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Could 2019 yield the closest Australian conference yet?

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Expert
11th February, 2019
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Well, it’s the second week of February, and like it or lump it, the 2019 Super Rugby season is upon us.

Am I ready for it? God, no!

I’m as underdone as more than a few senior Wallabies, and I’m going into the season with two trial games’ worth of commentary under my belt. I remember off-seasons; they used to allow a gradual build-up to the new season…

But as I kicked off some serious cramming over the weekend, one common thing kept coming back to me: I think this looms as a really tough Super Rugby season to predict across the board.

And further than that, does anyone else think the Australian conference might be the closest its every been in 2019?

As I looked through the squads for the year, I was left with only questions. And that kind of feels about right in the second week of February.

Will the Rebels be as good as their list suggests they should be?
With some serious concerns around just how close to a return to action Wallabies hooker Jordan Uelese is, the front row department appears to be the only visible chink in the Rebels armour this season.

And even that seems a bit harsh, with Tetera Faulkner and Jermaine Ainsley certainly in the Rugby World Cup frame, and Fereti Sa’aga, Sam Talakai, and Ben Daley more than capable backups at this level. But, when viewed alongside the number of internationals in other positions, it’s obvious conclusion to draw.

The Quade Cooper storyline will bubble along all year, obviously, and I certainly can’t wait to see him up close and personal this Friday night in Canberra. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Luke Jones returning home from France to add to the Rugby World Cup selection headache will prove to be a bigger factor for the Rebels this year.

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Will Genia

Will Genia of the Rebels. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Adam Coleman and Matt Philip is already a formidable second row pairing, but throwing Jones in the mix only adds all new starch to the Rebels’ pack. Isi Naisarani will provide all the same highlights as Amanaki Mafi did last year but without the beating up of teammates, and Angus Cottrell and Richard Hardwick should round out a quality backrow.

And the backs just don’t need listing, because it’s already intriguing to think how Dave Wessels is going to fit them all into his available places.

It all should point to the Rebels taking the step well and truly into the finals mix this season, and really, a list like that should be aiming to top the conference.

Is simplicity the key to unleashing the running Brumbies?
I said it a fair bit last season, and it’s interesting to hear Brumbies players and coaches conceding that they did indeed find themselves battling with default positions and being caught between the style they once played and the style the were trying to play.

Twelve months on, and with an NRC campaign for many of the players and another full pre-season for the rest under their collective belts, the Brumbies are confident the way they finished the 2018 season is the default for how they’ll play in 2019.

Certainly, they’ve show in their opening trials that won’t kick anywhere near as much in 2019 as they did in recent years, as well as a genuine sparking up and quickly shifting into counter attack when they find themselves with turnover ball. They’re playing a lot simpler, and we’ll find out on Friday night if that trial form has carried over.

Their set piece game remains strong, and James Slipper is going to slot in nicely alongside Scott Sio and Allan Ala’alatoa up front. Irae Simone in the centres with Tevita Kuridrani seems to be bringing out the best in both of them.

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But the backrow and back-three selections are going to be mad; enough for Dan McKellar to admit he’ll need “a massive box of Nurofen” heading into Round 1. Some quality players are going to miss out, with makes the Brumbies a curious subject to observe over these first few weeks.

How long with the Waratahs need to warm up?
As great as it was to see the likes of Jack Dempsey and Jed Holloway and Mack Mason getting decent game time in their Goulburn trial against the Brumbies last week, it was hard to miss the sight of Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Damien Fitzpatrick, and Michael Hooper leaning on the fence in their ‘civvies’ watching on.

And they weren’t alone, with nearly a dozen front-liners sitting the trials out. Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Rob Simmons, Israel Folau, and Kurtley Beale are all yet to pull on the Tahs jersey properly in 2019, coming into Round 1 with training track form only.

In fairness, there are plenty of Wallabies around the country in the same boat, but no one team will have as many senior players blowing out the cobwebs this weekend.

Israel Folau

Israel Folau of the Waratahs and Kurtley Beale of the Waratahs celebrate victory (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

So what sort of effect will this have on the Tahs over, say, the first month of the competition? Will they effectively be using their Round 3 bye as their starting point, with everyone fit and firing again for the Queensland grudge match at the SCG in Round 4? After that Reds game, they face the Brumbies in Canberra before welcoming the Crusaders to Sydney; there really isn’t much time for easing into the season.

It will be really interesting to see how the Waratahs manage this and the need to rest key Wallabies in the lead-up to the Rugby World Cup. Could it be the difference between them playing finals and not?

Can the baggage-free young Reds step up?
Based on no first-hand pre-season observations at all, I just have a funny feeling about the Queensland Reds this season?

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Will they top the conference? Probably not. Will they make the finals? Maybe.

But the final ‘cleansing’ from their list of an exiled player – Karmichael Hunt to the Waratahs, in this case – means the Reds can just concentrate on playing rugby in 2019, and without the constant questioning of when Quade will be picked again hanging over their campaign.

Brad Thorn will be happy with this, and no doubt the playing group will be, too. Finally, they can just get on with it.

Brad Thorn

Brad Thorn has copped some criticism, but the Reds look a better side in 2018 (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

A year on in the progression, their combinations will be better, and the addition of Peter Ryan as defence coach is going to make a huge difference to how they front up without the ball.

Gaining Sefanaia Naivalu adds spark out wide, but the unlikely trump could be that of Bryce Hegarty, who the Reds received in a swap deal when Hunt made his move south. For one month of selection boldness, it was the starting of the unheralded Hegarty at fullback that allowed Israel Folau to play some of his best rugby in the last few seasons from the right wing for the Waratahs (a move the national coach repeated later in the year with Dane Haylett-Petty, and for much the same reason).

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Hamish Stewart has gained another year of experience, and he’ll hold the key to making the most of Samu Kerevi, Jordan Petaia, and Chris Feauai-Sautia across the three-quarter line. And they still have a swag of scrumhalves. I still don’t really know how James Tuttle – who I still think will captain the Reds – has fallen down the pecking order.

Will the Rugby World Cup on home soil awake the Sunwolves from their slumber?
One constant at the start of a Super Rugby season is the feeling of ‘anything is possible’ about the Sunwolves, and with another influx of pretty handy Kiwis answering Tony Brown’s call, it’s hard to see how their best season in the competition isn’t about to arrive.

And that might be bloody timely, too, with the odd peep here and there suggesting that they might be on the chopping block, should SANZAAR look to contract their way to improvement again.

Ed Quirk

Ed Quirk of Sunwolves (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images for Sunwolves)

But the names; oh, but the names! Pauliasi Manu, Sam Prattley, little-known but well-regarded Australian backrower Ben Gunter; Hendrik Tui, Dan and Kara Pryor, Rene Ranger! Sean McMahon’s name disappeared after injury almost as soon as it appeared.

A strong season from the mighty Moondogs would make for a heck of lead-in for the World Cup, and it might just give Super Rugby an unexpected lift, to boot. A whole different kind of party at Tony Brown’s, if you will.

Perhaps that’s the biggest question for this upcoming season – what’s going to be the spark to breathe new life in the competition?

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We find out from this Friday. Whether I’m ready or not.