Chiefs start well but big guns yet to fire
The Chiefs made an impressive start to the defence of their Super Rugby title but I'm going to stick my neck out now and predict they won't win the championship this year.
They will take a lot of heart out of travelling south to Dunedin with an under-manned side and disposing of the much-hyped Highlanders 41-27 in the season-opener.
But putting things into perspective, the win came against a Highlanders team missing some of the big names that have had so many people talking up the southerners' chances.
Man for man, the Highlanders still probably put out a better side though their loose forward trio was very poor. The Highlanders won't do well until they improve in this key area and they are really going to miss Adam Thomson, who has been the key to their solid efforts over the last couple of years.
But look at the Chiefs, who have had quite a high turnover in personnel since winning the title. I think the loss of Sonny Bill Williams and prop Sona Taumalolo will really hurt them. That's a lot of strikepower gone when you look at their contributions last season.
What the Chiefs do have is the best coaching outfit in New Zealand - and I include the All Blacks coaches on that list.
That coaching excellence will take them a long way, as we saw in this opening win, when victory came against general expectations. But I just can't see the Chiefs going all the way.
The way the New Zealand sides have played the opening weekend has been very encouraging and it's not hard to see that this is again going to be a very tough conference to win.
Overall there has been an increase in quality across the five Kiwi franchises. And the spread looks pretty even, although the Blues are in an obvious rebuilding phase and there's going to be plenty of interest in how they go given their extensive changes in coaches and players.
I'm not reading much into this first month of action. It will take a while for teams to settle into their rhythm and patterns to emerge, although points collected now will be just as important as at the business end of the round-robin so there is absolutely everything to play for.
But I'm disappointed to see so many players on the sidelines injured. It seems unfathomable to have players absent at this stage of the season. They have had a lot of time to get things sorted out since last year finished. It appears to be a classic case of teams over-training.
The stakes are so high, that the workloads have increased. These days, it seems that almost as many injuries come from training environments as on the playing fields.
In the end, it might be the team that can minimise their injuries best, will the side that comes out on top.
As tough as the New Zealand conference appears, little has changed across the Tasman, where the Australian division remains the weakest overall.
Once again, their conference winner is going to get an easier ride into the playoffs and that's a flaw of the system.
There's been a shuffling of the deck chairs across their teams and there will be huge pressure on the under-performing Waratahs to get their acts together under new coach Michael Cheika and with Israel Folau having so much promise but also the distraction of being a sideshow.
You can already mark the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels down as competition stragglers. But they won't be left with the wooden spoon. That dubious honour is sure to go to South African newcomers and political pawns, the Southern Kings.
They've had a poor pre-season where they have lost to teams from their domestic competition. They won't compete at this level and I'd suggest that preventing opposition sides scoring bonus point wins would be a moral victory to the Kings.
The Lions, the team tossed out to accommodate the Kings, have been cannibalised by some of the other outfits, but it looks like the usual three-way battle for honours in the republic among the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers.
- Taine Randell is a former All Blacks captain