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.

  • Stoff

    That’s a depressing read there Lee. I am hoping we see both the Reds and Rebels really surprise people this year and shake the comp up a bit.

    • Lee Grant

      Crikey – I didn’t write it – I published it for PeterK and forgot to nominate him as the writer.

      My bad…

      • BigNickHartman

        Forever taking credit for other people’s work, tsk tsk

        • Lee Grant

          Have to – THEY write good stuff.

  • sampro

    My prediction is the top two Australian teams will be the Rebels and the Reds (either order). My reasons for this prediction? None whatsoever, except that I want them to flip the apple cart and smash it to pieces.

    On a side note, if Nic Stirzaker doesn’t get into some form fast, will they replace him with Meehan? Or are they stuck with him because of his captaincy?

    • Mica

      And Jack Deb needs to pull his finger out!! 2-3 years ago we were talking about him as a potential Wallaby (and rightly so) – he seems to have gone backward at a rate of knots and almost appears disinterested/unmotivated last year and in what I have seen of him this year.

  • swingpass

    i’d love to see the Rebels do well, in 2015 they had targeted 2017 as the break out year, BUT already they have been cruelled by significant injuries and a shocking opening 6 rounds draw. Lee six of your putative 15 are already out injured, some for the season and some for more than half of it. I think the Rebs will be a distant last in the Australian conference, unfortunately.

    • Lee Grant

      Crikey – I didn’t write it – I published it for PeterK and forgot to nominate him as the writer..

      My bad.

  • Brumby Runner

    Lee, I think you’ve done a good job of looking at each of the sides for the coming year, but I’m expecting the Reds to be really contending for and perhaps finishing as the top Aussie franchise. I think they have the players – it’s just a matter of the coaching stepping up.

    • Lee Grant

      Crikey – I didn’t write it – I published it for PeterK and forgot to nominate him as the writer..

      My bad.

    • PeterK

      totally agree.

      The coach is the main reason , as per my major qualifier, that I do not have them topping the conference. The attacking patterns need a lot of work. They should have performed a lot better last year with the personnel they had. They won their set pieces, had a lot of possession and could not score tries.

  • Rebels3

    Tahs 5th (but 3rd overall)
    Reds 7th
    Force 10th
    Rebels 11th
    Brumbies 15th

  • Blinky Bill of Bellingen NSW

    As a Tahs fan I wish people would stop predicting a cracking year for the boys. It may not be the cause of our lack of success over the years and I don’t believe in jinxes, but just stop doing it. Puleeeeeeeeeeeeez.

    • McWarren

      Blinky you guys are a shoe in for the title! I’m telling everyone who cares to listen!

      • Blinky Bill of Bellingen NSW

        Go ahead mate. I need to get used to more pain, so I might as well start now.

        I seriously hope Gibbo is ready to spread his wings as a coach and come up with an adaptable game plan for when we fail to crash ourselves over the gain line using the Cheika Mark 1 ‘give it to Pots’. After Berrick Barnes and Kurtley over zealous boot, I never thought I’d wish kicking to return to the Tahs. But IMHO we need to get smart in that department, even if it’s to vary things.

        • McWarren

          I think kicking for all oz teams has been poor in recent years. Even when we had players capable of belting the skin off it we didn’t use them wisely. We seem to vary widely from kick at all costs to not kicking at all. Here’s hoping more thought has gone into strategic tactics this year? We need to learn how to make the game easier for ourselves at times.

  • Simon

    I just finished my forecast using a basic statistical method which proved pretty accurate last season (though I didn’t start it til halfway through so it remains to be seen how it goes without half a season to calibrate it!) and my results agree pretty much exactly with yours Lee.

    I was surprised at first because I thought the Reds would challenge for the conference but it seems more likely it’ll be Tahs vs Brumbies again with the Tahs slight favourites. I went back to check it and sure enough, it’s those key home games that the Brumbies have that tip it in their favour. Brumbies have Highlanders, Blues and Lions all at home while the Reds have all three of them away. All three of those teams are beatable in Australia but much harder when they’re playing at home.

    Anyway for what it’s worth here are the results of my forecast compared with last year’s actual results, with the standard disclaimer that any attempt at pre-season forecasting is fraught with danger:

    1st: Waratahs, 8 wins, 39 points (2016: 8 wins, 40 points)
    2nd: Brumbies, 8 wins, 37 points (2016: 10 wins, 43 points)
    3rd: Reds, 7 wins, 33 points (2016: 3 wins, 17 points)
    4th: Rebels, 6 wins, 28 points (2016: 7 wins, 31 points)
    5th: Force, 5 wins, 26 points (2016: 2 wins, 13 points)

    Key points are the Reds and Force should both do significantly better than last year, and the Rebels, Tahs and Brumbies slightly worse, which is exactly what Lee is predicting. And a much closer conference overall. Maybe a big call for the Force to get 5 wins, but I think Reds at home, Kings, Lions at home, and Rebels at home are all possible wins and Sharks/Jags away and Waratahs at home aren’t out of the question.

    • Lee Grant

      Crikey – I didn’t write it – I published it for PeterK and forgot to nominate him as the writer.

      My bad..

      • Simon

        No worries, authorship acknowledged!

    • PeterK

      Amazing that you match my qualitative analysis with your quantitive one.

      Gives me more confidence we are both wrong

      • Simon

        Quantitatively I rate that likelihood almost 100%. :)

        I do this sort of thing for work and I’ve found myself saying to managers who don’t fully grasp the nature of probabilistic forecasts “the only thing I can guarantee you about this number is it’s wrong.”

        It is interesting though that I went into the exercise expecting a different result but ended up getting the same as you.

  • I think the Australian Conference finishing order will be:

    Waratahs
    Reds
    Rebels
    Brumbies
    Force

    The Brumbies have lost way too much talent this off season and I expect them to stuggle.

    • McWarren

      Well the Tahs certainly have the best lock pairing in the conference, maybe even the competition.

      • Two legends of the gold jersey for sure.

      • Simon

        Cheika agrees with you!

  • McWarren

    Lee I like the idea of starting the season off pessimistically, its a safe position to assume, from which point the only way is up. I’m not as pessimistic as that. I think the winning Australian team will finish further up overall placings. I don’t think you have given enough credit to the change in coaches at the Reds and Force, I think both will improve immensely on last year. I think Gibson may well be starting to turn the Tahs into his team rather than a poor mans version of Cheika ball. I’m also happy to see the Rebels not playing (potentially anyway) 3 open sides and 2 blindsides with some more on the bench. The Brumbies worry me a lot. I just get the feeling they haven’t hit rock bottom yet.
    As usual though I think the litmus test for all our squads will be injuries testing our depth. I think we are one year away from correcting our fatal flaws of old, in that we didn’t invest or trust in our young guys early enough.

    • Lee Grant

      Crikey – I didn’t write it – I published it for PeterK and forgot to nominate him as the writer.

      My bad.

  • Kokonutcreme

    Thanks for the article Lee, much interest in Oz conference surrounding the two new coaches. Will they turn their teams fortunes around dramatically or incrementally?

    There’s similar speculation around two new head coaches in NZ conference, and whether the change will be a positive one.

    Wouldnt be surprised if a bunch of new names show up some of the established regulars in Oz this year.

    • Lee Grant

      Crikey – I didn’t write it – I published it for PeterK and forgot to nominate him as the writer…

      My bad…

  • LED

    I’m a simple guy mainly because I cant be bothered with all the detail. My “patented” method is to only look at the positions 7, 8, 9 and 10 to split teams as in general these positions can have such an impact on games. On that basis (and I’m a Tah supporter) – it unfortunately says the surprise package of the year will be…

    The Reds!

    I almost hate my method now.

    • Patrick

      I tend to agree, though. If you also count hooker and “a” strike outside back…

  • Brumby Runner

    As always, and as mentioned by others here, the season will depend largely on injuries and depth of reserve coverage. So, who are the critical cogs in each of the sides who just can’t be missed through injury?

    I’d nominate:

    Tahs – Hooper and Folau;

    Reds – Quade, Kerevi and Slipper;

    Rebels – McMahon;

    Force – Lance and TPN;

    Brumbies – Pocock and Cubelli.

    Unfortunately, for the Brumbies and the Rebels, the critical injuries/absences have already occurred.

    At this stage then, it’s looking good for the Tahs, Reds and Force.

  • A Nonymous

    The dream draw looks to be the Lions – they can reach the finals without once meeting a New Zealand side.

    Motto: Super 15 – even when the cellar-dweller rugby bores the socks off you, we still provide entertainment with the draw.

  • Patrick

    I think it will be:
    Reds
    Tahs
    Rebels
    Brumbies
    Force
    :)

    • I’m close to your table but I expect the Rebels to be 0 from 6 and never recover from their horrible draw and their preseason injuries.Force will be seriously better than most expect.

      Reds
      Tahs
      Force
      Brumbies
      Rebels

  • Kiwi rugby lover

    I’m not sure I follow your reasoning PeterK. If you take all the comments except where you think they finish I get an order of Reds, Rebels, Waratahs, Brumbies, Force. For example “on balance the Waratahs are a weaker team than last year” and yet you expect them to win.

    I must admit I see the Reds as the strongest team in the Australian conference as I think they have the best balance in the forwards and backs. As mentioned by others I think injuries will be crucial to their actual finish as they are light in a the key areas of back row, half back and flyhallf. I also think that they have developed their passion again. I actually agree that the Force have done the best recruitment and when you look at all the off field support that they have got I think they will surprise many this year. I also agree that this conference will be a lot tighter than last year and in that situation it can be anyone’s game. Looking forward too the start of the season that’s for sure.

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