Super charged: Beauden Barrett set to shine, a big back-row battle and new law innovations

David Skippers
Super charged image Round One 2023.jpg

Making its return, we bring you Super charged, in which we preview the main talking points ahead of the start of the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season.

Games to watch

Crusaders v Chiefs

This year’s tournament gets underway in Christchurch where the defending champions, the Crusaders, go up against the Chiefs in what promises to be an entertaining showdown between two evenly-matched sides.

The Crusaders are the most successful outfit in the history of Super Rugby and the team’s players will head into this year’s competition highly motivated as they aim to give head coach Scott Robertson a good send-off in what is probably his last season in charge. Robertson is contracted in his current job until 2024, with an exit clause at the end of 2023, and is widely tipped to replace Ian Foster as the All Blacks’ head coach.

The men from Christchurch’s matches with the Chiefs are usually hard and uncompromising battles and the home side can prepare themselves for another tough encounter against the men from Hamilton, who impressed under the guidance of head coach Clayton McMillan last season. They gave a good account of themselves and were eventually knocked out of the competition by this weekend’s opponents, who were made to graft before clinching a 20-7 triumph.

One player who will be determined to do well in this fixture is All Blacks utility back Damian McKenzie, who returns to Super Rugby action for the visitors after missing last year’s competition as he was plying his trade with Japanese club Tokyo Sungoliath.

Waratahs v Brumbies

Across the Tasman Sea, there is plenty of interest this fixture in Sydney as it pits Australia’s two best-performing franchises from 2022 against each other in their season opener.

The Waratahs will be hoping to continue with their upward trajectory as they were arguably the most improved side in last year’s tournament. The Sydneysiders came into the 2022 season on a 13-match losing streak in Super Rugby but they did well to reach last year’s quarter-finals where they eventually lost to the Chiefs.

Meanwhile, the Brumbies have been Australia’s best performing side at Super Rugby level for several seasons now but this will be a watershed year for them as it will be the first time since 2018 that they will be without head coach Dan McKellar. He has been replaced by Brumbies legend Stephen Larkham, who will be under some pressure to maintain his new club’s high standards. They came desperately close to reaching last year’s final but suffered a narrow 20-19 loss to the Blues in their semi-final in Auckland.

Although the Waratahs will have home ground advantage, the men from Canberra will be the favourites as they have won their last nine Super Rugby matches against the Waratahs. However, with a new head coach in the visitors ranks, the ‘Tahs will be hoping to catch their opponents cold under a new regime in a bid to end their losing streak.

Player to watch – Beauden Barrett (Blues)

There were serious doubts in the Blues camp whether the All Blacks fly-half would be fit for their season opener against the Highlanders in Dunedin as he was battling illness just last week.

That ruled him out of the Auckland-based outfit’s final pre-season encounter against the Chiefs in Pukekohe, but the 31-year-old has made a full recovery and will be wearing the number 10 jersey at Forsyth Barr Stadium this weekend. Prior to that hit out against the Chiefs, most of the Blues’ All Black players were rested for their friendly against the Hurricanes in Auckland which means Barrett heads into the clash with the Highlanders without having played a pre-season match.

Blessed with an outstanding skill-set, he’ll have to hit the ground running as he will be expected to unleash the Blues’ dangerous outside backs with his playmaking ability, while also controlling proceedings with his game management. Barrett will be determined to shine this weekend and continue to impress as the season progresses as he is set to leave the Blues after the World Cup to ply his trade at Japanese club Toyota Verblitz.

One-v-one battle to watch – Harry Wilson (Reds) v Ardie Savea (Hurricanes)

A great battle awaits when these two classy number eights go up against each other in what should be a thrilling encounter at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on Saturday.

Hurricanes captain Savea has proven in recent years that he is one of the tournament’s best players as he sets a great example to his team-mates with his all-action style of play. Brilliant at the breakdowns, where usually wins his fair share of turnovers, an excellent ball carrier and solid in defence, the 29-year-old will – once again – be at the forefront of the Wellington-based franchise’s onslaught and don’t be surprised if he has a huge influence in the bigger scheme of things.

In Wilson, Savea faces a tough opponent who will be keen to impress new Australia head coach Eddie Jones after he was left out of the Wallabies’ squad for their 2022 end-of year tour to Europe. His exclusion was a surprising one as he was in fine form for the Reds in last year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition.

The 23-year-old made more carries (202), finished eight highest for offloads made (17) and 10th for metres gained (1036 metres) in the tournament. He also shone on defence as he made 158 tackles which was the ninth most for the season.

Subplot to watch – Introduction of new law innovations

A major talking point ahead of the kick off to this year’s Super Rugby Pacific tournament is the introduction of several law innovations which is hoped will speed up the game and make it more attractive to spectators.

Among the law innovations introduced are time restrictions on goal-kicks, set-pieces and rucks, as well as a streamlined TMO (television match official process). Referees are set to enforce time limits on the following: 90 seconds on conversions, 60 seconds for penalty kicks, 30 seconds for scrums and line-outs to be set, and five seconds for the ball to be used at rucks, while TMOs will only interrupt play for serious, clear and obvious incidents of foul play.

Over the years, Super Rugby has earned a reputation for being a fast-paced and entertaining competition so these latest innovations should increase the tournament’s entertainment value even more and it will be interesting to see how the players adapt to it.

Best of the rest

There are two other matches taking place this weekend.

On Saturday, at Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium, the tournament’s newest franchises, Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua, will do battle while the opening round’s action will come to a close later in the day at HBF Park in Perth where the Western Force are hosting the Melbourne Rebels.

Moana Pasifika and the Drua were the also-rans in last year’s competition with the Moana finish at the bottom of the standings while the Fijian outfit fared slightly better as they had to settle for 11th position. However, both sides are popular amongst spectators as they employ expansive game-plans so there should be plenty of end-to-end action when they face off this weekend.

Meanwhile, the Force will be eager to make a winning start under the guidance of their new head coach, Simon Cron, but they can expect a tough assignment against the Rebels as matches between these sides are usually tight affairs which go down to the wire.

READ MORE: Super Rugby Pacific: Seven players to watch including former England fly-half Freddie Burns