The Queensland Reds won the 2011 Super Rugby title. Image courtesy of foxsports.com.au/News Limited
Considering its injury toll last season, it was a remarkable effort from Queensland to even win the Australian conference and make the playoffs. A first round exit against the Sharks was a disappointing way to finish the season, but with Quade Cooper out suspended and his fill-in Ben Lucas leaving the field 20 minutes in to the match with an ankle injury, it was no great surprise.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, Cooper will again wear a Reds jersey in 2013, but his sparring partner in the halves, Will Genia, will miss the first 5-6 weeks of the season after rupturing his ACL against the Springboks in Perth last year. Another player they’ll sorely miss is loose forward Scott Higginbotham, who has taken his powerful ball-running game and lineout prowess to Melbourne. Coach Ewen McKenzie does welcome back inspirational skipper, James Horwill, who returns after a lengthy stint on the sidelines with a hamstring problem.
– 2nd Australian Conference – The attacking spark that was a feature of the Reds’ Super Rugby triumph in 2011 was missing for large chunks of last season, due in large part to injuries. This was underlined by the fact the Rebels scored more points, and the sleep-inducing Waratahs weren’t far behind. Genia won’t be fit and firing until, at least, halfway through the season, and as good a back-up as Ben Lucas is, Queensland will need to maintain its phenomenal home record (21 wins in its last 24 starts) to hold on to first place in the conference.
The Brumbies were undoubtedly the surprise packet last season. After accumulating just four wins in 2011, the Canberra-based side stumbled at the final hurdle against the Blues at home to miss out on a finals spot to the Reds after finishing level on points. Realistically, though, they were probably the best Australian team throughout the competition, and much of the credit must go to first-year coach Jake White who brought a level of excitement back to the nation’s capital that hadn’t been seen since the title-winning season in 2004.
Richie McCaw remains the most dominant figure in world rugby, but the Brumbies’ biggest signing, David Pocock, is challenging him for the title of best openside flanker on the planet. Pocock was elevated to captain the Wallabies after James Horwill’s injury last year, and if he has no more injury worries – he had knee and calf problems in the back end of 2012 - then his signing from the Western Force will be a massive boost. His arrival will cover the loss of Waratahs-bound Michael Hooper, who had a breakout season last year at both Super Rugby and international level.
– 1st Australian Conference (Semi-finalist) – Hooper was very, very good last season, but Pocock will make the Brumbies even better. The Canberrans were a revelation under White last season and you would expect there is further improvement in this relatively young side with backline guns Christian Lealiifano, Henry Speight, Jesse Mogg and ex-league player Joseph Tomane still yet to reach their peak. Front row war horses Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander provide plenty of experience, while an interesting one is the return of former Wallaby speedster Clyde Rathbone, who hasn’t played Super Rugby in four years.
Between 2008 and 2011, the Waratahs never finished lower than fifth on the Super Rugby table. Last year was nothing short of a disaster, though, as an 11th place finish, coupled with some less-than-entertaining rugby left fans opting against a night at the Sydney Football Stadium. Regardless of who else they signed in the off-season, the Waratahs have sparked plenty of interest in the code in Sydney after luring Israel Folau to rugby after ending his ill-fated AFL experiment. Folau scored a double in his first trial match, but it is still to be seen where he’ll be in the XV come the opening match of the season against arch rival Queensland.
Flanker Michael Hooper is the other big addition after his cracking season for the Brumbies and the Wallabies, where he earned several player’s player awards. New South Wales has lost Rocky Elsom to Japanese rugby, but the former Wallaby captain never quite reached the heights in Australia for the ‘Tahs and Brumbies that he did when turning out for Leinster in Ireland. The forward pack looks solid, but the onus will be on the backline to click like it did back in 2010 when the Waratahs averaged almost 30 points a game. The backline has plenty of names with the likes of Berrick Barnes, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Rob Horne, but some performances which are commensurate with their reputations would go a long way to pulling their team out of the mire.
– 3rd Australian Conference – The arrival of Michael Chieka who takes over from forwards specialist Michael Foley should see a change of focus for the Waratahs. He should benefit from having speedsters Drew Mitchell and Lachie Turner available for the season, but the main interest will be in seeing how Folau adapts to his new environment. It’s hard to see how a team that was so woeful at times in 2012 could improve enough to leapfrog either the Reds or Brumbies in the conference.
The Rebels jumped from three wins to four in their second season of Super Rugby, but importantly for their place in the Australian Conference, they seem to have the wood on the Western Force after winning both games in 2012. The Victorians have a quality leader in Welshman Gareth Delve, while the backline oozes class with James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale capable of wreaking havoc. But what the Rebels do lack is depth.
Scott Higginbotham’s signing from the Reds is a massive boost for the Rebels pack. He can run, he can jump, and he has a skill-set that the vast majority of forward in Australia simply don’t have. Whether he has the cattle around him to do damage over 80 minutes of rugby each week is debatable.
– 4th Australian Conference – Nick Phipps will be a better player after his experience on the Spring Tour and they have signed well in the off-season, but their playing list drops off dramatically after the top seven or eight. Two one-point wins against the Force were crucial last season, and they’ll need to topple the Western Australians again to finish fourth on the ladder.
What can you say about the Force? They lost arguably the country’s most exciting back, James O’Connor, for the 2012 season. Now Australia’s best forward, David Pocock has departed for the Brumbies, while veteran lock Nathan Sharpe has decided to hang up his boots.
Michael Foley takes the reins after an horrible to end to his tenure with the Waratahs in 2012, and he inherits a solid enough forward pack which features the likes of Matt Hodgson, Pek Cowan, Richard Brown and Salesi Ma’afu. Only the Lions propped up the Perth-based side on the Super Rugby table last season, and even they managed to score more than the Force’s dismal tally of 306 points in 18 matches. Winger Nick Cummins has surprised plenty with his performances in the green and gold, but outside of him, there doesn’t look to be too many strike-weapons out west in 2012.
– 5th Australian Conference – Their best hope is to knock over the Rebels a couple of times, but realistically, Force will be fighting it out with new South African franchise the Southern Kings for the overall wooden spoon.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
The Crusaders will, in all likelihood, be Super Rugby favourites when the season kicks off, but no team in the competition has lost as much quality weaponary in the off-season. Richie McCaw’s decision to take a six-month sabbatical from rugby means he’ll be missing from the Canterbury line-up, as will flyer Zac Guildford who is dealing with alcohol issues. All Blacks prop Ben Franks has moved across to the Hurricanes where is guaranteed of a starting spot, while speedster Sean Maitland – the cousin of Quade Cooper - has skipped over to Scotland, already representing his new nation in the Six Nations.
The Chiefs were surprise winners of the competition last season, but they’ve had a couple of big-name departures, too. Sonny Bill Williams has taken his football boots, boxing gloves, and one-man publicity machine to the Roosters in the NRL, but the bigger loss could be that of Tongan front-rower Sona Taumalolo who has taken up a deal with Perpignan in France. The top scorer in the 2012 Super Rugby season, Aaron Cruden, remains, and there will be more pressure on him this season with the fly-half unable to rely on the off-loading ability of Williams which added an extra dimension to the Chiefs’ backline last season.
The Highlanders have arguably the friendliest draw in the entire competition. They remain on the Shaky Isles for the first 13 weeks of the season, and then they head offshore for not-so-difficult assignments against the Kings, Rebels and Force. There is plenty of All Black experience arriving in Dunedin with Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn joining the club in 2013, but they’ll need a lot more than old legs to get them through an arduous campaign. The Highlanders do have a backline full of international talent, so they could well be the surprise packet of the competition.
Sir John Kirwan takes the reins after a disastrous season for the Blues in 2012. The cleanout featured a number of big names, although old heads Kevin Mealamu and Ali Williams remain. The elusive Rene Ranger will be vital for a side which struggled to cross the whitewash last season. The Hurricanes should be better than last season, although the loss of Cory Jane for the year with a serious knee injury won’t help matters.
– 1st Chiefs (Runner-up); 2nd Crusaders (Semi-finalist); 3rd Highlanders (Finalist); 4th Blues; 5th Hurricanes
SOUTH AFRICA CONFERENCE
Three franchises from the Rainbow Nation qualified for the Super Rugby finals last season, and the third-ranked of those, the Sharks, made it all the way to the final before getting unceremoniously thumped by the Chiefs. Much like in Australia, there are a couple of easybeats in this conference, although the Cheetahs have admittedly won five games each of the past three seasons. The Southern Kings, based in Port Elizabeth, are likely to be whipping boys in their debut season after coming in at the expense of the Lions, which will almost certainly allow the other four S.A. teams to pencil in two wins each at the start of the season.
Despite suffering a surprise loss to the Sharks at the semi-final stage last season, the Stormers still look to be the best team in this conference, if not the Super Rugby competition and the world of provincial rugby. The biggest issue for the Cape Town-based franchise this season could be working out who plays in the No. 10 jersey. Peter Grant has been very solid with the boot the past couple of seasons, but he has failed to get a Springbok-laden backline to fire. In fact, the Stormers were the top seed going in to the finals despite their inability to reap a single try-scoring bonus point. The arrival of excitement machine Elton Jantjies from the Lions – he made his Test debut against the Wallabies at Loftus Versfeld in late 2012 – could set the cat amongst the pigeons and turn the Stormers in to an even more dangerous squad. They’ll also welcome back veteran Schalk Burger from a year out with a knee injury.
The Bulls crumbled at the first hurdle in the finals last season, going down to the Crusaders. They’ve got try-scoring machine Bjorn Basson, and will probably show as much flair as any South African team, but there is not a great deal of competition in that department. No major signings in the off-season, which is unusual for a franchise which usually loads up on talent from their rivals. They possibly over-performed in 2012 after the losses in recent seasons of stalwarts Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield, but they look little chance of overtaking the Stormers in 2013.
Watching the Sharks dump the Reds and Stormers from the finals race in consecutive weeks away from home, it was hard to believe they finished third in their conference. When this team is firing it looks about as good as any in Super Rugby. They’ve lost Frenchman Frederic Michalak, but replaced him with veteran fly-half and centre Butch James. He’s unlikely to depose Patrick Lambie as the Sharks’ starting No. 10, though. The full-time return of Francois Steyn could also push this team in to a position where they can at least host a final in Durban this year.
– 1st Stormers (Super Rugby winners); 2nd Sharks (semi-finals); 3rd Bulls; 4th Cheetahs; 5th Kings
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