Weak cousins no more, Australia’s maligned Super Rugby conference heads into the 2014 season respected and boasting three genuine contenders.
Last year’s runners-up, the Brumbies, 2011 champions Queensland and a Wallabies-laden NSW Waratahs all hold justifiable expectations they can win a dogfight for the Aussie conference and take out world rugby’s biggest provincial competition.
It will surprise no one and amuse many that perennial under-achievers NSW are once again among the favourites for the 15-team title.
But it also says a lot about their roster, headlined by Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale, and coach Michael Cheika’s ability to set a strong launch pad in 2013 by addressing team culture and adopting a dynamic attacking game.
The ‘Tahs improvement, the Brumbies’ near dream finish – run down 27-22 by the Chiefs in the 2013 decider – and the Reds’ continued finals success haven’t escaped the attention of their South African and New Zealand rivals.
While Springbok fans and Kiwis have criticised Australia for being the weakest of the three conferences since the Melbourne Rebels were admitted in 2011, opinions are changing.
Championship-winning Chiefs coach Dave Rennie observed in the pre-season that the Australian conference had “turned the corner”.
On the whole, Kiwi teams lost 12 of the 20 home-and-away matches against trans-Tasman rivals in 2013 and Rennie underlined that Aussie sides regained any respect that may have been lost.
Wallabies coach and ex-Reds boss Ewen McKenzie agrees there’s been improvement across the board.
“It goes in cycles,” McKenzie told AAP.
“I think there’s a lot of good stuff going on. Each of the teams are pretty well organised in the way they’re being run.
“I think across the board there is good depth.”
Although many expect a battle between the Waratahs, Brumbies and Reds for the local conference honours, McKenzie cautioned anyone from writing off the battling Rebels and Western Force.
A gritty, new-look Melbourne appear to be making strides under new coach Tony McGahan, a success at Munster in Ireland, while the Force have an impressive amount of depth and competition for places.
“I don’t think there will be any easy games in the Australian conference,” McKenzie said.
There’s been coaching changes to three of the five local teams – including the promotion of McKenzie and Jake White’s controversial return to South Africa which leaves Laurie Fisher and Stephen Larkham to control the Brumbies.
Larkham, Cheika and new Reds coach Richard Graham all this week spoke of the tightness of the conference, which magnifies the importance of derby games – eight of the 16 each team plays.
NSW’s recruitment of Beale from Melbourne has given Cheika a welcome selection headache as he must move him away from fullback where the freakish Folau starred in his debut season.
While the Rebels have lost drawcards Beale and James O’Connor, they will get more out of highly-rated Kiwis Tamati Ellison and Toby Smith. Still, concerns surround their lack of a proven playmaker.
The Force, bolstered by a string of South Africans, are light on for game-breakers but promise to be as physical as ever and extremely tough at home.
Apart from their coaching handovers, little has changed with the personnel at the Brumbies and Reds, who start their seasons opposite each other in a mouth-watering February 22 contest in Canberra.
The Crusaders will be without rested playmaker Dan Carter but have All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw back to challenge the Chiefs as the leading Kiwi team.
HOW THE AUSTRALIAN CONFERENCE TEAMS SHAPE UP FOR THE 2014 SUPER RUGBY SEASON
2013 finish: 2nd
Best finish: champions – 2001, 2004
Key arrivals: Lionel Cronje (Lions), Jarrad Butler (Reds), Lachlan McCaffrey (Force)
Key departures: George Smith (Japan), Peter Kimlin (France), Dan Palmer (France), Colby Fainga’a (Rebels), Zack Holmes (Force), Ian Prior (Force)
Best team: Jesse Mogg, Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Lealiifano, Joe Tomane, Matt Toomua, Nic White, Ben Mowen, David Pocock, Jarrad Butler, Sam Carter, Scott Fardy, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Scott Sio.
Title odds: $8
Comment: Last year’s Super Rugby runners-up have less depth this year with the departure of several key and fringe players – not to mention the shock exit of World Cup winning coach Jake White. But the return of standout flanker David Pocock from a serious knee injury will go a long way in their push for back-to-back Australian conference wins.
2013 finish: 9th
Best finish: 2nd – 2005, 2008
Key arrivals: Kurtley Beale (Rebels), Nick Phipps (Rebels), Jono Lance (Reds), Jacques Potgieter (Bulls), Tala Gray (Biarritz), Matt Carraro (Montpelier), Tolu Latu (Sydney Uni), Alofa Alofa (West Harbour)
Key departures: Lopeti Timani (Rebels), Tom Kingston (Rebels), Lachlan Turner (Reds), Sitaleki Timani (Montpelier), John Ulugia (US Bressane), Berrick Barnes (Panasonic Wild Knights), Tom Carter (retired), Drew Mitchell (Toulon), Grayson Hart (Edinburgh)
Best team: Israel Folau, Cam Crawford, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Rob Horne, Peter Betham, Kurtley Beale, Nick Phipps, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper, Dave Dennis (capt), Kane Douglas, Jacques Potgieter, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson.
Title odds: $10
Comment: The Waratahs have invested heavily in prodigal son Kurtley Beale, and will trust him to spark the side in attack. However coach Michael Cheika has options and Beale may have to share the playmaking responsibilities with Bernard Foley. Watch for giant lock Will Skelton to put pressure on Kane Douglas and Jacques Potgieter.
2013 finish: 5th
Best finish: champions – 2011
Coach: Richard Graham
Key arrivals: Lachie Turner (Waratahs)
Key departures: Digby Ioane (Stade Francais), Luke Morahan (Western Force), Jonno Lance (Waratahs), Radike Samo (Japan)
Best team: Lachie Turner, Rod Davies, Anthony Fainga’a, Ben Tapuai, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Quade Cooper, Will Genia; Jake Schatz, Liam Gill, Ed Quirk, James Horwill, Rob Simmons, James Slipper, Saia Fainga’a, Ben Daley.
Title odds: $17
Comment: Quade Cooper’s return to his dazzling best on last year’s Wallabies spring tour, combined with his greater composure, means the evolving Reds will be a more dangerous outfit than the predictable one that scored two tries a game in 2013. A hard-working pack, gutsy defence and pace out wide give them the pillars to be a title contender once again, even without master coach Ewen McKenzie.
2013 finish: 12th
Best finish: 12th – 2013
Key arrivals: Toby Smith (Chiefs), Tamati Ellison (Ricoh Black Rams), Tom Kingston (Waratahs), Lopeti Timani (Waratahs), Colby Fainga’a (Brumbies).
Key departures: Kurtley Beale (Waratahs), James O’Connor (London Irish), Nick Phipps (Waratahs), Gareth Delve (NEC Green Rockets), Jarrod Saffy (US Bressane).
Best team: Jason Woodward, Tom Kingston, Tamati Ellison, Mitch Inman, Lachie Mitchell, Bryce Hegarty, Luke Burgess, Scott Higginbotham, Scott Fuglistaller, Luke Jones, Caderyn Neville, Hugh Pyle, Laurie Weeks, Shota Horie, Toby Smith.
Title odds: $101
Comment: If the Rebels can retain their attacking flair but firm up their flimsy defence they will prove a handful for most teams. The leadership of skipper Scott Higginbotham is again key.
2013 finish: 13th
Best finish: 7th – 2007
Key arrivals: Marcel Brache (Western Province), Dane Haylett-Petty (Tokyo Shokki Shuttles), Chris Heiberg (Stormers), Zack Holmes (Brumbies), Luke Morahan (Reds), Ian Prior (Brumbies), Wilhelm Steenkamp (Bulls).
Key departures: Richard Brown (Honda Heat), Toby Lynn (retired), Salesi Ma’afu (Northampton Saints), Sam Norton-Knight (Kubota Spears), Brett Sheehan (London Wasps), Winston Stanley (Highlanders), Will Tupou (released)
Best team: Jayden Hayward, Luke Morahan, Junior Rasolea, Kyle Godwin, Nick Cummins, Zack Holmes, Alby Mathewson, Ben McCalman, Chris Alcock, Matt Hodgson, Hugh McMeniman, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Kieran Longbottom, Nathan Charles, Pek Cowan
Title odds: $151
Comment: A strong forward pack will give the Force a good launching pad, but the lack of backline starpower will hurt their chances of a first finals berth. With the squad boasting seven new arrivals from South Africa, expect a more physical style of play.