At one point it looked like Super Rugby was going to have to abandon the whole 2020 season. Sports have been hit hard by the Coronavirus crisis, with a sport like Super Rugby that spans four continents especially vulnerable because of international travel bans. While we will not be seeing the season play out as we had all thought back in January, there will at least be some rugby on to help the world feel a little more normal in the form of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The tournament format is pretty simple. Following the easing of lockdown measures in New Zealand, the tournament will begin on June 13 and it will feature the five New Zealand franchises playing each other home and away for a total of 20 games over 10 rounds. These will be held behind closed doors initially and there is an expectation that the national pride of winning a competition of just Kiwi teams will see the players working harder than ever to win games.
Here’s how the franchises stack up:
Crusaders – 1.10
The Crusaders have been installed as favorites for the Aotearoa comp after leading the New Zealand Conference with 23 points (five wins) after their six Super Rugby games. The team will also be boosted from their pre-Covid lineup by the return of lock Sam Whitelock from Japan and his Test experience will be key as the Crusaders look to continue their dominance of New Zealand rugby. The three-time consecutive winners are going to be a tough out and coach Scott Robertson always does a masterful job of leading the Crusaders to meet any challenge.
Chiefs – 2.40
The Chiefs were third in the standings at the end of play with 19 points (four wins) from their six games. It will be interesting to see how the break in play – and the second round of preseason training – affects the Chiefs as they bed in first-five Aaron Cruden for what is likely to be his final year of playing with New Zealand. If the former Montpellier playmaker is able to forge a working dynamic with the outstanding Damian MacKenzie at fullback then the Chiefs will have the best pair of playmakers in the comp.
Blues – 5.25
The Blues might be the most interesting team to watch in the Aotearoa competition. They were second in the NZ Conference with 22 points (five wins) from their seven games and they now have the services of arguably the best player in the world for the entire season in fly-half Beauden Barrett. Barrett – a freak athlete and model pro – already shocked the rugby world by recording a personal best in a returning fitness drill as soon as preseason training began for the Blues. If the pack can win clean ball for Barrett then this is a team with the weapons to upset the top two. The Blues are a good bet at BetXChange because of their overall value in a five-team race.
Hurricanes – 6.00
The Hurricanes were well in touch with the higher placed teams in the conference as they had 17 points (four wins) from their six games played in the 2020 Super Rugby competition. The biggest news for the Wellington-based franchise is that this break will have allowed destructive back-rower Ardie Savea to recover from the knee surgery he underwent after picking up an injury at the 2019 World Cup. Don’t be shocked to see Ardie’s older brother Julian join up with the squad if the ‘Canes pick up an injury or two after the former All Blacks winger ended his contract with French side Toulon.
Highlanders – 15.75
The Highlanders are the rank outsiders for the competition and it is easy to see why given their Super Rugby form before the lockdown. They had picked up 10 fewer points (seven) than the fourth-placed Hurricanes in the New Zealand Conference and they had just one win in six games. They were also the only NZ side with a negative point differential with -72 on the season. It is hard to see how they compete with the other four squads in what always looked to be a rebuilding year for the franchise.