There is only one relevant stat for Super Rugby Pacific and that is how much can Aussie teams close the gap.
The 2-23 ledger when Australia’s five sides took on their Kiwi opponents in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman last year was a damning reality check.
Every Aussie coach has taken on those lessons but we’ll only find out if there have been concrete improvements when the exciting new competition launches on Friday.
One big element to always consider is that the new 12-team comp has an eight-team finals format. That’s quite a broad net that opens it up for more potential title winners as the Cincinnati Bengals almost proved in the NFL. Consider that the Super 12 comp that ran from 1996 to 2005 had a four-team finals series.
Super Rugby Pacific is a 12-team competition pitting the five Aussie sides, the five Kiwi powerhouses and new sides, Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika.
As ever, COVID-19 precautions have tweaked the format. Aussies sides and the Drua, based at Lennox Head, will duel amongst themselves for nine rounds before they face a Kiwi rival.
The Kiwi teams have all relocated to Queenstown and will play the first three rounds in Queenstown and Dunedin. Poor Moana Pasifika has already had a COVID outbreak that has meant the postponement of Friday’s inaugural match against the Blues.
It’s a 14-match draw. Teams plays eight sides once and three sides twice which locks in a high derby component. That is exemplified by having two Queensland Reds-Brumbies blockbusters (March 18 and April 2) and the Reds-NSW Waratahs rivalry (February 25 and March 26) to the fore.
Let’s throw some betting permutations into the blender.
Both the Reds and Brumbies are favoured to make the top eight for finals with all your sports bookies so the chance of a run at the title exists.
The Reds sit on the fifth line of betting for Outright Winner at $13 with both Sportsbet and Ladbrokes for example. The Brumbies sit at $15 and $21 respectively with the same bookies.
The NSW Waratahs were a 0-13 basket case last year. They will improve markedly this year under new coach Darren Coleman and his team-building ways.
Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper will be in the backrow after five or six rounds. For tryscorers, follow sharp former sevens winger Dylan Pietsch and Alex Newsome, likely to be reprogrammed to fullback.
Bookies are stabbing in the dark on where to chart the Waratahs. Sportsbet lists them at $101 to win the comp. The TAB have them at $51 and tipped to squeeze into the finals in eighth spot.
In all honesty, you are looking at a Kiwi winner of Super Rugby Pacific.
The elite Crusaders have secured one of the signings of the season with Argentinian flanker Pablo Matera now in the ranks. He’s outstanding.
Likewise, All Black Jack Goodhue is back from long-term injury and his presence in the centres lifts the side as well.
The Crusaders aren’t sneaking up on anyone. The $2.50 quote to win the thing from Sportsbet is indicative of them being hot favourites.
I would say that having to negotiate a quarter-final, semi-final and final to win Super Rugby Pacific is a potential minefield that opens up multiple title contenders. You can always find a banana skin somewhere in three finals games.
So where to look for value?
The Auckland-based Blues really ignited in 2021 with the 6-0 run to the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman crown. They will improve again in 2022.
All eyes will be on one code-convert with NRL superstar Roger Tuivasa-Sheck now in a Blues jersey.
The Blues will have to wait a little longer for flyhalf Beauden Barrett. He is still getting over some concussion symptoms from a Test for the All Blacks last November.
The Blues to win at $4 with Sportsbet, TAB and others will appeal to plenty.
Losing All Blacks spark Damian McKenzie to Japanese rugby mutes backing for the Chiefs, who hover around $5 to $8. They do get back star lock Brodie Retallick full-time. The Highlanders did knock off the Crusaders last year so that is a sign of their class and ability to cause an upset in the finals series.
The Highlanders benefit most from the Kiwi hub deep in the South Island because that’s home for them. They face the Crusaders and Hurricanes in Dunedin in Rounds Two and Three after a Queenstown opener against the Chiefs.
A fast start will make them definite value at the $21 being offered at Ladbrokes.
The Western Force looked to have beefed up nicely during the off-season with Wallabies lock Izack Rodda adding a reliability in the tight five that has not always been there.
The Force are largely living on the road this season with Western Australia’s tight border. That will wear them down because one home game against the Reds early in the season is a crumb of normality.
They are a tight, resilient side who have bounced back from being kicked out of the competition so they will spring upsets.
The Melbourne Rebels’ loss to the Drua in a trial game was not the sort of sign their fans wanted to see. Young flyhalf Carter Gordon is a real prospect. Breakout Wallabies Andrew Kellaway and Rob Leota are X-factor but losing the explosive Marika Koroibete is a blow that cannot be covered.
It may be a tough season for the Rebels.
The Brumbies and Reds are teams to watch. Both knocked off Kiwi rivals last year and have trained to do that more consistently.
Centre Len Ikitau and lock Darcy Swain were real improvers last year when earning chances for the Wallabies and they will add extra polish to the men from Canberra. They also have the physical Rob Valetini to jolt anyone in his path.
The Brumbies may not win SR Pacific but they can shape who does because they can knock off any Kiwi side on their day.
Likewise, the Reds. The reigning Super Rugby AU champions have worked all off-season on upgrading their defence, ball retention to limit the cheap turnovers that the Kiwis thrive off and refining their own attacking methods.
They have well-grooved teamwork but missed the chance to add a star during the off-season like the Crusaders have with Matera.
Jordan Petaia looks super sharp and if he is running the ball back from fullback it will add a dynamic new dimension.
The weakness just below the surface is the scrum. Lose wrecking ball prop Taniela Tupou and the scrum will struggle.
OK, enough of the maybes.
Crusaders or Blues to win the title and the Reds and Brumbies at good value to knock off Kiwi rivals in specific games. You can get relative odds of $1.54 for either team to win the title this season.
Most tries? You can’t go past Sevu Reece or Will Jordan at the Crusaders.
Crusaders win title