Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Remember Super Rugby? Well, it's back

Gregor Paul reminds us of 10 things about the competition before it took a break for the international window.
Nemani Nadolo (centre, at left) and his fellow Crusaders will be exceptionally hard to catch if they win against the Chiefs tonight in Suva. Photo / Getty Images
Nemani Nadolo (centre, at left) and his fellow Crusaders will be exceptionally hard to catch if they win against the Chiefs tonight in Suva. Photo / Getty Images

1. The New Zealand teams have been playing, mostly, highly skilled, high-tempo rugby that has seen four of them reach the break in playoffs spots.

At various times, each of the Crusaders, Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes have looked like champions elect.

There hasn't been much between them - and their games against each other have been epic, brutal affairs - but there has definitely been a gap to everyone else. Strange things happen in knockout games, but everything points to the champions being one of the New Zealand teams.

2. Super Rugby's new entrants have been predictably dismal.

The Sunwolves, Kings and Jaguares occupy the three bottom spots and look more like Mitre 10 Cup quality than Super Rugby. They turn up, get thumped, go home.

It's a disastrous recipe but one that Sanzaar, strangely, feels has added an exotic and engaging element.

The Cheetahs, Force and Reds have been just as bad - weak squads that are poorly coached and are partly the consequence of the arrival of the new teams which has forced thin resources to be stretched further again.

3. The surprise has been the overall lack of quality in Australia.

Everyone knew the Force and Reds would be rubbish and the Rebels were always candidates to be the epitome of mediocre.

But the Waratahs and Brumbies should really be genuine contenders and yet both have been inconsistent and unimaginative.

The Brumbies are holding a playoffs spot by virtue of leading the conference but neither they nor the Waratahs sit in the top eight based on competition points.

4. Pole position.

A mix of previous form, table position and gut feel leads to making the conclusion that the Crusaders are in pole position to win the New Zealand conference. Their pack has been consistently good and, for once, they have been getting good value out of their All Blacks.

Richie Mo'unga has been a revelation at first-five and, with fullback Israel Dagg in top form and the irrepressible Nemani Nadolo in their back three, they finally look to have the overall firepower to go all the way. They will be exceptionally hard to catch if they win against the Chiefs tonight.

5. The Blues are hanging on and are realistically but not mathematically out of the playoffs running.

They were playing okay rugby before the break but it would be a surprise if they beat the Hurricanes in Wellington.

Where they could be of influence is if they defeat the Brumbies and Waratahs in their last two games. That might not be enough to see the Blues qualify, but it will affect the final make-up of the top eight.

6. It has been hard to get a handle on the Highlanders, because the defending champions have been erratic.

In consecutive weeks they lost to the Reds and Sharks and then bounced back with the most thrilling performances to beat the Chiefs and Crusaders. At their best they have been brilliant and more than capable of retaining their title. At their worst, they have been midtable bad.

They could collect 10 points on their current adventure to South Africa and Argentina but the pain of that mission could be felt when they play the Chiefs in Dunedin on their return and then have to turn around and head back to South Africa for a playoff game.

7. Understandably, there was scepticism about the adoption of a new bonus-point system as the old one didn't appear to be broken.

But the system, which is used in France, has been okay. Teams have to score three or more tries than their opponent to claim the attacking extra and, while it can be a bit hard to keep track of it all during the game, it has had merit.

8. Hurricanes restructure.

Denied the services of Nehe Milner-Skudder and James Broadhurst because of injury, and trying to restructure themselves after the retirements of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the Hurricanes haven't been as direct or emphatic as they were last year.

But they welcome back an in-form Beauden Barrett, Ardie Savea and Dane Coles, a highly motivated TJ Perenara and a player with everything to prove in Julian Savea. The fact they held on to beat the Highlanders just before the break has set them up to make a late push.

9. The Chiefs finished with a heavy loss to the Waratahs, which they made amends for with the destruction of Wales.

Confidence will be high and, if the magic of Beaver (Stephen Donald) can sneak them past the Crusaders in Fiji, they might settle into the imposing form they showed in the early weeks.

10. Almost while no one was looking, the Lions have transformed from being really bad to actually quite good.

They are the pick of the South African teams and possibly the biggest threat to the four New Zealand teams pushing for the playoffs.

They are muscular and direct - as expected - but have vision and play with continuity which makes them a lethal mix.

- NZ Herald

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