For the next five months, it’s going to be much more fun being a Wallabies fan.
All Blacks fans, smug in the knowledge that the team for their World Cup defence later this year is pretty much settled and also clear favourites, can only pray each Super Rugby round that all their prized assets get through unscathed.
South Africa’s upset win over New Zealand in Wellington last year and near-miss against the All Blacks in Pretoria a few weeks later gave their selectors and fans a much clearer picture of who they’d like to pick in their World Cup starting side.
Argentina have a solid core of players who have been consistently selected in their squad for the past two years. And looking to Europe’s World Cup contenders, there are few starting spots among England, Ireland and even Wales – who are humming along on a 11-Test winning streak – that are up for grabs.
Of course, there’s always the potential that injuries strike that swiftly damage a country’s Cup campaign. But for the top-five World Cup contenders, selectors will favour stability and familiarity as they seek to cap their four-year plans by flying home from Japan with the Webb Ellis Cup.
The All Blacks, Ireland and England would probably like to start the World Cup next month.
They are like the HSC students who have put in all the hard work, been at the top of the class for years, blitzed the Year 11 exams and just want to sit the big ones.
The Wallabies are the capable and motivated Year 8 student who has endured some wayward years and find themselves cramming and clambering to get back to the top for final exams.
How many positions are as good as assured for the Wallabies? David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Will Genia, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau?
It’s why the Super Rugby season, which starts tonight, is sure to be intriguing for Aussie fans given the Wallabies’ woes.
So many positions are up for grabs. There’s some similarity to the Australian cricket team’s situation before the start of the most recent domestic season, with state batsmen knowing Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft’s spots needed to be filled for the Test series against India.
That carrot didn’t produce a flood of runs selectors were hoping for in the early Sheffield Shield rounds, but it’s nonetheless compelling to see who steps up and who struggles when opportunity arises.
Will Quade Cooper stick the middle finger up to Brad Thorn and light up the Melbourne Rebels? Can Isi Naisarani snap up a spot in the Wallabies back-row soon after becoming eligible for Australia?
Or will Lukhan Salakaia-Loto win back that jersey? Is it ridiculous to ponder the possibility of Karmichael Hunt at inside centre for the Wallabies? Or will Samu Kerevi go up a level? Will Tevita Kuridrani fight back to his best at No.13? The pace of Tom Banks could get him a World Cup start, right?
Do the Wallabies need Adam Ashley-Cooper’s class somewhere in the backline? Is Luke Jones an international second-rower? Is Jermaine Ainsley a prop contender? Is Taniela Tupou a starter or finisher? How good is Jordan Petaia?
Who will be victorious in the battle to become Wallabies hooker: Folau Fainga’a, Tolu Latu, Jordan Uelese or Brandon Paenga-Amosa?
It should also be noted that there isn’t just motivation for World Cup jerseys, but there’s also the lure of big-money deals to be signed later this year. Turn it on in Super Rugby, and cashed-up clubs in Europe and Japan will come knocking.
Twiggy Forrest’s Global Rapid Rugby are talking up a spending spree too.
The number of Australian players who are set to hit the open market is significant. Rory Arnold, Sam Carter, Nick Phipps and Curtis Rona have already announced they will be leaving for Europe at the end of the year. Genia, Pocock, Beale and Bernard Foley are off contract.
So are Dane Haylett-Petty, Kuridrani, Cooper, Henry Speight and Christian Lealiifano. Ashley-Cooper and Sekope Kepu will most likely retire.
But knowing that Sean McMahon and Will Skelton left Australian rugby at such a young age to chase the riches overseas, youngsters who are off contract – Adam Coleman, Kerevi, Scott Sio, Pete Samu – could easily opt to do the same.
The incentive is there for Australia’s Super Rugby players to make this season a belter and build momentum towards the World Cup.
And while they will all deny it, the four coaches will have probably already contemplated what a successful season would mean for their chances of taking over from Michael Cheika as Wallabies coach.