In a year of Australian rugby that’s seen a coup led by ex-captains, player payment disputes, mutiny because of said dispute, a CEO rolled, a new Chair and interim CEO installed, all with the backdrop of a nervous broadcaster, you would have been excused if you expressed extreme doubts over the likelihood of any actual rugby being played again in 2020.
But the day is rapidly approaching, with just three more sleeps before Queensland and New South Wales run out onto Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium on Friday night, for what all those aforementioned categories will be hoping is the new era for the professional game in Australia.
New Zealand has well and truly got around Super Rugby Aotearoa, and the genuine hope is Australia will similarly latch onto Super Rugby AU.
So with three sleeps to go, here’s what we know ahead of Round 1.
It’s going to take time to adjust to the Breakdown focus, it always does when things that have been second nature for yonks suddenly change. Except that when it comes to the new competitions, referees really are just applying the Laws of the game as they should be and not just as they have been for years.
To that end, the Australian sides have at least helped themselves by having referees take control of their intra-squad games and familiarity sessions over the last week.
Clearly they’ve been doing their homework too, watching the games from New Zealand and already seeing how the Kiwi refs are policing the ruck contest; I watched the Brumbies rip into each other for about half an hour on Friday and saw only a couple of ‘new’ penalties blown.
And the benefits will soon become obvious anyway. The Aotearoa games are already more open, the ruck is a better contest with the defending team getting much more a crack over the ball when they win the rights to it. There are more turnover opportunities, and accuracy is being rewarded for both sides. A few extra penalties in the first round are already a price worth paying.
It seems everyone thinks the Brumbies start Super Rugby AU as firm favourites, and in fairness, it’s a hard point to argue. They had already beaten the other three Australian sides within the seven complete rounds of Super Rugby, and by increasing margins each time.
They were already ten points clear on the Australian conference table after just six games.
But they will need to start well. With only eight games, there’s really no time to build into the 12-week competition. You’ve got to hit the ground running. Losses in the first couple of rounds might not cost a team the chance to win an Australian title, but it could easily cost them home ground advantage for the Final.
If there’s one concern about the Brumbies it might be their depth at Lock, should injury strike. Caderyn Neville will miss the first month of the new competition, and young gun Nick Frost won’t be right for Round 1 either. That mightn’t have been an issue with Blake Enever in the squad, but his immediate release last week will make things very interesting. The acquisition of Ben Hyne from the Sunwolves could yet prove a masterstroke.
The Melbourne Rebels look strong on paper, but the issue here is that they’ve looked strong on paper for a few seasons now. And that hasn’t always ended well. Regardless, their list remains strong with Wallabies littered throughout.
Their tight five was a bit of an issue earlier in the year, but that might not be as big an issue against Australian compatriots. Still, they won’t want to be bossed around either.
They might be the team best equipped to deal with the tactical kicking innovations that will be trialled in the competition, too. Given Matt Toomua was one of the architects of the attacking zone law variations, you’d have to imagine the Rebels have been giving them a good work out on the training paddock.
This competition might be the biggest test of the Brad Thorn culture at the Queensland Reds. If they can start the competition on the front foot, overcoming the walk out of Izaak Rodda, Harry Hockings, and Isaac Lucas as well as the sanctioned departure of Henry Speight in the process, then maybe they will be OK and maybe they can finally start delivering on this promise they’d been showing for the last 18 months or so.
To do that, the playmaking and leadership of James O’Connor and Bryce Hegarty is now going to be crucial for the Reds, and it probably doesn’t matter who plays flyhalf. In fact, depending how many fit centres Thorn still has at his disposal, it may well be that O’Connor is still needed in midfield.
But they do still have enough quality. How their forward pack responds and then performs without Rodda will probably be the difference between the Reds contending or disappointing.
The worry about the NSW Waratahs for me is that they look light on. And losing the experience of Kurtley Beale – even in the indifferent form he was showing this year – has a terminal feel about it. Add the retirement of Damien Fitzpatrick to that, and it fells like Michael Hooper will have to carry yet more weight on his shoulders.
It means that it’s well and truly time for the likes of Jack Maddocks, Jake Gordon, Jack Dempsey, Jed Holloway and Tom Staniforth to step up and perform like players of their standing should. Karmichael Hunt and Rob Simmons will be important too, but it’s these guys in their 20s with plus or minus fifty games to their belt that really need to deliver.
They’re the guys the Waratahs should be building around, not the Under-20s graduates.
Hopefully Tom Robertson and Ned Hanigan can make an appearance, and it would certainly be welcome. Robertson in particular, with the news over the weekend that prop Rory O’Connor has stepped away from pro rugby to prioritise his Engineering studies.
And as we’ve already discussed within this column, we know the Western Force will be up for the challenge. The very high likelihood that they will play games at home before the Rebels would have been met with an ironic smirk, and this will no doubt fuel their drive to take down teams. The ‘prodigal return’ headlines are already sitting in readiness for their first win.
But they’ve been canny in their repatriation of Australian players. Greg Holmes will add some starch up front and will go a long way toward erasing any concerns about their scrum. The retirement of Chris Alcock will be quickly offset by the return of home-grown flanker Kane Koteka.
Jono Lance will provide some serious playmaking quality, not to mention his front-line defence. And Kyle Godwin will be a key link for the likes of Byron Ralston and Jack McGregor in the back three.
We wondered how competitive the Force might be in this company, with a squad created for Global Rapid Rugby, not Super Rugby, but there’s a much more balanced look about them now.
I’m really excited for Friday night now, and I can’t wait to see how the competition plays out now.
Gut feel predictions? Reckon we’re looking at a finishing order of Brumbies, Rebels, Reds, Force, and Waratahs, for what it’s worth.
It’s a bit finger in the air, but it feels like some teams have coped with the stand down period better than others.