Team Base: Sydney, Australia
Home Stadium: Allianz Stadium
Coach: Darryl Gibson
Captain: Michael Hooper (Flanker)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 2nd/10th
Key Players Gained: Sekope Kepu (Prop), Damien Fitzpatrick (Hooker), Michael Wells (Flanker), Irae Simone (Centre), Cameron Clarke (Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Tatafu Polota-Nau (Hooker), Benn Robinson (Prop), Dave Dennis (Lock), Wycliff Palu (Number 8), Kurtley Beale (Centre)
Superstars: Sekope Kepu (Prop), Michael Hooper (Flanker), Bernard Foley (Flyhalf), Israel Folau (Fullback)
Rising Stars: Jack Dempsey (Back Row), Jed Holloway (Backrow), Irae Simone (Centre)
Darryl Gibson’s first season in charge as head coach of the Waratahs was always going to be a challenging one having to fill the big boots of the departed Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. They have always had plenty of backline stars, but their forward pack was really below standard last season, despite having the personnel to make a good showing. Four losses in their first eight matches proved hard to come back from, although they did win six of their last nine to round out their season.
The rise of prop Tom Robertson and the return of Sekope Kepu in the front row will certainly bolster their ranks and ball-carrying ability. I really think Jack Dempsey (flanker) and Jed Holloway (number eight) are going to have big years and potentially push for national selection. Lock Ned Hannigan will also announce himself to the southern hemisphere and another player who will definitely be on Michael Cheika’s radar will be centre, Irae Simone. He was simply outstanding during the Shute Shield and NRC season last year and he has all of the attributes to be one of the best 12’s in the game in a few years. You can’t overlook Dave Horwitz though, who led the NRC in line breaks last season and a permanent move to outside centre for Israel Folau could make things really difficult for other teams, especially as he scored more tries than any other player in the competition last year (11). They certainly don’t lack game-breakers and with Foley pulling the strings after a couple of stable years with the Wallabies, they should be contenders.
Prediction: If the Waratahs can take care of the other Australian teams, who I believe are quite weak this season, then they will have no dramas making the playoffs. When New South Wales are doing well, the Wallabies generally do well and my money would be on the Waratahs to win the Australian conference.
Team Base: Brisbane, Australia
Home Stadium: Suncorp Stadium
Coach: Nick Stiles
Captain: James Slipper
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 4th/15th
Key Players Gained: Stephen Moore (Hooker), George Smith (Flanker), Scott Higginbotham (Number 8), Quade Cooper (Flyhalf)
Key Players Lost: Ben Daley (Prop), Greg Holmes (Prop), Curtis Browning (Back row), Liam Gill (Flanker), Jake Schatz (Number 8), Ayumu Gorumaru (Utility Back)
Superstars: Stephen Moore, George Smith (Flanker), Quade Cooper (Flyhalf), Samu Kerevi (Centre)
Rising Stars: Andrew Ready (Hooker), Lukhan Tui (Lock), Izaia Perese (Outside back)
The Reds were nothing short of woeful in 2016, only managing three victories from15 matches across three continents. As predicted, coach Richard Graham failed to see out the first month of the season and a global search eventually resulted in then assistant coach, Nick Stiles, as head coach this time around. It has been a sad fall from grace for the Reds since their triumph over the Crusaders in the Super Rugby Final in 2011. What could go wrong for the Reds did go wrong last year, be it injuries, poor skill-sets, refereeing decisions, but most importantly their discipline. On three occasions last year against the Chiefs, Cheetahs and Waratahs, the Reds were forced to play understrength due to two yellow cards in one match.
This year, the Reds have recruited several Super Rugby stalwarts, which some might even call royalty, with the likes of flanker George Smith, Wallabies captain and hooker Stephen Moore, back rower Scott Higginbotham and the mercurial flyhalf Quade Cooper. Unfortunately for the Reds, Scott Higginbotham might not play any part this season pending a court case decision for a preseason confrontation with Brisbane police. I’m also excited to watch the progression of the ‘Tongan Thor’, Taniela Tupou, who apparently has been making a name for himself as a damager at Reds training. He also announced himself at that the Brisbane Tens, but was subsequently suspended for two weeks for head-butting Liam Messam. Confidence is high in Brisbane that the Reds can manufacture a much better season this time around, but they aren’t going to gel from the get go. One of the highlights of their season will be their game against the Blues at Apia Park in Samoa. There are several players within the Reds setup that have ties with Samoa, so it will no doubt be a special occasion for them. Keep an eye on Karmichael Hunt too – he is primed for a big season and his play-making ability will take the pressure off of Quade Cooper.
Prediction: This year might be a bit of a ‘work in progress’ season and if they can keep relatively injury-free, I believe they could challenge the Waratahs, but recent history says that they probably won’t make it out of the group.
Team Base: Canberra, Australia
Home Stadium: Canberra Stadium
Coach: Stephen Larkham
Captain: Sam Carter (Lock) and Christian Leali’ifano (Off-field)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 1st/Quarter-finalist
Key Players Gained: Saia Fainga’a (Hooker), Chris Alcock (Flanker), Tom Cusack (Flanker), Lolo Fakaosilea (Number 8), Kyle Godwin (Centre), Tom Banks (Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Stephen Moore (Hooker), David Pocock (Flanker), Christian Leali’ifano (Flyhalf), Matt Toomua (Centre), Robbie Coleman (Utility Back), Joe Tomane (Wing)
Superstars: Scott Sio (Prop), Rory Arnold (Lock), Scott Fardy (Flanker), Tevita Kuridrani (Centre)
Rising Stars: Nick Jooste (Flyhalf), Tom Banks (Fullback)
The Brumbies started 2016 with a bang, defeating the then 2015 runners-up (Hurricanes) 52-10 in Canberra, followed by the Waratahs and the Force, but after that, their season began to destabilise. They lost three big players midway through the season and their 1 from 5 record against New Zealand teams wasn’t good enough and never will be. They did do enough to scrape into the playoff picture for the fourth consecutive season, but the Highlanders were too strong for them forcing them out in the quarter-finals.
Looking ahead to this season, one which will be Stephen Larkham’s final as head coach, I can’t see the Brumbies being as dominant as they once were. Stephen Moore, Australia’s most capped Super Rugby player, the influential breakdown master David Pocock, Matt Toomua and the exciting Joe Tomane have all left the Brumbies headquarters in Canberra. Christian Leali’ifano is also battling Leukaemia and looks unlikely to play and the versatile Robbie Coleman has moved west to Perth. To compound matters, sniping Argentinian halfback Tomas Cubelli has all but been ruled out for the season due to a knee injury suffered in a pre-season trial match. The youngsters in the squad that have been faring well at NRC level, will have a whole lot more responsibility resting on their shoulders this season. Depth is going to be a problem and if the injury curse comes down hard on the lads from Canberra, it could turn out to be a tough ask for the youngsters.
Prediction: Over the past 16 seasons, the Brumbies have only finished outside of the top ten on one occasion and I feel they will add to that this season. Brumbies to finish third in Australia.
Team Base: Melbourne, Australia
Home Stadium: AAMI Park
Coach: Tony McGahan
Captain: Nic Stirzaker
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 3rd/12th
Key Players Gained: Alex Toolis (Lock), Amanaki Mafi (Number 8), Jackson Garden Bachop (Flyhalf), Pama Fou (Wing), Marika Koroibete (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Luke Jones (Lock), Scott Fuglistaller (Flanker), Adam Thomson (Flanker), Tamati Ellison (Centre), Mike Harris (Utility back)
Superstars: Sean McMahon (Flanker), Lopeti Timani (Number 8), Reece Hodge (Utility back)
Rising Stars: Pama Fou (Wing), Marika Koroibete (Wing)
The Rebels enter their third season under the guidance of coach Tony McGahan and will be feeling confident of bettering their 2016 record of seven wins and eight losses. Despite lacking any seasoned international superstars, they are consistent on both attack and in defence and place a lot of importance on competing at the breakdown. Spearheaded by young tearaway Sean McMahon, there are a number of players who now have a few seasons of Super Rugby under their belts, but the loss of experienced campaigners Luke Jones (Lock), Adam Thomson (Flanker), Tamati Ellison (Centre), Mike Harris (Utility) will stunt their growth this season. Those losses have been somewhat offset by the offseason signings of Japanese import Amanaki Mafi, a bullocking number eight, winger Pama Fou from the Australian Sevens program and Marieke Koroibete from rugby league, as they will all add a lot of potency to the Rebels attack.
Prediction: Had the Rebels been able to hold onto some of their more experienced campaigners, they would’ve been in a lot better position heading into this season. Instead, the Rebels are a youthful team that will look to scrap it out with other teams as opposed to being able to blow any of them out with great certainty. The Rebels will open the season on a rare Thursday night fixture against the Blues at AAMI Park in Melbourne, but the playoffs which have eluded them for six seasons so far, are more than likely out of the picture in 2017.
Western Force (5th)
Team Base: Perth, Australia
Home Stadium: NIB Stadium
Coach: David Wessels
Captain: Heath Tessman (Hooker)/Ben McCalman (Number 8)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 5th/16th
Key Players Gained: Tatafu Polota-Nau (Hooker), Isi Naisarani (Back row), Bill Meakes (Centre), Robbie Coleman (Utility back), Curtis Rona (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Nathan Charles (Hooker), Steve Mafi (Lock), Chris Alcock (Flanker), Alby Mathewson (Halfback), Kyle Godwin (Centre), Ben Tapuai (Centre)
Superstars: Matt Hodgson, Ben McCalman (Flanker/Number 8), Dane Haylett-Petty
Rising Stars: Isi Naisarani (Back row), Bill Meakes (Centre)
The Western Force have now been in this competition for ten seasons and they are still yet to make the playoffs. Their foundation years saw them recruit some big names like David Pocock and Matt Giteau with a seventh-placed finish in 2007, the only real season that they could hang their hat on. Last season was more of the same for the Force, finishing in 16th place just ahead of the woeful Kings and Sunwolves. As a result, Michael Foley lost his position at the helm of Western Australian rugby and he was replaced by the South African-born David Wessels. Wessels is a defensive coach first and foremost and has spent time with the Stormers (a known defensive powerhouse) and under Jake White (Brumbies) in 2012.
Looking ahead to this season, the Force will have to contend with a young squad with players like Nathan Charles, Steve Mafi, Chris Alcock, Alby Mathewson, Kyle Godwin and Ben Tapuai departing in the off-season. In all honesty though, they have recruited very well with hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, back rower Isi Naisarani (player to watch), centre Bill Meakes (been playing in Europe) and rugby league convert Curtis Rona joining the ranks.
Prediction: Despite their consistent lows of the past few seasons, Western Force fans remain some of the most passionate and ‘die-hard’ fans in the competition. If flyhalf Jono Lance can stay fit, they can give teams in the bottom half of the draw a real challenge (and win some), but I’d feel confident betting large sums of cash on the fact that they won’t be making the playoffs again this year. There have been discussions around moving the Force to Western Sydney, which would be heartbreaking for their passionate fans, but after another last place in the Australian conference, the suits will be talking.