The bookmakers have tipped a two horse race in the 2011 Super 15 competition, featuring defending champions the Bulls, and New Zealand’s leading hope the Crusaders. The Bulls are worthy of a third consecutive title, but can the Crusaders tip the scales and claim their eighth Super Rugby Crown?
It’s fair to say the Crusaders are New Zealand’s genuine title threat, looking at their past history. Having claimed seven titles and possessing many of New Zealand’s most lethal playing weapons, they’re on the verge of another. An eighth championship would underline their status as the most successful franchise in the history of the tournament, a huge feat any rugby region would dream of.
Featuring a powerful forward pack, the Crusaders will show plenty of dominance up front. With All Blacks’ Ritchie McCaw, Brad Thorn, Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and the Franks brothers(Ben and Owen), it’s hard to push past the quality of these players. Throw in ITM Cup star Matt Arnold and the experience of Chris Jack and the Crusaders look championship winning material.
The franchise posts another blistering backline, nothing more dangerous than the devastating combo of Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean. They were unstoppable in the ITM Cup, breaking tackles with ease and causing numerous headaches for opposition. With Sonny Bill’s impressive offloading skills and Fruean’s scintillating speed, they’ll be tough to stop. Dan Carter will again give direction to the backline, the world’s number one five eighth still with plenty to prove with the World Cup just around the corner. Halfback Andy Ellis, will be out to cement his All Black spot, a player which showed superb leadership skills and a certain grittiness which All Black halfbacks most often display.
Among the forte of exciting talent on offer, the Crusaders have added Hawke’s Bay magician Israel Dagg to the fray. Dagg was explosive in 2010, most memorable for his game winning try against the Springboks in South Africa, giving the All Blacks an important Tri Nations away scalp. His electric running skills, undeniable attack and vision of the game adds another notch to the Crusaders belt, a player which will be vital to their title aspirations. Throw him alongside teammate Zac Guildford, and the danger is evident among a backline with plenty of class.
Even though the Crusaders are the standout franchise in the New Zealand conference, they’ll be tested by their kiwi counterparts.
The Hurricanes will be looking to break their Super Rugby duck and give new coach Mark Hammett a successful start to his head coaching career. On paper they look strong, but will need to break their mindset of falling apart when it really matters, something that has haunted Hurricanes teams of the past.
The Blues are no longer the nemesis they once were, however, expectations are higher than before in the camp. Coach Pat Lam has put out the challenge to perform and they must achieve this for any chance of finals football.
The Chiefs were quick out of the gate in 2010, but fell apart towards the middle and end, resulting in a disastrous campaign. Their form at home was atrocious, one thing among many they will need to reverse in 2011.
The Highlanders pose the less threatening out of the New Zealand franchises, but will look to surprise. With a new coaching regime and some credible recruiting, a better year is fore casted for the southern men, putting away bad memories from past seasons.
The Australian franchises will look for a big year, especially the Reds who were a revelation in 2010, a team which features some outstanding individuals in Quade Cooper and Will Genia plus many more. The Waratahs, Brumbies, Western Force and newcomers the Melbourne Rebels will be right up there closer to finals time, but may lack that certain edge which is similar to past campaigns, to advance any further.
The Crusaders biggest threat will come from South Africa’s two leading powerhouses, the Bulls and the Stormers. The Stormers were arguably the best team in 2010, even though they fell short at the final hurdle. They produced so much balance and power which made them a hard side to crack in 2010. The champion Bulls have been in a league of their own for the past few seasons, winning two consecutive titles and winning when it really matters. Featuring reliable five eighth Morne Steyn, the towering Victor Matfield, Fourie Du Preez and Bakkies Botha, the Bulls have enough firepower to go all the way in 2011.
Will it be the Bulls who will continue their Super Rugby dominance or it will be the year of the Crusaders, a team desperate to bring the silverware back to New Zealand soil? It will be a telling season.