Super Rugby 2016 Preview: Australia conference

The Waratahs and Brumbies lead the charge in Australia once more ahead of the new Super Rugby season

Super Rugby 2016 Preview: Australia conference
The Australian conference could be the most hotly-contested in Super Rugby this season (image via: abc.net.au)

Having previewed both the Africa 1 and Africa 2 conferences, we now take a look at the five Australian conference sides who will compete in Super Rugby this year. 

The Waratahs and Brumbies each had solid yet unspectacular seasons last time out, with both teams reaching the playoffs before suffering harrowing semi-final defeats to two Kiwi outfits. They will be the favourites once again to battle it out at top of the Australian conference.

The Reds have lost a number of experienced faces, but still have enough ability to trouble the top sides, whilst the Rebels will continue to play above their level with a group of talented youngsters. The Force will most likely struggle once more having failed to add much to their squad following last season’s bottom-placed finish in the overall standings.

Brumbies

If the Brumbies have designs on winning their first Super Rugby trophy since 2004, this is the year they will have targeted. Whilst the other Australian franchises have already seen much of their top talent poached by European clubs, a strong core will remain with the Canberra-based club this season ahead of scheduled moves abroad next year.

In David Pocock, the Brumbies possess the most influential forward in world rugby, and ahead of his sabbatical in England next year, they will hope that he has another big season in him which could help them reach the summit. Pocock will pack down alongside fellow Wallaby back-rower Scott Fardy in a strong forward unit which includes an international trio in the front-row of Ben Alexander, Scott Sio and vice-captain Stephen Moore.

David Pocock will play a big role in the Brumbies attempts at recapturing the Super Rugby title (via: abc.net.au)

Moore will split the captaincy with Christian Lealiifano after head coach Stephen Larkham decided that sharing the leadership was the best thing to do ahead of Moore’s impending move to the Reds for the 2017 season.  Larkham is in his second full season as coach, and he looks to have put together a squad ready to challenge at the top end of the overall table.

The two major losses from last year’s squad came in the form of Montpellier-bound pair Nic White and Jesse Mogg. The form of whipper-snapper Robbie Coleman last season alleviated the loss of Mogg at full-back, whilst also allowing Henry Speight and Joe Tomane to nail down the wing positions. Speight will however be juggling his time this season between playing with the Brumbies, and also the Australian Sevens side, as he sets his sights on a place in the squad for the Rio Olympics.

Nic White’s replacement at scrum-half, is Argentinian international Tomas Cubelli. Cubelli was one of a few Pumas who decided against signing with the new Jaguares franchise, instead moving to the ACT in one of the most interiguing transfers of the summer.

After narrowly making the playoffs last season, this Brumbies outfit look set to once again be the biggest challengers for the Waratahs at the top of the Australian conference. Pocock’s presence alone will lead to plenty of front foot ball, which playmakers such as Matt Toomua and Tevita Kuridrani should feast on, with silverware this season a very realistic goal.

Force

After picking up just three victories last season, it is tough to see where the Force have made improvements which will allow them to rise higher up the table. Michael Foley will once more preside over a Force squad which looks under-resourced compared to their divisional rivals. Captain Matt Hodgson will continue to lead from the front for the Western Australians, alongside the team’s star player Ben McCalman in the back row.

The Force will rely upon the carrying of Ben McCalman once more (image via: yahoo)

The teams starting half-back pairing will most likely be former All Black, Alby Mathewson and Springbok, Peter Grant, both of who are the wrong side of 30. If the signing of Grant from La Rochelle pays off then Kyle Godwin will be able to continue his impressive performances in the midfield alongside another new signing in Ben Tapuai.

With the Rebels continuing to improve, the gap between the Force and the other four sides in the Australian is continuing to widen. Unless they can gain a few shock results this season, it looks set to be another season of struggle for the men from Perth.

Rebels

The Rebels have continued to show signs of improvement during their five seasons of Super Rugby, but now is the time to finally lay down a marker against the likes of the Waratahs and Brumbies. Seven victories last season was seen as a success in Melbourne, but they know that to be taken seriously they need to finally reach the playoffs.

That task will be distinctly tougher, after influential leader Scott Higginbotham made the decision to continue his playing days in Japan. Higginbotham was followed out of Melbourne by prop forward Paul Alo-Emile who joined Stade Francais, as well as Telusa Veainu who signed for the Leicester Tigers after a sparkling World Cup with Tonga.

Head coach Tony McGahan has decided to hand over the captaincy to young up-and-coming scrum-half Nik Stirzaker, who will become the youngest captain in Rebels history. Stirzaker had a breakthrough season last time out, and his combination with Jack Debreczeni in the half-back positions will be vital to the Rebels chances.

Up front, flanker Sean McMahon is thought of extremely highly in Australia, and filled in expertly during the World Cup when called upon. The 21-year-old is seen as the long-term replacement for David Pocock in Australia’s back-row, and another strong season should help his ascendancy on the international scene.

Sean McMahon will be hoping for another stellar season with the Rebels (image via: rugbynews.au)

Two more forwards at the opposite ends of their career will be crucial to the Rebels hopes this year. 2011 World Cup winner Adam Thompson moves over from the Reds and should help ease the pain of losing Higginbotham in the back-row. Meanwhile, lock forward Luke Jones is now an established member of the squad and will be relied upon to win lineout ball as well as give the side much needed go-forward against the stronger sides.

If Thompson can have as big an impact as Higginbotham did when he joined in 2013, then there is no reason why the Rebels can’t continue to make improvements this season. With an exciting young half-back pairing who can lead them around the field, this Melbourne side should be tough to beat and might just shock a few of the more established teams.

Reds

After winning the Super Rugby title in 2011, very little of that squad now remains in Queensland following another off-season of player turnover. James Horwill (Harlequins), Quade Cooper, James O’Connor (both Toulon) and Will Genia (Stade Francais) all chose to continue their careers in Europe as the Reds lost a vast amount of Super Rugby experience.

To replace all that experience, the Reds have brought in a raft of players, including Wallaby second-row Kane Douglas, as well as Japanese full-back Ayumu Goromaru who became a big name during the recent World Cup and chose to sign for the Reds over new Japanese franchsie, the Sunwolves.

Reds latest signing Ayumu Goromaru poses with head coach Richard Graham (image via: rugby365.com)

Despite all of the players who left following last season’s 13th placed finish, this side still includes a number of former and future Wallabies who are desperate for a strong season under coach Richard Graham. James Slipper will skipper the side once more from prop, where he is joined in the forwards by fellow internationals Rob Simmons, Greg Holmes, Saia Fainga’a, Liam Gill and Jake Schatz.

The backline will include former Rugby League and Aussie Rules star Karmichael Hunt, who is expected to move to full-back to accommodate rookie Henry Taefu in the centres where he will partner Samu Kerevi. Taefu has been a revelation in pre-season, and the 21-year-old is in line to make his debut this weekend.

After the disastrous 2015 campaign, the only way is up for the Reds. Arguably the pressure is off Graham and his charges following the departures of Genia and company, and this may allow the Queensland outfit to surprise a few doubters. With all that said, they will begin the campaign as the fourth ranked Aussie outfit and will most likely be chasing the Rebels in the race for third spot behind the two dominant sides in the division.  

Waratahs

The team to be shot down in the Australian conference remains the Waratahs, who have topped the division for the past two seasons. The side based in Sydney did the double over the Brumbies in 2015 to help them reach the playoffs, before they were humbled at home by the Highlanders in a home semi-final. This season sees Daryl Gibson at the helm, after the former All Black took over from highly-successful head coach Michael Cheika who left to lead the Wallabies.

As well as losing their head coach, the New South Wales side also said goodbye to a number of strong performers from the last few years. Bordeaux-Begles poached international pair Adam Ashley-Cooper and Sekope Kepu, whilst Jacques Potgeiter returned to his homeland to sign with the Sharks. Young playmaker Ben Volavola has decided to continue his development with the Crusaders, whilst Peter Betham has impressed at Leicester since joining them at the end of last year.

Israel Folau remains one of the most devastating runners in the game (image via: smh.com.au)

Israel Folau and Michael Hooper are the star turns for the Waratahs, both of whom turned down lucrative deals in Europe to remain with the franchise after the World Cup. There are plenty of other Wallabies sprinkled throughout the squad too, including half-backs Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley and utility back Kurtley Beale. The second-row pairing of Will Skelton and Dean Mumm were both involved in Australia’s World Cup campaign and could form one of the better lock partnerships in the competition.

In a major boost for the ‘Tahs, giant winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, looks set to return to the club at the business end of the season. The Fijian-born winger who took the competition by storm in 2015, signed a three-year deal with the Glasgow Warriors, but has used a clause in his contract which allows him to return to the Waratahs at the end of Glasgow’s season. The u-turn will allow Naiyaravoro to battle for a place in the Australian squad, which would not have been afforded to him if he remained in Scotland.

Until they are knocked off the top perch, the Waratahs will remain the team to beat in the Australian conference. It looks to be a battle between them and the Brumbies for the automatic playoff spot, and the two matches between the sides will go a long way towards deciding the division champion.