The Southern Hemisphere rugby seasons gets under way on Friday morning with in Australia (Western Force play Melbourne Rebels at 8:40am Irish time and Brumbies vs Reds on Saturday morning). The Australians are starting a week early so they can have a week extra off to prepare for the British and Irish Lions tour. Usually seen as a more exciting and less-set-piece-dominated competition than Northern Hemisphere rugby, SupeRugby doesn't actually boast many more tries per team or try bonus points over a season than the Pro12. However, playing on harder ground for longer than European competitions is certainly more conducive to running rugby, which is the way Australian teams and especially New Zealand teams like to play. So, as we get ready to marvel at the athleticism of the South Africans and the talents of Kiwi's who can't get near an All Blacks jersey, here's an intro to the competition.
How it works:
SupeRugby consists of 15 franchise teams, 5 each from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Even though there are 15 teams, it's not a 28 game league but actually has 16 rounds. SupeRugby uses a conference system based around each country. Every team plays home and away against the other teams from their country (8 games) and four teams from each from the other two conferences (8 games), two fixtures at home and two away. The winner of each conference gets into the playoffs along with three next highest placed teams from the overall, 15 team table (Confused?). The system guarantees at least one team from every country makes the playoffs.
Changes for 2013:
The competition is in a fairly constant state of refinement. Two years ago it expanded from 14 to 15 teams with the creation of the Melbourne Rebels. This season a new team from South Africa, the Southern Kings, are entering. They replace last year's bottom placed team, the Lions. The Lions will earn a shot at reinstatement later in the year when they get to playoff against the lowest ranked South African side for SupeRugby status in 2014.
Teams worth getting out of bed on a Saturday morning for:
Unsurprisingly, the best rugby is generally seen from the New Zealand teams. The reigning champions the Chiefs were great to watch last term, thanks in no small part to the understanding (that tore Ireland apart in Hamilton) between Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams. Sonny Bill has left for Japan and/or rugby league and/or boxing but Cruden has developed into one of the best outhalves in the world.
The team who scored the most tries last year and earned the most try bonus points were Wellington's Hurricanes. They've retained most of the backline that made them so exciting TJ Perinara, Beauden Barrett, Conrad Smith and the electric Andre Taylor. Losing All Black Corey Jane to injury is a big blow but expect this fairly young side to still provide some thrills.
In Australia, the Brumbies will be ones to watch this season. Coached by World Cup wining coach Jake White, they missed on the playoffs last season because of a final day collapse allowing the Reds to slip past them. With the significant addition of Wallaby captain David Pocock, they should go one better this time.
Last year losing finalist the Sharks went on an amazing run in the playoffs in 2012. Finishing 6th they had to play all their playoff games away, travelling to Australia to beat the Reds back to South Africa to beat the Stormers and then onto New Zealand for the final against the Chiefs. Freddie Michalak has returned to France but they have a fearsome pack that includes Springboks the du Plesis brothers, The Beast, Willem Alberts, Keegan Daniel and Marcel Coetzee.
Former Leinster coach Michael Cheika returns to Australia to take charge of the New South Wales Waratahs. The Tahs had a bad season last time wining only 4 games, finishing 11th overall and a distant 3rd in the Australian conference. With a squad sprinkled with Walabies, Cheika will want to toughen up the outfit and challenge for a playoff spot.
Playing connections are few and far between for Ireland and the Southern Hemisphere, with the exception of prop Ruaidhri Murphy. The 25 year old from Dublin was with Leinster and spent time with Exeter before heading back to Australia (where he was born). Playing with Brumbies in Canberra, Murphy was a fixture of their match day squads last season. Having played for the Ireland U20s (in the Grand Slam season of 2007) he can't play for Australia although the Wallabies are said to be appealing his case to the IRB.
Also, Leinster fans may have a tear in their eye when they see Brad Thorn pull on a blue jersey again, this time of the Highlanders in New Zealand. The second row returns to Kiwi rugby in Dunedin after his stints in Japan and winning some trophy in Twickenham.