Super Rugby AU is well in flight and has seen both some good and ugly things.
The Waratahs, once Australia’s premier rugby team and region, are the whipping boys of this competition. Packed with youngsters with talent and a load of big names going overseas, their season was always going to be tough.
However, they look in no place of winning or coming close to a respectable scoreline. The Force have been brave and admirable in defeat, and have a lot more steel in defence. The Rebels have always been the middle-ground team in Australia, and with a League-dominated area, they are more than competitive with Matt To’omua and Reece Hodge starring in some close performances against the Brumbies and Reds this season.
Now the big boys the Queensland Reds and the ACT Brumbies are two teams that can find some success in the trans-Tasman competition. The Reds have a blockbuster attack with James O’Connor still showing he has unbelievable skill at 10, Suli Vunivalu, Jordan Petaia and Hunter Paisami showing a lot of attacking flair and will no doubt feature in Wallaby gold this year. The Reds have Alex Mafi, who is quickly becoming Australia’s premier hooker.
A back row of (injured) Liam Wright, Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson is (in my eyes) one for the future which could be the best-balanced back row the Aussies have fielded in years. Come 2023 and injury permitting, they and Michael Hooper should have enough battle experience to help the Wallabies in France.
Seru Uru is also a lightweight backrower who has put in some industrious performances and is another one to watch. The reigning champions the Brumbies established themselves as the best forward-orientated Australian outfit. Pete Samu and Rob Valetini are playing out of their skins while Noah Lolesio is gaining more confidence before becoming a Wallaby 10.
Len Ikitau and Irae Simone complement themselves with Simone’s defence and Ikitau’s athleticism leading to hope that Ikitau could get a cap this season, and Simone won’t be thrown into the deep end against a full-blooded All Black team. Lachlan Lonergan is also one uncapped player who has been impressive.
Overseas, there is a lot of Australian depth. Sean McMahon, Samu Kerevi, Harry Hockings, Isaac Rodda, Rory Arnold and Piers O’Connor are a few of the many names impressing weekly and putting themselves up for recall.
France are still a top-four Test team. However, they have some weaknesses that the Wallabies can exploit. After 60 minutes bar the Wales game, the French tired out substantially leading to Ireland pegging it back to 13-15 and England and Scotland scoring late tries to down them.
France have a lot of beef in a pack with the likes of Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse and Romain Taofifénua, Cyril Baille, Swan Rebbadj, Julien Marchand and big boy Charles Ollivon giving France the most intimidating and biggest pack on par with the Argentinians and South Africans.
These big bodies will tire out. France’s bold selection of a 6-2 split against England was so under-utilised and in the end, mismanagement costed them in a tight game.
I would want to see the likes of Taniela Tupou, James Slipper and Allan Alaalatoa (some of the best scrummagers in the world) lay into the French once a glimmer of fatigue emerges. This leads onto the scrum and set-piece, another area where France can be beaten. Their line-out was marauded by the Irish and their scrum ultimately beaten by the Scots – Cyril Baille and Mohamed Haouas are relatively inexperienced, no matter how talented they are – Baille had a great tournament but his scrumming does need polish, while Haous against Tupou is a battle of hotheads I want to see.
If the Australians can win this scrummaging battle, they are a step closer to beating the mercurial French. The line-out is maybe a stretch too far, given how small Australia are in comparison to Ireland and France. French rugby embodies the idea of having a big back-rower as a line out option – Ollivon and Dylan Cretin are the candidates for this role – a selection of Harry Hockings and Rory Arnold could be a way to finding some disruption of their system.
The conundrum is that there are not as many big back-rowers in Australia – Lukhan Salakaia Loto, Lachlan Swinton and Fergus Lee-Warner could be tasked with this role of competing at the line-out.
1. James Slipper
2. Alex Mafi
3. Allan Alaalatoa
4. Trevor Hosea
5. Matt Philip
6. Harry Wilson
7. Michael Hooper (c)
8. Sean McMahon
9. Tate Mcdermott
10. James O’Connor
11. Tom Wright
12. Matt To’omua
13. Hunter Paisami
14. Suli Vunivalu
15. Jordan Petaia
16. Folau Fa’ainga
17. Angus Bell
18. Taniela Tupou
19. Liam Wright
20. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto
21. Harry Hockings
22. Nic White
23. Reece Hodge
This was a hard XV to form and there are a number of players I would like to see feature in this series and Rugby Championship. Fraser McReight, Lachlan Swinton, Isa Naisarani, Fergus Lee-Warner, Samu and Valetini are not too far from featuring in this side. This harsh selection does show that Australian rugby is getting depth in the back row and other areas.
With a potential relaxing of overseas selection policies to maybe five to six players, could see a huge boost in a side that has bags of potential for 2023. At the minute, McMahon and Hockings are two big units needed to tackle the task of the French. This could easily change to Samu Kerevi Rory and Arnold depending on form and injury.