The year of the Sharks

MARK KEOHANE is picking the Sharks, Reds and Canes as the 2013 Super Rugby conference winners.

It may appear madness to pick a winner of the tournament in January because this expanded version means so much can change post the June internationals, but my money is on the Sharks to finally win the competition that has taunted and teased their supporters but never pleased them.

My pick is the Sharks to take the South African conference and have the crucial advantage of hosting teams in the play-offs. Home ground advantage is usually the recipe for title success, although the Sharks have proven to be the exception. In 2007 they hosted the Bulls and lost in the last minute. In last year’s Currie Cup final a youthful Western Province thumped the hosts.

That’s history.

John Plumtree’s picked the most balanced squad among South African teams and the Sharks, in squad depth, are the strongest in the competition.

Player management and rotation is the key to success in this tournament, as is starting and finishing well.

The Sharks have a good home draw and they will make it count.

The Stormers will also be in the top six, but the Bulls are going to have to improve dramatically in terms of consistency to make the play-offs. Realistically, and don’t forget they are my favourite team, I think the quality of squad depth and starting player is more a top-eight than a top-four squad. The Cheetahs will always be a favourite to entertain and will always have the capability to knock over a top-four team, especially in Bloemfontein, on a one-off but the player depth has never been there to seriously challenge for the play-offs. The Cheetahs select from Griquas and the Free State Currie Cup Cheetahs, and while Griquas always show promise in the Currie Cup many of those players limitations are exposed over the course of a competition that now is the most demanding in terms of longevity, intensity and travel in the world. The Kings, in their debut season, will do well to win three matches.

The post-World Cup blues suffered by many teams is not a factor this year and 2013 and 2014 are the years in-between World Cups when Super Rugby is a priority. In 2015 it is a preparation to the game’s biggest prize, the World Cup.

Jake White’s Brumbies were an unknown in 2012 and they surprised many. White did a fantastic job in restoring rugby union pride in Canberra, but the second-season syndrome is something he will be all too aware of, especially with the Reds in a healthier position in terms of player availability.

The Tahs can’t be as awful as they were a year ago although they too look a year away from a play-off. I see them more mid-table.

In New Zealand the heat will be on the Chiefs to show last year was not a one-hit wonder. They’re good enough to make the play-offs as defending champions but they don’t command the same presence among the backs with no Sonny Bill Williams to occupy the minds of the opposition. The New Zealand conference is the toughest of the three, but there won’t be a miracle in year one from Blues coach John Kirwan. There will be hope and improved performances but the Blues are a three-year project more than a first season sensation. They will be the worst performing of the New Zealand sides in terms of league points even if they will show enough to be applauded more than condemned.

The Crusaders will be contenders, more so on history than on current strength but Dan Carter alone among the backs and Kieran Read, leader of the pack in Richie McCaw’s absence through a sabbatical, lack the support in numbers to speak of the Crusaders in awe.

The Highlanders will be good, potentially the second best among the Kiwi teams, and the team to beat in New Zealand will be Conrad Smith’s Hurricanes.