Five storylines ahead of Super Rugby Pacific’s start including a repeat of 2023’s final

David Skippers
Super Rugby Pacific storylines RD 1 image 2024.jpg

The Chiefs and Crusaders, Moana Pasifika's new coach Tana Umaga and the Fijian Drua will all be in the spotlight this weekend.

The 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season is set to get underway and there are several entertaining encounters taking place this weekend.

Ahead of the opening round, Planet Rugby has selected five storylines to follow in the various clashes.

Repeat of 2023 final

All roads lead to FMG Waikato Stadium in Hamilton on Friday as this year’s Super Rugby Pacific action kicks off at the same venue of last year’s final with the same teams – the Chiefs and Crusaders – doing battle again.

The Crusaders managed to secure a 25-20 win on that occasion which was the perfect swansong for their head coach Scott Robertson, who subsequently took charge of the All Blacks after last year’s World Cup.

Rob Penney is the new man at the helm for the Crusaders and has big boots to fill as Robertson won seven Super Rugby titles during his stint in charge of the team.

Penney can expect a baptism of fire against the Chiefs, who have a shrewd coach in Clayton McMillan. Despite losing last year’s final, the 54-year-old guided the Chiefs to home and away wins over the Crusaders in 2023 and he will be eager to continue that trend this weekend.

New coaches in the spotlight

There has been plenty happening behind the scenes at the various franchises since last year’s tournament and several of the teams have appointed new head coaches, who will all be keen to hit the ground running.

It’s already been mentioned that Penney has a difficult job as the new All Blacks boss’ replacement at the Crusaders but joining Robertson’s backroom staff are two ex-Super Rugby head coaches in Leon MacDonald and Jason Holland, formerly of the Blues and Hurricanes.

They have been replaced by ex-Scotland and Fiji coach Vern Cotter and former New Zealand Sevens boss Clark Laidlaw respectively, who kick off their stints away to the Fijian Drua (Blues) on Saturday and at home against the Western Force (Hurricanes) on Friday.

Elsewhere, former London Irish coach Les Kiss has replaced Brad Thorn in the hot seat at the Reds and will have to make an immediate impact when his side host arch rivals the Waratahs in the last match of the round on Saturday, and just before that Tana Umaga’s reign as Moana Pasifika’s new boss starts in Dunedin against the Highlanders.

Julian Savea set to break try-scoring record

The former All Blacks superstar is on the brink of getting his name into the Super Rugby Pacific record books as he needs just one try to become the leading try-scorer in the tournament’s history.

The 33-year-old currently sits in joint top spot with former Waratahs and Wallabies full-back Israel Folau on 60 tries apiece but it’s only a matter of time before Savea breaks the record.

The Moana Pasifika signing will be hoping to do just that when he makes his debut for his new team against the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday.

Moana’s new boss Umaga has shifted the man better known as ‘The Bus’ to inside centre in a bid to get him closer to the action and that tactic might just do the trick as the behemoth flyer bids to break that elusive try-scoring record.

Rebels out to prove a point

The Melbourne-based franchise’s preparations for this season hit a massive snag after they entered voluntary administration last month and their future beyond this year looks grim unless the Victorian government or a huge sponsorship deal can come to their aid.

This, after Rugby Australia (RA) announced that they would only support the debt-laden side for the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific campaign and that they are in dialogue with Victoria’s state government about the Rebels’ future.

Adding to that, RA confirmed last week that 10 of the club’s staff members, including the chief executive Baden Stephenson, have lost their jobs.

That puts plenty of pressure on Rebels head coach Kevin Foote and his team but what better way to draw in possible sponsors than winning their matches on the playing field.

They kick off their campaign in Melbourne against the Brumbies on Friday and with Wallaby stars like Andrew Kellaway, Carter Gordon and Taniela Tupou in their matchday squad, they could notch that much-needed win and hopefully they can build on it for the rest of their campaign.

All eyes on the Fijian Drua

The Fijian Drua was the surprise package of the 2023 competition as they advanced to the quarter-finals after finishing the regular season in seventh position in the standings.

That represented significant improvement from them as they finished in 11th position during the previous season, which was also their inaugural campaign in the competition.

In 2023, the Drua became crowd favourites as they impressed with their enterprising style of play and caught some teams by surprise as they were competitive in the majority of their matches, with the highlight of their campaign being their Round Three victory over the defending champions, the Crusaders, in Lautoka.

Head coach Mick Byrne and his charges will be hoping to continue in a similar vein in 2024, with their biggest challenge being to improve in their away matches – something which they battled with in 2023. They have a great opportunity to do just that when they face the Blues at Semenoff Stadium in Whangarei on Saturday.

READ MORE: Five bold Super Rugby Pacific predictions including a shake-up in hierarchy and Fijian Drua