Super Rugby 2017: Australian Conference Preview

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Our rugby scribe takes a look at the Australian Super Rugby Conference.


2016 was an awful year for Australian rugby with only one of the five franchises making it through to the quarter-final stage of the tournament. The Australian rugby public will be hoping for a much-improved showing from all of their sides' in 2017.

This will be easier said than done however as the New Zealand franchises' are looking stronger than ever and most of the South African sides' will be out to atone for their lacklustre 2016 campaigns.

Brumbies
To Win Outright: 11/1
2016 Finish: Quarter-Finals
The Brumbies are the shortest priced off all the Australian franchises, which is slightly surprising given that they have lost their skipper, Stephen Moore, as well as talismanic flanker, David Pocock. The two replacements that coach Stephen Larkham has brought in for the aforementioned duo also reek of mediocrity with the lumbering Saia Fainga’a doing a straight swap with Moore, who moves onto the Queensland Reds, while Pocock’s replacement is Wallaby Sevens stalwart, Tom Cusack who is yet to play a game of Super Rugby.

Larkham, who will leave the union at the end of the 2017 Super Rugby season, has made some shrewd acquisitions, though, particularly the signing of utility back Kyle Godwin from the Force. The Zimbabwean-born Godwin had a real breakthrough season last term which saw him earn a call-up to Wallaby squad.

Biggest Strength: Steve Larkham’s Playbook
For years the Brumbies biggest strength was their lineout maul. However, with Moore, Pocock, and eighth man Ita Vaea now out of the equation, this facet of their game is likely to a hit. Their backs’ should pose more of a threat off first phase ball this year with Godwin, Aidan Toua and Henry Speight linking up, and the astute Larkham conjuring up a few new moves out on the training paddock.

Player To Watch: Kyle Godwin
It will be interesting to see where the Brumbies field Godwin as he is able to play in multiple positions across the backline. Larkham will probably look to use him at 12 this season with Christian Lealiifano still fighting his battle against Leukemia. Godwin’s abrasive ball carrying style, as well as his vision, could prove pivotal to the Brumbies’ chances of making it to the quarter-finals.

Verdict: Conference Phase Exit
They have lost way too much talent to really challenge for a quarter-final berth. They’ll be decent at home and they’ll improve as the tournament goes along, but it’s going to be a year of rebuilding for the men from Canberra.

Force

To Win Outright: 200/1
2016 Finish: Conference Phase
Super Rugby just isn’t the same without Nick ‘The Honeybadger’ Cummins and nor are the Western Force. While not much has changed in terms of the results they pick up – they finished last season at the foot of the Australian Conference and only won two of their 15 fixtures – or the way they play – they are about as entertaining as watching paint dry on a sports field in Secunda - but the absence of Cummins and his “hard hitting” after-match quotes has further devalued their appeal.

While new signing Robbie Coleman is unlikely to match Cummins in the post-match philosophical quotes stakes, he should at least bring a bit more potency to what has been a historically limp backline. The capture of the former Brumbies man will somewhat make up for the loss of Kyle Godwin, who has moved in the opposite direction.

Biggest Strength: Counter-Attacking Back Three
They only have to win three games to surpass last season’s record. In all serious, though, the Force’s biggest strength will be Dane-Haylett Petty’s ability to launch counters from deep inside his own half. South African rugby fans won’t have forgotten his man of the match performance against the Cheetahs last year and I reckon we’ll be in for a few repeat showings from one of Australia’s most talented youngsters.

Player To Watch: Robbie Coleman
Coleman is an assured fullback who has a decent change of pace. He should form a formidable partnership with Wallaby Dane Haylett-Petty, who was the Force’s stand out player in 2016.

Verdict: Bottom of the Australian Conference 
New coach David Wessels has a huge task on his hands here. This season is all about preparing for the coming years and building a playing core. They’ll finish at the bottom of the Australian Conference once again but they’ll at least register a few more wins than they did last year.

Rebels
To Win Outright: 50/1 
2016 Finish: Conference Phase
The Rebels started 2016 like a house on fire and looked a decent shout for a quarter-final berth until their mid-season slump, which saw them lose three games on the trot between rounds 10 and 13. Last season’s disappointment may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise as the Rebels will have learnt a few hard lessons during that baron run.

Coach, Tony McGahan has endured a rather busy off-season with 12 members of his 2016 squad moving on to new pastures. While most of these players were expendable, the loss of both Cam Crawford and Mike Harris has left the Rebels coach with a relatively inexperienced backline at his disposal. The former Munster head coach has made some smart signings in order to counter-attack the absence of the aforementioned veterans with 2014 New Zealand under-20’s representative, Jackson Garden Bachop being lured across the Tasman and NRL star flyer, Marika Korobiote, being offered a lucrative contract to make the switch from Rugby League to Union. These two men are likely to play key roles in the Rebels season.

The Rebels forward pack has also undergone a slight overhaul with veteran Adam Thompson opting for one last big payday in Japan rather than enduring the rigours of a final Super Rugby season. The former All Black was part of a very well-balanced Rebels loose trio and it will be interesting to see which of the Rebels' young guns are tasked with filling his large boots. The most likely candidate to ascend to Thompson’s throne is Jordy Reid. The dreadlocked menace was in fine form and does have the potential to become a mainstay in this Rebels squad.

Biggest Strength: Formidable Backrow
They really do have a solid looking loose trio despite Thompson’s absence. Sean McMahon will be the leader of the pack while Reid will offer a ferocious presence at the breakdown.

Player To Watch: Jackson Garden-Bachop
The son of All Black Stephen Bishop was a revelation for Wellington during the Mitre 10 Cup. He’s a big lad who doesn’t shy away from contact. He also has a rather educated boot and a slick set of hands.

Verdict: Conference Phase Exit
They will probably come even closer to making a quarter-final but will falter at the final hurdle. Expect to see them claim a few big name scalps on their own patch, though.

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Reds
To Win Outright: 50/1
2016 Finish: Group Stage
Probably the most active in the transfer market of all the Australian sides, the Reds have opted to splash the cash and bring in a plethora of players to exercise the demons of the past two seasons. While Queensland Rugby has been on a steady decline since 2012, the last two seasons have hammered home the point of just how far the Reds have dropped off since their 2011 title winning campaign.

The Queensland Rugby Union has taken drastic steps in the wake of the past two dismal seasons with former prop Nick Stiles being appointed head coach last July. Stiles isn’t the only Reds legend making a return to Suncorp Stadium as Quade Cooper has opted to rejoin the club. The fleet-footed fly-half had a miserable time in France with Toulon and has opted to return home rather than look for another club in Europe.

The Reds haven’t just brought back a few of their legends, they’ve also decided to repatriate a few of the Brumbies talisman with Stephen Moore being lured from Canberra to Brisbane, and George Smith – granted he hasn’t played for the Brumbies since 2013 – returning to Australia for one last bash at Super Rugby.

Player To Watch: Quade Cooper
Most South African and New Zealand rugby fans hate this bloke and for good reason as he is a bit of a show pony, but there’s no denying how skilful he is. While we’re unlikely to see Quade perform a ‘Throw Back Thursday’ and reproduce his scintillating 2011 form, he will still offer this Reds' side a lot more on attack than Jake McIntyre. His ill-fated jaunt with Toulon could prove to be the exact motivation Cooper needs to revive a career that once promised so much.

Biggest Strength: Old Heads
They may be heading for the retirement home shortly but Brumbies old boys Moore and Smith will give this youngish Reds side a shoulder to lean on when the going gets tough.

Verdict: Conference Phase Exit and Australia Conference Runner-Up
With Cooper back in Queensland and Moore and Smith being added, we are likely to see a much more composed and competent Reds side. Call me mad, but I think the Reds and Waratahs will be scraping for the top Australia Conference spot.

Waratahs
To Win Outright: 17/1
2016 Finish: Semi-Finals
It beggars belief that the Brumbies are priced up shorter than the Waratahs are. With all due respect to Canberra’s finest, they are no longer in the same class as their New South Wales rivals due to the number of seasoned veterans lost to sabbaticals and transfers.

On paper, the Waratahs possess a well-rounded squad with 30 of the 35 man 2016 playing squad staying on to do duty in 2017. Among the 35 are Wallabies Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley and man-mountain Will Skelton, who is currently on a short-term loan stint with Saracens.

The Tahs have also brought in some decent young blood with Australian under-20’fly-half Mack Mason set to be elevated to the senior playing squad alongside fellow New South Wales under-20’s representative Andrew Deegan.

Player To Watch: Reece Robinson
Robinson is another Rugby League convert who decided to switch to Union in 2015. He did rather well for the ‘Tahs last term racking up five tries in his 13 appearances. He was more prolific for the New South Wales Country Eagles during last season’s NRC – the NRC is effectively Australia’s answer to the Currie Cup – scoring seven tries in his nine appearances. He has an electric turn of pace and if the likes of Bernard Foley and Israel Folau can put him in space, then Robison could be looking at a much higher try return this year.

Biggest Strength: Squad Depth
The ‘Tahs really do have the deepest squad off all the Australian franchises. As such, they won’t be affected as badly as their domestic rivals when the mid-season injuries hit. There is also a nice blend of youth and experience, which is key not only to their chances this season but also in the coming years.

Verdict: Quarter-Finals and Australia Conference Winner
So they have the experience, and playing personnel to win their conference but how much further could the ‘Tahs advance in the tournament? Well, it obviously depends on how kind the quarter-final draw is but, in all honestly, I can’t see them getting all the way to the final as they are likely to be torn apart by one of the New Zealand sides.

Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets.net!

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