<
>

Round 2: Thorn's grace period is over; Hurricanes with nothing to lose

play
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 cobwebs blown out, Super Rugby teams will be looking for improvements across the board when Round 2 gets underway from Friday evening.

The action begins under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium and continues with a Saturday triple header from Tokyo.

Squad lists can be found here.

Read on as we preview some of the big storylines from Round 2.

AUSTRALIAN CONFERENCE

Rebuild done, Reds can have no excuses

Brad Thorn got everything he possibly could have out of Queensland Reds last season.

After casting aside Quade Cooper and Karmichael Hunt, losing James Slipper to a drug suspension amid injury and mental health concerns, and watching the remaining Wallabies in his squad, Taniela Tupou, Samu Kerevi and Scott Higginbotham all have their seasons curtailed by injury or confusing SANZAAR judiciary hearings, it's a wonder the Reds had any success at all.

But Thorn's men instead cobbled together six wins when four probably would have been deemed par; Queensland played with determination, a scrum to rival any other from the competition and also offered a glimpse into a generation-next, see Hamish Stewart and Jordan Petaia, players who could take the Union nearer the penthouse than the outhouse.

It was a season to re-establish the foundations of the once-mighty Reds, and officials, players and fans alike all understood there would be some bumps along the way.

Twelve months on, those club pillars should be rock solid. The good graces extended the Reds, however, are gone. The goal has to be a first finals appearance since 2013, just as it is for the three other Australian franchises.

Challenges don't come much tougher however than a trip to the fortress that Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium has become for the Highlanders. Having had the Round 1 bye, the Reds have to hit the ground running against a side coming off a first-up win on the road, and one whom they haven't beaten in Dunedin since 2013.

All eyes will be on the visitors' ability to create attacking opportunities, that responsibility falling on the shoulders of promising fly-half Hamish Stewart. The Reds playmaker, and scrum-half Moses Sorovi, must find a way to get Kerevi, Petaia, Chris Feauai-Sautia and Rebels recruit Sefa Naivalu into clean air; the Reds last year were the only side to average fewer than 10 clean breaks a game and also averaged the fewest metres (388) of any team per match.

It is a huge challenge for a side playing its first proper game of the season and one where youth is in far greater supply than experience.

But having chartered the rocky waters last year, they should understand that the rosy outlook their 6-9 season was polished with extends no further.

There are no excuses for the Reds not to perform in 2019, and Thorn surely knows it.

NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE

Newly 'rugged' Canes have little to lose in Christchurch

They may think themselves a tad fortunate due to horrible penalty miss from Bernard Foley, but there was still a lot to like in the Hurricanes' 20-19 victory over the Waratahs in Sydney last week.

In a typically dour opening round encounter, high on mistakes and the whistle of referee Angus Gardner, the Hurricanes simply were prepared to fight harder and longer than the Waratahs, and were able to execute when it mattered.

When the Waratahs turned the ball over close to their own line, the Hurricanes were gifted an opportunity to regain the lead. Having cost his side a five-pointer only a few minutes earlier, Du'Plessis Kirifi peeled away from a rolling maul and powered past Michael Hooper and Foley to score.

It certainly wasn't pretty and a long way from some of the brilliant tries the Canes have scored in recent seasons, but it's exactly the kind of play they need to make a habit of executing in 2019 as they seek to topple the Crusaders in the New Zealand conference.

Everyone knows the Hurricanes can score points from anywhere. But have they got the commitment, focus and drive to execute when space is at a premium and handling is tough? And what better way to find out than by facing a Crusaders side who are the masters of doing just that, while the Hurricanes themselves are down a swathe of top-drawer talent?

When John Plumtree was coach of the Sharks between 2008 and 2012, there were few harder teams in Super Rugby. They ultimately failed to lift the trophy, but no team came away from Durban thinking what a wonderful experience it had been. If last week is anything to go by, he may be moving the Hurricanes in a similar direction.

Beauden Barrett, who misses this game through concussion protocols, will come back and no doubt again set the competition alight. But on Saturday the Hurricanes, who are also missing the in-form Ardie Savea, have the opportunity to prove last week was no fluke; that they are indeed fully prepared to do the unglamorous work up front; showing the kind of fight they missed during a slippery semifinal defeat in Christchurch last season.

Two wins on the road would be a huge start to the season, better still that they will have come against two competition heavyweights and secured without their two-time World Rugby Player of the Year.

SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE

Stormers' season already nearing 'critical' stage

The Stormers could not have made a worse start to Super Rugby 2019.

They had displayed "something" against the Bulls in their fixture on Marvel Super Hero Sunday, and then pleased those who were there to be pleased in dismissing Boland in their final preseason fixture, in Wellington, but they were simply appalling at Loftus Versfeld in Round 1. They played against the Bulls last week as if they had never got off the team bus that had been delayed by traffic en route to Loftus Verfeld.

"It was not an ideal warm up," Stormers fullback Dillyn Leyds said this week of the delay that had caused a 20-minute to kick-off. "It was a case of a couple of leg stretches and then a few sprints and then we had to play. It was like I imagine it would have been in the 1970s."

So the Stormers can reasonably be excused for a slow start, and the effect of which was multiplied when the Bulls raced out of the blocks. The absence of Springboks Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff from the starting line-up, and of captain Siya Kolisi after 27 minutes, having failed a head injury assessment, also were mitigating factors. But they still had a decent side on paper, and they failed to match the Bulls in any single facet of the game. The manner of defeat -- the lack of spark, of ever looking likely to score a try -- was debilitating even for neutrals.

Stormers coach Robbie Fleck entered the season under pressure, with his team having finished fourth in the South African conference last year, when they failed to win a single game away from Newlands, and with rumours of disharmony at the franchise. Perhaps Fleck was right to dismiss the performance as an "off day" -- there really was little more he could (or should) say in public, and certainly he was at pains to praise the Bulls -- but the television footage of him in the Stormers coaching box, looking beaten and bereft of ideas midway through the first half, is likely to remain among the most haunting images of the season.

So, can it getter better for the Stormers, for whom Kitshoff is still definitely out and Etzebeth is unlikely to return?

Leyds said this week that the players had endured "a tough Monday, we had a couple of meetings, there were some honest words said", but now they host the Lions, who returned to South Africa buoyed by their first victory in Buenos Aires over the team that had been perceived to be their biggest rivals for the conference title, the Jaguares.

The Lions were professional rather than spectacular in Argentina, but that in itself is cause for celebration in Johannesburg as they had added a kicking game to their all-out, ball-in-hand, spread-it-wide attack that could at times be predictable to defend. And of course, they still have a tremendous lineout, a solid scrum and a wrecking-ball maul. They have spoken of expecting a Stormers backlash, and they won't be "over-confident" in Cape Town as they escaped last year with a barely deserved victory against rivals who had been poor the week before (losing to the Sunwolves), but they must know that a another performance similar to that in Argentina is most likely to see them head back to Jozi with another bonus-point victory.

So what then for the Stormers?

They next play the Sharks away before a bye, a home fixture against the Jaguares and their four-match tour of Australia and New Zealand; that's not a friendly list for a team that has not won away in Super Rugby since 2017. It's unfair to say this fixture against the Lions is must win, for surely no-one but the most ardent Stormers fan believes they are finals candidates, but they must produce a performance that engenders pride -- if not a result -- if the season -- and maybe the Newlands faithful -- is not to start slipping away.