Super Rugby Preview 2018 – AUSTRALIAN CONFERENCE
On February 17, the 23rd edition of Super Rugby kicks off in Cape Town with the first of 120-regular season matches seeing the Stormers and the Jaguares clash at Newlands. The perennial superpowers of Super Rugby, the Crusaders, secured their eighth Super Rugby title last season, with a 25-18 win over the Lions in Johannesburg. In 2017, 142 matches were played and a total of 978 tries were scored, the highest tries per game ratio in the tournament’s history (6.89/game). Elton Jantjies of the Lions ended up as the tournament’s top points scorer with 197 and Hurricanes powerhouse Ngani Laumape crossed the chalk 15 times to lead the competition. As The Profits resident rugby union contributor, each week I will provide my thoughts, analysis and betting plays for the duration of the competition. Over the next six months, some of the most physical, athletic, skilful and exciting rugby players on the planet will compete for glory in what is arguably the toughest and most competitive provincial rugby tournament in the world.
The 2018 season reverts back to a 15-team, three Conference format with the Western Force (Australia), Cheetahs and Kings (both South Africa) all eliminated from last year’s edition. Each team will play 16 regular season matches that includes eight matches (home and away) against teams in their own Conference and eight matches (home and away) against teams in the other Conferences. The winners of each of the three conferences (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) will automatically qualify for the quarterfinals, alongside the next five best teams across all Conferences. This format eliminates the contentious issues that have plagued the last few seasons and ensures that the best teams will be represented in the playoff picture.
Below you will find an in-depth analysis of each team in the Australian Conference. I understand that many of you will think differently, but as we have all figured out over the years, Super Rugby is an extremely tough competition to predict. In the end, that’s what makes it so enjoyable to watch. I look forward to your company throughout the season and make sure you follow me on Twitter (@S15_TheProfits) for last minute tips, insight or just for a chat.
Team Base: Canberra, Australia
Home Stadium: Canberra Stadium
Coach: Dan McKellar (new coach)
Captain: Sam Carter (Lock) and Christian Leali’ifano (Off-field)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 1st/Quarter-finals
Key Players Gained: David Pocock (Flanker), Isi Naisarani (Back Row)
Key Players Lost: Chris Alcock (Flanker), Scott Fardy (Flanker), Tomas Cubelli (Halfback), Aidan Toua (Outside Back)
Superstars: Scott Sio (Prop), Rory Arnold (Lock), David Pocock (Flanker), Tevita Kuridrani (Centre)
Rising Prospects: Rob Valetini (Back Row), Isi Naisarani (Back Row), Tom Banks (Fullback)
The Brumbies head into this season as the current Australian Conference champions as they were the only Australian team to make the quarterfinals last year. Their tournament ended with a comprehensive loss to the Hurricanes in Canberra in coach Stephen Larkham’s swansong, but it was their ability to beat their fellow Australian teams that proved to be the difference. Defensively, they were the third best team in the competition leaking only 18.6 points per game, but they lacked spark on attack, tied third-last with the Sunwolves with a miserly 21 points per game.
Looking ahead to this season, one which will be Dan McKellar’s first in charge, the Brumbies will be very confident of another trip to the finals. Their tight five has been strong since the Jake White era with Scott Sio and Allan Alaalatoa anchoring the scrum. Rory Arnold has come on in leaps and bounds over the past two seasons and Sam Carter is an industrious lock and a solid leader. Their real strength this season will be their back row, especially with the return of David Pocock (sabbatical). His ability to dominate the breakdown, strike fear into his opponents and machine-like work rate are his biggest assets. He will be joined by Isi Naisarani, a player who I believe will play for the Wallabies this season and the impressive youngster, Rob Valetini. Unfortunately for the Brumbies, Pocock picked up a knee injury in the Japanese Top League recently and isn’t due back until April. Christian Leali’ifano returns from a stint at Ulster to orchestrate the backline alongside Joe Powell and Tevita Kuridrani is the best player in the 13 channel in Australia. Tom Banks is also an exciting prospect at fullback after dominating the NRC the past couple of seasons so expect some incisive runs from him from the back.
Prediction: Since the inception of the tournament, the Brumbies have been the most consistent and successful of the Australia franchises. If their squad stays relatively healthy, the Brumbies should have enough in their arsenal to win the Australian Conference once again. I do see them falling short of the Final though, with their backline depth potentially an issue later in the season.
Team Base: Melbourne, Australia
Home Stadium: AAMI Park
Coach: Dave Wessels
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 5th/18th
Key Players Gained: Tetera Faulkner (Prop), Adam Coleman (Lock), Geoff Parling (Lock), Richard Hardwick (Back Row), Will Genia (Halfback), Dane Haylett-Petty (Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Tyrel Lomax (Prop), James Hanson (Hooker), Sean McMahon (Back Row)
Superstars: Adam Coleman (Lock), Amanaki Mafi (Number Eight), Reece Hodge (Utility back), Dane Haylett-Petty (Fullback)
Rising Prospects: Jordan Uelese (Hooker), Trevor Hosea (Lock), Jack Maddocks (Fullback)
The Rebels enter their eighth season of Super Rugby with a new coach, new roster and a new sense of belief in 2018. With the eradication of the Western Force, the Rebels front office have done an excellent job signing coach Dave Wessels and high quality Internationals including Adam Coleman, Geoff Parling and Dane Haylett-Petty, as well as luring Will Genia home from the Top 14 in France. Change was inevitable in Melbourne after a Tony McGahan-coached Rebels outfit only managed to secure one victory from 15 matches last year, finding themselves anchored at the foot of the competition ladder.
This year, their pack will be led by Wallabies ace Adam Coleman and he will be aptly supported by number eight Amanaki Mafi (2017 Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year), former England International Geoff Parling and the physical Lopeti Timani. With youngsters Jordan Uelese and Matt Philip’s careers on the up, they are a physical team that won’t back down to anyone. Will Genia will provide leadership and direction at halfback with dangerous players like Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete and Dane Haylett-Petty bound to cause opposition defences some problems.
Prediction: Heading into the 2018 season, the Rebels are positioned better than ever before to secure their first ever playoff berth. They’ll have their hands full coming up against the Brumbies in the Australian Conference, but I do seeing them being the most improved team in the competition having finished with the wooden-spoon last year. Their place on the ladder will be determined by how quickly they gel and adopt Dave Wessel’s high-tempo patterns, but the Melbourne faithful will have a lot more to celebrate this season.
Team Base: Sydney, Australia
Home Stadium: Allianz Stadium
Coach: Darryl Gibson
Captain: Michael Hooper (Flanker)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 4th/16th
Key Players Gained: Shambeckler Vui (Prop), Rob Simmons (Lock), Curtis Rona (Utility Back), Kurtley Beale (Utility Back)
Key Players Lost: Dean Mumm (Lock), Will Skelton (Lock), Rob Horne (Centre)
Superstars: Sekope Kepu (Prop), Michael Hooper (Flanker), Bernard Foley (Flyhalf), Kurtley Beale (Utility Back), Israel Folau (Fullback)
Rising Prospects: Jed Holloway (Backrow), Jake Gordon (Halfback), Irae Simone (Centre)
Four wins from 15 matches and a 16th placed finish was a nightmare of a season for the Waratahs in 2017 – a far cry from their 2014 Championship winning feat. Two years into the job and the New Zealand-born coach Darryl Gibson has very little to show for and Sydney fans will be seething at the results garnered by their star-studded team. Their disastrous season was met with an organisation-wide review, but history suggests that it will take a few years to see those recommendations come to fruition. There are simply no excuses to finish that low on the ladder and the Sydney-siders need an attitude check. This starts with their defence. Statistically, the Waratahs had the worst tackling success rate of any team in the competition, with only the Rebels and the Sunwolves conceding more points (34.8/game) than them. Their attack was more than capable of scoring tries, but too often they found themselves behind on the scoreboard early in games or heavily under the pump due to consistent infringements and ill-discipline.
With the ever-present Michael Hooper leading the charge and Kurtley Beale back in the provincial picture, there is more than enough talent for the Waratahs to give the Australian Conference a shake-up. They need to go back to basics, shore up their set piece and start winning games to bring the crowds back to Allianz Stadium. Waratahs fans won’t accept another mediocre season so the pressure will be on the men in blue to perform.
Prediction: The Waratahs will win more games this season than last year, but their over-reliance on Hooper, Foley, Beale and Folau will cost them should injuries occur. If they stay fit, they will be in with a shot, but I’m not prepared to back them until they fix their leaky defence and string more consistent performances together.
Team Base: Brisbane, Australia
Home Stadium: Suncorp Stadium
Coach: Brad Thorn (new coach)
Captain: Scott Higginbotham (Back Row)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 3rd/14th
Key Players Gained: Harry Hockings (Lock), Liam Wright (Flanker), Jono Lance (Flyhalf), Ben Lucas (Utility Back)
Key Players Lost: Stephen Moore (Hooker), Rob Simmons (Lock), Hendrik Tui (Flanker)
Superstars: George Smith (Flanker), Samu Kerevi (Centre)
Rising Prospects: Taniela Tupou (Prop), Harry Hockings (Lock), Liam Wright (Flanker)
After a few ‘comical’ seasons since 2014 where the Reds have failed to finish better than 13th, there was a lot of hype at Ballymore with the off-season recruitment drive of star-studded players like Stephen Moore, George Smith, Scott Higginbotham, Quade Cooper last year. However, little changed with the Reds finishing in 14th position on the back of four wins and 11 losses. George Smith, Karmichael Hunt and Samu Kerevi were the real standouts and Nick Stiles did a good job in providing the new crop of talent (Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Tui, Izack Rodda, Adam Korczyk, James Tuttle, Izaia Perese) with valuable game time that they will benefit from in the coming seasons.
Ultimately, it came as no surprise that Nick Stiles was sacked and replaced by the most decorated former rugby player on the planet, Brad Thorn. There are too many accolades to list (as a player across union and league), but his hard-nosed approach and recent successes with the QLD Under 20 and QLD Country teams, both of which were eventual Champions, got him over the line. His decision to drop Quade Cooper in pre-season highlights the direction he wants to head in and I will be interested to see how he handles Karmichael Hunt’s ‘cocaine saga’. The return of James Slipper will bring much-needed leadership and stability to the front row and Harry Hockings is a young lock with a bright future ahead of him. The Reds have struggled in the halves since the Genia/Cooper combination of yesteryear and there will be a lot of pressure on youngsters Duncan Paia’aua and Hamish Stewart to guide the Reds around the park. Late signings of 2011 winners Jono Lance and Ben Lucas will provide them with more direction, but both players are past their prime. Izaia Perese is another star in the making and it is good to see Chris Feauai-Sautia back fit after a stint in Japan, followed by a win with Queensland Country last year.
Prediction: It appears that some of the necessary changes have been made at Reds HQ, but there still remains a lot of ‘deadwood’ and room for growth. How the Reds recruitment team failed to attract any of Perth’s Wallabies to Brisbane is inexcusable. Brad Thorn and the Reds will do some good things this year, but the Queenslanders will field a relatively inexperienced squad that are still a few years away from being legitimate contenders and back in the good books with their boisterous fans.
Team Base: Tokyo, Japan
Home Stadium: Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium
Coach: Jamie Joseph
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 4th/17th
Players Gained: Michael Leitch (Back Row), Robbie Robinson (Fullback)
Players Lost: No notable losses
Superstars: Michael Leitch (Back Row)
The Sunwolves have been the tournament’s biggest disappointments since their inception in 2015. Under the guidance of Mark Hammett (2015) and Filo Tiatia (2016), the Sunwolves have only managed three victories from 30 matches. In a promising move, the JRFU have instated former Highlanders coaches Jamie Joseph (Head Coach) and Tony Brown (Assistant Coach) for the next few seasons which should see the organisation move in a more positive direction. Traditionally, Japanese teams have struggled with the physicality of the game, opting to play a quicker brand of rugby that tires their opposition. Joseph has lured Japanese captain Michael Leitch from the Chiefs as well as calling up several South Africans and New Zealanders who are currently plying their trade in the Japanese Top League. These include former Bulls players Grant Hattingh (Back Row) and Gerhard van der Heever (Wing) and Hayden Parker (Flyhalf) and Robbie Robinson (Fullback), a player who was once very similar in stature and X-factor to Damien McKenzie.
Prediction: Positioned in the Australian Conference this year, the Sunwolves will be required to do less travel than they have in previous seasons, however, I expect them to continue to struggle with the physicality and pace of the competition and see them as firm wooden-spoon favourites.