The 2019 Super Rugby season is barely over a month away and excitement is reaching fever pitch.
A much-needed break from rugby was taken through December as this passionate Reds and Wallabies fan tried to leave behind the year that was, but with 2019 in full swing I could find no better outlet for my anticipation than going through my thoughts on each conference and analysing the squad depth and expectations for each team.
In going through the ins and outs of each team, I had a look at something a little different than my usual approach. Instead of designing a preferred match-day 23 I wanted to inspect the depth of each team. I wanted to look at how each respective squad could be split across two rough XVs, helping to give an idea about how each side may fare if certain players were to be injured or otherwise unavailable.
This is what I came up with for the Australian conference:
The Brumbies have said goodbye to a host of players off the back of their best attacking year in quite some time.
Losing Ben Alexander, Nic Mayhew and Robbie Abel removes a decent chunk of front row experience, they lose a great deal of height with Richie Arnold heading overseas and a great deal of unrealised potential with Kyle Godwin and James Dargaville also leaving the club.
The biggest loss, however, comes in the form of Isi Naisarani to the rival Rebels. The big, ball-carrying backrower was responsible for a lot of front-foot ball and five of their tries they scored throughout the 2018 campaign. To lose that talent to another team in their conference is a tough pill to swallow for Brumbies fans.
Attracting the likes of New Zealand Super Rugby players Toni Pulu, Murray Douglas and Pete Samu, who has already firmed as a Wallaby, is a great haul. Equally impressive is the shoring up of the 10-12-13 channels with Bayley Kuenzle, Len Ikitau, Noah Lolesio, Irae Simone and Tom Wright all joining the Brumbies squad.
The biggest gain, however, goes to James Slipper. In a year where Wallabies player resting has already been hyped, the ability to call upon James Slipper to cover current Wallabies props Scott Sio and Allan Alaalatoa will prove invaluable.
Most important player
David Pocock. Not because the rest of the team is gelled – the 10-12 spots definitely need firming – but because few other players in the entire competition can do what he can in the breakdown. With a RWC ahead and neck injuries still lingering, keeping Pocock healthy and as involved as possible will be a tough juggling act for the Brumbies to deal with.
Predicted conference finish: 2nd
1 Scott Sio, James Slipper
2 Folau Fainga’a, Connal McInerney
3 Allan Alaalatoa, Les Makin
4 Rory Arnold, Sam Carter
5 Blake Enever, Murray Douglas
6 Pete Samu, Tom Cusack
7 David Pocock, Lachlan McCaffrey
8 Rob Valetini, Ben Hyne
9 Joe Powell, Matt Lucas
10 Wharenui Hawera, Bayley Kuenzle
11 Toni Pulu, Henry Speight
12 Christian Lealiifano, Tom Wright
13 Tevita Kuridrani, Len Ikitau/Irae Simone
14 Chance Peni, Lausii Taliauli
15 Tom Banks, Andy Muirhead
Saying goodbye to Laurie Weeks and Geoff Parling through retirement removes a lot of experience, though both will continue to assist the Rebels off the field.
On top of that pair, the Rebels will lose the services of Jack McGregor, David Horwitz and Henry Hutchison. All decent players in their own right, but none of them made it onto the field in 2018, so the bigger losses come in the form of Colby Fainga’a, Lopeti Timani and Sefa Naivalu, the latter migrating north to the Reds.
Beyond this cohort though, the services of Amanaki Mafi will have the biggest impact. Perhaps happy to see the back of him given his off-field behaviour at the end of the Rebels’ season, there is no questioning he was the best attacking player they had in their roster, which is no small feat given the squad.
Mees Erasmus helps strengthen the propping depth after time with the Brumbies while Hugh Roach and Brad Wilkin join from the Waratahs as a hooker and backrower respectively. Isi Naisarani has been brought in as a direct swap for Mafi and Matt Toomua and Campbell Magnay have been lured back to Australia from overseas.
Toomua may have been the biggest signing if his services were available from the start of the year, but it’s the high-profile Quade Cooper, with over 100 caps of Super Rugby experience, who tops the list as the biggest grab.
In a move that seems as exciting for Australian rugby as it does for Melbourne rugby, Quade’s year of exile is over following a Rebel lifeline. There’s a lot of expectation, but there’s a lot of potential to match that depending on which Cooper turns up.
Most important player
This is a bit of a cop out here, but I’m going to assign the entire front row to this section. The Rebels contain such a strong squad and look dangerous in nearly every position except in the front row.
While they are all technically Wallabies, Tetera Faulkner, Jordan Uelese and Jermaine Ainsley are not yet the finished package and in order for the Rebels to play at their best, they will need their set piece to be solid and some great front-foot ball on offer for Will Genia, Cooper and the outside backs to utilise.
Predicted conference finish: 1st
1 Jermaine Ainsley, Fereti Sa’aga
2 Jordan Uelese, Hugh Roach
3 Tetera Faulkner, Sam Talakai
4 Adam Coleman, Sam Jeffries
5 Matt Philip, Ross Haylett-Petty
6 Luke Jones, Rob Leota
7 Angus Cottrell, Brad Wilkin
8 Isi Naisarani, Richard Hardwick
9 Will Genia, Michael Ruru
10 Quade Cooper, Matt Toomua
11 Marika Koroibete, Semisi Tupou
12 Bill Meakes, Sione Tuipolotu
13 Reece Hodge, Tom English
14 Jack Maddocks, Campbell Magnay
15 Dane Haylett-Petty, n/a
The biggest loss is the experience of George Smith with no established seven prepared, but Izaia Perese is a close second as he had the potential to be real star had he stayed in the sport.
The experience of Jono Lance, Eto Nabuli and Ben Lucas going isn’t ideal either, but they weren’t game changers and despite the big names of James Slipper, Karmichael Hunt and Quade Cooper leaving for other Super Rugby sides, they weren’t going to be used at the Reds under Brad Thorn, so it doesn’t come across as much of a loss.
Sef Fa’agase, Andrew Ready and Kane Douglas also all moved on after realising they were moving down the pecking order under Thorn. The unused services of Michael Gunn, Reece Hewat, Markus Vanzati, Lachlan Maranta and Jayden Ngamanu have resulted in them leaving too, but again, it doesn’t seem like a loss when they weren’t being used.
True to Thorn’s ethos, the continued belief in hard-working youngsters has been further realised with the signings of Gavin Luka, Efi Ma’afu, Fraser McReight, Harry Wilson, Jock Campbell and Will Eadie from the NRC.
While this is great to support the local talent, it doesn’t do much to excite fans of a struggling side. A small stir was caused by signing a Kiwi flyhalf in the form of Matt McGahan, which can’t be a bad thing, but the biggest asset is the fast pace and finishing ability of Sefa Naivalu.
2018 saw the impressive attacking nous of Filipo Daugunu and Jordan Petaia joining the likes of Samu Kerevi in the line-breaking, tackle-busting ranks, so it seems the Reds will be hoping that Naivalu can offer more of the same.
Most important player
Samu Kerevi again looms as the talismanic representation of what the Reds could be. One of the best attacking players in the competition, Kerevi suffered a sling of injuries that kept him from his best for chunks of 2018.
The Reds will have an onus on unrelenting defence under Brad Thorn, but will need to cross the try-line too in a competition like Super Rugby, so the services of Kerevi are second to none in the backline for when it comes to damaging running and getting over the advantage line.
Predicted conference finish: 4th
1 JP Smith, Harry Hoopert
2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Alex Mafi
3 Taniela Tupou, Ruan Smith
4 Izack Rodda, Angus Blyth
5 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Harry Hockings
6 Caleb Timu, Angus Scott-Young
7 Liam Wright, Adam Korczyk
8 Scott Higginbotham, Harry Wilson
9 Tate McDermott, Moses Sorovi
10 Hamish Stewart, Matt McGahan
11 Filipo Daugunu, Jock Campbell
12 Samu Kerevi, Duncan Paia’aua
13 Jordan Petaia, Chris Feauai-Sautia
14 Sefa Naivalu, Will Eadie
15 Bryce Hegarty, Aidan Toua
The Waratahs have done a superb job of retaining the bulk of their talent, although will need to be a bit more aggressive in signing new talent and using the rest of their squad if they want to keep improving.
They lose a lot of experience in Paddy Ryan, but the only regular starter they are going without in 2019 is Taqele Naiyaravoro, a huge loss both in terms of size and what he offers to the NSW backline. Andrew Kellaway has also joined Naiyaravoro overseas and NSW have lost both Hugh Roach and Brad Wilkin to the Rebels.
Beyond that, Irae Simone, Michael Snowden, Kelly Meafua, Kalivati Tawake and Matt Sandell have also departed the club, but even devout rugby followers may not know these names as they went unused through 2018.
Details are still being ironed out regarding the acquisition of Karmichael Hunt and Adam Ashley-Cooper at the time of writing, but the biggest signing at the moment appears to be the young South African lock Le Roux Roets, who is a huge frame coming in at a much needed position for the Waratahs who never really finalised their best loose five during the 2018 campaign.
Rory O’Connor comes in at prop and John Folau, who should be good based on genetics alone, joins as an outside back.
Most important player
There are a few players that come to mind here and although Bernard Foley, Michael Hooper, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau present as the biggest names, the player who has the biggest role for me is Jake Gordon.
The recent history of the side has seen him fight for game time with Nick Phipps, a serviceable, but perhaps not ‘game-changing’ halfback.
This split of game time has limited Gordon’s chances of an appearance in the gold jersey and I think what he offers in terms of zip, service and creativity could be enough to ignite an already dangerous Tahs backline and help a struggling Wallabies side down the track.
Predicted conference finish: 3rd
1 Tom Robertson, Harry Johnson-Holmes
2 Tolu Latu, Damien Fitzpatrick
3 Sekope Kepu, Shambeckler Vui
4 Rob Simmons, Le Roux Roets
5 Ned Hanigan, Ryan McCauley
6 Jack Dempsey, Tom Staniforth
7 Michael Hooper, Will Miller
8 Jed Holloway, Michael Wells
9 Jake Gordon, Nick Phipps
10 Bernard Foley, Mack Mason
11 Curtis Rona, Alex Newsome
12 Kurtley Beale, n/a
13 Lalakai Foketi, n/a
14 Cameron Clark, John Folau
15 Israel Folau, Karmichael Hunt
Coach Daryl Gibson
at the time of writing, the current squad has not been finalised, so not all players who won’t be returning have been listed.
In contrast to the lack of absentees, the signings made by the Sunwolves have been impressive and abundant, especially in the forwards. The biggest name is the much sought-after signature of Sean McMahon, one of the fiercest ball carriers Australia has had on offer.
Throw in the services of Pauliasi Manu, Sam Prattley, Mark Abbott, Dan Pryor, Hendrik Tui and Kara Pryor and you have a Sunwolves pack with a distinctly more New Zealand and Super Rugby-experienced feel about them.
The backline has also been bolstered thanks to the New Zealand influence of coaches Tony Brown and former head Jamie Joseph by luring across impressive players in the form of Jamie Booth, Phil Burleigh and Rene Ranger.
Most important player
The most important player will continue to be Hayden Parker, followed closely by their leader Michael Leitch.
Parker proved what a difference one player could make with his agile darting around and impeccable kicking game proving the difference in any game where the Sunwolves looked dangerous or imposing.
However, if they are to push forward as a competitive team in a tournament that often dismisses them as an easy-beat, it will be a team effort. The Sunwolves remain a composition of impressive individuals and flashes of brilliance, but to firm their place they need to be greater than the sum of their parts, a challenge still likely too big for this particular outfit.
Predicted conference finish: 5th
1 Keita Inagaki, Pauliasi Manu
2 Shota Horie, Jaba Bregvadze
3 Koo Ji-Won, Sam Prattley
4 Kazuki Himeno, Grant Hattingh
5 Mark Abbott, James Moore
6 Sean McMahon, Ed Quirk
7 Lappies Labuschagne, Kara Pryor
8 Michael Leitch, Hendrik Tui
9 Fumiaka Tanaka, Jamie Booth
10 Hayden Parker, Yu Tamura
11 Kenki Fukuoka, Jamie Henry
12 Michael Little, Phil Burleigh
13 Rene Ranger, Ryoto Nakamura
14 Akihito Yamada, Lomano Lemeki
15 Kotaro Matsushima, Jason Emery
All player opinion and team suggestions are of course subjective, so feel free to throw around ideas for how you’d like your respective teams to look and what you happen to be most excited or concerned about.
Not long to go now!