For the first time in over a year, Australia’s Super Rugby sides will face off against international opposition as the Super Rugby trans-Tasman season gets underway this weekend.
Of course, the shaky environment around the trans-Tasman travel bubble over the first month of its existence means that the competition may kick off this weekend, but there’s no guarantee we’ll get to the final on June 19.
And the nature of randomly emerging new cases of COVID-19 in both Australia and New Zealand means it may not take much at all for the competition to be suspended in between.
But while it feels like an eternity since Australian teams last played international opposition, it’s actually not even 15 months ago.
The Queensland Reds hosted South African team, the Bulls, in Brisbane on Saturday, March 14, 2020, and former Japanese side, the Sunwolves, faced the Crusaders beforehand in a hurriedly arranged double-header.
The week before, the Brumbies played the Sunwolves in Wollongong, the Reds played the Crusaders in Christchurch, the NSW Waratahs hosted the Chiefs in Sydney, and the Melbourne Rebels beat the Johannesburg-based Lions in Melbourne.
Since then, though, and with the welcome return of the Western Force, Australian sides have only faced each other over two seasons of Super Rugby AU — the second of which wrapped up last weekend with Queensland’s thrilling final play 19-16 win over the Brumbies in Brisbane.
That’s all about to change from this weekend, and it’s probably worth getting our heads around the form lines of the NZ sides, as we find out definitively just how big — or small — the gap is between the two competitions.
The Crusaders claimed successive Aotearoa titles on the weekend, with a well-managed if not completely dominant 24-13 win over the Chiefs in Christchurch.
It marks their 12th overall Super Rugby title in 26 seasons, while their unbeaten run in finals matches played in Christchurch now extends to 25 games. It’s little wonder they will start the trans-Tasman series overwhelming favourites.
They jumped out to an early lead during Super Rugby Aotearoa with four straight wins, though had a bit of a hiccup over the back end of the competition, losing by a record margin to the Highlanders in Christchurch in the second South Island derby, scraping home in golden point over the Hurricanes in Wellington, and then getting pipped by late Damien McKenzie penalty goal to lose to the Chiefs in Hamilton.
They regrouped by spanking the Blues ahead of a final-round bye, and did enough to keep their nose in front of the Chiefs to take out the Final.
They’ll tip some beating, for sure, but do have to play three of their five games in Australia. The round two clash with the Super Rugby AU champion Reds in Brisbane already looms as a blockbuster contest.
The team they beat in the final, the Chiefs, went on a five-game winning streak to storm into the Super Rugby Aotearoa Final, which in itself represented a massive turnaround in fortunes.
After going winless in Super Rugby Aotearoa last season, they also lost their first two games in 2021, causing plenty of commentators to ponder what on Earth was going wrong after 10 straight losses.
But then the streak started, beating all four New Zealand teams, including the Hurricanes twice, to surge past more fancied sides.
The Chiefs will also play three trans-Tasman games in Australia, starting with this weekend in Perth against the Western Force, and certainly have to be considered the next best of the New Zealand sides, even currently battling with a bit of an injury crisis.
The Blues finished equal with the Chiefs on points but with one fewer win, and it probably has to be conceded that they fell well short of expectations in 2021.
After starting the season widely tipped to be the team to push the Crusaders, the Auckland-based side lost three of their last five games with some performances that left fans and pundits alike frustrated.
The Blues have been guilty of falling out of seasons in recent years, and how they go in this trans-Tasman series almost certainly depends on how well they start.
They’ll play three games at home, but start with the Rebels in Melbourne this weekend, before hosting the Waratahs and Brumbies in successive weeks.
On paper, they could win all three, but experience over the last few years means they could easily lose a couple.
The Highlanders have the triple-whammy of hosting the Reds first up in Dunedin, having a shocking injury toll that has seen them bring a number of replacement players in this week, all while being without their coach Tony Brown, who just last week made the decision to head to Japan early to continue his assistant coaching role with the Brave Blossoms as they gear up to face the British & Irish Lions in Edinburgh ahead of the Lions’ tour of South Africa.
The men from the south had an up-and-down Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, with some genuinely excellent performances evened out by some properly ordinary showings.
They lost three of the first four games this season, and then went loss-win-loss-win-loss to finish well short of the top two.
They’ll beat some Australian sides, but struggle with others, and this will be completely in line with how they’ve played for the last few seasons.
And to finish, I had the Hurricanes ready to battle it out with the Blues at the start of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season, as the team most likely to then go on and challenge the Crusaders, but the point remains that they are still battling to overcome the loss of All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett at the end of the 2019 season.
The Hurricanes showed some glimpses of improvement this season, but could only manage two wins against the Highlanders and none against the other three sides.
They remain an ‘on their day they can beat anyone’ prospect at the moment, but the biggest challenge has been how many of ‘their days’ they have.
They’ll enjoy three home games in Super Rugby trans-Tasman, but their last five games comprise the top three Australia sides.
In all, it’s going to be a fascinating series that will play out over the next six weeks, and may well go a long way to determining what format professional rugby takes in this part of the world in future years.
All in front of a COVID backdrop that could still come crashing down at any point.
Super Rugby trans-Tasman – Round 1
Highlanders v Reds, Dunedin 1705
Waratahs v Hurricanes, Sydney 1945
Crusaders v Brumbies, Christchurch 1705
Rebels v Blues, Melbourne 1945
Force v Chiefs, Perth 2155