Pride of regular-season prize could go to bold Lions
Ellis Park fortress and no Kiwi clashes look key
Rebels v Blues
Sky Sports 3, 8.40am Thursday
Lions fever will dominate this Super Rugby season, which starts tomorrow in Melbourne with a likely high-scoring encounter between the Rebels and Blues, as the British & Irish select tour New Zealand in June. And the South African variety, last year’s runners-up to the Hurricanes, are worth a bet at 9-2 to top the regular-season table.
The Lions finished second in the table last year, one point behind the Canes going into the playoffs, in which they cuffed the Crusaders and Highlanders at their Ellis Park fortress before being frozen out in the final at the Westpac. Three of their four defeats were to Kiwi outfits, none of whom they face this time around. The Australian sides, for all their Wallabies, still look fallible.
Johan Ackerman’s charges should stay solid at the set-piece. Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel and Kwagga Smith promise pace and power at the breakdown and in support of a backline with speed to burn. Ruan Combrinck, Courtnall Skosan and Rohan Janse van Rensburg scored 28 tries between them last term.
If the Lions fail to fire then it could be fellow Africa group two team Los Jaguares who surge through to top the standings.
The Argentinians endured a poor inaugural campaign but they seem to be the side with the most stability in the tournament. Coach Raul Perez has not lost any of his Pumas, they have eight games in Buenos Aires and their away games are in three separate tours.
The Canes were worthy champions last August and the Kiwi outfits remain the best in the competition, but the scrutiny they will be under from round one to round 15 is barely tangible. Rest demands for the All Blacks’ key players may be impromptu rather than pre-planned too.
Last year, four of the five Kiwi franchises ended the regular season with 11 wins and odd ones out, the Blues, should improve in Tana Umaga’s second season at the helm. Back the Aucklanders’ ex-Sevens star Rieko Ioane to finish in the top three tryscorers and make a bold bid for the All Blacks squad.
Lions to win the regular season
2pts 9-2 Betway
Los Jaguares to win regular season
1pt each-way 22-1 Betway
R Ioane top regular-season tryscorer
1pt each-way 25-1 Betfair, Paddy Power