Super Rugby 2017 Preview: Australian Conference

After a disappointing 2016 season, which was followed up by a 3-0 series defeat on home soil for the Wallabies against England, Australian rugby is in need of a big 2017.

That starts with Super Rugby, and international head coach Michael Cheika will hope to observe an upturn in the form of the five Australian club sides.

Brumbies looking to back-up conference title

Last season’s Australian Conference champions were Stephen Larkham’s Brumbies thanks to ten wins from their 15 regular season matches. However, that was as far as they went, with a home defeat in Canberra against the Highlanders ending their playoff hopes before they had really begun.

Since then, four of the first names of the team sheet have left for pastures new, with a new-look Brumbies set to take to the field this season. David Pocock has headed off to Japan on a sabbatical one-year, while influential hooker and Wallaby skipper Stephen Moore has left for Queensland to join the rival Reds. In the back-line, Joe Tomane and Matt Toomua are now plying their trade in Europe with Montpellier and Leicester respectively, leaving Larkham with a number of decisions ahead of the new season.

The likes of Nic Mayhew, Saia Fainga’a, and his brother Anthony have been brought in to add depth to a side which still includes the likes of Wallaby forwards Scott Fardy, Rory Arnold and Sam Carter.

Also hoping to break through this year will be a group of youngsters led by fly-half Wharenui Hawera and number-eight Lolo Fakaosilea who have started in the recent warm-up fixtures, while scrum-half Joe Powell could be set for a starting run following the injury to Tomas Cubelli.

Tevita Kuridrani will line up in a new-look Brumbies centre partnership (image source: Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

20-year-old Jordan Jackson-Hope may be one season away from truly realising his potential, while Kyle Godwin has been brought over from the Force to form a new centre partnership with Tevita Kuridrani who lots is expected from once again in the capital.

Prediction: Loss of Pocock leaves huge hole, yet youngsters perform above expectation to help recapture Australian Conference.

Waratahs hoping to regain Australian crown following lacklustre campaign

A team who desperately lacked an identity in 2016, the Waratahs will once more rely on the ultra-impressive trio of Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley and Israel Folau to lead them in the race to the playoffs. Wallaby prop Sekope Kepu has returned to Sydney, with rumours that Drew Mitchell could be doing likewise at the denouement of his Toulon contract, which will really help a side littered with inexperience.

Israel Folau will be the focus of opposition defences once more (image source: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Tatafu Polota-Nau has left to skipper the Force, Wycliff Palu has moved to Japan, and Sam Lousi will now line up for the Hurricanes, yet the two biggest losses for the Tahs’ come in the form of Dave Dennis and Kurtley Beale who now ply their trade in the Aviva Premiership at Exeter and Wasps, with Rob Horne off to join them with Northampton next year.

Apart from Kepu, there have been no big name signings, meaning that players such as Jack Dempsey and Jed Holloway who made their mark on Super Rugby last season will have to improve once more, while Taqele Naiyaravoro will be desperate to replicate the 2015 form which saw the man-mountain winger awarded two Wallaby caps.

Prediction: Weight of expectation sees them drop to third in Australian Conference despite Folau breaking try records.

Rebels ready to make another jump following glimpse of things to come in 2016

Despite a 12th place finish on the overall ladder one year ago, there were plenty of positives for the Melbourne Rebels, and now is the time for them to really step up and take some big scalps in Super Rugby.

Their starting point has to be winning the Australian Conference, and with the Brumbies and Waratahs each losing star players the Melbourne side have to take advantage.

Mike Harris and Luke Jones are two players who have left for France and will need to be replaced, yet by bringing in Dominic Day, Jake Schatz, Amanaki Mafi and also NRL star Marika Koroibete they have added players who should be ready to start from day one.

Sefa Naivalu should have renewed confidence following the summer tour with Australia (image source: Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

In Sean McMahon, Lopeti Timani and Sefanaia Naivalu, the Rebels carry a Wallaby backbone to their team, while captain Nic Stirzaker has a point to prove after flattering to deceive last time out. Results such as the 85-26 loss to the Crusaders in week 16 last show that there are still occasions when the Rebels were far inferior to their opponents, yet if youngsters can take the lead of Reece Hodge who flourished in 2016, this could have the makings of a squad ready to hit the big time.

Prediction: Despite early season loss of McMahon to injury, the Rebels are capable of challenging their big brothers in the Australian Conference. Having said all of that, finish below Brumbies who have the Rebels number in head-to-head clashes.  

Reds can’t get worse as experienced heads jet in

After picking up just three wins in 2016, things can only get better for the Reds under head coach Nick Stiles.

The Queensland outfit have parted ways with a large number of their squad in a hope that it can lead to an upturn in fortune, with Europe-bound forwards Greg Holmes (Exeter) and Liam Gill (Toulon) by far the biggest losses.

In their place, the Reds hierarchy have opted for experience when looking for replacements, with Quade Cooper returning after two years at Toulon, Wallaby skipper Stephen Moore moving over from the Brumbies and 36-year-old George Smith returning to his homeland after a spell at Wasps with 142 Super Rugby caps to his name.The hope will be that sprinkling the likes of Moore and Cooper into a young team led by prop James Slipper will bring back the glory days, yet there are still huge question marks over the makeup of the squad.

Samu Kerevi scoring a try during the Brisbane Tens (image source: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Leroy Houston and Hendrik Tui should provide the Reds plenty of go-forward, while Samu Kerevi may be the most devastating centre in the competition, yet outside of him a lot was left to be desired in 2016, and unless a remarkable improvement is seen among the youngsters it could be another tough slog for those in attendance at Suncorp.

Prediction: Show improvement thanks to experienced incomings, yet only brings another fourth-place finish in the conference.

Struggles to continue in Perth under David Wessels

New full-time head coach David Wessels has a tough task on his hands to get more than two wins from the Haylett-Petty Force. Since the heady heights of nine wins and seven defeats in 2014, the Force have managed to secure just five victories over the past two seasons, one of which came across new boys the Sunwolves.

Another off-season has seen plenty of their squad’s top players taken from them in the form of Ben Tapuai (Bath), Kyle Godwin (Brumbies) and Steve Mafi (Castres) which will make wins equally hard to come by in 2017.

Without a shadow of a doubt, their best player is full-back Dane Haylett-Petty who was outstanding in 2016 and is surely eyeing a move elsewhere to maintain his international hopes. Outside of DHP, lock forward Adam Coleman has recently made his mark with the Wallabies and should help the forwards maintain some equilibrium alongside number eight Ben McCalman.

In the back-line, three new players in Billy Meakes, Robbie Coleman and rugby league convert Curtis Rona should all get opportunities early in the season and if the Force can better last season’s two-win campaign that may be seen as success.

Prediction: Without Haylett-Petty they may be looking at a 15-loss season. In serious need of picking up shock wins otherwise Super Rugby in Perth may be on its last legs.