Wellington – Springbok lock Lood de Jager expects “more brutal than usual” clashes to be at the core of the 2019 Super Rugby season, as it becomes a 21-week trial for the Rugby World Cup.
The 15-team, three-conference southern hemisphere franchise championship kicks off on Friday when the Chiefs host the Highlanders.
As the competition plays out through to the final on July 6, bubbling beneath the surface is an intriguing sub-plot.
Coaches must weigh the pressure to manage the workload of likely World Cup players, and the 2018 leading players cannot assume they will still be in demand when the World Cup starts in September.
“Reputations count for little in this context,” the Bulls lock De Jager told SARugbymag.co.za.
“How many times have we seen a young guy forcing his way into the national set-up and playing a big role at the World Cup? You just can’t take anything for granted.”
The local derbies in each conference are typically ferocious affairs but De Jager is relishing the fact they will be tougher than ever this year.
“They will be more brutal than usual in the lead-up to the World Cup. It will be like World Cup trials this season. I’m looking forward to it.”
The Crusaders, who play the Blues on Saturday, are bidding for a third successive title under coach Scott “Razor” Robertson, who has an impressive 34-3 record from two years with the All Blacks-laden side.
In 23 years of Super Rugby, the Crusaders have been victorious nine times and they are aiming for 10 with most of last year’s squad, with the notable absentee being the retired Wyatt Crockett.
But a need to ease the workload on their galaxy of stars – Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock will miss the first month – is one reason why the Crusaders have only once won the championship in a World Cup year, and that was back in 1999.
The Chiefs, with X-factor players Damian McKenzie and Brodie Retallick, will be without the inspirational Sam Cane for at least 12 weeks as he recovers from a serious neck injury, while the Hurricanes need to plug the gaps left by Brad Shields and Julian Savea.
The Blues have long been under-achievers and have pinned their hopes this year on replacing coach Tana Umaga with former long-serving Crusader Leon MacDonald, and uniting blockbuster midfield pair Sonny Bill Williams and 36-year-old Ma’a Nonu – who has returned after three years in France.
The Highlanders, who have relied on heroic defence to compensate for a lack of ball-winning ability, have beefed up their pack with the inclusion of the 2.04m, 128kg giant lock Pari Pari Parkinson.
The Lions, runners-up in the last three seasons, are again seen as the biggest threat from South Africa despite tight forwards Jacques van Rooyen, Ruan Dreyer and Franco Mostert heading to Europe.
But Sharks coach Robert du Preez summed up his frustrations after several modest seasons by saying that with the talent at his disposal “we are running out of excuses. We have to succeed this year”.
The Bulls have been bolstered by signing two old hands: 32-year-old back-row forward Duane Vermeulen and hooker Schalk Brits, 37.
The Waratahs rate as Australia’s brightest hope with Ashley Adam-Cooper and Karmichael Hunt joining Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau in a first-class backline.
The enigmatic Quade Cooper adds punch to the Melbourne Rebels after moving from the Reds, where he was frozen out last season by coach Brad Thorne.
The Jaguares, the Argentina Pumas under another name, have Gonzalo Quesada as new coach and a new captain in Jeronimo de la Fuente, but have lost backline general Nicolas Sanchez to Stade Francais.