Bookmakers have all but written off the chances of Australian teams against their New Zealand counterparts when the new Super Rugby Trans-Tasman tournament kicks off on Friday.
The James O’Connor-led Reds enjoyed an incredible domestic Super Rugby AU season, losing just one from eight before a thrilling 19-16 come-from-behind win over the Brumbies in this past weekend’s final.
But they must step up to another level in the 10-team tournament, which pits Australian and New Zealand clubs against each other for the first time since the pandemic hastened the demise of the old Super Rugby competition which also featured teams from South Africa, Argentina and Japan.
Five teams from Australia and five from New Zealand will play each other over five weekends before a final on 19 June, after a quarantine-free travel corridor was opened between the two nations last month.
Whether the competition can get to the decider remains to be seen, with any new outbreaks of Covid-19 in Australia or New Zealand having the potential to disrupt the event.
The Crusaders, who secured a second Super Rugby Aotearoa crown in a row when they beat Chiefs 24-13 to win their domestic title this past weekend, are hot favourites and begin at home in Christchurch on Saturday against the Brumbies.
Codie Taylor will captain the side in his 100th game, with regular skipper Scott Barrett on the bench.
The Australian champion Reds have longer odds with bookmakers to win the tournament than any of the New Zealand sides, but coach Brad Thorn says his side will be up for the battle.
‘Styles make fights, they say in boxing, and ours goes well with theirs,’ Thorn said before the Reds’ opener against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday.
‘Learning how to win has been great but we’ve always been competitive with the New Zealand styles. We know we won’t be highly rated in New Zealand, but that’s our bread and butter.’
The Waratahs host Australia’s first match against the Hurricanes in Sydney on Friday.
They are desperate for a win after a horror domestic campaign where they crashed in every game. They face a Hurricanes side which won twice as they propped up the Super Rugby Aotearoa ladder.
Interim Waratahs coach Jason Gilmore admitted his side might struggle against the New Zealanders, but said writing off Australian teams could backfire.
‘If you’re the underdog going in, no one expects anything of you and it’s a perfect position for the Australian teams to come out swinging in those first couple of rounds,’ he told reporters.
The Melbourne Rebels meet the Auckland Blues in Melbourne and Perth’s Western Force take on the Waikato Chiefs in Perth to round out the weekend action.
Two law innovations used during the domestic tournaments have been carried over – goalline drop-outs and the ability to replace red-carded players after 20 minutes – both of which proved popular.
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