What’s the top priority for our Super Rugby sides?

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Following on from the questions and really good debate that arose from last week’s discussion, the logical follow-up is to try and identify the number one priority for each of the four Australian Super Rugby sides.

    Obviously, all four teams are going to want to good pre-seasons, and come through their trial games and the Brisbane Tens in good shape, and even turn all that into a Round 1 win. Notwithstanding that the Rebels and Reds play each other in Round 1, everyone will have those same obvious priorities.

    But what about specific to each team?

    Thankfully, this is why speculation was invented.

    Queensland Reds: Combinations
    Combinations were always going to be key for the Reds with the move toward youth in 2018, and with the off-season shock about Quade Cooper and Karmichael Hunt still subsiding, combination among the 2018 youth is going to even more important again.

    Monday’s news that the Reds have signed ex-Western Force flyhalf and Melbourne Rebels recruit Jono Lance is really good news, and a crucial missing piece for the Reds’ 2018 puzzle found. Instead of having to fast-track the development of Hamish Stewart in the no.10 jersey, coach Brad Thorn can now call on a seven-year professional with more than fifty games’ experience at this level, and a couple of Super Rugby titles to boot.

    Off-season experience in a different competition, with English Premiership side Worcester, will also be really important.

    And though the announcement made it sound like it has just happened, it’s my understanding Lance as been training at Ballymore since he returned from the UK. And this can’t be underestimated; the sooner Lance gets used to the guys around him and the Reds gameplan, the better off everyone will be.

    Jono Lance

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Lance ticks so many boxes for the Reds, too. They get an experienced flyhalf who kicks well and defends up front, and is even returning home. They can also put Stewart through something of a playmaking apprenticeship from fullback, thus filling the hole left by Hunt’s absence. I’d go as far as saying it’s the best Reds news this year.

    NSW Waratahs: Forwards platform
    The Waratahs need to fix a lot of areas from 2017, most notably their excruciatingly porous defence and their inability to play for eighty minutes, but none of that matters until they get it right up front.

    The arrival of Rob Simmons from the Reds, and Tom Staniforth from the Brumbies is really important, and will definitely improve their lineout, which was certainly an issue at time last season. The arrival of the wonderfully named Shambeckler Vui from Perth is similarly important for the Waratahs’ scrum.

    Those three in particular, add some quality to the NSW tight five and set piece, and that’s the sort of thing you can build a game plan around. Even with Jack Dempsey’s return from injury somewhat uncertain, the ‘Tahs remain well resourced in the backrow department, too, meaning they can hang on to that attempted up-tempo game they played last season.

    And this, in turn, will make life easier for Kurtley Beale’s return out wide. Before the forwards additions were confirmed, there was an underlying assumption that Beale being back would solve everything, which would have been as ambitious as it is naïve.

    The Wallabies’ finish to 2017 proves that even Beale need a forwards platform, and the Waratahs are now better placed to provide that in 2018.

    Brumbies: The next Pocock
    Injuries rarely strike at convenient times, but the Brumbies will certainly argue this week that it’s better they lose David Pocock for up to three months right now than in, say, May.

    David Pocock Brumbies Super Rugby Rugby Union 2016

    (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

    Regardless, it’s a bit of a bummer that Pocock won’t be right for the start of the season, particularly given his injury-enforced and voluntary absences since he first arrived in Canberra.

    But, if there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Brumbies are really well equipped to deal with injury or other misfortune within their backrow stocks. Though at the end of the 2017 season, as the overseas departures started rolling in, it looked like the Brumbies would be hit hard.

    Pocock returning would help, but losing a starting backrow of Scott Fardy, Jarrod Butler, and Jordan Smiler was significant.

    Despite those losses, and now even with Pocock’s return delayed, there’s room for optimism among the Brumbies faithful. Dan McKellar still has to flip a coin between Lachie McCaffrey and the hugely exciting Rob Valetini at blindside, and he has to pick between Lolo Fakasoliea and Isi Naisarani at number 8.

    Tom Cusack was the standout openside flanker of the NRC in 2017 is ready to go at Super Rugby level.

    Cusack didn’t look out of place in his couple of appearances off the bench for the Brumbies last year, either, and despite being only 24, has a surprising amount of leadership experience.

    He’s travelled the world on the Sevens circuit, been to the Olympics, but more than a year on from his return to the XVs game, he’s shown he has the game and fitness to excel on the side of the Brumbies’ scrum.

    And for what it’s worth; Cusack’s backrow partners in the NRC Team of the Year last season? Valetini and Naisarani.

    Melbourne Rebels: Hit the ground running
    They’ve assembled a crack-looking squad, and from all reports, the new-look Rebels have been getting on like a house on fire over the off-season before training that very same house down. Dave Wessels has them humming, baby, humming.

    But the Rebels have a bit less than a month of the honeymoon left, before they run out onto the ground for real, with points on offer, and with pens poised and ready to analyse whether the whole stronger-by-contraction debacle was really worth all the pain.

    If the expectations around the Rebels in 2017 were ‘up there’, they’ll be comparatively stratospheric in 2018. I know I wrote that 2017 was going to be “the year the Rebels take the next step”, so I’ve already got them pencilled in at a rung or two above that this year.

    They can’t start slow; they just can’t. Wessels has to wind them up like a toy car for the next month and send them out in Round 1 with their wheels spinning. Whether they like it or not, the Rebels will be the Australian barometer this year.

    Their first game together needs to look more like the twentieth or thirtieth. They have to know their first XV from the outset, because there won’t be time to experiment.

    Amanaki Mafi of the Rebels

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    They have to start well, because they need to be the good news story in Australia in 2018.

    Yes, sure, Australian rugby will be stronger if the Reds and Waratahs and Brumbies are stronger.

    But Australian rugby will be in the news – for good reasons – if the Rebels are stronger, too.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (129)

    • January 23rd 2018 @ 5:43am
      P2R2 said | January 23rd 2018 @ 5:43am | ! Report

      A wish list….reality is always somewhat different…

      • January 23rd 2018 @ 10:55am
        ajg said | January 23rd 2018 @ 10:55am | ! Report

        exactly, winning a couple games against kiwi and SAfer sides have to be the lowest expectation. But after last year’s debacle I wouldn’t expect much joy here

      • Columnist

        January 23rd 2018 @ 11:16am
        Brett McKay said | January 23rd 2018 @ 11:16am | ! Report

        Of course it’s a wishlist – it’s January!

        • January 23rd 2018 @ 2:32pm
          Dave_S said | January 23rd 2018 @ 2:32pm | ! Report

          Yeah I’ve thought of going to gym twice already this week!

    • January 23rd 2018 @ 6:07am
      Dan54 said | January 23rd 2018 @ 6:07am | ! Report

      Another good piece Brett, my thoughts tend to be that I strongly suspect the Rebels will be pretty near if not right at the top of Aussie conference this year, with their roster and I think more importantly Wessels running the ship, I think they will get stronger as season goes on and players develop more understanding of each other. As a kiwi living in Brisbane, I have hopes for Reds at times, I know with a pretty youthful team, they might just cause an upset or 2, as I tend to think young players can feed of a good start to a game, the old story sometimes they don’t have the experience to know they shouldn’t beat a team. Their season I think will depend on how good Thorns assistants are I think. Bumbies should fight it out with rebels for top spot, but I will still say that I think the Sunwolves may cause an upset or two, and could be the difference on who wins the conference.
      Other thing I will say, and again as a one eyed kiwi, there is no way I can imagine the same shamozzle where no Australian team beats any kiwi team again this year, I think regardless of how much pain it caused , dropping a team has made Australian conference stronger this year, and as rugby fan I say hallelujah!!

      • Columnist

        January 23rd 2018 @ 11:18am
        Brett McKay said | January 23rd 2018 @ 11:18am | ! Report

        Cheers Dan, I reckon they’re all valid thoughts of yours, too. On Thorn and his assistants, he and Paul Carozza have already developed a pretty handy partnership – successful, too – in not too much time, and I reckon that’s really exciting for the Reds…

    • January 23rd 2018 @ 7:05am
      KiwiHaydn said | January 23rd 2018 @ 7:05am | ! Report

      A win for any of them against a NZ team would be a good start Brett ?

    • January 23rd 2018 @ 7:17am
      Cynical Play said | January 23rd 2018 @ 7:17am | ! Report

      The great unknown(s) in all of this is how these promising players will play TOGETHER. We’ve seen Oz SR teams stacked with good players last year but performances were inconsistent and often the ‘whole’ was not better than the sum of the ‘parts’. The Tahs are the classic example I watched Toulon play Scarlets on the weekend; Toulon are stacked with Nanu, JP Peterson, Radradra and others, but they were outplayed by a spirited Welch group who played together and for each other…each man a cog in a well-drilled and hungry machine.

      Each Oz franchise has undergone significant change, the Tahs perhaps less so given they retain the coach, so I think many of the cards are yet to fall. I think the Rebels and Tahs have the more pressure – the Rebels because they are ‘stacked’ and already touted as the better team, and the Tahs because the coach has to deliver a winning season or else. The Tahs seem to have the most potential to hit the ground running given they retain much of attacking structure of last year, but….we’ll see. The Rebels and the Brumbies should both be 2 wins from 2 when they meet each other in Round 4.

      • January 23rd 2018 @ 8:31pm
        UKKiwi said | January 23rd 2018 @ 8:31pm | ! Report

        I think the key word in there was ‘Hungry’ – there seemed a distinct lack of hunger or desperation to get it right from the aussie sr teams, particularly later in the season. I really hope they pick it up for 2018.

    • Roar Guru

      January 23rd 2018 @ 7:25am
      Diggercane said | January 23rd 2018 @ 7:25am | ! Report

      Thank you Brett.

      It does feel kinda like a make or break year for Oz Rugby in Super this season and I agree, right or wrong the Rebels will certainly be seen as a barometer, another poor year in Melbourne certainly wont be welcomed.

      • January 23rd 2018 @ 9:00am
        Selector said | January 23rd 2018 @ 9:00am | ! Report

        Spot on Dig. For the first time the Rebels have significant expectations around them. Let’s see how they handle it. I personally think they will do well and will compete for the top spot in the Aussie conference.

      • Columnist

        January 23rd 2018 @ 11:19am
        Brett McKay said | January 23rd 2018 @ 11:19am | ! Report

        No, it won’t mate, definitely. Another poor year in Melbourne will become a year of ‘you cut the wrong side’ narrative, when Australian rugby more than anything else needs to start building and strengthening into the future…

        • Roar Pro

          January 23rd 2018 @ 1:25pm
          Crazy Horse said | January 23rd 2018 @ 1:25pm | ! Report

          A successful year for the Force heavy Rebels will also be “you cut the wrong team” because they did.

          • Roar Rookie

            January 23rd 2018 @ 1:37pm
            piru said | January 23rd 2018 @ 1:37pm | ! Report

            It won’t be so much the results on the field – although they must do well. It will be the Melbourne public’s response.

            We’ve been told the interest and the market is there – a team loaded with ex Force players, winning games and not drawing big crowds (at least bigger than the crowds in Perth) all year would be a catastrophe.

            • Roar Pro

              January 24th 2018 @ 1:50am
              robel said | January 24th 2018 @ 1:50am | ! Report

              When we start to see WA junior participation numbers drop off with no commensurate increase in vic numbers. When the vic rebels rugby season average spectators don’t match the WA rugby average season spectator numbers. When their season membership numbers don’t match the Force membership numbers. When the vic local content numbers don’t match the WA local content numbers. When the amount of money spent on the vic rebels becomes less than that spent on the Force, despite the Force being around for twice the number of years…

              Oh wait, none of these bench makes were met by the vic rebels and yet the Force was still cut.

              The Aust teams will beat the NZ teams more times this year (1 win is an infinite improvement), yet the damage done to Aust rugby over the next decades will never compensate for this appalling lack of vision by the “guardians” of the game in this country.

              In 3 years time when the “concentration effect” has worked through the system Aust rugby will once again be in the same position as 2017, but with 20% fewer players, with a smaller national footprint, fewer committed supporters and a worse TV deal as SA head north and NZ return to their NPC comp.

              • Roar Guru

                January 24th 2018 @ 10:35am
                jeznez said | January 24th 2018 @ 10:35am | ! Report

                well said Robel

            • January 26th 2018 @ 6:11am
              Redsfan1 said | January 26th 2018 @ 6:11am | ! Report

              It won’t be hard to get bigger crowds then in Perth.

        • January 23rd 2018 @ 3:30pm
          Andrew Browne said | January 23rd 2018 @ 3:30pm | ! Report

          They did cut the wrong team

        • January 23rd 2018 @ 9:37pm
          andrewM said | January 23rd 2018 @ 9:37pm | ! Report

          When the Rebels get a crowd of over 28,000 to a Home and Away game and have at least half of their run on team coming from Victoria I will concede that they cut the wrong team

    • January 23rd 2018 @ 7:49am
      Adsa said | January 23rd 2018 @ 7:49am | ! Report

      Starting the season strongly for the Reds would be good, the last couple of years they have looked clueless in the openers and off the pace. Hopefully Thorn has them revved up and ready to go.

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