Australia's Super Rugby prospects
Firstly it’s congratulations to the Blitzbokke for their thumping win over New Zealand in the final at Las Vegas.
Both teams did extremely well just to get to the final, with South Africa still missing Cecil Afrika, Kyle Brown and Stephen Hunt, and New Zealand without three equally vital players in skipper DJ Forbes, Lote Raikabula and Kurt Baker.
But Paul Treu's men were worthy winners in the final. They played it smart using their big men up the middle of the narrow pitch, and having Branco du Preez back gave them the spark they were missing in Wellington.
The All Black Sevens may have lost the battle, but they are still winning the war…their ultra consistent play has seen them into three finals, and their worst so far is a third in Wellington. They actually extended their overall advantage by a couple of points in Vegas, and unless someone can knock them out early in Hong Kong I suspect their lead will soon be unassailable.
But it was a great tournament, with a succession of extra time thrillers, more upsets and a fifth champion in as many tournaments which will please the IRB no end.
Super Rugby about to start
It seems hard to believe, but Super Rugby kicks off this coming weekend.
The Aussies are starting a week earlier because of the Lions tour in June and will open up with the Rebels against the Force and the Brumbies against the Reds.
The laughing stock of Super Rugby last year, the Aussies managed only one team in the playoffs, that being the Reds who would have been sixth, but for the vagaries of the system which allowed them a home playoff.
Overall results made it hard to justify them having five teams, and they continue to import players to make up the numbers, but I suspect the Aussie conference might be a wee bit tougher this year…there’s been a bit of player movement and a number of players are returning from injury.
The Reds have a canny coach in Ewen McKenzie and Suncorp Stadium has always been a hard place for visiting teams to win. However they will be without Will Genia for the first six weeks, skipper James Horwill is also battling to get fit for the start of the season and Scott Higginbotham has left for Melbourne. Quade Cooper has been spending as much time in the boxing ring as on the training pitch. He is capable of extraordinary things at both ends of the scale and much will depend on whether he fires, and whether he plays the team role or flies solo.
If they can make a good start they’ll be hard to keep out of the playoffs, but much depends on the fitness of Horwill and Genia.
The Brumbies went a lot better than many expected last year, thanks to Jake White putting an axe through the player dominated cliques of the past decade or so and instilling some good playing structures. Christian Lealiifano is back from injury, and while Michael Hooper is gone, David Pocock is a huge score and you’d have to be pretty cold hearted not to wish Clyde Rathbone well coming out of retirement after years blighted by injury and depression.
If they can build on last year they’ll be thereabouts challenging the Reds come playoff time.
The Waratahs are being talked up…now there’s a change! They’ve got another new coach (Michael Cheika) and have signed Israel Folau who was a league phenomenon before bombing in the ARL, and have snapped up the outstanding Hooper from the Brumbies.
They’ve got a host of big names, nothing new there, but in recent years they have played some of the most uninspiring rugby imaginable, while last year there was also talk of a degree of player power than got right out of hand. Cheika is highly regarded but has a massive job turning around a franchise and winning back a fan base that wants to see not just a winning team, but an attractive game, and it might take some time.
Given their player roster they should be contenders, although I’m not convinced they’re ready to shake off the under-achievers tag just yet. Watch out for Folau though, he’s some talent.
The Melbourne Rebels continue to lure the big names to the Victorian capital, with Higginbotham joining the likes of Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor . They’ve also signed promising Wellington players Jason Woodward and Scott Fuglistaller.
They caused a massive upset last year by beating the Crusaders but they were woefully inconsistent and have always looked “manufactured”. Plenty of star power, and there’ll be one less ego to deal with following the departure of Danny Cipriani, which will also do wonders for their defence.
The Western Force have lost their two most accomplished players in Pocock and the redoubtable Nathan Sharpe, and have again looked offshore to fill up the gaps, signing Sias Ebersohn from the Cheetahs and Kiwis Sam Christie and Alby Mathewson. Sam Norton-Knight and Hugh McMenamin are back from stints offshore.
Perth is always a tricky venue, a potential banana skin for Kiwi and South African teams en route to or from South Africa, but I can’t see The Force being anything other than nuisance value. I’d be surprised if they finished anything other than bottom of the Aussie conference.
Predicted Conference Winners : Brumbies, provided David Pocock stays healthy.
Most likely other : Reds
I’ll look at the other conferences next week.
Finally in response to a couple of questions last week:
Shanir asked about derbies. I know that a lot of South African fans like the “international” games over the home and away conference matches because when added to the Currie Cup you end up seeing the Sharks and Bulls play four times a year.
It’s different in New Zealand because our teams in Super Rugby are franchises, different to those that play in our provincial competition, and the numbers alone prove these are the most attractive games for the fans. The conference system also works for the Aussies, who also love the derbies because they don’t have a provincial competition.
It’s just another example of how difficult it is to find something that suits all three countries.
If Saru gets its way and there are six SA teams after 2015 (and I believe Saru is adamant about this), it might mean even more derby matches.
Drenomics mentioned management of players. I wrote last year that I thought that New Zealand had fewer injuries because coaches at all levels in NZ have learned to manage their player workloads a bit better, with the interests of the All Blacks paramount. All Black players tended to get rested a week either side of a bye so they can have some meaningful down time.
That’s not to say they all get it right….Jamie Joseph at the Highlanders has taken the old fashioned “you put your best out every week approach”, and while it has got them into contention, they have fallen away towards the end of the last two seasons, which surely has to be put down to wear and tear.
Injuries are part of the game, and are so often purely down to bad luck, but there have been chronic injuries to some notable players in recent years that surely owe much to overuse.
From a distance it seems South Africa could probably do more to get some synergy between the interests of the national team and the provincial coaches, but it’s not easy for the Super Rugby coaches because they stand or fall on results.