One aspect of Super Rugby I am interested in this year are the players who will strengthen the Wallabies.
First, there are gaps to be filled after the Rugby World Cup. I am assuming no players from Europe will be chosen, regardless of if they qualify, due to logistical reasons.
Additionally, players in the Sevens squad for the Olympics won’t be available.
The Wallabies need to replace tighthead prop Sekope Kepu, halfback Will Genia, backup flyhalf Quade Cooper, inside centre Matt Giteau, and right wing Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Furthermore, there are a number of positions where the Wallabies lack depth.
This is a perennial problem issue for the Wallabies. Only in 2015, with both Sekope Kepu and Greg Holmes, was there the minimum quality depth. With the departure of Kepu and Holmes in 2017, this again becomes an issue. Toby Smith is really a makeshift tight head prop from a loosehead prop.
In Super Rugby I look forward to one of Sam Talakai, Laurie Weeks or Angus Ta’avao developing sufficiently to cover the bench behind Holmes.
I do not envisage this position being as strong as last year.
To the surprise of many, Kane Douglas was a revelation for the Wallabies as the power lock. His early injury in the final, and with no bench backup, had a significant impact. Hopefully he will recover from surgery in time for the Rugby Championship.
Super Rugby players Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman, Cadeyrn Neville and Will Skelton are in the mix otherwise.
Arnold, Coleman and Skelton all performed well in Super Rugby last year, although Skelton was found lacking in endurance at the international level. Neville received few chances at the Rebels.
I foresee this position being stronger than last year.
Rob Simmons is Australia’s undisputed lineout general. It is a major issue the lineout falls apart when others have been running it, exacerbated by playing only three lineout options.
Furthermore, players in other positions have been calling it for their teams. Dave Dennis, Scott Fardy, Dean Mumm, and Luke Jones are examples of these.
Sam Carter is the obvious direct backup, and I would like to see him develop his lineout calling by being the main caller for the Brumbies throughout the year.
I do not see this area improving unless a fourth genuine lineout option occurs, and this means not playing David Pocock and Michael Hooper at the same time.
David Pocock is performing well out of position, however a powerful ball carrier and tackler who is a genuine lineout option is missing.
Wycliff Palu is available, however he proved that time has well and truly passed him by in 2015. Ben McCalman has been tried often, but he isn’t up to it.
I look forward to seeing if Ita Vaea, Lopeti Timani, Hendrik Tui and Lolo Fakaosilea step up to start, or at least make the bench.
Since Vaea is not a genuine lineout option, my preference would be to see one the other three perform.
Nic Stirzaker was the best performed Australian halfback in Super Rugby 2015, and it was a travesty he did not get a chance internationally.
Ryan Louwrens should continue his development, he had a couple of outstanding games last year for the Force, but needs to show he can be effective starting for the whole season.
I expect Stirzaker to make the Wallabies this year with the departure of both Will Genia and Nic White.
Bernard Foley is almost a certain starter at 10 for the Wallabies. I say almost because with Foley playing in Japan and no off-season, his form may drop.
But with Cooper departing as the backup 10, who will fulfil this role?
Brumbies Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua and Rebel Jack Debreczeni are the ones to watch. With Foley being the team goalkicker, it is less likely Toomua would fill this role.
It is interesting that Steve Larkham is experimenting in trials with 10 and 12. I hope Lealiifano is played at 10.
Debreczeni with his big boot is also a viable option as a backup 15.
Matt Giteau did not perform well in attack in the Rugby World Cup last year – he made few line breaks, broke few tackles, and did not put players into gaps. He did however defend and kick for position well.
Giteau was not a success as secondary playmaker, that role was better fulfilled by Kurtley Beale when he came on, mostly from fullback.
In Super Rugby I will be watching the performances of Toomua, Beale, Israel Folau and Samu Kerevi.
Kerevi was the outstanding 12 in Super Rugby last year, and it was disappointing he was not given an opportunity at international level last year. If Kerevi does get to start then do the Wallabies need another playmaker? If Foley or Debreczeni is the 10 then yes, it is a must, and that will probably be Beale on the wing or fullback.
And where will Folau play this year? I would prefer to see him at 12 over 13 if he is moved from fullback.
Where Beale plays and how he performs could have significant impact on the Wallabies. His biggest weakness is that in defence he has to be rotated out of the frontline.
Incumbent Tevita Kuridriani will remain, but a significant concern is the 10 and 12’s inability to put him in space or give him time; defenders swarmed all over him and thus his attack was blunted.
I would like to see a Kerevi or Folau at inside centre to attract defenders, thus allowing Kuridrani be an attacking weapon.
With Ashley-Cooper moving on there is a dearth of backups to Kuridrani. Rob Horne is an experienced centre, but Kerevi played out of position or Folau would be better options.
The Wallabies lack genuine pace and it has hurt them time and again. The extra zip Beale brought from the bench was noticeable when the starting back three was Horne, Ashley-Cooper and Folau.
Sefanaia Naivalu is an automatic choice for me once he becomes eligible in September this year, as he is the fastest rugby player in Australia, able to run 100 metres in 10.5 seconds. The question is if he still has pace after he broke his leg last year.
Then there are the two NRL converts, Eto Nabuli at the Reds and Reece Robinson at the Tahs. They are both supposed to be very fast and, if they adapt well, who knows how far they could go.
Michael Cheika was conservative in his selections last year, with injury forcing most the changes.
With the Rugby World Cup out of the way, and Cheika having a four-year contract, I hope he is more open-minded to experimentation. If not, then a lot of the players I have put on this Wallaby watch-list have little chance, regardless of how well they play.