Sadly, Samu Kerevi and Sonny Bill Williams won’t be seen in Super Rugby this season but there are a few arrivals in the competition lining up as midfield bruiser candidates. The trio are all former NRL players.
Ben Te’o will be pulling on a Sunwolves jersey after six seasons in Europe, which included playing Test rugby in the centres for England, as well as the British and Irish Lions. Te’o won an NRL premiership as a back-rower with South Sydney in 2014 before joining Leinster in Ireland.
He’s proven himself as a midfield hardman in rugby union, and if it wasn’t for a training camp bust-up with Mike Brown, he probably would’ve been in Japan a few months ago for England’s World Cup campaign.
Solomone Kata signed a two-year deal with the Brumbies towards the end of last year. The 24-year-old centre played 93 NRL games for the Warriors but was released by the Kiwi club after a form slump and joined the Storm. He couldn’t break into the top side and chose to make the switch to rugby union.
Kata has been likened to bullocking Hurricanes centre Ngani Laumape, who left the Warriors in 2015 to return to rugby union. Kata has a similar physique to Laumape – low to the ground – and will add much-needed power to the Brumbies’ backline as a No.12 inside Tevita Kuridrani.
The third centre who looms as a candidate to make a mark in his first Super Rugby season is Tepai Moeroa.
Moeroa announced in the middle of last year that he would be leaving the NRL after racking up 112 games for the Parramatta Eels to switch back to rugby union at the Waratahs. Moeroa played nine times in the centres for the Australian schoolboys in 2012 and 2013 – where he played with the likes of Jack Dempsey, Reece Hodge, Ned Hanigan and Tom Robertson – before choosing to have a crack in the NRL.
At the Waratahs, there’s been plenty of movement in the backline ranks. Bernard Foley, Israel Folau, Nick Phipps, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Curtis Rona have departed for overseas clubs. The late recruitment of Jack Maddocks from the Melbourne Rebels got plenty of attention, and he’s likely to slot in at fullback to cover Folau’s exit.
Cam Clark and Alex Newsome look like they’ll start on the wing. Much is expected from halfback Jake Gordon.
So who starts at five-eighth and in the centres?
Kurtley Beale looks like he’ll head back to No.10, unless Mack Mason makes a big impression in the two trials. Mason has spent the last three seasons as five-eighth understudy to Foley, but with so many player movements and new coach Rob Penney most likely keen to keep it conservative early in his first season, Beale is set to start outside Gordon.
That would leave Moeroa, Karmichael Hunt and Lalakai Foketi to fight it out for starting spots in the centres. Moeroa is reportedly tracking well, and given he’s making the transition as NRL forward to rugby union centre, he has lost around six kilograms to improve his agility. That still makes him a tough opponent to handle at about 105kg and over six-foot tall, and with impressive speed.
But illness meant Moeroa has been left out of the team to face the Highlanders in the Tahs’ first trial at Leichhardt Oval tonight. Hunt will start at No.12 and Foketi outside him. There’s no Beale and no Maddocks, but Gordon is at No.9, Mason is at five-eighth, Clark and Newsome are on the wing and Mark Nawaqanitawase is at fullback.
That leaves Moeroa with one last chance in a trial to stake a claim for inclusion in the Tahs’ team for the first Super Rugby clash against the Crusaders in Nelson. The Waratahs face the Queensland Reds in Dalby next week, and Penney will be hoping to pick his strongest starting team.
Is one trial game enough for Moeroa to get the nod for Nelson? It would be a big gamble, especially against the Crusaders. The defending champions have been hit hard by player departures too but still boast a classy squad.
Moeroa has said he’s been training at No.12 and No.13. He could get picked apart at outside centre given the tough defensive decisions the position demands, particularly at set-piece time.
Lining up against Jordan Petaia in the Reds trial would be a big test. If Moeroa got through that, perhaps Penney would be comfortable starting him against the Crusaders. A Hunt-Moeroa centre combination looms as an appealing option.
It will be intriguing to see how the Brumbies and Waratahs handle Kata and Moeroa. Te’o has proven himself in rugby union, although not in Super Rugby.
Kata and Moeroa are junior rugby union stars returning after solid stints in the NRL. They might be eased back into the game via the bench, but Brumbies coach Dan McKellar and Penney will be hoping to use their abrasiveness in the midfield sooner rather than later.
Eddie Jones used George Ford and Owen Farrell as dual playmakers a fair bit during the World Cup, but most coaches yearn for power in the midfield, especially at inside centre.
The Waratahs got their man in Maddocks to fill the crucial fullback spot, but Moeroa’s recruitment might turn out to be just as valuable this season.