With Super Rugby AU fast approaching, I was drawn to ponder how the various teams will approach the competition.
For the Brumbies it looks straightforward: continue their excellent season to date. They are undoubtedly the front runners, looking settled and having put in several excellent performances this season.
Dan McKellar has had a blow losing Cadeyrn Neville to injury but acted quickly and brought former Brumby and current Sunwolf Ben Hyne in. Blake Enever, Lachlan McCaffrey and Allan Alaalatoa should all be back after their own injury issues.
The Rebels and Reds were equal second on the Aussie Super Rugby ladder before the break and have slightly different challenges to step their game up to the Brumbies.
The Reds have had moments where their play has looked irresistible but they are still very inconsistent. They’ll know they haven’t produced an 80-minute performance of their best rugby. They also have a mini-rebuild to effect with the loss of Izack Rodda, Harry Hockings and Isaac Lucas.
Not letting the loss of those three derail their season is going to be a test but there are silver linings. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto looks likely to shift back to lock, where many of us want to see him. Michael Wood and Fraser McReight will have greater opportunity to push for spots at lock and openside. While the loss of those three is big, the Reds can hopefully cover and still build their game.
The Rebels have almost the opposite issue of the Reds, they’ve been more consistent but without the peaks in performance. Having one more win than the Reds points to their ability, and the number of mature and experienced campaigners across their squad should help them compete.
The big question for David Wessels is how he gets the team to improve that final bit to compete with the likes of the Brumbies. Apart from a Round 1 loss to the Sunwolves they accounted for the weaker teams in the comp with relative ease but looked to be a step off the pace of teams like the Sharks and Brumbies when they met.
The Rebels lack a bit in scrummaging strength, don’t quite have the musculature to mix it with the most powerful packs and don’t have the express pace to compete with the quickest back lines. They are going to have to find those final improvements through ensemble play, and getting Jordan Uelese on the pitch wouldn’t hurt them either.
The Force are back! Tim Sampson has made a clear statement that they won’t be recruiting outside their Global Rapid Rugby squad. They won the NRC, defeating a Super Rugby-stacked Vikings side, but the addition of Wallabies into the other squads will make them a much tougher proposition.
Further, the Force have lost some key talent from that NRC campaign, with the likes of Carlo Tizzano and Michael McDonald at the Waratahs, Andrew Deegan and Cameron Orr at the Rebels and Issak Fines at the Brumbies.
The path is still simple and clear: play the best rugby they can and build respect from opposition and fans. They’ll be seeking wins but the results almost don’t matter as much as the heart and performance they display.
Finally, we come to the basket case of Aussie rugby, my Waratahs.
Andrew Hore and Daryl Gibson have overseen the place falling apart. Paul Doorn and Rob Penney have a mighty task in front of them to rebuild the side. Penney had minimal input into the squad but the players he did attract worry me.
Tetera Faulkner at 31 was brought in to shore up the scrum, despite not being a great scrummager. Sam Talakai is three years younger and got supremely fit during the off-season. Talakai has dominated for the As. He should be filling the role that Faulkner is.
Damien Fitzpatrick at 30 was looking to retire but was asked to stay on for another season. Robbie Abel, also 30, was brought in to share the hooking duties with him. Andrew Tuala is their understudy but at 29 is not the future.
I’m hoping that Tom Robertson has had a car tyre hoisted in his backyard during isolation and thrown thousands of practice lineouts. He looks the obvious player in the squad to transition. This break was a golden opportunity for a player that is struggling to find his spot.
Tom Staniforth has been in professional rugby since 2014 but still cannot dominate contact, a key failing for a lock. Rob Simmons and Ryan McCauley are not enforcers either. Pat Tafa has been the dominant lock for the As. He needs opportunity.
Ned Hanigan will hopefully be back and despite being much maligned should add some starch to the pack. Will Harris and Nick Champion de Crespigny look like two big men with some speed that could transform the way the Tahs can play.
Both Lachlan Swinton and Jack Dempsey look to be more focused on their ruck work this season with Swinton looking the stronger to me. Dempsey really should be under pressure from Hanigan, Harris and Champion de Crespigny as play resumes.
Charlie Gamble looks almost a clone of Pete Samu: similar size, speed and both schooled through Canterbury systems. Gamble and Carlo Tizzano can offer something with Michael Hooper if we seek to speed play up after the big men crash and bash.
Siosifa Lisala is a 26-year-old marquee player added to the squad but is yet to take the pitch. He’s been reasonable for the Waratahs As but so have Cam Clark and Tristan Reilly, so why was he someone Penney pursued?
Kurtley Beale at 31 and Karmichael Hunt at 33 are the old men of the back line but neither have been in form. It’s hard to find a replacement for Hunt but Beale has obvious replacements with the shining lights in the back three being Jack Maddocks, Mark Nawaqanitawase and James Ramm.
Lalakai Foketi and Joey Walton are the midfield I’d like to see. Walton at 20 is young and at 88 kilos lacks size but has pace, something Gibson’s final signing Tepai Moeroa lacks. I’d love to be pleasantly surprised by Moeroa but am not holding my breath.
Regardless, Will Harrison needs better runners around him. Too often he’s the guy taking it to the line or making the desperation tackle because players aren’t presenting around him.
Penney has to use this rebooted comp to change tack. He’s picked too many older players regardless of form and potential. Losses like those against the Brumbies and Chiefs could be forgiven if he had a young team out there learning, but to do it with players that are at the end of their careers is doing nothing to rebuild the Tahs.
Apologies for devoting half the article to my Waratahs. I know for many of you they are your least favourite team but they are the side that need to most drastically change from what the coach has been doing.
Have I hit the mark with what the various sides should be aiming to do?
I really feel this comp is going to see the Reds and Rebels hunting for the Brumbies, while the Waratahs and Force try to build their games.
Are there players or tactics that haven’t been getting a run that you want to see more of in Super Rugby AU?