Rugby-Excitement at prospect of change at the top in Super Rugby Pacific

By Thomson Reuters Feb 21, 2024 | 12:29 AM

By Nick Mulvenney

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The crisis at the Melbourne Rebels has cast a shadow over the third season of Super Rugby Pacific but there is still plenty of excitement at the possibility of a refreshing change at the top of Australasian provincial rugby.

The Canterbury Crusaders have won seven straight iterations of Super Rugby in its various forms but will be without the coach, Scott Robertson, and flyhalf, Richie Mo’unga, who played a major role in landing those titles.

The schedulers have served up a decent early test of the famed Christchurch production line with a rematch of last year’s final against the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton in the first clash of the season on Friday.

The Chiefs, who dominated the regular season last year, have lost talent too — Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick will leave big holes — but Damian McKenzie remains in a talented backline that will bring a plenty of flair and fire.

North Island powerhouse the Auckland Blues are being tipped by many as title contenders this year under new coach Vern Cotter and kick off their campaign in Whangarei against the Fijian Drua on Saturday.

The Drua have been the biggest success of Super Rugby’s expansion into the Pacific, reaching the playoffs at the second attempt last year and proving all but unbeatable playing at home in the island nation.

They will play seven matches in Lautoka and Suva this year, while Moana Pasifika will extend the competition to Tonga with a home match against the Otago Highlanders in Nuku’alofa in May.

The Pasifika, who won just one match last year, also face the Highlanders, the New Zealand side who again start the season with the lowest expectations of success, in their opener in Dunedin on Saturday.

Across the Tasman Sea, a rugby landscape already made miserable by Australia’s calamitous World Cup campaign has been plunged into a deeper malaise by the impending collapse of the Rebels with debts reported to be in excess of A$20 million ($13.13 million).

Rugby Australia has guaranteed the Rebels will complete the season despite being in administration and will make a decision on the future of professional rugby in the state of Victoria before the end of the Super Rugby season.

Contenders to become the first non-New Zealand team to win a Super Rugby title in a decade are thin on the ground but the ACT Brumbies, who open their campaign against the Rebels on Friday, again look the best of the bunch.

The Canberra-based team have retained the core of the side who lost narrowly to the Chiefs in the semi-finals last year, and flyhalf Noah Lolesio is only one of several Brumbies who have a point to make after missing out on the World Cup.

The New South Wales Waratahs and Queensland Reds were the next best performing Australian teams last year and they meet on Saturday at Brisbane’s Lang Park in a blockbuster fixture that goes back to 1882.

The Waratahs plateaued last year after an impressive first season under Darren Coleman, while Queenslanders will be hoping that new coach Les Kiss will be able to get more consistent performances out of the abundant young talent at Ballymore.

Perth-based Western Force, who pipped the Rebels to finish fourth out of the five Australian teams last year, host the Wellington Hurricanes in their season opener on Friday.

The losses which impact most teams in the season after a World Cup have hit the Hurricanes hard on the leadership front with Ardie Savea on sabbatical and All Blacks hooker Dane Coles having retired.

After a raft of law variations last season aimed at making the game more attractive, there is one significant change this year with a tweak to the offside laws to prevent the kicking duels that have disfigured some recent matches in Europe.

Entertainment is considered vital in Super Rugby as the competition enters the last two years of the current broadcast deals, with the future beyond that far from settled.

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Peter Rutherford)