By Jake Beleski
Can the Hurricanes go back-to-back?
With Super Rugby less than three weeks away, we’ve reached the time of year where everybody becomes a rugby expert, fantasising about their team lifting the trophy in August.
With that in mind, here are a few “certainties” you can count on.
The first is that no Australian team will make the playoffs, outside their guaranteed qualifier.
The conference system means they are assured of having at least one team in the playoffs, but that will be as good as it gets for our mates across the Tasman.
The New Zealand sides are too strong, and will take up the three wildcard playoff positions from the Australasian conference again this season.
Having five teams in the competition is diluting Australia’s talent to a ridiculous degree, and they would be better served going back to the three-team structure they had in the days of Super 12.
Another near-certainty is that one, and only one, team from the South African conference will ride a wave of momentum into the playoffs and provide a significant challenge for the title.
They are guaranteed three teams in the playoffs due to the way the conference system works, but only one will be a genuine contender.
Usually it would be the Bulls from Pretoria or the Sharks from Durban, but the Johannesburg-based Lions proved last year that they can match it with the competition’s elite.
You can’t underestimate the value of home advantage for South African sides, and a coaching blunder ahead of the Lions’ final round robin match last year cost them a golden opportunity to clinch their maiden title.
Needing a single point from their final match to secure top position for the playoffs, the Lions chose to rest their top players from the arduous trip to Argentina.
It backfired spectacularly and left them battling the Canes in horrendous weather in Wellington, instead of the comforts of a sun-drenched Ellis Park.
It was the single most important factor in the Canes’ run to the title, especially after the Lions had dealt them a 50-17 hiding in South Africa when they clashed earlier in the season.
The Canes are favourites to retain their title at betting agencies, and rightly so.
They have depth, talent, and a certain monkey off their backs after last season’s triumph.
Their main competition will come from the other New Zealand sides — specifically the Chiefs and Highlanders — as well as a yet to be confirmed South African side relying on home advantage to make a real go of it.
Can they go back-to-back?
Yes they can.