Super Rugby Power Rankings: Week 1

Super Rugby
by Sam Phillips

Welcome to the inaugural RUGBY.com.au Super Rugby Power Rankings.

Each week, teams will slide up and down the rankings as the RUGBY.com.au committee gauge their performance using both numbers and the good old fashioned eye test.

Given the season kicks off tonight, this week’s rankings are based on pre-season form, player movements and how team’s finished season 2016.

Disagree with where your team ranks? Tell us why on our Facebook or Twitter posts.

Let the games begin.

1. Hurricanes

In TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett, the Canes have arguably the best halves in Super Rugby. Photo: Getty ImagesIt would be nothing short of rude to start the inaugural RUGBY.com.au Super Rugby Power Rankings with the defending champions anywhere but the top spot. Last season was a redemption mission for the Canes after they let the 2015 title slip south to Otago. They have avoided the dreaded champions exile, having kept all but three players that started in the 2016 final (Victor Vito, Jason Woodward and Willis Halaholo). Look out for Beauden Barrett’s little brother Jordie, who turned heads as a playmaker while his brother ran the water at the Brisbane Tens. The team to beat again in 2017, should Chris Boyd be able to keep his team focused on a repeat.

2. Highlanders

Aaron Smith has put off-field drama behind him as his team prepares for a big 2017. Photo: Getty ImagesThe 2015 champs and 2016 semi-finalists were every bit as good as the Lions team that beat them to make the big dance. If the semi was played in Dunedin rather than Johannesburg, this average punter would have had a ticket betting the 2016 final would have been the same as the 2015 final. Just like their counterparts in Wellington, the Highlanders have retained all but tighthead prop Josh Hohnneck from their best XV, pointing to more success in the season ahead.

3. Chiefs

Damian McKenzie showed what he is capable of in 2016. Photo: Getty ImagesThe Chiefs ran into the rampaging Hurricanes in last year’s semi but they have more than enough talent on their roster to rebound in 2017. With Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Damian McKenzie steering the ship, the men from Waikato will have a make-or-break opening month. If they emerge from their Round 5 bye boasting a 3-1 or 4-0 record after matches against the Highlanders (A), Blues (H), Hurricanes (H) and Rebels (A), look out. This is also Dave Rennie’s final season in charge before he heads for the colder (if that’s possible) climate of Glasgow. That could prove to be a stirring motivation or a toxic distraction. Time will tell.

4. Lions

The Lions' hopes of another finals run will rely on Elton Jantjies' form. Photo: Getty ImagesAs rude as it would have been to remove the Hurricanes from top spot, it would have been far worse to leave a 2016 finalist out of the top four. Only the most devout rugby fans would have seen a great deal of the Lions last year but they play a brand of football well worth your time and money. Elton Jantjies is now one of the best five-eights in the world, Faf de Klerk has been uncovered as a nuggety gem at halfback and Warren Whiteley rips through enough work at Number 8 for an entire backrow. The leading contenders out of South Africa this season.

5. Crusaders

Digby Ioane's return to Super Rugby in Christchurch is a massive boost for the Crusaders. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyIt feels wrong to have the Christchurch side this low considering their consistent, overwhelming success but they were a touch off the pace last year. Compared to their New Zealand counterparts anyway. They have replaced the loss of Nemani Nadolo with none other than Digby Ioane and will appreciate the breath of fresh air new coach Scott Robertson will provide. The potential bolters in the New Zealand Conference.

6. Reds

Chris Kuridrani looks to have finally hit top gear for the Reds. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyYes, they only won three games last year but all signs point to a major revival at Ballymore in 2017. The returning brigade of Quade Cooper, Stephen Moore and Scott Higgingbotham along with George Smith have added the touch of class that was absent for all to see in 2016. Add this quartet to the never-ending pool of young talent that Queensland has to draw from, an elite man-motivator in new coach Nick Stiles and a relatively soft draw and the Reds have the makings of an Australian Conference champion.

7. Waratahs

With Israel Folau at outside centre, the Waratahs will need consistent production from young gun Andrew Kellaway. Photo: Getty ImagesThe Tahs were remarkably inconsistent last season. They struggled to put together convincing wins early before peeling off four straight victories to apply pressure on the Brumbies at the top of the Australian Conference. But they tailed off at the end of the year, failing to aim up against teams from across the ditch and falling short of finals after two years at the top of Australian rugby. The loss of Tatafu Polota-Nau will hurt but the squad is still there, on paper, to challenge for the Australian Conference title.

8. Stormers

Snagging SP Marais from the Bulls is a great get for the Stormers. Photo: Getty ImagesIt’s a stretch to put a team that drew with the Sunwolves last year in the top half of the competition but by the virtue of the Conference system, there is no alternative. Snagging Dan Kriel and SP Marais to add some attacking grunt in the backs will certainly help but there is little else to get excited about in Cape Town.

9. Sharks

Willie le Roux will not ply his trade in Durban this year. Photo: Getty ImagesSimilarly, the Sharks are tough to get a gauge on but based on last year’s results alone, they must be shown respect. They have lost Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Marcell Coetzee and Jacques Potgeiter, which will not help their cause.

10. Blues

Augustine Pulu will push for an All Blacks spot with consistent minutes at the Blues. Photo: Getty ImagesThe Blues will be on the rise once again in 2017 but the nature of their draw leaves little to be desired. The men from Auckland play rugby that is easy on the eye and there is no bigger recruit in Super Rugby than Sonny Bill Williams, though he won’t feature until April. One would assume Augustine Pulu will make the halfback jersey his own and that can only be a good thing but the harsh truth of playing in the New Zealand Conference is that there is no tougher ladder to scale.

11. Brumbies

Kyle Godwin will star for the Brumbies this year but they will sorely miss David Pocock. Photo: Getty ImagesWith the sheer exodus of talent from Canberra, it’s tough to put Australia’s only team to play finals football last season in the top ten. David Pocock, Stephen Moore, Matt Toomua and Joe Tomane will be sorely missed but they always manage to overachieve and Stephen Larkham has flown under the radar his entire career. There are big wraps on new Kiwi flyhalf Wharenui Hawera so if he can fire with new recruit Kyle Godwin inside him, there may be a path back to the finals for the Brumbies.

12. Force

Luke Morahan will have some attacking stars inside him this season. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart WalmsleyForever lacking backline talent, the Force look to have pieced together some flair outside Jono Lance this season. Inside centre Bill Meakes has a strong pass off both hips and he will provide cover for Lance while supporting the likes of league recruit Curtis Rona, Chance Peni and Dane Haylett-Petty. New coach Dave Wessels has this team firing in the pre-season and they will surprise anyone that takes them lightly.

13. Bulls

Bulls fans will see Handre Pollard back in action for the first time since the 2015 World Cup this weekend. Photo: Getty ImagesThere has been significant player turnover in Pretoria and the majority of the players leaving are names Bulls fans would not be happy to see walking out the door (Stander, Kriel, Marais). Handre Pollard did not play in 2016 due to knee and shoulder injuries but he is back in blue. He will have the weight of Loftus Versfeld on his shoulders as he attempts to scrape together a respectable attack from flyhalf.

14. Rebels

After a breakout 2016, Reece Hodge will need to be at his best if the Rebels are to contend in 2017. Photo: Getty ImagesPre-season form is historically a terrible guide but there are facets of it which roll into the season proper. The Rebels will hope that is not the case, given they have been handily beaten by the Force and Reds in their two trials. Jack Debreczini has been handed a lifeline at fullback but Jackson Garden-Bachop must form a formidable combination with Nic Stirzaker if the Rebels are to keep their head above water. The absence of Sean McMahon, James Hanson, Toby Smith and Marika Koroibete through the early part of the season may see them struggle.

15. Jaguares

After winning their first ever Super Rugby match in a 34-33 thriller against the Cheetahs, the Jaguares’ season was left in tatters when they lost eight straight matches. They have kept the large majority of their squad intact but that may be a negative rather than a positive if they continue to perform as they did last year.

16. Cheetahs

Does the fact that they lost to the Jaguares not say it all? There has been a serious player drain in Bloemfontein and it’s hard to imagine them improving much on their four wins from 2016.

17. Sunwolves

Ed Quirk has found a new home in Japan. Photo: Getty ImagesEveryone’s second team, the Sunwolves played an enterprising brand of rugby last season. They always give their very best but they lack physicality in the pack to match it with the big boppers of Super Rugby. Look for them to improve on hard work alone.

18. Kings

The Kings are being treated as a halfway house for players desperate to earn another crack at the top level. Their squad is almost entirely recycled and if they were to add three wins to their all-time total of five, it would be a good result. The basket case of the competition.

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