Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 will be a pleasure to watch, as it was in 2020, but the outcome has already been scripted, writes Oliver Keohane.
Scott Robertson will be looking to clinch his 5th successive Super Rugby title with the Crusaders this year, and he won’t be looking too hard. For all the quality and style across New Zealand’s five regions, for the 19 games last season that were decided by seven points or fewer and for all the individual brilliance that exists in every team, there simply is no collective as capable and strong as the Crusaders.
The only notable change perhaps from last year, is that the Crusaders’ two toughest competitors for the title, in the Blues and the Hurricanes, have lost All Black half-back pairing Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara respectively. The Blues, without Barrett, lose the best shot that they have had at a quality pivot in the last decade since Carlos Spencer (though he was entirely under-utilised at flyhalf last season), while the Hurricanes in Perenara lose their co-captain and 69-cap All Black, who in 2020 was not only a scrumhalf but operated largely from the flyhalf channel too throughout the Super Rugby campaign.
The Highlanders, bluntly, will probably offer the least of the five teams, adjusting to a new coach in Tony Brown, following Aaron Mauger’s departure, and with only three All Blacks, in Aaron Smith, Liam Squire and Shannon Frizell currently in their squad. The Chiefs also face the challenge of another new coach, after Gatland’s disastrous first season and his British & Irish Lions-induced 2021 sabbatical. His 2022 return also adds further complexity to a side that appeared void of direction and identity last season.
If anyone could stand a chance of rocking the Christchurch boat it will be the Blues, who for the first time in years have finally invested in building a strong pack. Coach Leon MacDonald did well to identify the fact that for all the star power that has drifted in and out of the Blues backline over the last fifteen years, their qualities have been fairly redundant in that there was never clean, front foot, attacking ball delivered to them. Astute recruitments of All Black prop Nepo Laulala and the newlycapped All Black openside flanker Dillon Hunt, sees the Blues add more brawn to a pack that fired last season under the captaincy of Patrick Tuipulotu, the emergence of young beast Hoskins Sotutu and the presence of Dalton Papalii and Akira Ioane.
The Blues really do boast a quality squad, with a lot of exciting young individuals and what appears to be a fresh approach to coaching after a stagnant run of management since the early 2000s. But I simply do not believe that there is a side better coached, more composed and more focused on a collective effort than the Crusaders.
The Crusaders head into their opening clash against the Highlanders with nine All Blacks in their match day squad. Even without the class and savvy of Scott Robertson, the result should be a no brainer when assessing man for man talent. With this being said though, the Crusaders have been exemplary in focusing on a collective team effort from their brilliant individuals, rather than individual brilliance from these players. An area where most New Zealand sides seem to come short.
Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 will likely be the most entertaining domestic league of the season, but don’t expect any variance from the pattern of Crusaders dominance. The excitement from a viewers perspective will come only from the rugby, and not from any anticipation of the final result.