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What do we know about the Australian conference ahead of Round 1?

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Expert
27th January, 2020
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Ready or not, here we come. Super Rugby Round 1 is now just days away and after the last set of trial games, coaches will either be entering a short period of contentment about what their pre-season programs have delivered, or starting the panic that things haven’t quite gone to plan.

Trail game results are generally met with the same response, but it can mean very different things.

“It’s only a trial game,” a coach with a grin on his face will say after his side has turned in a really impressive performance, with some of their new methods producing some fruit, and probably winning comfortably in a way that their fans are really happy about.

Super Rugby draw and fixtures 2020
“It’s only a trial” will often be followed with something like, “we’re not getting too carried away”.

The Brumbies’ Dan McKellar and Queensland’s Brad Thorn certainly fall into this category after some promising signs coming out of their respective trials.

The other perspective comes from the coach on the receiving end of those trial results.

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“It’s only a trial game,” he’ll say after his side has looked a bit lost at times, the combinations might not be quite as well developed as he’d hoped, and in the back of his mind is the sinking sensation that he’s still got a bit of work to do before Round 1, and now there’s just not that much time in which to do it.

This coach will follow “it’s only a trial” with a variation of “there’s no need to panic”. Exactly zero supporters will heed this advice. Many will have already missed this advice in their rush to fire up the keyboard.

Melbourne Rebels coach Dave Wessels and new Waratahs mentor Rob Penney found themselves at this point after a couple of results that confirmed a lot of worst fears.

So, what do we know about the Australian conference teams?

Well, the Brumbies are still going to be strong up front, with a number of their tries against the Rebels in Albury finding their origin from set piece, and yes, the rolling maul was still prominent.

But while young flyhalf Noah Lolesio will probably still get the nod and the first crack at the number ten this Friday night in Canberra, it’s fair to say that Bayley Kuenzle isn’t far behind him at all.

Noah Lolesio in action for the Canberra Vikings

Noah Lolesio will be looking to graduate into Super Rugby this season. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

While Lolesio might have learnt some timely lessons about over-playing in the first, particularly in the Brumbies’ own half, Kuenzle showed some really nice touches in attack as the game opened up in the second 40. I don’t think it will be an either/or situation at ten for the Brumbies this year.

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They could be best served by a horses-for-courses approach. I could even see Kuenzle playing at 12, in fact.

Back row is going to remain a strength, clearly, with new recruit Will Miller showing he’s going to be a very handy addition.

The Melbourne Rebels ran a very under-strength side in their first trial against the Reds, and then returned their Wallabies contingent and their obvious first XV players for the Brumbies game.

It became equally obvious in both games that there’s a significant gulf between their top team and the rest of their squad.

Mystery and injury surround their front row stocks though, with front-rower Mees Erasmus playing hooker and throwing into the lineout about as well as most props do. Jordan Uelese didn’t play a lot last year, and looks to be starting 2020 with a question mark as well.

Michael Wells showed that he could be a handy pick-up, although I’m not sure where the likes of Richard Hardwick and Brad Wilkin sit. After yet more off-season recruitment, the Rebels seem to have more back-rowers than any of the other three Australian squads.

Fijian scrumhalf Frank Lomani and Wallabies midfielder Matt Toomua looked serviceable for a first outing, and similarly, Billy Meakes and Reece Hodge looked pretty solid in the centres. You’d just like to hope that they’re now given a solid run together as a centre pairing.

Reece Hodge of the Rebels

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

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But the worry for the Rebels this season is the same as the worry for the Rebels this time last season.

If they lose players in key positions, the Albury trials – there were two games played to give both the Rebels’ and Brumbies’ full squads a hit out – showed that the gap between the Rebels first XV players and the rest of their squad is stark.

That’s worrying, especially when this needs to be the season they live up to their potential.

All the talk in Queensland after a couple of impressive trial wins – the most recent being the 28-19 victory over the Waratahs last Friday – hasn’t been about how they’ve solved their ridiculously healthy back-row conundrum, but rather the connection of what already looks to be a settled back line.

Where in 2019 the Reds’ attack could be best summarised as just give it to Kerevi – a variation of the same plan the Waratahs used for years with a former fullback – this year the Reds are positively brimming with enthusiasm about the James O’Connor-Jordan Petaia combination.

Petaia credits the time he spent with O’Connor in the Wallabies World Cup squad for what has him ready to kick on in 2020, and that idea is enough for any Reds fans to get excited about.

Jordan Petaia

(Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

O’Connor, for his part, is excited about the prospect of slotting in between Petaia and Isaac Lucas on his inside, the three combining for a level of midfield creativity and subtlety not seen for several seasons.

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Tate McDermott is the obvious first-choice scrumhalf, and the back three unit of Jock Campbell on one wing and Bryce Hegarty at fullback looks like it will be nicely complemented by the addition of Henry Speight. I’m excited to see how well that back line fires.

New South Wales looked a bit underwhelming in that trial in Dalby, and new coach Rob Penney didn’t miss in his assessment of the forwards performance, offering: “Our scrum was okay at times and then faltered at times, at critical moments too.”

He lamented some “soft moments” before giving an indication that some tough work was in front of the Waratahs forwards.

“It’s the heart and soul of your team, your set piece, and we did hit some wobbles,” he said after the match.

“I think we’re good enough to be better, we just weren’t tonight. And there’ll be some repercussions for that.”

The Waratahs’ starting pack for the Reds trial was Tom Robertson and Harry Johnson-Holmes either side of Robbie Abel up front, Tom Staniforth and new skipper Rob Simmons in the second row, and a loose trio of Jack Dempsey, Michael Hooper, and Jed Holloway. I’ll be fascinated to see if these repercussions last all the way through to the first team announcement of the season later this week.

One thing we do know is that Ned Hanigan remains out of action. He picked up a nasty concussion during the NRC and then had a recurrence soon after, which put him on a nil-contact recovery program.

At the time, it meant it would’ve been mid-January before he could resume contact training, but the coach last week indicated that Hanigan is still a way off yet.

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Ned Hanigan of the Waratahs looks on

(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

“He’s not far away. He’s really improving out of sight and he’s very well but we’re taking medical advice that he’s not quite right yet,” Penney said.

Mack Mason’s groin injury and Kurtley Beale playing 70 minutes all but confirms that the he’ll start at flyhalf. I’m sure I’m not alone in looking forward to being surprised at how well it works.

What do we know about the Sunwolves? Well, the term all stars came to mind when I first saw their squad.

Chris Eves, Conraad van Vuuren, Hencus van Wyk, Jaba Bregvadze, Leni Apisai, Tom Rowe, Ben Hyne, Brendon O’Connor, Mitch Jacobson, Onehunga Kaufusi, Jake Schatz, Rudy Paige, Garth April, Jordan Jackson-Hope and James Dargaville among others have all played Super Rugby. JJ Engelbrecht and Ben Te’o have played international rugby.

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They don’t have a coach, strangely, but this squad can just play with the absolute freedom of a team that knows they probably won’t play together again. Which, if we’re honest, is what happens with the Sunwolves pretty much every year.

There’s a lot of love for the Moondogs, and I still think the Japanese union have erred massively in pulling for their funding after this year with their proposed new professional league suddenly a long way off again, but they really could be anything this season.

But what of the other conferences? This is where we need the input from Roarers outside Australia, and this of course is where The Roar comes into its own.

Is this going to be the year for the Blues again? Has Warren Gatland got the Chiefs humming already?

Are the Bulls really trotting out Morne Steyn at ten again? And have the Stormers been able to pay the bills over Christmas?

Round 1 is here. Ready or not, here we come.

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