First, lets have a look at how the teams finished last year. In the table below, we've used a pythagorean winning % formula to determine how many wins each franchise "should" have won last year. The pythagorean formula uses a teams for and against statistics to generate an expected number of wins.
The Crusaders were the class of last years competition, and were possibly unlucky to win only 11 of their 13 matches! Looking at expected wins, the Hurricanes and Blues at the top end could be considered unlucky. Toward the lower end of the table, Reds and Cheetahs fans can maybe expect some improvement as they were also quite unlucky.
The outliers in terms of lucky teams were the Force and to a lesser extent the Sharks and Chiefs.
Looking at last years expected totals gives us a "leg up" on other punters. However we also need to consider the events of the last offseason before we lay down some serious $$$!
Let's start with the Crusaders:
Key Losses: Greg Somerville, Reuben Thorne, Ali Williams, Mose Tuiali'i, Scott Hamilton, Caleb Ralph.
The Crusaders will as always replenish their playing stocks from within, and over time the transition will be seamless. Add Dan Carter and coach Deans to that experienced playing core and the $4.50 is extremely tight.
The first two weeks have seen a decidedly uninspiring look about the Crusaders, eking out a narrow win against the Chiefs and a narrow away loss to the Brumbies. The Crusaders were light on personnel against the Brumbies, missing McCaw, Thorn and MacDonald so that result probably tells us more about the Brumbies than it does about the Crusaders.
Key Losses: BJ Botha, Frederic Michalak
Key Gains: Internal...
Botha is a loss that the Sharks can handle, given the depth inherent in the South African frontrow ranks. The Michalak experiment is thankfully over. Were a 9 win team last year and have a deep squad that should win 9-10 games again. Combine excellent players in the halves (Steyn, Kockott) with a deep backrow and solid scrum.
The first two weeks have seen good solid wins against the Stormers and Lions. Two teams that could be much improved this year. A tough four week road trip awaits with the Chiefs, Blues, Reds and Force on tap. Winning 3 of these games would frank the Sharks as deserved competition favourites.
Key Losses: Jimmy Gopperth, Jerry Collins
Our pythag calculations peg the 'canes as a team that could easily improve with some even luck this year. Losing the under-appreciated Jimmy Gopperth and the steadying presence of Jerry Collins is an issue, however noises out of Wellington are that Dan Kirkpatrick was more than ready to fill Gops' shoes (hence the decision to let Gop walk).
The issue as always in Wellington will be consistency. And the first two weeks have shown anything but. A last gasp win against Otago and dropping their home opener against the Waratahs demonstrates why you should never back the Canes. The schedule suggests that a round three loss to the Crusaders could make things very difficult going forward. The $7.50 is under what you should want right now.
Key Losses: Dan Vickerman, Rocky Elsom, David Lyons, Josh Valentine
Key Gains: Scott Fava
One of the limitations of the pythag calculations is that they don't necessarily reward teams for consistency. The Waratahs were perhaps the most consistent franchise in last years competition built on their league leading defense.
What is clearly superior about this version of the Waratahs is their scrummaging. Perhaps the weakest scrummaging unit in years past has evolved to be amongst the leagues best.
The problems: 1) Depth. Benn Robinson has no place playing 80 minutes two weeks running. Phil Waugh is a 60 minute player playing 80 minutes.
2) The style of football that is being played by Lote Tuqiri is one that he is just awful at. The Waratahs didn't spend the GDP of Andorra on this guy to dink around. Lote Tuqiri needs to spend a long time watching videos of this guy.
3) Kurtley Beale is not a Super 14 number 10. I'll write a whole post on why at some point.
The Waratahs can make the finals this year, no doubt. By the time they roll around, Matt Dunning should be back on deck to take some of the load off of big Benn. What good that's going to be if the man can barely move by then is another story.
With home games against the Highlanders and Reds and a trip to Canberra in their next three weeks, there is no reason why the Tahs can't start 5-0 and let the rest of the field do the chasing.
That's a lot to digest, I'll cover the next group a little later.