With the new Super Rugby about to kick off tonight with a match between the Rebels and Blues in Melbourne, Herald rugby experts Patrick McKendry and Gregor Paul deliver their early predictions.
The champions will be...
They have one of the toughest starts to the competition of any team - four derby matches (Chiefs, Crusaders, Blues, Hurricanes), and then a trip to Canberra to face the Brumbies - but if any side can cope with a run like that it's the Highlanders. They have an esprit de corps like few other teams and there's plenty to like about their at-times frantic style which means they are rarely out of matches no matter the deficit they may face. Their trump card is a backline featuring the likes of Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith. They have an innovator in coach Tony Brown and a collective attitude which suggests they don't take themselves too seriously. Their brilliant stadium also attracts plenty of loyal and vocal home support. Plenty to like there.
There's just something about their squad that says winners. They have a tight five that has a bit of edge to it and set-piece grunt while also a reasonable amount of ball carriers within it. Sam Cane is going to have a big year - he just will and then between Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie there are three decision makers. Three men who are genuine play-makers and with the likes of Anton Lienert-Brown and James Lowe further out, that's enough reaons right there to see them as potential winners.
Pulling everything together is the dark cloud of last year and their need to rebrand themselves as a team all about the rugby rather than the after match.
One to watch:
The performance by the Blues against the Rebels in Melbourne tonight should give a good indication of where Tana Umaga's team is at. It should be a comfortable win, given the talent at Umaga's disposal compared with that of the Rebels. If it is then other teams should take note. The Blues have shown form in pre-season (awful showing at the Brisbane Global 10s apart), but need to start showing the ruthless attitude possessed by their coach when he was the All Blacks captain. A consistent Blues team could provide problems for every other this season.
With one season behind them and more of an idea what Super Rugby is all about, the Jaguares should be a little more fearsome. They have a decent squad, the potential to play the game different ways and if they can just pick up a few away wins, they could build their confidence and get on a roll.