Andrew Robinson | Super 15 preview
While the northern hemisphere rugby world is focused completely and entirely on the Six Nations, the southern hemisphere is preparing for Super Rugby, which sees the best of the best in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia going at it.
If Sky Sports’ corny advert with Michael Lynagh and Sean Fitzpatrick is to be believed, it’s going to be an amazing few months of rugby on the other side of the world.
Here are six teams who can all put down a stiff challenge for the title this season.
The Crusaders are undoubtedly the team to beat this year, as is often the case in the Super 15. They are the tournament’s most successful side and can call on a string of All Black internationals whenever the mood takes them.
Richie McCaw, the all-action flanker, who is, as Carlsberg would say, probably the best player in the world, will be a big miss.
New captain Kieran Read will be one to watch this season, along with Israel Dagg and Dan Carter, who will be a huge threat in the backs.
They face a tough opener this weekend, away at the Bulls in Pretoria, followed by a tough clash at the Hurricanes in week two.
The reigning champions are looming large heading into the 2013 season and will be looking to retain their title. But this year the element of surprise, which served them well in 2012 and took them to their first Super Rugby win, has been taken away.
Sonny Bill Williams, the man with the best hands in rugby, has left for warmer climes, but despite this the Chiefs should be up there at the end of the season.
Scrum half Tawera Kerr Barlow’s partnership with Aaron Cruden will be crucial to the success or failure of the side this year. In the forwards, the likes of Liam Messam and Sam Cane will be influential and the All Blacks will make life difficult for any pack they come up against.
The champs face three away games in the first four weeks at the Highlanders, Stormers and Kings.
The Stormers topped the regular season table last year and the South African team look set to be in the mix this time around. Schalk Burger will be keen to make up for missing almost the entirety of the 2012 season.
Plus, any team with interception king Bryan Habana in the back line is always going to be a threat to any team.
They do have a tricky start though, coming up against fellow South African sides the Bulls and Sharks and New Zealanders the Chiefs in their first three matches.
If they can get through this tough opening they could be in the running again this year.
The Bulls finished last season as the second best South African side and they will want to put that right this year. Their young team now has a year’s Super Rugby experience under their belts and will be looking to push on from last season’s playoff place.
Springboks Morne Steyn and Pierre Spies add some grit and determination to the side and the fact they are almost unbeatable at home makes them a danger this time around
The Reds were the dominant Australian team last year and made it to the playoffs where they were beaten by the Sharks.
The Queensland side will be without talismanic Will Genia for the first five rounds, but if they manage to keep up with the pack in these early rounds he should make a big difference when he comes back.
Luckily, the fixture list has been kind to the side and they don’t face any of the major contenders until the scrum half is back and ready for selection.
The Waratahs are keen to make a splash this season in Super Rugby after a disastrous year in 2012, when they missed out on the playoffs with an 11th place finish.
Despite last season’s problems, a new coaching staff and approach could get the Tahs firing again, particularly with a backline featuring a number of Aussie internationals.
The side have a first round bye and will be itching to get stuck into the Rebels at home in week two.