Super Rugby: Australia Conference Preview

Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!


To paraphrase the Australian cult rugby figure Nick "the Honey Badger” Cummings, Super Rugby franchises around Australia have been busier than a one-armed bricklayer in Baghdad putting the final touches to their Super Rugby preparations. Preseason has gone splendidly for some, while for others it's been a bit of a race against time.

Below we’ll take a look at how the teams from 'down under' are are shaping up for 2016.

Brumbies
To Win Outright: 8/1
2015 Finish: Semi-Finals

Steven Larkham’s team is definitely one to watch. They gave a great account of themselves last year and having retained the majority of their squad, they may well be on to surpass last year’s semi-final finish.

The Brumbies' biggest strength this season is likely to be their midfield. Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano are both as comfortable with the ten jumper on their backs as they are with the 12, while outside centre Tevita Kurindrani was a revelation last year. Toomua and Lealiifano’s ability to interchange will make the Brumbies extremely hard to defend against. Factor in Khuridrani’s physicality and ability to run the most masterful of angles, and you’ve got one of the most threatening midfields in the whole competition.

There are also some exciting players lining up outside this deadly midfield. Joe Tomane will operate on the left wing while the electric Henry Speight – who has been with the Australian Sevens side since late last year – will line up on the right. Speight will only feature for the Brumbies during the first five rounds of the tournament however, as he will be returning to the Aussie Sevens fold after that period. When Speight does jet off with the national sevens side, his place will be filled by exciting youngster Lausii Taliauli and former Queensland Red Aidan Toua. The former is a real prospect with a blistering turn of pace, while the latter is brilliant under the high ball and is also capable of playing at fullback.

Speaking of fullbacks, one of the players that the Brumbies will be without this season is Jesse Mogg. Mogg along with scrumhalf Nic White, decided to move to France last year in a bid to further their careers – or more accurately, make a bucket load of cash. While White’s place in the starting XV will be taken by either Joe Powell or Michael Dowsett, the jury is still out on who will take Moggs place. The aforementioned Aidan Toua is an option, as is Robbie Coleman. I suspect Larkham may opt to rotate the duo during the opening weeks of their campaign, and let them fight it out for the starting jumper.

But enough harping on about the backs, let’s shift our attention to muscle and grunt up front. The Brumbies will have a stellar forward cast this year. Skipper Steven Moore, Scott Sio, and Ben Alexander are likely to form a formidable starting front row. Locks, Blake Enver, Sam Carter, and Rory Arnold will be rotated during the tournament, but all three men are fantastic players in their own right. Jarrad Butler, David Pocock, and Scott Fardy will pack down behind this mean looking engine room.

So an exciting looking backline and a forward pack that many opposition coaches would kill to have, makes the Brumbies a real title contender in my opinion.

Player To Watch: Tevita Kuridrani
Khuridrani capped a stellar year by scoring a try against the All Blacks during last year’s World Cup final. His pace, power, and rugby brain make him a key member of this title-chasing Brumbies squad

Verdict: Quater-finals
I can picture this Brumbies side making the quarter-finals but I think that will be the end of the road for Larkham and his Brumbies.

Force
To Win Outright: 100/1
2015 Finish: Group Stage

Are they perennial under-achievers or just too small a franchise to compete? Well when you look at the amount of money they’ve shelled out on players who have spectacularly flopped since their admittance into Super Rugby in 2006, you can’t really classify them as a small franchise operating on a limited budget. Matt Giteau, Nathan Sharpe, and James O'Connor all failed to galvanise the franchise to greater things during their time in Western Australia.

The Force look set to spend another year trying to avoid the Australian conference wooden spoon. Their squad is made up of veterans who never quite cut it at international level and young prospects who are yet to set the world alight. These youngsters, particularly the backs, will have to step up to the mark this season as the Force are likely to continue to implement the same tactics they have since coming into the competition; just give the ball some air and hope for the best.

There’s a phrase coined by Albert Einstein which sums up the Force's unchanging strategy quite nicely. The quote which goes along the lines of “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of madness”. Well, they did have one of the maddest blokes to ever take to a rugby field in their squad for near on eight years, so you can’t really expect common logic from the Force coaching staff.

The madman in question is Nick Cummings aka the Honey Badger. I’ve been a bit harsh here insinuating that Cummings didn’t belong in the Force squad. The curly-haired winger was a fantastic player for the Force. He wore his heart on his sleeve and never shirked his defensive duties regardless of who was running at him. Sadly, rugby’s one line king is now plying his trade in Japan, which is a massive loss not only to the Force but also every rugby fan who enjoys a bit of a character.

While Cummings has exited the building, former Stormers stalwart Peter Grant has just entered it. The well-built pivot signed for the Force at the close of last year’s Super Rugby season. He alongside fellow new signings Jono Lance and Ben Tapuai will be tasked with leading this extremely inexperienced Force side to greater things.

Player To Watch: Peter Grant
Grant was a fantastic servant for the Stormers, and I personally feel he was one of the most underrated South African players of all time. He’s brilliant at carrying the ball to the gainline, he has a slick set of hands, and an immaculate kicking boot. South African rugby’s loss will be the Western Force’s gain, I suppose.

Verdict: Group Stage
They will give some of the big boys a massive fright at the nib Stadium but apart from a one or two unexpected victories, I can’t really see the Force setting the competition alight.

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Rebels
To Win Outright: 80/1 
2015 Finish: Group Stage

These boys really impressed me last season. They punched well above their weight and I think they may be this season’s surprise package. They’ve got the squad to build on last year's showing and while their preseason game against the Auckland Blues saw them end up on the wrong side of a 59 -7 scoreline, some of the youngsters who turned out for the Rebels in that fixture were rather impressive.

So they’ve got some youngsters with a bucket load of potential that will help add squad depth, but do the Rebels have a starting line-up capable of competing with the best. Before I answer this question let’s just take a quick look at their squad. Their starting pack is likely to feature powerful utility prop Cruze Ah-Nau, Australian international James Hanson, and veteran tighthead Laurie Weeks, while Toby Smith will provide cover from the bench.

The piece de resistance in their pack will be their back row, however. Eigthman Sean McMahon was one of the best performing loosies in last year’s competition. He’s likely to be joined by ex-All Black Adam Thompson, and the dreadlocked menace that is Jordy Reid.

So they’ve got the pack but what about the backline? While it’s not the most exciting of units, it does have a solid look to it. Veterans Dom Shipperley, Mitch Inman and Mike Harris’ cool heads will help some of the youngsters settle in. They’ve also signed exciting Japenese international Kotaro Matsushima. The Durban-born youngster is capable of filling numerous roles in the backline and as such, his skill set is top class.

After taking a good look at their squad, I can conclude that the Rebels will have a fantastic season but are likely to fall short of the quarter-finals. My reason for this, is that their youngsters – who will not doubt be called upon when the senior statesmen pick up their inevitable injuries – really don’t have enough experience to compete at this level. This side will be competing in the coming years, however,  but 2016 is, unfortunately, going to be another learning curve for the boys from Melbourne.

Player To Watch: Sean McMahon
This man’s rise from under-20 prospect to the Australian World Cup squad in less than a year illustrates how talented he is. A fantastic ball carrier and a workaholic is the best way to describe the 102 kilogram eighthman. He’s destined for big things and while last year could be considered his breakout year, I suspect his stocks will have risen to much higher levels come the end of August.

Verdict: Group Stage
They’ll claim a few big scalps this season and I reckon they’ll get closer to qualifying for the knockout phase of the tournament, but I can’t see them getting any further than that.

Reds
To Win Outright: 40/1
2015 Finish: Group Stage

The Reds will be looking to arrest a slide that has seen them go from 2011 Super Rugby Champions to wooden spoon contenders in 2015. They’ve got a fresh and exciting look about them this season and I expect them to show massive improvement this term.

They have lost some big names, however, with their dynamic halfback pairing of Will Genia and Quade Cooper having left for French shores. Their loss shouldn’t be felt too badly, though, as the Reds went into most of their fixtures last season without their two-star men, who endured injury hampered campaigns.

Genia’s place in the starting XV is likely to be taken by nuggety nine Nick Frisbee. The 23-year old has a sound passing game, and is also able to take pressure off his flyhalf with his box kicks. He’s going to need to be spot on with that kicking game of his this year, as the man who will line up outside him is rather inexperienced.

Jake McIntyre is likely to be Frisbees partner in crime. The youngster missed most of last season with a knee injury but impressed on his return during the final few rounds of the Reds campaign. He will get a chance to justify the hype that has surrounded him since his under-20 days in a few short weeks. His deft passing could be vital to the Reds campaign as they have some brilliant outside backs who thrive when put into space.

While the Reds have an extremely young looking backline, their forward pack has a much more experienced look about it. Rob Simmons, James Slipper and Jake Schatz have all represented the Wallabies, while lock Cadeyrn Neville played 48 Super Rugby games for the Melbourne Rebels before making the switch to the Queensland Reds.

Player To Watch: Jake McIntyre
The former Australian under-20 was set to make waves in last year’s tournament before he sustained a knee injury in preseason training. He eventually returned near the back end of the season and made a stunning Super Rugby debut against the Melbourne Reds that included a try. While the young gun has some iconic boots to fill, his determination and skill set could see him replace Cooper as the Queensland Reds talisman

Verdict: Group Stage
I expect them to be a lot better than they were last year, but this is unfortunately, going to be another season of rebuilding for Richard Graham's men. I forsee a group stage finish for the boys from Queensland this term.

Waratahs
To Win Outright: 7/1
2015 Finish: Semi-Finals

The Tahs have been the best performing Australian side in the tournament over the past two or so years, and I reckon they will be Australia’s best chance at claiming Super Rugby glory again this year. They’ve got an extremely experienced and talented squad, and unlike so many teams in the tournament, both their forwards and backs excel.

If the 'Tahs are to improve on last year’s magnificent display and go all the way to the showpiece final, they are going to need their Australian internationals to fire. Bernard Foley, Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale, Michael Hooper, and Nic Phipps were all outstanding last year whether it was in 'Tahs blue or the green and gold Wallabies jumper.

After a magnificent 2015 that saw his stocks rise dramatically, Michael Hooper has been given the captains armband. The tearaway flanker’s all-action approach to the game makes him an absolute handful for opposition defenders. He’s a nuisance at the breakdown, hits like a freight train, and has a decent side steep as well.

Hooper’s likely to be partnered by Wycliff Palu and Dave Dennis in the Waratahs back row. The former is a no-nonsense eight who loves to carry the ball, while the latter is a combative flanker who captained the Tahs in 2015.

The Tahs loose trio aren’t the only men opposition teams should be weary of. Their halfback pairing of Bernard Foley and Nic Phipps are ultra consistent, while fullback Israel Folau is one of the most devastating backs in the game. Factor in new signing Zac Guilford into the equation, and you’ve got a backline capable of opening any defence.

Player To Watch: Israel Folau
I generally look at unknown quantities, veterans, or the young guns when it comes to finding a player to watch, but I can’t look any further than Israel Folau as the man to watch for the 'Tahs. His blistering pace, slick handling, skills, and brilliant reading of the game make him one of the most exciting rugby players in the competition.

Verdict:  Semi-Finals
If you had to take the New Zealand conference out of the equation then the 'Tahs would win the tournament at a canter. You can’t though, and I honestly see them coming unstuck in the semi-finals against one of the Kiwi franchises ala 2015.

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