Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE Super 15 kicks off in Australia on Friday but South African and New Zealand sides will have to wait another week before starting their campaigns for the third edition of the tournament in this format.

The haphazard start to the competition, with the Aussies beginning a week early, is to accommodate the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia in June by giving Wallaby coach Robbie Deans an extra week to prepare his team in midyear.

For a tournament that already has critics because of its long duration, high player attrition rate and odd format — the teams do not all meet each other, and there is a three-week June break — this staggered start is another negative aspect.

There is understandable hype in Australia, where the Western Force and Rebels start the competition in Melbourne on Friday morning, followed by the Brumbies and the Reds, who are set to clash in Canberra on Saturday.

There has been a war of words between Brumbies coach Jake White and Reds counterpart Ewen McKenzie, while the return of Clyde Rathbone after his life was derailed through injury and depression is one positive subplot to the underwhelming opening weekend.

Rathbone will earn his 50th Brumbies cap on Saturday.

For South Africans, though, there will be little more than a cursory glance at what happens across the Indian Ocean because next Friday sees the Bulls hosting the Stormers in a traditional north-south super derby. As far as South Africans are concerned, that is when the Super 15 really starts.

The following day the Cheetahs welcome the Sharks to Bloemfontein, and it will not be a warm reception, while the Kings make their debut against the Force in Port Elizabeth.

Although the matches this weekend have little more than passing interest, the implementation of several new "game management" aspects will be interesting. There are extended television match official (TMO) protocols that have already been tested in the Currie Cup and will be used in Super Rugby.

This will enable the TMO to consider "clear and obvious" infringements in the lead-up to the scoring of a try.

The TMO, referee and assistant referees will be able to refer these incidents as far back as the last restart of play but no further than two phases (a phase is defined as a ruck or maul).

Previously the TMO could be used only to look at the actual scoring of the try over the try line.

The TMO can also be asked to assist with incidents of foul play, but only if the referee thinks it could be serious enough to warrant a red or yellow card.

In addition, Super Rugby coaches and referees have agreed on three areas the game should concentrate on this year to improve the spectacle for fans: quick ball, scrum engagement and creating space. The referees will focus on key elements under each of these headings.

In the scrum, referees are looking for stability before calling "set"; the tighthead must drive straight and the loosehead must hit up and bind, among some other technical issues.

In terms of quick ball the main focus for referees will be that the tackler must roll away from the scrumhalf and not towards him; the tackler assist must clearly release the ball-carrier while sealing off; and players taking defenders out in front of the ball will also be penalised.

Finally, under the heading of creating space, there will be greater focus on ruck management and stringent application of the law for players to stop advancing if they are in an offside position following a kick-and-chase.

Meanwhile, Sharks flyhalf Butch James will miss the opening weeks of the Super 15 after undergoing a scope on his knee, coach John Plumtree confirmed. James had rejoined the Sharks after a stint at the Golden Lions and was expected to play backup to Pat Lambie for the duration of the season.

The 2007 World Cup winner has a history of knee problems and the scope was performed to remove some loose cartilage from around the knee. "It’s not serious and he is expected to be ready in a fortnight," Plumtree said.