Aus clubs open Super Rugby with derby clashes
Two local derbies which open the 2013 Super Rugby season may reveal the relative strengths of Australian teams without immediately determining whether they have closed the gap on rivals in South Africa and New Zealand.
The Melbourne Rebels and Perth-based Western Force will meet on Friday and the ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds on Saturday in a truncated opening round designed to create space later in the season for the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia.
The Reds were the only Australian team to reach the playoffs last year while the Brumbies missed the top-six by a point. The Rebels and Force finished 13th and 14th respectively, trailing the 11th-placed New South Wales Waratahs, who have a bye in the opening round.
The match between the Brumbies and Reds might help determine which Australian team will most strongly challenge for the Super 15 crown this season. The mystery of whether the Waratahs will improve enough under new head coach Michael Chieka to challenge those teams in the Australian conference will not be addressed until they play the Reds in their opening match on February 22.
Comparisons between Australian teams and those in other conferences won't begin until round three when the Reds play the Wellington Hurricanes.
The first round should at least shed light on the progress the Australian teams have made since last season when the Reds were laid low by injuries after winning the title in 2011, the Brumbies improved under South African coach Jake White and the Rebels and Force were never on the pace.
The Brumbies ended their 2012 season with a surprise loss to the struggling Auckland Blues which was enough to exclude them from the playoffs. White has named almost the same team that played in that loss as a challenge to his players to immediately atone for a costly failure.
"He's actually put it back on us to say 'last time you guys took the field, it wasn't the result we needed. It's up to you guys to right it," Brumbies captain Ben Mowen said. "It's a pretty powerful thing to do as a coach to put it back on the players and really give them that responsibility."
Wallabies flanker and former captain David Pocock will make his debut for the Brumbies on Saturday, adding to its experience and leadership.
"He's had a huge role in the direction of the team already," Mowen said. "He's an extremely impressive person in terms of the way he prepares for his rugby and the way he presents himself but also the other side is that he's just an impressive person in general."
Prop James Slipper will captain the Reds in the absence of James Horwill and Will Genia, both still recovering from injuries.
"We have a lot of leaders at the Reds and I'd like to think we are all on an equal plane," Slipper said. "Most of the decisions will make themselves.
"I tend to lead by example rather than big speeches."
Former Wales international Gareth Delve will captain the Melbourne Rebels this season and says the team's opening games will tell whether it will be competitive this season. The Rebels have beaten the Force at their last three meetings.
"This month will really show where we stand," Delve said. "By the end of this month, we'll see whether we are genuine contenders, whether we've shaken off the tag of being that new team and are ready to be judged on our efforts and performances, which is where we want to be."