miserly streak without any Kiwi opposition on the schedule. As Chiefs coach Dave Rennie joked, "That would be pretty cool, wouldn't it?"
Nigel Yalden: The same as it was at the start of the season - incredibly lopsided promoting an even more insular approach from fans in their respective countries. Let's be honest, how many Aussie and South African derbies have you gone out of your way to watch, live or recorded? Thought so.

2. Which player has really stood out for you?
GP: Ardie Savea has been impossible to ignore. Every game he does things that have a huge impact. Against the Jaguares, he placed the perfect grubber kick. He's got a phenomenal range of skills and looks like he's the forward version of Beauden Barrett - a supremely gifted all-round footballer who the All Blacks might want to throw onto the field in the 30 minutes of a test.
PM: I thought Damian McKenzie would make an impact but probably not to this extent. A fearless and skilful little dynamo.
WG: In double quick time after his injury, Aaron Cruden has reminded us of his five-eighths brilliance and how his absence affected the Chiefs. Now for some goalkicking.
KS: Damian McKenzie has been the most exciting player in the competition, heading to the bye while sitting in Super Rugby's top two in tries (seven), defenders beaten (33), metres (547) and clean breaks (13). All the while playing a position he still ranks as second in his personal preference.
NY: Charlie Ngatai, partially because there has been a lot of focus on the second-five position given the departure of Ma'a Nonu, but more so because of the outstandingly intelligent, robust and skill-laden rugby he has played.

3. What have you made of the new teams in the competition?
GP: The Sunwolves have lacked physicality and game maturity, The Kings have been defensively weak and hampered by their lack of quality players and the Jaguares have been tough to beat but ultimately lacking in a killer touch. Bottom line: none of them have added much.
PM: The Sunwolves and Kings lack quality on nearly every level, but I've been impressed by the Jaguares, although not by some of their discipline. The Argentines play with ambition, probably too much at times, but they need to stamp out the cheap shots.
WG: The Sunwolves, Kings and Jaguares have played 18 games for two wins between them. Making up numbers, little else.
KS: The Jaguares have both thrilled and frustrated, playing some brilliant attacking rugby but being their own worst enemies in basic execution. They won't challenge for the playoffs this season but that could change as early as next year. The less said about the Kings and Sunwolves, though, the better.
NY: 18 games played for two wins (one of which was a game between two of the newbies) 16 losses and a combined points differential of -264 points says a truck load. The Jaguares have been frustrating; the Sunwolves better than expected and the Kings very much as expected.

4. Who has played their way into an All Blacks jersey?
GP: Damian McKenzie has been sensational and made it impossible for the All Blacks to ignore. The selectors will be asking themselves whether they can have three players the size of Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden and McKenzie in their backline at any given time. A former All Blacks who is chugging along nicely and doing plenty of good things is Steven Luatua.
PM: Charlie Ngatai at the Chiefs, and possibly his team-mates James Lowe and Damian McKenzie.
WG: Akira Ioane, Damian McKenzie and Ardie Savea have all shown All Blacks quality, however, the lure of playing sevens at the Olympic will likely leave McKenzie as the sole beneficiary.
KS: McKenzie's elevation is a matter of when and not if, but the same could be said of several of his backline mates. Both Charlie Ngatai and Brad Weber seem certain to add to the solitary cap they won last year in Apia, and James Lowe will surely one day don the black jersey if he remains injury-free.
NY: Elliot Dixon has continued to improve on his excellent second half of 2014 and stellar 2015 Super Rugby season to the point where it must be nigh-on impossible for the All Black selectors to overlook him.

5. What has been the best aspect of Super Rugby this year?
GP: Keeping a tighter rein on halfbacks at scrum-time has been a seemingly small change that has had a big impact. It has cleaned things up for attacking teams because they don't have to contend with an irritant getting in the way and made the scrum a better, more stable attacking platform.
PM: The rugby, particularly by the New Zealand teams, even including the Blues at times. Some of it has been brilliant.
WG: All the New Zealand derbies, when we get to see great skill and can compare players.
KS: The Kiwi derbies. There have been six and each has been a game to relish, featuring a level of intensity and skill often unseen when the rest of the competition is involved. Heading into this weekend, only one of those six derbies had been decided by more than a converted try, a margin exceeded by 27 of the other 49 matches played.
NY: As they have been for a while now, the New Zealand derbies are head, shoulders and a large portion of the upper torso ahead of any other games.

6. What has surprised you?
GP: The skill and fitness levels of the New Zealand teams, particularly the Chiefs. Understandably, everyone is a bit worried about how the All Blacks will cope without the Golden Generation, but they needn't. The quality of rugby at times suggests that the All Blacks could take their game to an even higher level in 2016. Look at Charlie Ngatai - he's playing as well as Ma'a Nonu, if not better.
PM: The quality of the rugby, as mentioned above. There's been no hint of a World Cup hangover from the New Zealand teams. Also, the typically sluggish Crusaders are thriving early on despite the absence of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor.
WG: The fact one Highlanders supporter - you know who you are - has not been on the blower reminding me about their form.
KS: The early form of the Crusaders, who have confounded pre-season predictions that the loss of so many key men would keep them out of contention. Instead, Todd Blackadder's side have made their best start to a campaign since 2011 and their recent three-win road trip was especially impressive.
NY: The fluctuating, perplexing form of the Waratahs and the boardroom ructions at the Brumbies.

7. Remind us who you picked as champions before the season started. Who are you picking now?
GP: Chiefs, Chiefs and Chiefs again. The Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes are all playing pretty well, as are the Brumbies and Stormers, but the Chiefs are in a slightly different class and growing in confidence - many good decision-makers, such a good game plan and ability across the park and throughout their squad.
PM: Hurricanes. They're coming right after a poor start, but I think the Chiefs might be tough to beat now.
WG: The Brumbies were my pick. They've gone a bit flat but have the pedigree, coaching and home advantage to kick on and benefit from being top of the Aussie conference.
KS: The Hurricanes. And while they have shown signs of life after the humbling against the Brumbies and the loss of Nehe Milner-Skudder, they still look a step below the top tier of the Kiwi conference. Namely, the Chiefs, whose attack appears too tough to stop.
NY: I picked the Highlanders at the start of year and I ain't changing. Their two losses were by a combined three points and, even though that Reds game could haunt them in terms of home advantage, you only need to look back to last season's championship-winning run to realise that winning playoff games on the road won't phase them. They have a reasonable draw to finish, the best halfback/first-five combo in Super Rugby and game changers/match winners peppered throughout their side.

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