Five of the big questions that will be answered in 2013

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It's been a long time between drinks for the Crusaders, last winning a title under coach Robbie Deans. AP Photo/NZPA, Ross Setford

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Blessed is the turn of the year. With it comes the promise of fresh starts and renewal: clean pages for all after a largely disappointing year for Australian rugby in 2012.

Already there is talk out of Sydney of a revival and out of Perth a relaunch. These are encouraging noises, especially when accompanied by an apparent determination to raise fitness levels.

But while they are to be welcomed the performances of the Australian Super franchises are one of the big questions to be answered in 2013.

Here are five of the biggest.

Will the Australian conference bounce back or will the painful teething problems of expansion continue?
Be grateful for the work of the Queensland organisation. Since the the introduction of the conference system, there has been only one appearance by an Australian team in the last four of Super Rugby, with New Zealand (four) and South African (three) sides well represented.

If that sort of imbalance is repeated this year, the murmurs of discontent from South Africa and New Zealand about standards in Australia will only grow louder.

The Australian sides can shut that down by raising their games, but there is work to be done.

The Rugby Channel in New Zealand has been showing repeats from the 2012 season and they are a sharp reminder of where the gaps need to be closed, with the breakdown and counterattack two areas in particular need of attention.

Don’t expect the New Zealanders and South Africans to stand still either. Optimism in Australia is justified – it is now the third year of the five-franchise model – but it should be of the cautious kind.

Will it be Beale, O’Connor, Lealifaano, Barnes or Cooper?
The Wallabies’ No.10 jersey is in the strange position of having been through several sets of hands without anyone demanding possession.

There is so much talent, but with so many question marks attached. Robbie Deans probably has a fairly clear idea about much of his preferred 22, but the five-eighth position looks more open than most, and dependent on Super Rugby form.

Despite his antics last year, Cooper has one card up his sleeve the others don’t – his partnership with Will Genia. If Genia can come back early enough to string together a number of convincing games with Cooper, the drums will start beating for the Reds’ pairing.

Can the Wallabies beat the Lions?
Already the mind games have begun, with Warren Gatland and Ewen McKenzie stating (though for completely different reasons) that first-choice Wallabies should be available for their franchises in the lead-up games.

They shouldn’t, for the obvious reasons, but this will be the first little battle of many. The Wallabies are my favourites to win the series, with home advantage, the brilliance of Will Genia and lingering doubts about the quality of the Lions’ 9-10 options outweighing any question marks over the hosts.

There is enough talent in Australia to get the job done.

Will Robbie Deans remain as Wallabies coach?
Linked, but perhaps not inexorably, to the Lions series. Deans has already stated his desire to continue through to the 2015 World Cup, and a Lions series win would fortify his case hugely.

But look at the 2013 schedule and it’s entirely plausible that his Bledisloe drought could also continue next year, with two of the three Tests in New Zealand (Wellington and Dunedin).

Would a Lions series win but further disappointment against the All Blacks merit a contract extension for Deans to the next World Cup?

To my mind yes – a Lions success would be evidence of the New Zealander’s resilience as well as his nous – although a win against the All Blacks in Sydney next August and greater fluency in attack would make that argument much, much easier to prosecute.

How will the All Blacks cope without Richie McCaw?
There will be an element of sink or swim when the All Blacks take on France in three Tests in June this year, especially if the increasingly injury-prone Dan Carter is absent from one or more of the encounters.

There will be plenty of takers for France to win at least one of the three Tests, but the All Blacks have quietly been grooming young Chief Sam Cane for the No.7 role over the past year and France’s recent success without their own talismanic openside and captain, Thierry Dusautoir, showed that there are always others who can step up.

The All Blacks will lose something without McCaw – how could they not? – but the machine is too well constructed for the wheels to fall off.

Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.
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