By Rob Davies
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them: 'Hold on!'” -- Rudyard Kipling
The razor sharp skills on display - during the parts where s**t actually happened - in the Super Bowl final on February 5 had me drooling into my chili in anticipation of this year’s Super Rugby competition.
It is always a great thrill to see two teams of athletes at the very pinnacle of their craft mesmerizing a crowd and the Giants and Patriots match-up ticked all the boxes. For about eight minutes.
One week from now it'll be rugby on display, a game with skill levels of the same ridiculously high caliber on display with the top provincial outfits from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa squaring up for another no-holds-barred display of ass-kicking as high-speed sporting entertainment sometimes known as Super Rugby or the Super 15.
Rudyard Kipling may not have seen much Super Rugby, but certainly knew what it took to face the odds and emerge victorious - and so it will be in this year's extended tournament where players will have to maintain a near-freakish level of toughness, fitness and never-say-die commitment to see the playoffs.
The jury is still out on whether stretching the competition over 24 weeks, with the June internationals thrown into the middle, will result in a gigantic cock-up - and a competition crippled by broadcasting deals. Whatever the case may be, audiences the world over are set for a thrilling half-year of entertainment.
I can only thank the Lord that it’s not on pay-per-view. Yet.
As is the case annually, there'll be an enormous cast of heroes and villains, politics, infighting, zany refereeing decisions and breathtaking, super-fast action to keep us all on the edge of our seats.
There has been quite a bit of shuffling and chopping and changing across the board, but I’m particularly interested to see how the Lions, Bulls and Brumbies do this year.
Fresh from winning the Currie Cup, the Lions’ coaching staff headed by John Mitchell has put together a young team brimming with talent and mongrel. Whether the side will be able to turn around its dismal Super Rugby record will be very interesting indeed, especially in the face of reports that the Golden Lions Rugby Union is financially in deep trouble. I certainly hope that the Lions can turn things around - especially on the road.
The Brumbies, who finished third from the bottom last year, have a new coach in former World Cup winner, Jake White. The Brumbies have been up in the points for most of the competition’s history and it will be interesting to see how White can turn things around in Canberra. The Brumbies looked good in their warm-up outing against the Force with a solid win in Hobart, but whether or not this is indicative of the rest of the season remains a tantalizing question.
The Bulls have lost their experienced core of Springboks that have led them to three titles since 2007, so it will be interesting to see how their campaign will take shape. They were disappointing last year, but the influx of exciting new talent in the backs particularly looks promising. They may, however, have a serious challenge on the coaching front as Heyneke Meyer has left the union to coach the Springboks. I have a feeling that the Bulls will struggle this year, but I look forward to eating crow.
As far as the other outfits are concerned, we should see more strong performances from the likes of the Reds, Crusaders (goes without saying), Waratahs, Highlanders, Blues, Sharks and Stormers.
I also reckon it’ll be a tough ask to see the Rebels, Force, Cheetahs, Chiefs and Hurricanes in the playoffs. In fact, the Cheetahs and Lions are most likely playing for Super Rugby survival as individual franchises this year with the Kings guaranteed a spot in next year’s tournament.
So, as always, the teams with the most test players look most likely to feature in the semis and finals – with one important equalizer to consider: with the tournament as long as it is and the demands of the June internationals on test players, we may just very well see a dark horse or two unsettle the roster.
Player management will be crucial and here I think the Australian and Kiwi sides will be at an advantage as both their provincial and national structures are streets ahead of the opposition in terms of planning around and reaching their set objectives.
Watch out for a strong challenge from the fringe Aussie and Kiwi franchises in the latter stages of the competition.
Nothing is clear-cut this year, but what will certainly remain a constant is that the rugby on display will be punishing, physical, confrontational, lightning fast and action-packed.
And that the players on the paddock will have to force their hearts, nerves and sinews to the limit for 24 breathtaking weeks of the planet’s meanest and mightiest rugby competition.
I can’t wait.
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