Sharks, Tahs best bet for title

The Waratahs will be the surprise package in this season’s Super Rugby and I have them, the Sharks and one of the Chiefs or Crusaders to be battling it out for champion status at the end of August, writes MARK KEOHANE.

The Sharks and Stormers look a class above the rest in South Africa. The Bulls are rebuilding, the Cheetahs will provide entertainment but aren’t strong enough to win the competition and the Lions will again be a misery.

It’s the same in every conference. New Zealand’s tournament challenge will come from defending champions the Chiefs and the Crusaders. The Blues will be hit and miss, the Hurricanes don’t have a tight five to be taken seriously and the Highlanders have a few wonderful individuals but as a team won’t last the pace.

In Australia, the Tahs and resurgent Reds are my pick as the front runners. I believe the Brumbies will struggle after Jake White’s departure and the Force and Rebels will be among the tournament donkeys along with the Lions and Highlanders.

The Chiefs have the squad to win a third successive title but it will take a massive mental effort for Liam Messam’s boys to back up the achievements of 2012 and 2013.

The Crusaders will always be a top six team but under Todd Blackadder they have never looked like winning the tournament. It is five years since the Crusaders won Super Rugby and if Blackadder fails again in 2014 it could open the door for Robbie Deans’ return.

The Blues best run-on XV looks good but there isn’t the depth to sustain a challenge. This was evident in the pre-season hammering against Tahs in Sydney.

The Reds in 2013 were ravaged because of injury. I am expecting them to show the championship form of 2011 when they won the title.

The Sharks and Stormers have the strongest squads among the South African teams but I don’t see the Stormers being good enough to win the tournament.

I like everything about the Sharks, but something tells me this could be the year of the Tahs

Every team that has won the tournament has had something special at halfback. The Stormers don’t have a halfback pairing that will dominate big games. Individually they have capable halfbacks but they don’t have world-class operators. It is a weakness, just as it was in 2013 and 2012.

The Bulls have lost too many experienced players to Europe. They may still be a headache at Loftus but on the road they won’t win much.

The Sharks, on paper, have a squad that rates as good as any top-four challenger, but then this is a tournament won over eight months and not on paper.

I like everything about the Sharks, but something tells me this could be the year of the Tahs. They’ve been Australian Super Rugby’s biggest under-achievers, but when they get it together, they have the best attacking game in the tournament. They need to get consistency into their play and also keep their primary match squad fit enough to last most of the tournament.

The competition will have a definite top eight and bottom seven two-tier feeling to it.

But I feel it in the bones that this is a year that New Zealand won’t dominate and that the competition winner will come from either Australia (Tahs) or South Africa (Sharks).

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