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Opinion

The Australian Super Rugby Championship XV challenge

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Expert
13th April, 2020
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Right then, enough with the off-field power struggles and boardroom shenanigans, in these times of crisis, it’s time to return to our roots: selecting fictional teams!

But this isn’t going to your bog standard ‘Pick your best ever Australian Super Rugby XV’. Oh no, this is going much more focussed than that.

And you won’t be able to just pick fifteen individuals, either. That’s where the challenge element comes into it. More on that shortly.

Australian teams have played in ten Super Rugby Finals all up, winning four titles. And they’ve played in another twelve losing semi-finals across eleven different seasons.

The Brumbies lead the way with two titles in 2001 and 2004, and they played in another four Finals, while losing another four semi-finals, the most recent being last season to the Jaguares in Argentina.

The Waratahs one title came in 2014, and they also lost finals in 2005 and 2008. And they’ve lost five semi-finals all up, the last in 2018.

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The Reds’ 2011 title was their only appearance in a final, while they lost three semi-finals between 1996 and 2001.

Much has been said about Australia having a poor record in Super Rugby, but four titles, ten appearances in finals and another twelve semi-final appearances over 25 years is not terrible.

In those four Championship sides, there was some serious talent. And all four were genuinely great sides, too; any team that goes all the way generally is. But more importantly, all four teams had really good units and combinations within their respective teams.

And this is where the challenge comes into it.

Australia’s Championship-winning XVs

2001 Brumbies 2004 Brumbies 2011 Reds 2014 Waratahs
15 Andrew Walker Joe Roff Jono Lance Israel Folau
14 Graeme Bond Clyde Rathbone Rodney Davies Alofa Alofa
13 James Holbeck Joel Wilson Anthony Fainga’a Adam Ashley-Cooper
12 Rod Kafer Matt Giteau Ben Tapuai Kurtley Beale
11 Joe Roff Mark Gerrard Digby Ioane Rob Horne
10 Stephen Larkham Stephen Larkham Quade Cooper Bernard Foley
9 George Gregan(c) George Gregan Will Genia (vc) Nick Phipps
8 Jim Williams Scott Fava Radike Samo Wycliff Palu
7 George Smith George Smith Beau Robinson Michael Hooper (c)
6 Peter Ryan Owen Finegan (c) Scott Higginbotham Stephen Hoiles
5 David Giffin Radike Samo James Horwill (c) Jacques Potgieter
4 Justin Harrison Mark Chisholm Rob Simmons Kane Douglas
3 Ben Darwin Nic Henderson Greg Holmes Sekope Kepu
2 Jeremy Paul Jeremy Paul Saia Fainga’a Tatafu Polota-Nau
1 Bill Young Bill Young Ben Daley Benn Robinson

The Challenge
This is how it works. Pick your best XV from the four Championship starting sides, but not individual players.

• You need to break each XV into units, and how you create the units is up to you: whole backlines or combinations – back five and halves, or back three and midfield and halves. Similarly, whole scrums or combinations – back row and tight five, or the three rows separately.
• Which means while you can break the units up how you like, you have to be able to make a complete XV.
• The important bit: you can only pick one unit from the four Championship XVs.

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My thinking
This sounds easy enough, and I can imagine that my strategy of starting with a certain player within a unit will be a common one.

For me, the team was always going to be built around the Brumbies’ halves of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham. But 2001 Gregan and Larkham, or 2004 Gregan and Larkham? That’s when you start having to look elsewhere.

George Gregan and Stephen Larkham of the Wallabies thank fans

George Gregan and Stephen Larkham: two Wallabies legends who honed their combination in Super Rugby. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Part of my thinking of specifying halves was there wasn’t a midfield/halves unit that stood out for me. So I then started looking at back five units to go with the halves.

And this is where the Reds of 2011 did stand out. The halves combination of Quade Cooper and Will Genia got all the headlines, but their centre pairing of Ben Tapuai and Anthony Fainga’a was unheralded in attack and especially in defence.

Add some genuine speedsters out wide in Digby Ioane and Rod Davies – who’s still playing Sevens now, nine years on – and just a proper footballer at fullback in Jono Lance, and that’s a pretty solid unit right there.

I was always leaning towards a backrow/tight five breakup, and as much as I loved that Brumbies tight five of 2001 – most of them going on to knock off the British and Irish Lions that year – there was simply no way I was leaving George Smith out of a selection like this.

When you remember the Brumbies pack of 2004, Owen Finegan was still at his annoying best prior to heading to Newcastle in England the following season. And Scott Fava at no.8 was truly underrated in that side, too, but did so much of the hard work.

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So the 2004 Brumbies backrow is in, which in turn means it’s the 2001 Gregan-Larkham combination getting the nod.

And that leaves the 2014 Waratahs tight five, which is almost worthy on its own just for the inclusion of South African wrecking ball, Jacques Potgieter. Kane Douglas was no slouch beside him, and it was an all-Wallabies front row as well. It’s actually not a bad pack to be left with.

Final team
Back five: Jono Lance, Rodney Davies, Anthony Fainga’a, Ben Tapuai, Digby Ioane (2011 Reds)
Halves: Stephen Larkham, George Gregan (2001 Brumbies)
Backrow: Scott Fava, George Smith, Owen Finegan (2004 Brumbies)
Tight five: Jacques Potgieter, Kane Douglas, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson (2014 Waratahs)

Western Force and Wallabies hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau. (Image: Hpeterswald CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tatafu Polota-Nau was always a dedicated club man. (Image: Hpeterswald CC BY-SA 4.0)

For the Kiwis and Saffas
I’m keen to see this played out to Australia’s east and west, so it’s over to you guys in New Zealand and South Africa.

Of course, it’s a bit easier for South Africa: picking one unit each out of the 2007 Bulls, the 2009 Bulls, and the 2010 Bulls. Which Morne Steyn will make the cut?

The Kiwis I’ll be interested in. All five teams have won titles, so I want you to pick one unit from one (or the one) Championship side from each franchise.

Obviously centre pairings or second row specifications will be required to create a fifth unit. I’ll try and have a crack at this in the comments myself.

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Arguments about which virtually identical Crusaders unit beats another one should be very entertaining! (Also means you can have Dan Carter or Richie McCaw, but not both.)

And keep an eye out for next week, where we’ll go all-in across all three countries and 25 years of Super Rugby Champions.

Find a complete list of Super Rugby Champions here.