REBELS v BLUES – 7.45pm (AEDT), Thursday, February 23 @ AAMI Park
The Storyline: The season kicks off on Thursday night with two new-look sides squaring off in Melbourne. The Blues have named an extremely young and inexperienced team, with new coach Tana Umaga picking blokes on pre-season form. They are missing co captains Jerome Kaino and James Parsons, while still waiting on SBW to return from injury.
The Rebels have got a Kiwi running the show in the form of Jackson Garden-Bachop. He will debut in the No.10 for the home side, with a similar team from recent seasons around him. NRL convert Marika Koroibete and star forward Sean McMahon are sidelined with injury.
The Stat: All five previous clashes between the teams have produced 57+ points, with the losing team scoring at least 22 points on each occasion.
It’s a big game for: Tana Umaga. Yep, the Blues coach is in the spotlight this week. He took over from John Kirwan last year in an attempt to relate to the players better and turn this franchise into the powerhouse team it once was, but this is must-win for him if the Blues are to compete in a tough NZ Conference.
The Verdict: Both teams are lacking experience pretty much everywhere on the field. The Blues have a stronger bench with three All Blacks adding firepower. The Rebels have had a lot of injuries pre-season and just don’t quite have the depth. Blues 1-12
— Melbourne Rebels (@MelbourneRebels) February 21, 2017
HIGHLANDERS v CHIEFS – 5.35pm (AEDT), Friday, February 24 @ Forsyth Barr Stadium
The Storyline: The Highlanders are on a six-game winning streak against the Chiefs. They also have arguably the best backline in the competition with five All Blacks. The men from the south have kept a core group of players for the last three years and will look to repeat their championship run of 2015. The Chiefs have lost experience over the off season but have a great tight-five with Retallick and Bird as an all-star locking pair, while All Blacks reps Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala will anchor the scrum.
The Stat: The Chiefs have finished on the losing side in their last four road trips to Dunedin.
It’s a big game for: Malakai Fekitoa. He burst onto the scene in 2015, but since then has seemed to lose form by the week. He will need a big game opposite Anton Lienert-Brown, and a concistent season to keep his spot in the All Blacks squad.
The Verdict: I can’t back against a six-game winning streak or the fact that the ’Landers are at home. When these two teams play there’s always fireworks – let’s hope it’s the same Friday night. Highlanders 1-12
— Super Rugby Fans (@SuperRugbyFans) February 22, 2017
REDS v SHARKS – 7.45pm (AEDT), Friday, February 24 @ Suncorp Stadium
The Storyline: Queensland have recruited very well over the off-season. It’s shades of ‘Dad’s Army’, though, with George Smith, Stephen Moore, Scott Higginbotham and Quade Cooper back on deck. (Sorry Quade, you’re not that old.) The critics are tipping the Reds to take out the Aussie Conference, so they have all the pressure on them. The Sharks have Pat Lambie healthy and ready to go, but it’s a difficult schedule starting in Australia.
The Stat: The Sharks have won eight of their last 10 against the Reds.
It’s a big game for: Scott Higginbotham. Arrested for assault only last month, the veteran loosie will have to redeem himself and play the house down so that people can forget that alcohol-fuelled night.
The Verdict: I’m buying into the hype – it’s not the hardest conference to top, but I think the Reds have all the tools to start winning close games and return to the finals. The Sharks are generally better at home (like most teams), so I’ll have to back the hosts here. Reds 1-12
— RUGBYcomau (@rugbycomau) February 22, 2017
SUNWOLVES v HURRICANES 3.15pm (AEDT), Saturday, February 25 @ Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium
The Storyline: Hurricanes are defending champions are will want to put the cellar-dwelling Sunwolves away comprehensively this weekend. A good start to the season is also very important at the end of the season…despite the fact the ’Canes were caned 52-10 by the Brumbies in Round 1 last year.
The Stat: Despite copping some awful beatings on the road, four of the Sunwolves’ six home losses in 2016 were by 26 points or less, while they also jagged a win and a draw.
It’s a big game for: The Hurricanes – if they lose this one, it will be very embarrassing.
The Verdict: Hurricanes by loads.
— Hurricanes Rugby (@Hurricanesrugby) February 21, 2017
CRUSADERS v BRUMBIES 5.35pm (AEDT), Saturday, February 25 @ AMI Stadium
The Storyline: New coach, new era…new king? Scott Robertson takes the reins of the Crusaders after eight years of Super Rugby’s most successful team not tasting sweet victory in the final. Kieran Read can potentially become the new King of Rugby – all he needs to do is win a few Super titles and take the All Blacks to victory in Japan in 2019; sounds easy, eh? But Read will sit out the early rounds, leaving it to Whitelock, Todd, Crotty and co. to steer the Crusaders’ early-season assault.
The Brumbies have lost their best player, David Pocock, to a sabbatical and also their playmaker Christian Lealiifano to health issues. Add to that Matt Toomua, Stephen Moore, Joe Tomane, Ita Vaea and Robbie Coleman, and the ranks are looking a bit thin in the capital. It’s hard losing that much experience, but they’re a gritty bunch in Canberra and it’s always a good battle between two old heavyweights.
The Stat: The Crusaders have won six straight against the Brumbies – including five by 13+.
It’s a big game for: Israel Dagg. With Milner-Skudder back from injury and Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Julian Savea all vying for All Blacks spots, Dagg will have to have another vintage season to keep his starting Test spot. A good game here would be an excellent start.
The Verdict: The Crusaders are probably the hardest team to beat at home – they love their fans, and their one-eyed fans love them. I can’t see the Brumbies doing much to stop them. Crusaders 13+
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) February 16, 2017
WARATAHS v FORCE – 7.45pm (AEDT), Saturday, February 25 @ Allianz Stadium
The Storyline: The Force are the Waratahs’ bogey team and it will be interesting to see how this season opener plays out. Waratahs stalwart Tatafu Polotau-Nau has moved on from Sydney and is playing for the Force this weekend! The Force have ageing South African Peter Grant running the ship at flyhalf but still have their rough and tough forward pack. The Waratahs are always under pressure to perform; the ARU is based in Sydney, along with all the fanfare. They have lost a fair bit of experience in the off season but have some young guys who have talent to complement marquee men Folau, Foley and Hooper.
The Stat: The Force have won three of their last four against the Waratahs.
It’s a big game for: Israel Folau. Coach Daryl Gibson had finally moved Folau to outside centre and if he wants to stay there he will have to perform. There is less room in the centre position, so it represents a new challenge for the game-breaker.
The Verdict: Neither side has the strongest line-up, with the Force retaining more core players than the Waratahs. Folau and Foley are key for the home side, though the latter is under a concussion cloud. The Force still lack attacking strike, though. Waratahs 1-12
— RUGBYcomau (@rugbycomau) February 22, 2017
CHEETAHS v LIONS – Lions 1-12
KINGS v JAGUARES – Upset of the week, Kings 1-12
STORMERS v BULLS – Stormers 1-12