Unfortunately in rugby this is only a hypothetical question.

These teams will not play each other unless the global season changes a lot. But that’s no fun, so let us take a look at the contenders anyway!

Crusaders

The Crusaders are Super Rugby champions and the most successful side in the competition’s history. Emerging from some relatively lean times they regained the Super Rugby title this year.

With Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Joe Moody, Cody Taylor, Matt Todd, Luke Romano, Wyatt Crockett and Scott Barrett, they have a full All Black pack. As a result, their set-piece is outstanding. In Richie Mo’unga they have a good goalkicker and the best defence in the southern hemisphere. This is a Kiwi team though, so they also have playmakers like Jack Goodhue and Ryan Crotty, and a back three of the calibre of Seta Tamanivalu, Israel Dagg and David Havili.

They are smartly coached by Scott Robertson and certainly have a strong claim to the Number 1 spot.

The 1014 were lucky enough to speak to Scott Roberston after he guided the Crusaders to the Super title, if you haven’t seen it then it is highly recommended.

Saracens

Saracens are double European champions and also won the Premiership title in 2016. They have six Lions from the recent tour of New Zealand (if you include Billy Vunipola, who was originally selected, but withdrew due to injury).

Saracens have World XV contenders in several positions, especially the pack. They have perhaps the most impressive defence outside the international game. Their set piece is world class. Owen Farrell is one of the world’s best goalkickers and they have arguably the best box kicker in the business in Richard Wigglesworth. They have all the tools to squeeze the life out of teams.

But Saracens are not a one-dimensional team. They score tries for fun, with a back three of Sean Maitland, Liam Williams and Alex Goode proving lethal this year. With game breakers like Schalk Britz and Alex Lozowski on the bench, Saracens often kick on late in the game too. Coached by the outstanding Mark McCall, if anyone can go toe to toe with the Crusaders, surely it is this team.

World Player of the Year nominee Maro Itoje
Photo Michael Paler

The Hurricanes

The Hurricanes failed to defend their Super Rugby title last year, however, they retained the best attack in the competition, scoring a record 596 points and 89 tries in 2017.

Any backline containing the likes of TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea, Jordie Barrett, Nehe Milner Skudder and Vince Aso is truly frightening. The team has stars in the pack too, featuring Dane Coles, Vaea Fifita and Ardie Savea.

Coached by Chris Boyd, they are perhaps the only side who can challenge Saracens and the Crusaders for star power all across the team.

Don’t miss the following inteview with Hurricanes CEO Avan Lee. There is some genuine insight into what makes one of the top sides in the world tick.

Exeter Chiefs

Exeter Chiefs are still a hugely underrated team. The reigning English champions are top of the Premiership again this season. They have already beaten Glasgow at home and Montpellier away this year in Europe.

Exeter have incredible depth and team spirit, although they lack the star names of a team like the Hurricanes. They are an expansive team with a tight defence. Gareth Steenson is an excellent goalkicker, and they have playmakers like Ollie Devoto and Henry Slade. A back three including the likes of Jack Nowell, Ollie Woodburn and James Short will score tries. They keep the ball better than anyone around. They have a fantastic set piece and whenever they get into the 22 they seem to score a try.

Coached by Rob Baxter, it is difficult to recall a single player who failed to improve after joining them.

Honourable mentions

Honourable mentions also go to reigning Pro14 champions Scarlets, double Super Rugby finalists the Lions, and reigning Top14 champions Clermont. Anyone who sees La Rochelle play can make a case for them, and star-studded teams Leinster, Montpellier, Toulon, the Chiefs and the Highlanders also miss out.

The Verdict?

My choice is Saracens. I think they have a more rounded game than the other sides. They have won more trophies recently than the other sides on this list. They are perhaps in a later stage of their development as a team. I wouldn’t like to put money on it though!

Photos: www.photosport.nz

Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!

39 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Daniel great article.
    This is such a subjective topic. At club level there is a certain amount of tribalism. So if you asked anyone who they thought was the best it would be based on their childhood, family choices, and so many other factors not even related to skill.
    Of the 4 you mentioned I would choose the Crusaders, not only are they good at Super Rugby but their feeder systems are excellent from Mitre Cup and other age groups.
    But like my first point I will always believe the Bulls are the best regardless of the results.

    • Hi Donovan, thanks for the compliment! I am a Leicester Tigers fan, I wouldn’t put us up there in this company right now but if you asked me in the early 2000’s I would have said #1 for sure! The Crusaders certainly have a great case. I guess the closest we will come to finding out is the Lions team that beat them and was full of Saracens, but that’s not a fair way to judge. I just think it’s a great topic for discussion, unlike international rugby where it’s usually pretty clear.

    • Hi JD, it’s such a shame we will never know. A Sarries v ‘Saders game would sell out in a heartbeat! England v New Zealand is looking like a closer call than it was before the Lions Series though 🙂

      • Hi Daniel, yes it’s so sad that the wages arms race has made everyone so desperate for money that the calendar is full of the mundane, leaving no room for the special. A good example is the call to shorten Lions tours, another is the tired players on end of season tours.

  2. Great read Daniel. It is hard to avoid parochialism and be subjective about this. I could make a strong argument for all of these teams, But i would only do it for the canes. 😉

    It would be great to see a club champs, internationally speaking; its hard to see how that might orks logistically. Maybe a one off game to see how it goes?

    • Hi Joseph, thanks for the comment! I would love a game like that, I am a big fan of the Rugby League version. Canes have always been such a great team to watch, you are lucky to support them.

      • Oh yeah, those league games were great!

        regarding the hurricanes, it has just become good. For the previously 20 odd years we had all the fire power and talent but only seemed to perform when finals were no longer an option.So while we are ‘making hay’ right now there have been some disappointing years.
        Still, you don’t switch clubs inside a country. If i moved to auckland would i support the Blues? No.

  3. The Premiership is a farce. For up to six games out of 22, Saracens can be stripped of up to eight Lions and three or four current internationals. Teams like Gloucester say they have beaten Saracens ; they haven’t.
    They have only beaten a shadow side
    .

    • Hi P, I guess that’s the point Premiership rugby are making in the whole debate over extending the season. It’s a tough one. At least we get the playoffs so there’s no doubt about the rightful champions.

      • Hi Daniel,

        I’m not sure that was the case this year. Sarries only finished 3rd in the round robin this year, due mainly to poor performances in the international windows. They also played the European final a week before the Premiership semi.

        All of this meant they had to travel to play a rested Exeter at a time when they would have been exhausted. Exeter only beat them with a very late try. Admirable though they are in that unlike Sarries they haven’t relied on deficit spending, I’m not sure that Exeter would have won under other circumstances.

        • Hi JD, that’s a fair point, although Sarries were able to win the year before in exactly the same circumstances. I really do rate Exeter though, and they beat Saracens at Allianz Park today when both teams were understrength. I do sympathize with Premiership rugby when they want to try and rearrange the season to avoid these clashes. It’s an even bigger problem in the Pro14, Ospreys (missing 10) were hammered by Glasgow (missing 14) today too.

          • Hi Daniel, I love the Exeter fans and the atmosphere at Sandy Park looks and sounds amazing on TV. Even more, I love the way they have gradually and sustainability built over a long period, rather than buying quick success. Two seasons ago they lacked the experience to win the final, Sarries were so far ahead of everyone. Last season they either ignored or weren’t good enough in Europe, but by focusing on the Premiership they were close enough to Sarries to successfully play the hand they were dealt. That kick for touch by Slade from the late penalty had to be the best I have ever seen under so much pressure. This season they have taken another step up, what a gutsy win it was at Montpellier, who had beaten them four times straight.

            With both France and England clubs, I think the problem is less with scheduling than playing too many games, caused by needing income to help pay the unsustainable wages used to attract players from overseas. French clubs like Toulon were the instigators of that to be fair.

  4. Hi JD, I completely agree with you. It’s tough, as English clubs can’t just ignore what the French are doing and settle for lesser players. They want to be successful in Europe too. Irish teams used to half ignore their league in order to cope, but the English teams can’t do that. With Exeter and Saracens doing so well in both Europe and the league I think both them and will face the problem this year.

  5. Nope sorry mate. After the Bulls in 2015 went over there and comfortably beat the Saracens it was evident that it has to be a Southern hemisphere club. Bear in mind that it wasn’t even the Bulls who won super rugby in 2015 it was the Highanders. I would have to go with the Crusaders. Canterbury is a very successful rugby union and The Crusaders are the most successful Super Rugby team

    • Saracens team that day: Ransom 15, Wilson 14, Streather 13, Wyles 12, Strettle 11, Hodgeson 10, De Kock 9, Gill 1, Sharman 2, Du Plessis 3, Hamilton 4, Poppalan 5, Wray 6, Brown 7, Joubert 8.
      Bulls had a full side out. Sarries in the middle of the season with HC games coming up played an A-side. Not sure you can read too much into that ;p

      • Not to mention all the legendary all blacks that have played for Canterbury/Crusaders and the great all blacks that play in it now

        • Hi Konke, you are right about the Crusaders, they are awesome. I think you are seriously undervaluing Saracens and the other northern teams though. For example, more recently than that Bulls game, and with both sides closer to full strength, Racing 92 beat the Highlanders (then Super Rugby Champions) 45-38. That was 2016, and later that season Saracens beat Racing 21-9 in the final (after hammering Clermont 46-6 in the semi) to win their first European Cup.

          • I see, we’ll I think the Crusaders/Canterbury should play against Saracens in the ultimate showdown to decide who is the best. If it were to happen now it would probably be Saracens to win due to the amount of injuries the crusaders would have.

          • 7 losses in a row for Saracens. Crusaders only lost twice and once to a home nations xv ith 2 thirds of the lions team. I rest my case

  6. They’re certainly in a bad run at the moment Konke. Played very well today though, despite missing Williams, Billy V & Maro. I’d say you are being quite premature, the Crusaders wouldn’t be favourites away to Clermont themselves. Especially if they were missing Read, Havili & Whitelock. Lets see where they stand in a few weeks time.

      • Hi Konke, I am hugely impressed with Leinster, I think as you do they have been the best team in Europe over the last 3 months. I see no reason they would slow down any time soon either. Their performances against other Irish sides have been amazing, and they have yet more players coming through in Jordan Larmour and Andrew Porter who look like potential world beaters. They have a production line of players that is second to none. I think a peak Saracens are better, but I don’t know if Saracens will be able to get back there. My money is on Leinster for the Champions Cup and Pro14 double as a result.

  7. I think in a year or two RSA teams will be the dominant contenders.
    Lions are on the door step of super rugby championship and with the Bulls now under John Mitchells watchfull eye and Cheetahs fly their flag high in Europe, all will be happy days for the now lackluster South African rugby supporters

    • Hi Josh, I think it would be great for southern hemisphere rugby for that to happen. What I suspect (and hope I’m wrong about) is unfortunately the Lions slide back into the pack a bit. There are a lot of rumours around key personnel leaving, such as Jaco Kriel and Johan Janse van Rensburg. Ackermann is showing how important he was by the job he is doing at Gloucester. The Cheetahs might be doing ok but they are a long, long way from competitive against Europe’s best. The Pro14 sides don’t take the league seriously, they concentrate on the Champions cup. Look at the side Leinster put out against the Cheetahs, versus the side that played against Exeter in their last game. The Cheetahs are winning and great to watch, but against virtual B teams at altitude.

      • Hi Daniel
        Just a question if the Cheetahs do well, should they be considered for the Champions Cup?
        Also I think the Bulls will get back up to the Top of Super Rugby again even win it I say 2019 or 2020, they have the pedigree and have won it before and that does help.
        I am also not sure about the Lions either Ackerman is such a great coach, I think if he had stayed another year the Lions would have won it, now I am not sure.

        • I would love to see a South African team win in 2018 or 2019. There were a lot of good players in the last crop of U20’s, so perhaps some new blood coming through will help them challenge. I don’t think the Bulls are necessarily best placed though. I wasn’t too impressed with them last year. My bet is the Stormers might push on this year and replace the Lions as RSA top dog. Their Currie Cup team won and they did better against Kiwi sides than the others last year. The Bulls will come good again, but for me it might be further down the track.

          As for the Cheetahs, if they’re in the Pro14 they should absolutely be eligible for Europe, but I don’t think they will be for a few years.

  8. Every bone in my ‘one eyed kiwi’ view wants to scream no way! the crusaders would smash them (i’m a hurricanes fan) but who knows.

    What i would like to say is that this game would be amazing! Bring on the international season and perhaps we can have a chance of this happening.
    The ‘canes on their day are impossible to beat. Even strangling them with a saracens tactic doesn’t work when they are on. Sadly, they are not always on. the last two years have been a huge improvement though.

    Saracens are Quality which deserves the capital letter. i don’t know enough to make a comment outside of hoping that english rugby is returning to top draw. Grim few years for you lads to endure, but if there is one thing the British are good at, it’s enduring.

    Is it just Saracens ability to strangle opponents which gives them an edge?
    What others factors do you think puts them on top?

    Cheers.

    • Hi Joseph, thanks for the great comment! The Hurricanes are probably my favourite team to watch in Super Rugby, although having previously lived in Japan I support the Sunwolves in that competition. Somehow I think it will be a while before I can write about them in an article like this!

      Saracens seem a bit off the boil this season, maybe they are now on the way down. At their best they have so many ways to win. They can strangle teams, they can bully the gainline with carriers like the Vunipolas, Bosch and Itoje, and they can cut teams up with Alex Goode and Farrell as dual playmakers and the likes of Liam Williams finishing the moves. They can win scoring 6 tries to 5 or they can win in a 9-6 snoozefest. They often take teams on at their point of strength, for example they ran Glasgow off the park and bullied Munster on their way to last years European title. In the final against Clermont they did a bit of both.

      English rugby has been on a steady upward curve since Stuart Lancaster took charge of the Academy system, before he was in the England job. Our development of players has gone through the roof, we now regularly win Junior World Cups. This years final was an easy win for New Zealand, but only because half the team were in Argentina or injured. And we still made the final, beating a really good South African team in the semi. That’s all filtering through to the Premiership and is the bedrock Eddie Jones is building on.

      • Nice. We are lucky in NZ O(as pointed out in the 1014 hurricanes exec vid) that everyone has been pulling in the same direction for a while now.

        If you saw that final you already know about the looming threat of Asafo Aumua (hooker for the ABs U20)

        He is coming. Get your lads ready. 😉

        Again Cheers for the article. Please keep writing.

    • Hi t1mbo, yes it does. I think on form Leinster are the best in Europe, and if they can sustain it long enough to win the Champions Cup I will call them the new European #1. If they do the double they will have a good case to be world #1. When I wrote the article I was torn between including Leinster or Exeter, and the thing that swayed me was Leinster didn’t win anything last year while Exeter did. I had Leinster as my 5th placed team but I think they are higher than that now.

  9. There have been many encounters between Super Rugby teams and European clubs, the vast majority won by the former. Perhaps most famous was Auckland’s demolition of European champs Brive in a match promoted as a World Club final. The Blues won 47-11, scoring six tries to one. “It was like spending 80 minutes in a washing machine,” Brive’s captain, Alain Penaud.

    • Hi Quentin, what a great Auckland side that was! In the early days of professionalism I don’t think we would be having this discussion, whoever was on top in Super Rugby was the best club side. In my opinion that began to change around 2004, I remember Wasps playing a semi-final against Munster and a final against Toulouse that were up to test match standard. Since then the general standard has risen to the point I think now the standard is higher in the north. The very best Kiwi teams might still beat the likes of Saracens last year or this season’s Leinster, but I know where my money is. I look at Super Rugby (Fox Sports have the stats) and literally everyone concedes 600 running metres and misses 20 tackles a game. Even against the Sunwolves. Is that because their defences are weak or the attacks are so strong? I think it’s a bit of both, and therefore the very best northern teams, who can defend better but attack just as well, would win.

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