Five of the big questions that will be answered in 2013

Paul Cully Columnist

By Paul Cully, Paul Cully is a Roar Expert

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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
    Paul Cully

    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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    The Crowd Says (66)

    • January 9th 2013 @ 8:44am
      Atawhai Drive said | January 9th 2013 @ 8:44am | ! Report

      Another question will be answered this afternoon, when the ARU announces the appointment of a new CEO.

      Anyone know who the candidates are?

      • Roar Pro

        January 9th 2013 @ 8:48am
        Grimmace said | January 9th 2013 @ 8:48am | ! Report

        They kept that quiet. Even in my at times fruitless hunt for rugby news I didn’t see that. “No rugby on TV make Grimamce go something something”

      • Roar Guru

        January 9th 2013 @ 9:01am
        Argyle said | January 9th 2013 @ 9:01am | ! Report

        Top of the morning AD and Planet Roar,

        If my information is correct – William Joseph Calcraft.

        • January 9th 2013 @ 9:12am
          Atawhai Drive said | January 9th 2013 @ 9:12am | ! Report

          Really, Uncle? Wow, and other exclamations of surprise.

          I can see him in my mind’s eye _ for some reason, always in a Manly jersey and not a Wallabies one.

          • Roar Guru

            January 9th 2013 @ 9:18am
            Argyle said | January 9th 2013 @ 9:18am | ! Report

            From my understanding he has been in mix for a while. When you think he and Hawker both toured in the 1984 Grand Slam Team and both are very well accomplished in financial circles it appears to be a good match. Ive never met Calcraft however I hear he is a 1st class bloke. He actually played 3 tests for the Wallabies as a flanker and has a 100% winning record as a player. If I am right and Calcraft gets the nod lets hope some of that rubs off on the team. I am not 100% but confident it will be Calcraft.

      • January 9th 2013 @ 9:08am
        Hightackle said | January 9th 2013 @ 9:08am | ! Report

        I dont know who its gonna be but he has to be brave or crazy imo.

    • January 9th 2013 @ 8:53am
      Hightackle said | January 9th 2013 @ 8:53am | ! Report

      The Australian conference is stronger this year imo but I guess we will see. Im expecting the Tahs and Reds to go well but I also expect the Rebels to upset a team or two.

      Cooper may have his combo with Genia but it hasnt helped at test level in the past. Speaking of “past”, when is Australia going to learn from it?

      No Australia wont win the Lions series and if they do, it wont be good enough to take pressure off Deans becuz it wont be pretty enough. My guess is that Deans will remain and whats with judging Aust, its players or coach based on beating the best team in the world (NZ)? You guys know that only 4 teams have done that in over 60 years right?

      Will the ABs cope without Richie? No they will all become bad players all of a sudden. Yes the ABs will cope.

    • January 9th 2013 @ 8:56am
      kingplaymaker said | January 9th 2013 @ 8:56am | ! Report

      I wonder which of these three questions will receive the most discussion in the debates.

      It’s strange of anyone to expect 5 franchises to immediately be as competitive as 4 were: the process will evidently take some time. Young players need to come through and an evening out and expansion of the spread of young talent. At the beginning a small number of new players will appear who wouldn’t have made the old squads packed with more senior players blocking them, such as Pyle or Neville. Then as more and more players who can’t break into the Waratahs, Reds, Brumbies squads are given chances new franchises will be composed increasingly of Pyles and Nevilles. Furthermore, the game should grow in these new areas and at a slow rate they will begin to produce new players of their own although that takes longer, while being well worth it given the potential gains (which is why the neglect of the only large market left unrepresented, South Australia, is such a disaster) Then, finally, you will have 5 franchises of more even strength (if expansion is run properly as it is not with the Force! One should assume come competence in the administration). This doesn’t mean they will be as good necessarily as the older franchises, but that is the case in New Zealand and South Africa and in most sporting competitions, where the biggest and most glamorous franchises will get many of the best players. The important aim is to make sure the less glitzy teams are good enough to compete. But this in the case of new teams takes time. So rather than expecting immediate results, it’s better to have faith in a long-term decision to bear fruit in time.

    • January 9th 2013 @ 9:06am
      nickoldschool said | January 9th 2013 @ 9:06am | ! Report

      ‘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.’

      Am not sure Australians are that optimistic about franchises success all across the board. I think most predictions have the Rebels and WF in the overall bottom three alongside the new SA franchise. All five kiwi Teams have the potential to be in the mix and I would say the same about 4 from SA. At full strength I do rate the Reds, Brumbies and Tahs but a couple of injuries or individual setbacks could disrupt their Plans. So more a wait and see attitude for me rather than plain optimism really.

    • January 9th 2013 @ 9:09am
      Acorn said | January 9th 2013 @ 9:09am | ! Report

      the Reds should be better, assuming they don’t get hit by all those bloody injuries. The Brumbies will keep improving you’d think. The Waratahs HAVE to be better. The Rebels don’t have as much leadership on the field, but do have Higgers… their front row is abysmal though. And the Force? wow, who knows what will happen there. I reckon that’s the order they’ll all finish in the Aussie conference, how they finish overall will come down to who pinches some games away from home against SA & NZ teams, and whoever gets to play the Southern Kings and Auckland Blues too.

    • January 9th 2013 @ 9:21am
      Valleys Diehard of Brunswick st said | January 9th 2013 @ 9:21am | ! Report

      It took the South African teams 10 years to become competitive. It was always the Bulls and Cats that were a certain victory for opposing teams. Until Victor Matfield and co. arrived and cared about Super Rugby it looked like SA teams barely made up the numbers. It would therefore be a bit rich for SA to bleat about the Aust teams in 2013 regardless. Both the Force and the Rebels rarely get flogged like the Lions did, and the Spears are only going to emulate the Lions.

      Comment left via The Roar’s iPhone app. Download it now [].

      • January 9th 2013 @ 11:05am
        The Kebab Connoisseur said | January 9th 2013 @ 11:05am | ! Report

        Cannot believe Jozi no longer has a team in the competition. The wealthiest city in the wealthiest country of Africa with no representation. Must be some real rocket scientists running rugby over in S.A. nowadays.

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