Super Rugby ready for the off
February 22, 2012
All eyes will be on the reigning champions the Reds when the new season kicks off © Getty Images
The twelfth season of Super Rugby takes its bow on Friday with another campaign of electric rugby in the offing.
And it is the Reds who are the team to beat after they took their inaugural title last year defeating the Crusaders 18-13 in the final. But they will have to make do without star fly-half Quade Cooper for the bulk of the competition as he continues his recovery from the injury sustained in the bronze final match between Wales and Australia at the end of the 2011 World Cup.
Ewen McKenzie's side kick off their campaign away at old foes the NSW Waratahs on Saturday with the Sydney-based franchise preparing for life without star back Kurtley Beale. He has upped sticks and left for the Melbourne Rebels but they have recruited shrewdly in the off season bringing in one of the standout players of last season's campaign in the guise of Sarel Pretorious from the Cheetahs along with the Brumbies' Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Both will hope to start against the Reds while McKenzie has opted to give Mike Harris the fly-half berth in Cooper's absence. And he is joined on the sidelines by Waratahs duo Drew Mitchell and Rocky Elsom. But there is still a substantial Wallabies presence in both squads with the likes of James Horwill, Berrick Barnes and Will Genia all looking to make amends for their World Cup heartbreak if they take to the field in Sydney on Saturday.
And last season's nomadic side and runners-up the Crusaders feature in the tournament's curtain raiser on Friday when they travel to Auckland's franchise the Blues. The Christchurch-based side were forced to play all their games on the road last season due to February's devastating earthquake and are void of three prominent stars with Richie McCaw and Dan Carter sidelined and Sonny Bill Williams opting to move north to Waikato's Chiefs.
The Blues have also shuffled their pack ahead of the new season with Luke McAlister moving on and Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu both opting for a switch up to Auckland. Weepu, however, will have to be content with a spot on the bench for Friday's match with Michael Hobbs edging out the World Cup winner and Gareth Anscombe for the fly-half spot. Nonu is also absent but there are plenty of familiar faces on show with Jerome Kaino, Ali Williams and Keven Mealamu all starting. And for the Crusaders, Tyler Bleyendaal is expected to be the man chosen to step into the void left by Carter at half-back.
Friday's matches also see Jake White's Brumbies entertain Richard Graham's Western Force in Canberra. The Brumbies have undergone an overhaul in the close season with Matt Giteau, Elsom and Ashley-Cooper all moving on while the Force have also lost star back James O'Connor to the Rebels.
And Friday's line up is completed when the Sharks travel to the Bulls. The Pretoria-based Bulls are preparing for life without star second-row pairing Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha with Matfield having decided to hang up his boots and Botha now plying his trade in France for Toulon. And the Bulls' XV for the match with the Sharks features nine players who have never played for the franchise and six personnel making their Super Rugby debut. But there is still a strong Springboks-crux to the team with Morne Steyn starting at fly-half and Pierre Spies captaining the side.
The Sharks, in contrast, have just one full debutant in their XV - Dale Chadwick - with Tim Whitehead and Riaan Viljoen playing their first official match in Sharks colours. They are embarking on life after skipper John Smit with the prop-come-hooker now turning out for Saracens but possess a strong Boks presence with Bismarck du Plessis, JP Pietersen and Pat Lambie all starting.
And come Saturday, the Chiefs kick off the action prior to the Waratahs' clash with the Reds when they entertain the Highlanders in Waikato. The Chiefs' marquee signing ahead of the new season is All Blacks centre Williams but they have also recruited Aaron Cruden as a replacement for World Cup winner Stephen Donald. But familiar faces such as Mils Muliaina and Sitiveni Sivivatu have joined Donald in leaving the Waikato franchise so the opportunity is there for a new star to establish themselves in the Chiefs' history books.
The Highlanders have bolstered their ranks in the close season with the capture of All Blacks hooker Andrew Hore and England's James Haskell so they will be looking to improve on their eighth placed finish last season.
Last season's form South African side the Stormers also start their campaign on Saturday when they welcome the Hurricanes to Cape Town. Allister Coetzee's side finished second in the overall standings last year before losing out in the semi-finals to the Crusaders but with Bryan Habana - who starts at centre - in their ranks they will be one of the teams to watch. Their opponents, the Hurricanes, have seen a raft of All Blacks take up new clubs for this campaign but have a young group of players who will have their eyes firmly set on future international recognition.
The weekend's action is brought to a close in Johannesburg as the Lions - looking to build on their Currie Cup success last year - entertain the Cheetahs. With financial uncertainty shrouding the Lions' preparations for this season's competition, they will be aiming to prove that they are still worthy of a spot at the southern hemisphere's top table with the Southern Kings lying in wait ahead of the 2013 season.
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