Super Rugby - Australian Conference - Green and Gold Rugby
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Super Rugby – Australian Conference

Brumbies v Waratahs - perennial rivals for Australian honours
Super Rugby – Australian Conference

If you thought last year was a struggle for Australian teams then be prepared for it to get worse.

This year the Australian teams play against the teams in the harder Africa 2 Conference which comprises the Lions, Sharks, Jaguares and Kings, whilst the New Zealand teams play the easier Africa 1 Conference which has the Stormers, Bulls, Cheetahs and Sunwolves in it.

Last year it was possible for two Australian teams to make the final and that remained a possibility up to the final rounds. I believe it is more unlikely for two Australian teams to finish ahead of two New Zealand teams this year and this will be evident early in the tournament.

This means the Australian Conference will be a competition within a competition where they are competing against each other for only one spot.

Looking at the off-season losses and recruitment of the Aussie teams I expect a tighter Australian Conference than ever before. Last year’s two strongest teams: the Brumbies and Waratahs, are weaker, and the bottom three sides: Rebels, Reds and Force are all stronger.


Tatafu Polota-Nau – a force to be reckoned with

Force Snapshot

First XV most likely to be selected (not necessarily their strongest side)
Players with an * are new to the squad.

1. Ben Daley*
2. Tatafu Polota-Nau*
3. Tetera Faulkner
4. Ross Haylett-Petty
5. Adam Coleman
6. Isi Naisarani*
7. Matt Hodgson
8. Ben McCalman

9. Ryan Louwrens
10. Jono Lance
11. Luke Morahan
12. Robbie Coleman*
13. Bill Meakes*
14. Semisi Masirewa
15. Dane Haylett-Petty

The Force have recruited well all things considered and should be a better side than last year, although new lock Matwijow will miss the whole season. Polota-Nau will be a fine addition: he will strengthen the scrum, and provide physical go-forward through the tight spaces. Their back three, with recruit Meakes at outside centre, should be a good unit.

Their main weaknesses appear to be at the scrum, the lack of a playmaker, a lack of depth, and a lack of game breakers. Their depth in the lineout, second-worst in 2016, looks dodgy with Matwijow out. Also they scored the fewest tries in Super Rugby in 2016, and that is one statistic that has to be addressed.

Therefore I still expect for them to finish last in the Australian conference.

Western Force Season Preview here


Lopeti Timani – should play at no. 8 where he belongs

Rebels Snapshot

First XV most likely to be selected (not necessarily their strongest side).
Players with an * are new to the squad.

1. Toby Smith
2. James Hanson
3. Laurie Weeks
4. Alex Toolis*
5. Dominic Day*
6. Sean McMahon
7. Colby Faingaa
8. Lopeti Timani

9. Nic Strizaker
10. Jack Debreczeni
11. Marika Koirebette*
12. Reece Hodge
13. Sefanaia Naivalu
14. Tom English
15. Jonah Placid

My wishful thinking is that the Rebels’ recruitment has targeted the locks so that Timani can play at no 8 where he belongs. The Rebels’ main weakness is the lack of game breakers. Their main strength is they have genuine pace in their backline: the only Australian team that can boast this, and they will have a good kicking game. They were strong at the ruck last year and should be again. They will play better than most people expect and may finish as high as second in the Australian conference.

But I expect them to finish fourth.


Quade Cooper – back with the Reds

Reds Snapshot

First XV most likely to be selected (not necessarily their strongest side)
Players with an * are new to the squad.

1. James Slipper
2. Stephen Moore*
3. Sam Talakai
4. Rob Simmons
5. Kane Douglas
6. Hendrik Tui
7. George Smith*
8. Scott Higginbotham*

9. Nick Frisby
10. Quade Cooper*
11. Eto Nabuli
12. Henry Taefu
13. Samu Kerevi
14. Chris Kuridrani
15. Karmichael Hunt

The Reds have recruited well. Their main weaknesses are the lack of strike runners and lack pace in the backline. The Reds have the best pack, with the most depth, in the Australian conference because it is strong across most aspects of forward play. The Reds’ other strength is having the only genuine playmaker in the Australian conference. Quade Cooper will provide better direction, playmaking and kicking: all aspects that were missing in 2016.

They are a better side than last year and have similar strengths and weaknesses to the 2016 Brumbies, who won the conference, but they can’t afford to to give away so many yellow cards this year.

I expect them to be vying for first place in the Australian conference, with one big caveat. They had the third-lowest number of tries last year and the coaching team needs to be able to develop viable attacking patterns to score more of them. They have the personnel but lack the tactics.

Since that is a big qualification I expect them to finish third


Wharenui Hawera – promising recruit

Brumbies Snapshot

First XV most likely to be selected (not necessarily their strongest side).
Players with an * are new to the squad.

1. Scott Sio
2. Saia Faingaa*
3. Allan Alaalatoa
4. Sam Carter
5. Rory Arnold
6. Scott Fardy
7. Chris Alcock*
8. Lolo Fakaosilea*

9. Joe Powell
10. Wharenui Hawera*
11. Henry Speight
12. Kyle Godwin*
13. Tevita Kuridrani
14. Nigel Ah Wong
15. Aidan Toua

The Brumbies have not replaced lost quality with matching quality. They are significantly weaker than last year. Their main weaknesses are the inexperienced halves (with the loss of Cubelli to injury), a lack of pace, and a lack of game breakers. Their main strength like last year should be the pack, which I rate just behind the Reds’ unit. They had the best lineout in the Australian conference in 2016 and should do again.

They will still contend for first place but because of the Cubelli injury I expect them to finish second in the conference.


Waratahs – have not recruited strongly

Waratahs Snapshot

First XV most likely to be selected (not necessarily their strongest side)
Players with an * are new to the squad.

1. Tom Robertson
2. Tolu Latu
3. Sekope Kepu*
4. Dean Mumm
5. Will Skelton
6. Jack Dempsey
7. Michael Hooper
8. Jed Holloway

9. Nick Phipps
10.Bernard Foley
11. Taqele Naiyaravoro*
12. Rob Horne
13. Israel Folau
14. Cameron Clark*
15. Andrew Kellaway

The Waratahs have not recruited well. The losses of Tatafu Polota-Nau, Dave Dennis, Wycliff Palu, Kurtley Beale, Zac Guildford and Sam Lousi have not been covered adequately. Beale is the single biggest loss that has not been covered. Existing players on the roster have been promoted but with all the money freed up surely a couple of elite players could have have been brought in.

Their main weaknesses: the lineout and the lack of pace should be seen again. But they will retain their main strengths from last year: the backrow and the team’s size and physicality. On balance they are a weaker side than last year.

Despite this I expect them to sneak into first place.

Waratahs’ Season Preview here

Sekope Kepu – back with the Waratahs


The Draw

Currently it makes little difference which New Zealand teams are played home or away, all are very strong, and all play well in Australia.

The significant variances in the draw are which Australian teams are played twice, which South African teams are played in South Africa where they are much stronger, and which teams have to travel to South America.

The Reds play the Lions and Los Jaguares away, the Brumbies and Force twice, who they struggle with.

The Brumbies play the Sharks and Lions at home and the Jaguares away. They play the Reds and Rebels twice, and they play the Waratahs away.

The Waratahs play the Lions and Sharks away and the Jaguares at home. They play the Force and Rebels twice, and the Brumbies at home and Reds away.

The Brumbies have the best draw in terms of playing strong teams at home. The Waratahs have the least travel since they do not go to South America.


Prediction

It will be close in the Australian conference. Originally I thought the Brumbies would win the conference marginally ahead of the Waratahs followed by the Reds. However the major injury to Cubelli has me putting the Waratahs at the top. That is how close it is, one injury can make all the difference.

I’ll pay no regard to trial form because I don’t think it’s a valid barometer.

As for the overall placings:

Waratahs – 8th *
Brumbies – 9th
Reds – 11th
Rebels – 12th
Force – 15th

* 8th, but the Conference system will place them 3rd.

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