WELLINGTON, New Zealand, Feb 14 – The 2019 Super Rugby season kicks off on Friday when the Waikato Chiefs face the Otago Highlanders and the ACT Brumbies host the Melbourne Rebels. Here are five players to watch:
– Cooper’s Rebel yell –
After being cast into the Super Rugby wilderness by the Queensland Reds, mercurial fly-half Quade Cooper is aiming for a comeback with the Melbourne Rebels that will catapult him into World Cup contention.
The 30-year-old surprised many when he shrugged off the Reds rejection and knuckled down playing second-tier rugby last year, prompting Rebels coach Dave Wessels to throw him a lifeline.
Cooper will rekindle his partnership with former Reds half-back Will Genia in Melbourne and will hope they can also be reunited at international level in Japan later this year.
The Wallabies have struggled to find a playmaker since Cooper earned the last of his 70 Test caps in June 2017 and a strong showing for the Rebels would catch coach Michael Cheika’s eye.
– Red-hot Pari Pari –
Towering Otago Highlanders lock Pari Pari Parkinson’s development is being closely watched by All Blacks fans concerned that Brodie Retallick will depart after this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Standing 2.04 metres (6ft 7in) tall, the 22-year-old matches Retallick for height and at 128 kilogrammes (282 pounds) already outweighs the 75-Test All Black.
Size alone won’t make Parkinson a replacement for 2014 World Player of the Year Retallick but he’s shown enough in the domestic Mitre 10 Cup and with the Maori All Blacks to create a buzz.
Highlanders forwards coach Mark Hammett said Parkinson was strong, aggressive and possessed the “X-factor”.
“He’s a big man but he’s very athletic. He’s a really gifted athlete, particularly at lineout time, and the limbs are long as well,” Hammett said.
– Sunset for Sonny Bill? –
All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams has hinted his code-hopping career may end this year after a frustrating spate of injuries.
The 51-Test centre is already a double World Cup winner and his contract with The Auckland Blues and All Blacks expires after this year’s global showpiece in Japan.
A dual rugby league and rugby league international, Williamson has also won a Super Rugby title, two rugby league premierships from Australia’s NRL and seven heavyweight boxing bouts.
He complained this month about being “injury ravaged” and when asked if he may be entering his final season with the Blues replied: “It could be, bro, it could be.”
Williams has also revealed he is studying for his coaching certificate and backs numerous off-field charitable causes.
Winning a third World Cup and helping turn around the ailing Blues fortunes — or another injury — might be enough to persuade him to call time on a remarkable multi-sport career.
– Kolisi’s colossal load –
Few in Super Rugby will face greater scrutiny this year than Western Stormers captain Siya Kolisi as he prepares to become the first black player to lead the Springboks at a World Cup.
Kolisi admitted his form levels dropped after he was handed the captain’s armband midway through last year, even as he inspired a Springbok revival into genuine tournament contenders.
Former Springbok winger Bryan Habana said Kolisi’s leadership of a traditionally white-dominated team was hugely symbolic for South Africans.
“Under his guidance and through his story, this current crop of Springbok players know… they’re now a symbol of hope to this country,” he told CNN. “It’s more than just that jersey they wear. It’s the story they’re telling.”
It also means Kolisi’s every move — both on and off the field — will be intensely watched through the Super Rugby season.
– Marx brotherhood –
Hooker Malcolm Marx was the standout performer as the Golden Lions reached a third straight final last year, only to fall in the decider once again.
Marx not only led the competition in turnovers, he helped the Lions achieve a 90 percent lineout success rate and scored 12 tries into the bargain.
It resulted in Marx, still only 24, receiving a World Rugby Player of the Year nomination and being widely hailed as the best hooker in the game.
But after a slew of off-season departures, the Johannesburg-based franchise will need even more from Marx this year if they are to compete for silverware and end their agonising title duck.
He denied last year that the Lions had been left mentally scarred by their finals’ failures describing the team as a brotherhood.
“It’s hard to actually explain unless you’ve experienced it yourself,” he said.
“Everyone cares about each other, it’s not about the individual, but rather how we can help each other to perform as well as possible as a group.”