Super Rugby 2018: Australian Conference Preview

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The Australian Super Rugby franchises will be looking for redemption when the Southern Hemisphere's premiere inter-country provincial tournament gets underway.

The 2018 Super Rugby season is fast approaching and our rugby writers have been hard at work running through transfers and injuries as well as coaching changes to provide you with in-depth analyses of each Conference.

Below, Shaun Goosen takes a look at how the Australian Conference is shaping up this year and where the teams are likely to finish.

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To Win Outright
Brumbies 25/2
Rebels 100/1
Reds 66/1
Sunwolves  500/1


To Win Conference
Brumbies 16/10 
Waratahs 37/20
Rebels 3/1 
Reds 7/1
Sunwolves 50/1

Brumbies
Despite finishing top of the Australian Conference, there wasn’t too much to shout about for Brumbies fans in 2017. A 16-35 loss to the Hurricanes in their Canberra qualifier ensured the Kiwi teams completed a clean sweep over their Trans-Tasman rivals, winning all 26 of the matches that were played. It's perhaps another measure of the struggles the Aussie sides endured last year that their top side could only muster six wins in 15-games (losing nine).

Still, there is cause for optimism ahead of this season’s edition, not least so due to the return of David Pocock from sabbatical. The 29-year-old flanker will add some much-needed quality to a Brumbies side that, at times last year, lacked a degree of X-factor.

Dan McKellar, who has succeeded Stephen Larkham as head coach, will be tasked with restoring the side back to its former glory, and his job will be made all the easier considering the form returning flyhalf Christian Lealiifano has been in for Ulster this season.

Player to Watch: David Pocock
Following a year out of the game, the 2015 World Cup’s Player of the Tournament will be chomping at the bit to get stuck into another season of oval ball action. With many rugby-playing years still ahead of him, one of the game’s great players may go on to reach even loftier heights in the seasons ahead.

Verdict: Australia Conference Champions, Quarter-Final Exit
The Brumbies should have enough firepower to top their conference once again. Considering the fact that they haven’t beaten a New Zealand franchise since the first round of the 2016 tournament, a quarter-final exit is their most likely final outcome depending on who they come up against in the playoffs.

Waratahs
The Sydney-based franchise may have endured one of their worst campaigns to date in 2017, but they should be in a much healthier state by the time this year’s tournament rolls around. While Daryl Gibson may go into another season as head coach under more pressure than ever - when one considers his ‘Tahs side’s failings of a year ago, finishing fourth in their conference and 16th overall -he will have the added backing of a number of world-class players.

Kurtley Beale returns from the London Wasps in a bid to improve his former side’s fortunes, while the ever-present Michael Hooper, Israel Folau and Bernard Foley will again be pivotal to the successes of the franchise this term. The 2014 champions should be much more competitive in 2018 and may just do enough to earn a Wildcard berth.

Player to Watch: Jack Dempsey
The 23-year-old flanker made his Wallaby debut against Italy last year and has been a shining light on the Aussie rugby landscape since. His titanic performance in Bledisloe 3 powered his national side to an epic win over the All Blacks, and indeed there is every reason to believe the former Australian Schools man will make a splash in the Test arena.

Verdict: Wildcard place, quarter-final exit
The ‘Tahs will do enough to finish second in their conference but are not yet at a level to go further than the quarters. Still, it would be an improvement on last year.

Reds
The Reds, much like the rest of their Aussie counterparts, performed dreadfully in 2017; only managing to claim four wins from their 15-games to finish in 14th-place overall. So poor were the Australian sides last season, in fact, that, despite the Queenslanders’ own mundane campaign, they still finished the conference stage in third. With Brad Thorn assuming command of the vessel, however, it’s safe to assume that the standards in the north-east are set to rise substantially this time around.

Reds legend Quade Cooper’s being deemed surplus to requirements by Thorn is probably an indication of the no-nonsense approach the 2011 World Cup-winner will bring to his coaching philosophy. After all, Cooper isn’t exactly renowned for his good behaviour (watch out Karmichael Hunt!). The Reds’ season will focus very much on rebuilding, and so fans shouldn’t expect miracles too soon. If they can win more than they lose this season they will already be on the right track.

Player to Watch: James Slipper
The Reds skipper’s soldier man-like work ethic has adorned him to Australian rugby fans, and the 86-cap Wallaby prop will be a key figure as his side attempts to steadily progress this season. At 28-years of age, Slipper will still have plenty of fuel left in the tank and will be crucial to his side’s successes this campaign.

Verdict: Third in Australia Conference
The Reds have a long way to go to be considered challengers to the Australia Conference title, but may still just manage a few upset wins over their more-fancied brothers this season. They should finish in third.

Rebels
The Rebels were nothing short of horrendous last year, winning just one game all season long and, indeed, they can count their lucky stars that they are even competing in this year’s tournament. Instead, it was the much-loved Western Force who got the chop following Super Rugby’s recent cull, and you can bet your bottom dollar that coach David Wessels and his charges will come under enormous scrutiny if they fail to better their 2017 results.

Their managing to hold onto Reece Hodge will prove crucial in the months ahead, while picking up the signatures of Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty and British Lion Geoff Parling was a masterstroke. Their international experience will only aid the Rebels as they attempt to put some pride back into their game this season; I mean, after all, how much worse could they possibly get?

Player to Watch: Reece Hodge
Hodge has proven himself to be one of Michael Cheika’s most reliable troops in Wallaby gold, and the man hailed to be the next Stirling Mortlock will add immense value to his franchise again in 2018. With the Rebels having made some astute signings ahead of the new season, expect Hodge’s exploits on the field to multiply in the coming months.

Verdict: Fourth in Australia Conference
While they may just pip the Reds to third spot, the conservative option would be to bank on them finishing just outside the podium places. They won’t be in a position to challenge for a playoff place just yet, but I am expecting them to improve drastically on last season’s results.

Sunwolves
Jamie Joseph’s Sunwolves face another upward battle to justify their continued inclusion in Super Rugby. They finished second-last in 2017, managing just two wins and, considering the gulf in class between them and, say, the Hurricanes, it is still a wonder they were ever allowed to compete in the tournament in the first place.

Still, Japanese representation will serve to heighten the level of awareness in Asia, and so it can’t be considered all doom and gloom. Also, the Tokyo-based franchise are always a different prospect when playing at home - as they proved in their home wins over the Blues and Bulls last season - and do offer a fluid, high-paced game of footy. They may again manage an upset or two at the Prince Chichibu this season, but should ultimately finish the season in last place.

Player to Watch: Willie Britz
He may have hair like Jesus, but this man sure carries likes the Devil! The 106kg loose-forward possesses a tireless work rate and a great turn of pace. His physicality in contact will again play a vital role for his rather feeble side when they come up against the much-heavier South African and New Zealand teams.

Verdict: Fifth in Australia Conference
The Sunwolves will struggle again in 2018 despite being led by a championship-winning coach in Joseph. You’d have to be a very brave (or stupid) man to bet on them finishing anywhere other than last position.

Written by Shaun Goosen for @Hollywoodbets.net

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