Super Rugby Pacific Season Preview - A New Champion In 2023?

Super Rugby Pacific Season Preview - A New Champion In 2023?

Super Rugby Pacific 2023 season preview - can the Auckland Blues finally end a twenty year trophy drought and displace arch rivals the Crusaders?

Feb 22, 2023 by Philip Bendon
Super Rugby Pacific Season Preview - A New Champion In 2023?

Now just two days away from kick-off, Super Rugby Pacific 2023 looks set to be one of the most hotly contested seasons in the competition's history. 

Here is a breakdown of all you need to know ahead of Friday’s first round of fixtures.

The Lowdown 

Hands down the premier club competition in the southern hemisphere, Super Rugby dates back as far as 1986 and the inaugural South Pacific Championship. 

Since then, the competition has undergone many changes in terms of both format and competing nations. 

Starting in earnest in 1996 with the advent of the Super 12 tournament, which featured teams from three nations, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The competition became a professional set-up as the sport entered a new era after the 1995 Rugby World Cup. 

In the years since the tournament expanded to as many as 18 teams in 2016, the organising body SANZAR opened its doors to teams from Argentina and Japan. 

Unfortunately for the tournament organisers, it would be a case of bigger is not always better as the tournament lost traction with its supporters. This lack of interest was due primarily to an overly complicated format and a watering down of the quality of teams competing. In addition to these issues, the lack of natural rivalries amongst the newly established franchise led to several fixtures gathering poor viewing numbers. 

Clearly, on a collision course with a restructuring process, it would take the covid-19 pandemic to bring about the necessary changes finally. 

South African Rugby announced its departure from the competition as the sporting world went into an extended shutdown. Instead, they would now compete in the United Rugby Championship alongside the top regional teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. This shift north made sense on several fronts, with the South African players now playing in a more neutral time zone. Financially the move would also prove fruitful for the South African, who now see their top four sides playing in both the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competitions. 

As their great rivals shifted north, the Australian and New Zealand Rugby authorities were left to their own devices. At one point, it was feared that Super Rugby would ultimately fall apart, with the two southern unions at loggerheads about how best to proceed with the tournament. 

Ultimately a deal would be struck, and as South Africa departed, the Fijian Drua and Pasifika Moana franchises would enter. 

Now back to a clean format of 12 teams, the competition has returned to a simple and crucially understandable form. 

Front Runners

Looking beyond the New Zealand franchises, notably the Blues and Crusaders, would be a foolish move. 

Last season's top two finishers are back and looking more potent than ever heading into Friday's opening game, where the Crusaders will tackle last season's third-place finisher, the Chiefs. 

Spearheaded by senior All Black stars, the two sides are the most successful teams in Super Rugby's long and storied history. 

Starting with the 11-time champions Crusaders, head coach Scott Robertson entered 2023 knowing it would likely be his last in the black and red. Having long been touted as a future All Black coach in waiting, Robertson is all but sure to take over the national job after the Rugby World Cup. 

Thus, the urgency to secure a fifth consecutive title will be evident this season. Star internationals Richie Mo'unga, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock and Codie Taylor will carry out the orders on the pitch. The four generals have been in the Crusaders' set-up for the entire successful run under Robertson and know too well that success is not a given. 

Before Robertson's arrival, it was nine long seasons for the team from Christchurch since they had won the last of their six titles between 1996 and 2006. Now back on a dynastic run, many of the squad will look to end their Crusaders career on a high before departing at the end of the season. 

Last season's losing finalists, the Blues will be looking to win a first title since 2003, having come up short 21 – 7 in last season's final. 

Winning the first two seasons of Super Rugby, the Aucklanders have flattered to deceive for two whole decades. Often entering the season with the most talented rosters on paper, one losing final appearance for the capital team is not good enough. 

To put things into perspective, the last time the Blues won a Super Rugby title, current Blues backrow Rob Rush's father, Eric, was starring for their rivals, the Chiefs. 

Now once again jam-packed with talent, this season was the fell of now or never for Leon MacDonald's side. 

For this season to succeed, two-time World Rugby Player Of The Year Beauden Barrett must return to dazzling best. 

Having lost his iron-like grip on the All Blacks number ten shirt in recent seasons, Barrett must again prove his ability to control a team across a season to cement his position as first choice heading into the Rugby World Cup. 

Fortunately for Barrett, he has a team capable of supporting him. Most notable amongst his teammates is the return of secondrow Patrick Tuipulotu, who will be a key leadership figure in the forwards.

In the backline, winger Caleb Clarke and centres Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and Rieko Ioane are three of the best-attacking players in World Rugby. 

Leading the Australian challenge will be last season's losing semi-finalists, the ACT Brumbies. 

Coached by legendary Brumbies and Wallabies playmaker Stephen Larkham, the men from Canberra are genuine challengers to the New Zealanders' dominance. 

Coming agonisingly close to turning over the Blues at Eden Park in the semi-finals last season, the Brumbies will be using their 20 – 19 defeat as motivation this season. 

Key to any success this season will be Wallabies flyhalf Noah Lolesio who is a crucial figure for Australian Rugby as a whole, given their struggles with the position. 

When on his game, the 23-year-old is a slippery attacking maestro capable of poking holes in opposition through sniping runs and clever kicks. The challenge for him this season will be to show maturity in managing a game and, crucially, putting his team in good field positioning. 

Taking the pressure off Lolesio will be his halfback partner Nic White. The 32-year-old has seen it throughout his twelve seasons in top-flight Rugby and will likely be the dominant figure in the game management stakes this season. 

Just behind the Brumbies are archrivals, the Queensland Reds. The 2011 Super Rugby and 2021 Super Rugby AU champions possess arguably the most x-factor talent of the Australian teams this season. 

Centre Hunter Paisami, outside backs Jordan Petaia, Jock Campbell and backrow Fraser McReight are some of Australian Rugby's brightest stars. 

All four are true game-breakers capable of doing severe damage in a short space of time.

Another up-and-comer in scrumhalf Tate McDermott who links up with former wunderkind James O'Connor is vital to their success. Both players are immensely talented and were two of the most consistent players in 2021. 

32-year-old O'Connor, in particular, has a point to prove this season, given his rather brutal dropping from the national team by former head coach Dave Rennie. 

With Rennie now out of the picture, O'Connor will look to prove to new Wallabies coach Eddie Jones that he can still play the guitar at the top level.

Surprise Package 

Well, and genuinely thumped by the Chiefs at the quarterfinal stage last season, the Waratahs left a promising 2022 season on a whimper. 

Now back for another go around, the Sydney side looks more than capable of making the playoffs again and making noise when they are there. 

Knocking off both the Crusaders and Highlanders in crucial fixtures to seal their playoff berth in 2022, the Waratahs proved their ability to win when it counts. 

Littered with Wallabies across their squad, the 2023 Waratahs have enough star power to compete with any side. 

One area of concern will be the lack of depth in the front five, where a few injuries could derail the Tahs' whole campaign. 

They are working on the premise that they continue the progress they showed throughout 2022 under head coach Darren Coleman. The Tahs will be the competition's surprise package and could prove to be Australia's top side. 

Season Prediction 

Any time 50% of a league could realistically contend for the title, picking a winner is a challenging prospect. 

Having touched on the top contenders above, the Crusaders and Blues are the most likely duo to contest the final. 

Now well overdue a title, the Blues will finally get over the hump in 2023 as they are powered on by their All-Black stars. 

From a long way out, the log table will look like this: 

  1. Blues
  2. Waratahs
  3. Chiefs
  4. Crusaders
  5. Brumbies
  6. Hurricanes
  7. Reds
  8. Highlanders
  9. Western Force
  10. Melbourne Rebels
  11. Fijian Drua
  12. Moana Pasifika

Top Players  

For a look at the top names to watch this season, click here.

Written by Philip Bendon