It’s suddenly getting toward that time of year again, and looking at squads for an Australian Super Rugby teams magazine preview over the weekend gave reason to think about what I want to see from our sides.
Collectively, all five sides playing really good rugby is the simple summary. But each side is a little bit different, and all have different expectations.
So, here’s what I want to see from the Australian sides this year.
First and foremost for the Brumbies, is a trouble-free year!
There was far too much going on in 2016, with players announcing defections and boardroom shenanigans, with more plot twists and backflips than a daytime soap opera.
If none of that is repeated in 2017, then they’ll already be in front.
And I’m sure I won’t be alone in wanting to see the Brumbies remembering how to use their backline, after the forwards and the lineout drive was all too often the default play once they entered the opposition 22. There’s nothing wrong with using the forwards to lay a platform, and the Brumbies will need that again, but the only way to prove you’re not a predictable side is to do something unpredictable.
That means the likes of Kyle Godwin and Tevita Kuridrani have to start the season confidently and looking for the ball, because if they tick both those boxes, then the outside backs will have a chance to express themselves.
Key to this will be to decide who the next Brumbies No.10 will be.
It’s clear that Christian Lealiifano won’t feature much (if at all) in 2017, and so this season represents a huge audition for the future. The Canberra Vikings’ constant chopping and changing through their seven weeks of the NRC did young Nick Jooste no favours, but if he’s the ‘next Larkham’ like they think he can be, they just need to back him.
Similarly, Southland flyhalf Wharenui Hawera trained with the squad before Christmas, though it hasn’t been confirmed if he’s part of the plans for 2017.
Regardless of who it is, there will need to be a bit of ‘pick and stick’ for the first few games while combinations are established. And the sooner that happens, the better for the Brumbies this season.
2017 has to be the season the Rebels take the next step. They’ve been hovering around the fringe of the playoffs for the last couple of seasons, and promising plenty, but ultimately falling short when it counts.
Though the tag ‘young squad’ still applies, and with that comes certain liberties, the reality is that that young squad now have a decent amount of Super Rugby experience, both as individuals and as a collective. They really shouldn’t still be searching for combinations; the combinations are already there.
Starting well and posting wins early is crucial for all sides, but for the Rebels, a run of wins can build more confidence and create more momentum as the side strives to prove it is among the best in Super Rugby. And winning away is just as important, too. Four away wins in 2016 was a record, but their overall record of 11 wins from 48 away games must improve.
They lose Adam Thompson from their abundant backrow stokes, but surely now regain Lopeti Timani in the No.8 jersey, after he made a solid fist of it in Wallaby gold, providing exactly the sort of destruction you want from the back of the scrum. Add Sean McMahon and Jordy Reid (and Colby Fainga’a, for that matter) into the mix, and it’s a quality backrow that should be the getting the better of most opposition.
Which leaves me with the Rebels’ attack. The recruitment of Ben Volavola last week – and they already had Jackson Garden-Bachop from Wellington in the stable – send a pretty clear message that Jack Debreczeni is looking at a new role in 2017, and the Melbourne Rising did play some good rugby with Debreczeni at fullback.
Volavola’s move to the Crusaders was cut short by the emergence of Richie Mo’unga, so it will be interesting to see if he’s the guy to unlock the likes of Reece Hodge at 12, and the flying Fijians on the wings: Sefa Naivalu and Morike Koroibete.
The Rebels need some spark out wide, and I can’t wait to see it this season.
I’m not quite sure what to expect from the Waratahs this season, yet.
In some positions, they’ve definitely strengthened, while in others they’ve not really done anything, which might leave them vulnerable. So I suppose what I expect from the Waratahs is another strong season from which they might not emerge the top Australian side, but they shouldn’t be far off it.
First and foremost, let 2017 be the season in which Israel Folau plays the number he’s wearing. I almost don’t even care what the number is anymore, but one thing’s for sure, this half-front line, half-back, half-wing, half-pregnant game he played last year had to have had an impact on his instincts and it’s just time to simplify his game and let him do what he does best.
The flow-on from that is instructive, too. If Folau plays 13 fulltime, then Andrew Kellaway or Cameron Clark can properly develop as fullbacks. If Folau stays at fullback and the Tahs abandon the front line attacking experiment, then we get to see if Irae Simone really could be as good as everyone seems to thinks he will be.
Sekope Kepu will be welcomed back up front, but I hope Tom Robertson is allowed to keep developing as a tighthead. I still don’t really get why the Wallabies did it, and I really don’t think the Waratahs can afford to look a gift no.3 in the mouth. Damien Fitzpatrick will keep the hooker rotation spicy, and I’ll be interested to see how Michael Wells fits into the backrow formations.
The Waratahs have plenty of strike power, but it might actually be the forwards that we see their greatest improvements, and that can’t be a bad thing. Michael Hooper can’t keep doing it all on his own, and so I want to see guys like Jack Dempsey, Jed Holloway, and Tolu Latu prosper with a full season ahead of them.
This is bound to appeal to 20 per cent of the Australian reading audience, but I actually want to see the Reds top the Australian conference. And I know that brings the by-product of suddenly vocal and over-confident Reds supporters with it, but if that all come to be, it means the Reds are playing great rugby again, and the rebuild is going superbly.
On the back of one of the more aggressive – and successful – off-season recruitment campaigns, the Reds head into 2017 with a squad not for next season, but for now.
You can’t bring names like Moore, Smith, Higginbotham, Houston, and Cooper into a side and ‘hope to finish in the top half’. The Reds need to start winning from Round 1, and they should be the Australian pace-setters from there.
So, I want to see Quade Cooper pulling all the strings again, and I want to see George Smith proving that age is but a number, and I want to see Scott Higginbotham running with freedom and promoting national debate of all varieties.
But beyond that, I want to see Karmichael Hunt injury-free and playing like the natural footballer we all know he is. I want to see Samu Kerevi and the young centres Campbell Magnay and Duncan Paia’aua become regulars. And if Izaia Perese starts carving up Super Rugby like he’s carved up every other level he’s played, I’ll be grabbing the popcorn before every Queensland game. I want to see all of that.
In 2017, above all else, I want to see the Western Force remind everyone of the reason the game expanded west in the first place. The Force have always had a hugely passionate support base, but those hardy souls haven’t had much to cheer about in recent times.
And with the Force’s new community shareholding model, in asking the supporters to consolidate and fortify their support for the club, 2017 needs to be the season the side properly reconnects with the ‘Sea of Blue’. And there’s no better way to do that than to win games, and above all else, play some great rugby.
Tatafu Polota-Nau could prove to be a really handy signing. He’ll be a wonderful leader on and off the field, and he’ll be a huge help for the young hookers in the squad. Heath Tessmann and Polota-Nau will keep each other honest and on their toes – two guys like that tussling for a start can only inspire the younger forwards.
Out wider, Jonno Lance is again the key player. If he can stay fit for the season, then the Force’s midfield defence benefits, and their attack is noticeably better. Perth Spirit played a really open game during the NRC, from which we got to see what Billy Meakes is capable of, and a reminder of Luke Morahan’s abilities in half gaps.
Throw Dane Haylett-Petty into that mix too, and there should be no secret to the way the Force play in 2017.