Friday, 20 January 2012

Super Rugby Preview: Australia (Part 1 of 3)

The Brumbies

Coach: Jake White
Former Wins: 2001, 2004
Last Season: 13th

Last year the Brumbies were the most disappointing team of season in my view. When you look at all the internationals and quality they had, they really should have done better. In the first game of the season they survived a scare when they nearly gave up an 18 – 3 halftime lead against the Chiefs, but eventually ran out 28 – 20 winners. However things went downhill for the rest of their season, they went on a 6-week winless streak; their season was probably over by week 8. Their away form was to blame, losing 6 out of 7 on the road. They leaked 81 points in a trip to South Africa against the Cheetahs and Sharks respectively. The only real highlight of their season is ending the Reds’ impressive winning run with a 14-22 win in Brisbane. The Brumbies had never finished outside the top 10, until 2011.

If the 2011 season was bad, then the off-season has been worse. Throughout 2011 the Brumbies lost no less than 15 players including; Matt Giteau (Toulon), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Waratahs), Rocky Elsom (Waratahs), Mark Chisholm (Bayonne), Salesi Ma’afu (Western Force), Josh Valentine (Western Force) and ex-captain Stephen Hoiles.

There hasn’t been much sign that the Brumbies are trying to replace the quality that they’ve lost; other than the attempting signing of Danie Roussow to replace the departing Mark Chisholm and Mitchell Chapman, which ultimately never came to fruition. Instead they settled for Leon Power. At 2 metres tall, the Kiwi-Aussie impressed whilst playing his rugby for Bay of Plenty in the 2011 ITM Cup.

The Canberra-based franchise also signed Queensland youngsters Ian Prior and Kimami Sitauti to give more depth to the Scrum half and Outside back positions heading in to the 2012 season. Prior is excited to make the switch and become part of an up-and-coming, young setup: “I spoke to Jake (White) earlier in the negotiations and he let me know this was an opportunity for me to be in and around the 22 week in, week out.
It sounds like White has big plans for the 21-year-old. Sitauti knows a few of the other youngsters already at the Brumbies and is excited about reuniting both on the field: “I'm looking forward to playing with some of the younger guys there like Michael Hooper, Colby Faingaa and Robbie Coleman - we've played together at the Sevens and with the Under 20's and had some positive combinations working there.”
So whilst it may seem discouraging for them at least Sitauti has some pre-existing chemistry with some of his ex under-20 teammates.
But what is very daunting for the Brumbies is the prospect of facing the start of the Super Rugby campaign without Wallaby centre Pat McCabe after he had shoulder reconstruction at the end of October. He should be back in action by early April. However McCabe is optimistic and is looking to make his return by March: "I wanted to have the surgery as early as possible because it's a six-month recovery and I wanted to miss as few games as possible for the Brumbies," McCabe told the Canberra Times.
"I have to look at it as an opportunity to improve my skills and physical attributes for when I can play again in March."
I suppose the positive thing is to see McCabe’s commitment to the Brumbies which supporters will find comforting.
The Brumbies board spent most of the off-season playing down reports the coach Jake White was leaving the franchise. First of White was quoted as saying he would put his name forward to re-take his job as coach of the Springboks, White then did a U-turn and a day later said that he would be interested one day, but for now he has a contract with the Brumbies: “I've got a contract here in Canberra, I'm enjoying putting the program together with a great group of staff and players and I'm definitely not leaving."
Then in the same month White was then linked to the vacant England job and indefinitely ruled himself out: “The timing with England is not right for me because I have a contract with the Brumbies and so there can be no speculation about my future."
It doesn’t look good for the Brumbies next year, but it is important that you keep in mind that this is a young team building for the future. The retention of internationally capped Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore was big for the brumbies this year. Their experience will help the young second rows and other props so I’d expect them to be solid up front and possibly dominate a few packs.
I think second row Leon Power is going to thrive in this professional environment (which is new to him). Standing at 2 metres he is definitely going to be a massive help in the lineout situation and weighing in at over 18 stone he’ll add some weight to scrum. He impressed in the ITM Cup with his huge frame and tough style of play, and Brumbies forwards coach was impressed: “I've watched a bit of Leon with the Bay of Plenty this year and what impressed me the most was that he just played for the full 80," Fisher said.
"He's got a good engine and he just worked away, made his tackles, chased the play and worked hard at the ruck so if that's your basis, that you've got a really strong work ethic, then that suits where we want to go.”
I think the Brumbies are going to struggle in the backs next season, and the loss of McCabe is going to impact the midfield massively. Without McCabe, they only have two centres with any Super Rugby experience (Robbie Coleman and Andrew Smith) so it looks like these guys are going to be under pressure to perform – whilst not getting injured! Further down the backline I’m very concerned. Out of the 3 selected wingers only Henry Speight has experience in Super Rugby and neither of the fullbacks have played in the tournament before.
Being inexperienced doesn’t automatically make you a bad player, in many ways the enthusiasm and raw talent of these youngster may provide us with some exciting performances, also the theory of playing against the unknown may mean that the youngsters won’t be intimidated and reputations will count for nothing. But ultimately I feel they are too weak, and lacking in strength in depth out wide to challenge this year.
For the first time in this series I’ve chosen a forward for you all to look out for next season in the shape of hooker Stephen Moore. The 28-year-old has made an impressive 84 appearances in Super Rugby and has 65 caps for the Wallabies, so he’s not short of experience. Moore is impressive in the loose and is very mobile for a front rower, his work at the breakdown is relentless and he is often used as a battering ram to drive through the fringe of the opposition defensive line, with a few tries to boot. His experience is going to be crucial if the Brumbies are going to mount a challenge next year in the Australian conference.
The Brumbies first game of the season sees them at home against former player Salesi Ma’afu and the Western Force. The Force have been busy in the off-season and I think that they might have this one in the bag, but it will be a potential banana skin up against a Brumbies franchise with a point to prove.
Melbourne Rebels

Coach: Damien Hill
Previous Wins: Never Won.
Last Season: 15th

Things didn’t quite go to plan for the newly established Melbourne franchise in their first season in the newly formatted Super 15 which began with a 43 – 0 thrashing at the hands of the Waratahs. They won just 3 games out of 16, winning just once away from home. They took heavy defeats against the Reds, Highlanders, Blues, Bulls, Cheetahs and the Stormers which saw them finishing bottom of the table. Things can only really get better for the youngest franchise in the competition, and it seems the board has been taking steps in the right direction.

The Rebels made 6 new signings in the off-season. Young prop Paul Alo-Emile has joined, he is known for his scrummaging ability and his remarkable athleticism for a man of just under 19 stone. He was a regular for 2 years in the Australian under 20’s squad and was part of the team that finished third in the Under 20’s World Championships in Italy.

Mitch Inman joins from the Western Force. His season in 2011 was hampered by injury however the talent and potential was there for all to see when he managed to take the field. Inman is capped for Australia under 19’s and has represented his country on the 7’s circuit. Many expect him to go on and receive further international honors, but he’ll have to work had to work his way into the starting team at the Rebels first.

Lloyd Johansson is the first Victorian to join the franchise. The powerful inside centre returns to Super Rugby after he left the Reds in 2008 to play rugby for Viadana in Italy. The powerful runner – often described as a wrecking ball – returned to Australia in the 2011 post-season and was handed a spot on the Rebels development tour to the UK, his performances on that tour earned him his contract with the Rebels.

New Zealander James King joins the Rebels next year from the Auckland Blues. King showed a lot of promise in 2009 and was tipped for future All Black appearances, he was then selected for the Blues’ wider training group in 2010 but a shoulder injury ruled him out of contention. King eventually made his Super Rugby debut for the Auckland franchise in 2011. He is noted for his play at the lineout, standing at 6’5” it’s easy to understand why. King will probably be a backup second row because he will be competing for a place against some experienced players.

The Rebels’ marquee signings were that of Wallaby duo James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale. This is a fantastic deal for the franchise; picking up the signature of 2 of the most exciting players in the world is definitely going to enhance your chances of success. They have a combined experience of over 100 Super Rugby caps and over 50 caps for their country.

The arrival of James O’Connor sparked a flurry of statements from Danny Cipriani – the current number 10 – suggesting that he is a new man after his season last year was marred by controversial nights out and sanctions from the franchise. Cipriani then said that he was hoping to play his way back into the England setup – which we now know didn’t happen for the 6 Nations. Cipriani and O’Connor faced off against each other in November when Cipriani played for the Barbarians at 10 with O’Connor opposite him for the Wallabies, many people saw this as the battle for the number 10 jersey at the Rebels, and O’Connor certainly outshone the Englishman that day. However after the game Cipriani stated that he would be the fly half for the 2012 campaign, but he appears to have spoken too soon.

Coach Damien Hill spoke to the press and said: “It's great to hear Danny so enthusiastic but with all respect to him, it's not how we work here,

We select players based on performance, behaviours, the talent we have available, there's going to be some selection challenges ahead.
"It's going to be what's best for the team."

In that same interview Hill had nothing but praise for the Wallaby: “Definitely. He's shown himself now at 10, 12 on the wing and at fullback so he's a talented player," Hill said.
"James' work in the contact was excellent, he's ability to direct the play, his offloads, just his general go-forward was excellent."
This looked pretty ominous for Cipriani, however since then O’Connor has come out to say that he would be happy playing at 12 and thinks with Cipriani at 10 they could form a great partnership.
In 2012 the Rebels will have a better season, they now have a very experienced squad with just one player without a super rugby appearance, they have a very good front 5 with the like of Laurie Weeks and Alister Campbell. They also have some exciting combinations in the backline with Cipriani, O’Connor and possibly Stirling Mortlock (currently sidelined with a knee problem), also with Kurtley Beale picking running lines from fullback it makes for a very exciting prospect.
I am slightly concerned about the fact that they have only named one out-and-out winger in their squad in the form of Cooper Vuna. I appreciate that O’Connor can play wing as can Beale but I feel they’d be wasted out there, Mark Gerrard can also be used on the outside but it wouldn’t be ideal, as is the case with Julian Huxley. Obviously coach Hill knows his team better than me, but it just seems like a confusing decision.
Kurtley Beale has to be the player that excites me the most out of this squad. He picks some sublime running lines and has pace to outrun most, his chemistry with O’Connor is unrivalled and his finishing is second to none. He’s scored 9 tries for the Wallabies and 12 in Super Rugby; He often splits defences up the middle so expect him to enter the fray during some midfield strike moves especially from 15 – but he isn’t really a battering ram, so also look to see him running a hard line off 13 or possibly even wider, where there is more space. He is such a danger when the play breaks up so he’ll be looking to counter attack whenever the opportunity presents itself. He is going to have to perform well if the Rebels are going to be contenders in 2012 – which Beale believes they are.
The Rebels have three warm-up matches against the Chiefs, the Blues and the Crusaders. Hill believes these warm-up matches are crucial: "It's always good to trial against New Zealand teams, they do the basics extremely well," said Hill.
"You end up with a really good indication of where you're at in regards your set piece breakdown and your defence."
The Rebels have a bye in week one, but they host the Waratahs in round 2. They’ll be looking for revenge after last years embarrassing opening fixture, and I think it could happen. It’s a tough one to call in my eyes, but I’m going to go with the Rebels, I think they have a slightly more enterprising backline. The battle in the back row is going to be huge in this one with the likes of Gareth Delve going up against Rocky Elsom, if the Rebels can contain Elsom and provide a test for the Waratahs back row I think we could see the Rebels taking this one.

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