Who can stop the defending champions? Scott Robertson’s men were outstanding in 2017, losing just one match all season, as they secured their eighth Super Rugby title. They are the competition’s most successful side and, after nine barren years, the South Islanders finally added to their collection.
It will therefore be a case of ‘more of the same’ for the Christchurch-based outfit, who appear well set to match their performance from the previous campaign and retain the trophy. The quality is there in the playing staff, with the front-five all New Zealand quality, while they also have some exciting youngsters ready to burst on the scene this season.
Last year: It was almost the perfect campaign. 14 regular-season victories and just one loss – to the Hurricanes in the final round of matches – saw them go into the play-offs as favourites, despite the Lions residing at the top of the table.
Although the South Africans had a comparable record to the Crusaders, only succumbing to the Jaguares in mid-March, they had a much easier fixture list. Johan Ackermann’s men deserved their place in the final, however, after overcoming the ‘Canes in the last four, but they were powerless to prevent the New Zealanders from securing the title.
Robertson’s team were boosted by a red card for flanker Kwagga Smith but, although the hosts put up a spirited display and had the away side under pressure in the second half, the Christchurch outfit deserved their triumph.
This year: Not much has changed for the defending champions, with them expected to be among the front-runners once again. The Chiefs and Hurricanes, two of their first three opponents, will provide stern challenges to open the season, but they had no issue in dispatching their provincial rivals in 2017.
Motivation, having finally won their first title in a number of years, may be the only question surrounding the Crusaders but, with the South Islanders having a number of All Blacks in their ranks, it seems unlikely. Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg all remain remarkably driven and it will take an excellent team to overcome the eight-time Super Rugby winners.