The British and Irish Lions tour at the sharp end of the Super Rugby season means two things for the Australian Conferance: 1) They start a week early and 2) it will once again be an uphill battle for the Lucky Nation to get more than their one guaranteed team into the playoffs this year.
Best Super Performance: Finalists (2005, 2008)
2012 Super Rugby: 11th (four wins, 12 losses)
History: 7th, 8th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 8th, 3rd, 5th, 8th, 2nd, 3rd, 13th, 2nd, 5th, 3rd, 5th, 11th
TAB Odds: $12.00
In: Ollie Atkins, Peter Betham, Mitchell Chapman, Cam
Crawford, Bernard Foley, Israel Folau, Grayson Hart, Michael Hodge,
Luke Holmes, Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Matt Lucas, Ben
Out: Chris Alcock , Rocky Elsom, Daniel Halangahu, Brackin Karauria-Henry, Dean Mumm, Atieli Pakalani, Sarel Pretorius, Paddy Ryan, Dan Vickerman.
Booed and ridiculed by their own fans in 2011, things went from bad to worse for the 'Tahs last season. Touted as contenders, they slumped to 11th place overall, the second poorest return in NSW history. So how to turn things around? Well how about recruiting jack of all trades Israel Folau, who has been in devastating pre-season form, to help spark a traditionally uninspired backline? A new coach in Michael Cheika, who guided Leinster to a Heineken Cup triumph in 2009, and a new skipper in flanker Dave Dennis should also add help while - needless to say - a fit-again Berrick Barnes is vital. The loss of seasoned professionals Dean Mumm and Dan Vickerman, however, leaves their pack looking a little green.
Verdict: The Australian Conference is wide open and the
Waratahs are certainly capable of giving it a nudge. But the real
question is will they - even with Izzy on the books - put us to
Conference prediction : 3rd
Waratahs: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Ollie Atkins, Berrick Barnes, Peter Betham, Tom Carter, Mitchell Chapman, Cam Crawford, Dave Dennis, Kane Douglas, Bernard Foley, Israel Folau, Damien Fitzpatrick, Grayson Hart, Bernard Foley, Michael Hodge, Luke Holmes, Jed Holloway, Rob Horne, Michael Hooper, Sekope Kepu, Tom Kingston, Matt Lucas, Pat McCutcheon, Brendan McKibbin, Drew Mitchell, Wycliff Palu, Greg Peterson, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson, Paddy Ryan, Jeremy Tilse, Lopeti Timani, Sitaleki Timani, Lachie Turner, John Ulugia, Ben Volavola.
Best Super Performance: Champions (2011)
2012 Super Rugby: 6th (11 wins, five losses)
History: 3rd, 10th, 5th, 3rd, 7th, 4th, 5th, 8th, 10th, 10th, 12th, 14th, 12th, 13th, 5th, 1st, 6th.
AB Odds: $11.00
In: Albert Anae, Nick Frisby, Jono Owen, Dave
Out: Van Humphries, Scott Higginbotham, Peter Hynes, David McDuling , Guy Shepherdson.
They slipped into the playoffs last year by the skin of their teeth and there is no doubt the Reds will need a stroke of luck this season to emulate their 2011 title-winning run. Like last season, the Ewan McKenzie coached team is battling a raft of injuries; most notably to star halfback Wil Genina, who will miss the first six weeks with a knee injury, and captain James Horwill who is out of the season opener against the Brumbies. The loss of Scott Higginbotham to the Rebels will test a loose-forward pack which possess the promise of Liam Gill yet still relies heavily on the aging Radike Samo. But as the big Fijian fades, everyone knows this is Quade Cooper's parade and his influence - outside of the Khoder circus - is more important than ever.
Verdict: The Reds, more than any other Australian team,
have the mental fortitude to overcome adversity and this season
they will need to prove it.
Conference prediction: 2nd
Reds: Quade Cooper, Ben Daley, Rod Davies, Anthony Faingaa, Saia Faingaa, Will Genia, Liam Gill, James Hanson, Michael Harris, Greg Holmes, James Horwill, Digby Ioane, Jono Lance, Ben Lucas, Luke Morahan, Ed Quirk, Beau Robinson, Radike Samo, Jake Schatz, Dom Shipperley, Rob Simmons, Chris Feauai-Sautia, James Slipper, Ben Tapuai, Aidan Toua, Adam Wallace-Harrison, Albert Anae, Nick Frisby, Jono Owen, Dave McDuling.
Best Super Performance: Champions (2001, 2004)
2012 Super Rugby: 7th (10 wins, 6 losses)
History: 5th, 2nd, 10th, 5th, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 1st, 5th, 6th, 5th, 9th, 7th, 6th, 13th, 7th
TAB Odds: $12.00
In: Jordan Smiler, David Pocock, Ruan Smith, Stephan Van
Der Walt, Mark Swanepoel, Cyde Rathbone.
Out: Ben Hand, Cam Crawford, Michael Hooper, Kimami Sitauti, Anthony Hegarty, Dylan Sigg, Colby Faingaa, Jerry Yanuyanutawa.
Still the most storied Australia team in Super Rugby history, the Brumbies surprised everyone in 2012 - and probably even themselves - by leading their conference until the last match of the regular season. But that inexplicable loss to the Blues soured what was otherwise a tremendous debut season for former World Cup winning coach Jake White. This year, with a largely settled squad, they will expect to be around at the business end of the season and with Wallabies captain David Pocock now on the books their fan base shouldn't settle for any less. But the underrated Christian Lealiifano, who admirably led the Brumbies backline from the pivot position last season before suffering injury, remains the key to a side which can certainly entertain.
Verdict: Make Canberra a fortress and the Brumbies should
leave the other Aussie battlers in their wake.
Conference prediction: 1st
Brumbies: Fotu Auelua, Ben Alexander, Sam Carter, Tom Cox, Robbie Coleman, Ruaidhri Murphy, Peter Kimlin, Christian Lealiifano, Pat McCabe, Stephen Moore, Dan Palmer, Jono Owen, Siliva Siliva, Ben Mowen, Jesse Mogg, Andrew Smith, Henry Speight, Matt Toomua, Ita Vaea, Ian Prior, Joseph Tomane, Tevita Kuridrani, Leon Power, Scott Sio, Zack Holmes, Scott Fardy, Nic White, Jordan Smiler, David Pocock, Ruan Smith, Stephan Van Der Walt, Mark Swanepoel, Cyde Rathbone.
Best Super Performance: 13th
2011 Super Rugby: 13th (four wins, 12 losses)
History: 15th, 13th
TAB Odds: $40
Ins: Scott Fuglistaller, Scott Higginbotham, Angus
Roberts, Alex Rokobaro, Rory Sidey, Kimami Sitauti, Chris Thomson,
Ryan Tyrrell, Jason Woodward,
Outs: Rodney Blake, Adam Byrnes, Alister Campbell, Danny Cipriani, Tom Chamberlain, Adam Freier, Mark Gerrard, James Hilgendorf, Julian Huxley, Lloyd Johansson, Lloyd Johansson, Michael Lipman, Stirling Mortlock, Heath Tessmann.
Steadily improving, the Rebels shocked the rugby world last season by knocking over the highly fancied Crusaders. While that result was a blip in their second season, it proved they can - on occasion - foot it with the best. With English bad-boy Danny Cipriani gone, it will be up to either Kurtely Beale or James O'Connor to lead the side from 10. There is no question that Wallabies flanker Scott Higginbotham is their star recruit and it will up to him and Welsh workhorse Gareth Delve to add mongrel to a tender pack.
Verdict: Not a top-10 team.
Conference prediction: 4th
Rebels: Eddie Aholelei, Paul Alo-Emile, Kurtley Beale, Tim Davidson, Gareth Delve, Scott Fuglistaller, Nic Henderson, Scott Higgenbotham, Mitch Inman , Luke Jones, James King, Richard Kingi, Lachlan Mitchell, Caydeyrn Neville, James O'Connor, Nick Phipps, Hugh Pyle, Angus Roberts, Alex Rokobaro, Ged Robinson, Jarrod Saffy, Rory Sidey, Kimami Sitauti, Nic Stirzaker, Chris Thomson, Ryan Tyrrell, Cooper Vuna, Laurie Weeks, Jason Woodward.
Best Super Performance: 7th (2007)
2012 Super Rugby: 14th (3 wins, 13 losses)
History: 14th, 7th, 8th, 8th, 13th, 12th, 14th
TAB Odds: $50
In: Chris Alcock, Sam Christie, Sias Ebersohn, Jayden
Hayward, James Hilterbrand, Alby Mathewson, Hugh McMeniman, Sam
Norton-Knight, Junior Rasolea, Mike Snowden, Ed Stubbs.
Out: Gene Fairbanks, Napolioni Nalaga, David Pocock, Jordan Rapana, Ben Seymour, Nathan Sharpe, Cameron Shepherd, Rory Sidey, James Stannard, Elvis Taione, Justin Turner, Samu Wara.
More than any other team, the Western Force underline the lack of depth in Australian rugby. The Perth based Franchise has no less than 12 players who learnt their rugby education in New Zealand or South Africa - which is nearly half their squad. Therefore it is no secret that incoming coach Michael Foley has a battle on his hands, especially with his two best players from last season - David Pocock and Nathan Sharpe - pursing other ventures. On the plus side, former All Black Alby Mathewson and Taranaki midfielder Jayden Haward are shrewd acquisitions, while former Aussie Sevens star Junior Rasolea has plenty of promise. Still, July can't come soon enough.
Verdict: Lucky the Australia Conference doesn't have
Conference prediction: 5th
Force: Chris Alcock, Phoenix Battye, Richard Brown, Nathan Charles, Sam Christie, Angus Cottrell, Pekahou Cowan, Nick Cummins, Patrick Dellit, Sias Ebersohn, Tetera Faulkner, Kyle Godwin, Jayden Haward, James Hilterbrand, Matt Hodgson, Kieran Longbottom, Toby Lynn, Salesi Ma'afu, Salesi Manu, Alfie Mafi, Alby Mathewson, Lachlan McCaffrey, Ben McCalman, Hugh McMeniman, Junior Rasolea, Sam Norton-Knight, Brett Sheehan, Mike Snowden, Winston Stanley, Ed Stubbs, Will Tupou, Ben Whittaker, Sam Wykes.