After months of planning and COVID-19 setbacks, Super Rugby Trans-Tasman is finally here. Last weekend we were treated to two thrilling Super Rugby finals in Australia and New Zealand, further building excitement for what should be a truly explosive competition. But where does each side rank?
Across the five weeks, ESPN will rank all 10 teams, from top to bottom, taking into account which teams are playing the best rugby, injuries, each team's recent opponents, and which teams are looking most like title contenders.
There's almost no need to explain the decision to put the Crusaders top. One of the best club sides in the world - if not the best - the Crusaders have claimed five Super Rugby titles in a row, including back-to-back Super Rugby Aotearoa championships. Despite a few uncharacteristic losses during the regular Aotearoa season, there should be no underestimating the side from Christchurch as they look to add another trophy to their cabinet.
2. Queensland Reds
The form team in Australia, the Reds have the power up front as well, as the skill and attacking weapons out wide, to take it all the way in the Trans-Tasman competition. While the loss of powerful Hunter Paisami in the centres for the opening rounds of the competition is sure to hurt them, the young stars in the side are more than capable of stepping up and filling in the void. Dropping just one regular season match this year and claiming the 2021 Super Rugby AU title, the Reds have taken their game to another level and no doubt will be in the hunt for the Trans-Tasman title.
There was so much promise after last year's breakthrough season, but it appears bad habits of old have crept back into their game in 2021 and they suffered for it, missing out on a Super Rugby Aotearoa finals place. So far it's been a pretty disappointing season for the Blues with more than enough talent in the side to see them climb to the top, yet they dropped four out of five games midway through the season and only just closed out their campaign with a win over an under-strength Chiefs. They still have enough ability to climb towards the top of the Trans-Tasman ladder if they put together repeat efforts, though.
For a second year the Brumbies have reached the Super Rugby AU final, however, this year they didn't come home with the chocolates. Still one of Australia's form sides, they haven't quite reached the peaks of their 2020 season, but that isn't to take away from their achievements in 2021. Their performances have been slick and they've earned several big victories, but they'll need to maintain composure to face the tests from across the ditch.
After losing every match in 2020, the Chiefs have made an incredible turnaround to reach the Super Rugby Aotearoa final and place themselves as one of the top teams in New Zealand. It wasn't all sunshine and daisies however, with the side dropping their opening two matches of the season before they began to find their rhythm. To reach the finals though, they relied on some Damien McKenzie kicking heroics as well as his attacking acumen to get over the line. They pushed the Crusaders in the final, but the toll of that physical performance, as well as the second half of the regular season, has seen them drop down the list.
6. Western Force
In a similar vein to the Chiefs, the Force went winless through 2020 but found a way to turn it around this year, securing four wins and a place in the Super Rugby AU preliminary final. Although they fell short at the penultimate hurdle, they've proved themselves an impressive side with the right mix of experience and youth helping them build towards the future. Middle of the road may be a harsh description of the side, but that's likely where they'll find themselves. That aside, they'll no doubt keep a couple of teams on their toes.
It may seem an odd decision to have the Hurricanes ranked higher than the Highlanders, despite the team finishing at the bottom of the Aotearoa table, but their last few games have shown flashes of a team that could give this trans-Tasman competition a crack. Can they win the whole thing? Unlikely. But they'll no doubt give some Aussie teams a run for their money. Their two heartbreaking defeats to the Chiefs and Crusaders, and their entertaining win over the Highlanders to finish the Aotearoa season, alone demonstrate the excitement they can bring to the competition.
The Highlanders came away from Super Rugby Aotearoa with a pass mark after they finished fourth on the table with just three wins. Injuries played a huge role in their inconsistent season with eight players suffering season-ending injuries, but they showed flashes of class, including an impressive 33-12 victory over the Crusaders. The reason they've fallen so far down the list, however, is their lack of consistency, after they won just one game in their final three appearances.
9. Melbourne Rebels
It's been another season of disappointment for the Rebels. Full of promise and high expectations, they failed to reach the Super Rugby AU preliminary final and never really made their mark on the 2021 season. It took until Round 3 for them to get their first win, with their season ending with just three victories to their name. With coach Dave Wessels choosing to step down ahead of the Trans-Tasman competition, don't expect the Rebels to make many significant upwards movement by the end of the regular season.
10. NSW Waratahs
It's no surprise the Waratahs have found themselves on the bottom of the list. Winless so far in 2021, they've struggled to find rhythm and their lack of depth has truly hurt them. They head into Trans-Tasman with just one goal in mind - win a match - but even that could take them until the final clash of the competition. Sacking their coach halfway through the season and relying on inexperienced talent to pull them through, it could be a long five weeks for the Tahs and their fans.