Super Rugby: The big question mark hanging over your team

Inside the Tahs (3:24)

ESPN goes inside the NSW Waratahs' intense preseason camp in the lead up to their 2019 Super Rugby campaign. (3:24)

The Super Rugby season got underway last weekend and there have already been a couple of upsets to shake things up early.

But what does your team need to conquer, or who are they sweating on to perform, to really figure in season 2019?

We look at the big question mark hanging over each of the 15 teams below.


Has Sonny Bill's body finally given up?

The memory of Sonny Bill offloading to Ma'a Nonu for a 60-metre try in the 2015 World Cup final must have Blues fans salivating about just what the veteran duo might be able to produce in the midfield this year. But there is one big concern, and it's not the returning Nonu at age 36. Nope, it is the superb human specimen that is Sonny Bill Williams and whether underneath all the muscle, is a body that has started to call it quits. Williams managed just five games for the Blues last season, and five further Tests, only one of which he managed to finish. It may just have been rotten luck, but it may also be that after putting his body through the rigours of the NRL, a bit-part boxing career, as well as Super, Japanese, European and Test rugby, the white flag is ready to go up.

Round 1 update: Williams came off the bench for the Blues in the 50th minute against the Crusaders, but didn't exactly assert himself on the contest. He will be better for the run, though, and will likely get the chance to start on the Blues' tour to South Africa and Argentina. TJ Faiane made a fine fist of things at No.12 against the Crusaders.


Can Brumbies pick up where they left off?

The Brumbies were all at sea in attack for much of last season, but something certainly seemed to click over the final few rounds. And with Christian Leali'ifano seemingly anointed as the club's No. 10 and captain, there should be no reason why they can't continue to execute in 2019. Leali'ifano clearly has an array of attacking talent to work with in the likes of Tevita Kuridrani, Tom Banks, Henry Speight and offseason addition Toni Pulu; but much will depend on the quality of platform his forwards lay up front. The Brumbies have a virtual Test-strength pack, headed by John Eales Medal winner David Pocock, though they will want more protection for the champion No. 7 than what was offered last year.

Round 1 update: The Brumbies will lament some simple errors from their loss against the Rebels, none more-so than a horrible Irae Simone kick that gifted Jack Maddocks his first try. They will also be cursing their luck as Pocock saw just five minutes of action after he suffered a match-ending head knock. Pulu, too, came off injured and looks set to miss an extended period of rugby.


Can Human resurrect lost Bulls as rookie coach?

For all their ability to score tries under John Mitchell last season, they were undone by flaws in their fundamentals and defensive structure and systems. Stats tell only a part of the tale, but the Bulls ranked poorly in key areas such as clean breaks (11th), carries (11th), defenders beaten (12th), tackles won (14th), offloads (13th), scrums won (14th) and rucks won (equal last); that's an awful lot of aspects of the game that need improvement under Pote Human, a first-time coach at this level and a second-choice appointment after Victor Matfield withdrew from the race. Still, if they can keep their best players on the paddock, they do have an upside.

Round 1 update: The Bulls answered this concern emphatically with a 40-3 victory over the Stormers, running in four tries among seven clean breaks. Keep an eye out for Rosco Speckman this season, the former Blitzboks flyer caused all sorts of defensive havoc at the weekend.


How much will the Chiefs miss Sam Cane?

Sidelined for at least the first few months of the competition, the Chiefs - and NZ Rugby on the whole - will be taking the softly-softly approach with the tireless No.7. Cane may prove a frustrated spectator, though, and do everything in his power to return as early as safely-possible, particularly given Ardie Savea's brilliant performances for the All Blacks in his absence. For the Chiefs, it's about plugging hole left by a man who topped the tackle and pilfer count, and was third behind fellow forwards Brodie Retallick and Liam Messam for ball-carries in 2018. Cane loves the exchanges in close, and the Chiefs will need someone to step up and take on a similar attitude until he returns to action.

Round 1 update: Would the Chiefs have given up separate 11- and seven-point leads against the Highlanders had Cane been on the field, the latter while up a man? He certainly would have steadied the ship, and made life tough for the Highlanders as they rolled up field to score the match-winner. Cane's leadership may be missed more than his tireless workrate.


Will World Cup rests derail hat-trick bid?

The Crusaders have an All Blacks pack, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said as much last year. The big problem that goes with that is, this year, they have to manage their rotations more so than ever, amid a later start for veterans Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock as well. How much will that affect their continuity, particularly when backs Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Richie Mo'unga, and possibly George Bridge, Israel Dagg and others also sit out? Scott Robertson has proven to have all the answers thus far, and is no doubt again ahead of the curve; but taking the Crusaders to a third straight Super Rugby title is easily his greatest challenge yet.

Round 1 update: Judging by their 24-22 win, the bookies are right to have installed the Crusaders as $3 competition favourites amid an interchanging squad. Any suggestions Roberton's future could also be a distraction have been banished, too, with the coach signing a two-year extension to remain in Christchurch.


How long will adjustment to Sopoaga's departure take?

After a prolonged run of Lima Sopoaga pulling the strings at No.10, the Highlanders enter 2019 with real uncertainty as to whom will play fly-half. They have the promising Bryn Gatland, Otago Mitre 10 Cup graduate Josh Ioane and former cult hero, Marty Banks. Each man offers a slightly-different skill set, giving coach Aaron Mauger flexibility in whatever way he decides he wants his team to play. But after such a long period with Sopoaga pulling the strings, and kicking goals, you've got to feel there will be an adjustment period; the now-Wasps No.10 seemed to have an almost sixth sense with Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo, at times.

Round 1 update: Ioane certainly looked solid enough last Friday, Mauger describing the rookie's performance as "outstanding".


Can Dane Coles get back to his best?

It's been a tough run for Dane Coles. Having missed much of 2017 with repeated concussion symptoms, he then picked up a knee injury against France in Paris, ruling him out for much of 2018, too. But he was at last back in the black jersey on last year's end-of-season tour, albeit as a deputy for the man he had helped nurture in the role, Codie Taylor. The Crusaders hooker has since gone on to establish himself alongside South Africa's Malcolm Marx as rugby's pre-eminent rakes, and set Coles the challenge of regaining the All Blacks No. 2 jersey. That will start in Super Rugby where he will be desperate to reprise the free-running skills and solid set-piece that were his hallmark. His leadership in a talented, but youthful, Hurricanes pack will also be pivotal.

Round 1 update: Coles came off the bench early in the second half of the Hurricanes' one-point win over the Waratahs, the hooker hitting his targets at lineout time and getting through a decent amount of defensive work. There were no signs of the wide-ranging Coles, looking for a chance to skip down the sideline, though.


Who will provide spark in Sanchez's absence?

Expectations will be high in Argentina having made the playoffs for the first time last season, but the loss of coach Mario Ledesma to the Pumas Test team, and of Nicolas Sanchez to Stade Francais, are causes for concern. Indeed, for all the questions about their game plan and ability to execute in the red zone, the biggest question concerns the ability of Joaquín Díaz Bonilla, Santiago González Iglesias and / or Domingo Miotti to replace the team's star playmaker; the Jaguares could struggle if this question is not resolved adequately. They'll also need to find answers when their opponents stop the pick and drive in the red zone.

Round 1 update: Joaquin Diaz Bonilla had a solid enough outing in the 25-16 loss to Lions, though the Jaguares offered little in attack despite dominating both possession and territory.


Can Lions evolve to go one better?

The Lions have developed a wonderful attacking brand of rugby under Johan Ackerman and then Swys de Bruin, to become likely every invested fan's second-favourite team (if not the Jaguares); but, ultimately, it has not been a title-winning brand of rugby. They have weapons -- notably Malcolm Marx at the breakdown and marshalling their all-but-unstoppable driving maul; Andries Coetzee's strike running; an excellent lineout featuring multiple options - but do they have the ability to execute a more rounded game plan? For all that they offer plenty, they can be as one-dimensional in their play as the least adventurous teams, and that means rivals can work out where best to pressure them. Without advocating facsimile rugby, it's hard to see them winning the title unless they add at least a little more pragmatism to their attacking approach -- including, perhaps, the willingness to kick more from hand in order to play more easily and more often in their opponents' territory under the whitest-hot pressure of finals. They must also cover the loss of Franco Mostert.

Round 1 update: It was by no means a pretty win in Buenos Aires, but de Bruin could have asked for little more from his side in their nine-point win over the Jaguares. It was largely route-one rugby, but when combinations are rusty at this time of year it is often the best plan to execute. Look for more in the Lions' game moving forward.


Can Rebels settle into Quade's quirky style?

At his best, Quade Cooper is a one-man highlight reel. But at his worst, he's player prone to brain explosions who creates more trouble for his own team than the opposition. Just what form Cooper takes on in Melbourne remains to be seen but, crucially, he looks to have the blessing of coach Dave Wessels to be himself. When ESPN visited Rebels camp a week out from kick-off it was obvious how content Cooper appeared in his new digs and how excited he was to be working with a bunch of youngsters, many of whom would recall his 2011 season at the Reds with fondness. But just how they go in running onto no-look inside passes, stay alive when the easy option is to switch to the next phase and respond to his own unique brand of communication will be the key to this team nailing its first ever finals berth.

Round 1 update: Playing hard up at the gainline, Wessels couldn't have asked for a better outing than what his side produced in Canberra last Friday. Both the backs and forwards seemed to be on the same page, and Billy Meakes looked like a new player alongside Cooper. Meakes is held in high regard in many quarters, but he may finally have the opportunity to show the extent of his talents while playing outside Cooper.


Have Reds got the attacking weapons to climb up ladder?

In Brad Thorn's first season in charge, the Reds showed they had plenty of grit and determination in registering six wins. But with just 389 points to their name, they certainly struggled to score points and break down opposition defences. So what will be different this year, then? Thorn will want to get boom winger Jordan Petaia as much ball as possible while skipper Samu Kerevi is a proven line-breaker at Super Rugby level. Recruited from the Rebels, Sefa Naivalu will also offer some attacking threat out wide while Bryce Hegarty can serve as a second playmaker, should Thorn decide to start him at fullback. But much of the pressure will sit on the shoulders of Hamish Stewart, and whether the 20-year-old can step up and take charge. If not, the Reds are likely to have to rely on the two-metre power drives from Taniela Tupou for tries, and that won't be enough to trouble the competition's best teams.

Round 1 update: N/A


Where will Sharks' X-factor emerge from?

The Sharks potentially have more upside than any other team in the conference, even though they're lacking a genuine star performer. They'll be more dangerous, and likely score more tries -- Luckanyo Am was their top scorer last season with just five -- if they can reduce the simple errors and improve even marginally their set-pieces; that's not a big ask - or a big expectation. And in Aphelele Fassi, a product of Dale College in King Williamstown, like Aphiwe Dyantyi, they may have their missing X-Factor match-winner in the making.

Round 1 update: Fassi may have failed to cross the line against the Sunwolves, but both Sibusiso Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi picked up five-pointers in the 35-point win. Sure, it came against the competition's easybeats, but it certainly gives the Sharks a shot of confidence that their attack may be on the up in 2019.


Will civil unrest continue to be an issue?

They have the spine of a good side, including world class locking duo Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth, Springboks captain Siya Kolisi in the back-row, and exciting young playmaker Damian Willemse and centre Damian de Allende among the backs. But that was true also last year, apart from Etzebeth, who missed the campaign with a shoulder injury, when they were horrible in most every facet of the game. There were reports, through the campaign and in the offseason, of disarray among the coaches, and WP Rugby has confirmed that a meeting recently took place between senior management and players to "ensure that the Stormers and team management have the best chance of success in the 2019 season and beyond". They players are said to be "fed up", and the off-field situation is the biggest question mark for the Stormers; it's hard to envisage any kind of success for this squad, and next to impossible if the coaching situation continues to rumble.

Round 1 update: Disgraced in Pretoria, things have gone from bad to worse for the Stormers. While coach Robbie Fleck put the 40-3 defeat down to an "off day", it's clear all is not well within the Stormers camp.


Do they add enough to stay relevant amid competition uncertainty?

Missing the majority of their Test core who are sidelined for the first six weeks of the competition, the answer to this question seems obvious. At the moment, the Sunwolves squad looks little more than a final landing spot for some honest Super Rugby toilers spluttered among a handful of Japanese players. The uneasy ecosystem that sits between the Brave Blossoms, the Japanese Top League clubs and the Sunwolves may yet lead SANZAAR to decide that the future of Super Rugby doesn't include an Asian presence, despite teams like the Waratahs and Rebels already embracing the region through sponsorship or strategic alliances. All the Sunwolves players can do is turn up each week and give a performance that shows they deserve to be included.

Round 1 update: Such a performance didn't eventuate in Singapore as the Sunwolves were thumped 45-10 by the Sharks. Back in Tokyo this week, a wounded Waratahs, with Kurtley Beale restored to the starting side, are not a team the Sunwolves would want to be facing.


Will defensive efforts improve?

NSW certainly have plenty of points in them, but they were prone to sliding in and out of defensive sequences in 2018. The Waratahs conceded the most points of any team to make the playoffs last season, but it was the ease at which they conceded that has coach Daryl Gibson demanding more committed efforts in 2019. The 2014 champions will be bolstered by the return of Jack Dempsey and Gibson has added defensive starch to his backline in the addition of Karmichael Hunt. But it will require improvement across the board if the Waratahs are going to have the defensive steel to match their attacking arsenal.

Round 1 update: The Waratahs may have recorded a credible 84 percent tackle rate in their one-point loss to the Hurricanes but it was the ease at which the visitors scored their two tries that suggest nothing has changed since last year. Ardie Savea's first-half try was borne out of little more than fight and desire while DuPlessis Kirifi caught the Waratahs napping when he peeled away to score the match winner from close range. Worrying signs.