Friday, 27 January 2012

Super Rugby Preview: Australia (Part 2 of 3)

Queensland Reds

Coach: Ewen McKenzie
Previous Wins: 2011
Last Season: 1st

Last season was incredible for the Reds, and quite frankly it came from absolutely nowhere; between 2006 and 2009 they didn’t finish inside the top 10. They went on an outstanding unbeaten run between week 2 and week 11 of the competition; they also won an impressive 9 out 10 home games. In total they won 15 out of 18 matches, scoring over 30 points on 8 occasions displaying outstanding attacking quality, it really was a joy to watch.

 The post-season was crucial for the Reds if they are going to continue to progress and ensure that they can continue to be successful. It could have potentially been a very bad few months for the franchise with several players out of contract, players in key positions, for example; Digby Ioane – this was a very long, drawn-out process. His future became uncertain in September 2011 and he eventually said in November that he would make a decision on his future after the Australian tour of the northern hemisphere. There was plenty of speculation surrounding his decision due to his impressive performances. He eventually ended the whole saga when a 3-year deal was confirmed at the beginning of December. Also Radike Samo - who was whipped from semi-retirement by coach McKenzie in the summer of 2010 – signed on with the Reds until the end of the 2013 season. Samo has revived his career in 2011, even making a return to the Australia squad to face South Africa in 2011 – over 6 and a half years after making his initial debut.

The Reds also retained less high profile, but arguably equally important players. Beau Robinson stays with the franchise and I think he is going to be a regular in the back row with Samo and Higginbotham. Also back rower Liam Gill stays in Queensland; Gill is a young player but already has 9 Super Rugby caps and is definitely going to develop into a good player. I think the coaching staff definitely have Gill in their future plans and don’t want to lose his talents to another team.

Experienced second rowers Van Humphries, Adam Wallace-Harrison and Rob Simmons sign back on. Rob Simmons will be partnering Horwill in the second row a lot next season but it’s important to have quality backup, and different to other teams, they have experienced backup that’s going to be key to their continued success.

There is however some bad news for Reds fans. Aussie playmaker Quade Cooper will miss a large part of the tournament and is expected to be available for selection against the Brumbies in round 7. Cooper damaged his ACL at the Rugby World Cup during the third place play-off with Wales. He had surgery back in October and coach McKenzie is optimistic; Quade's operation went smoothly with surgery results confirming the circumstances of his injury are typical to what you normally expect from a torn ACL," McKenzie said.
"We're confident he'll return in the quickest time possible and hopefully in time for the Brumbies in early April.”
Stepping in for Cooper will be New Zealand born Michael Harris. The Auckland born utility back has made 9 appearances for the Reds and was awarded Reds Young Player of the Year award for 2011. He is perhaps most recognized for his 20-minute cameo against the Rebels in which he scored 2 fantastic tries and really grabbed his opportunity. Harris admits this is an unfortunate situation bit it’s definitely a chance too; “Quade is a big loss to the team but other guys will step up and it's a big opportunity for myself.”
I really expect another good season from the Reds, the only trouble being that they now have so much expectation weighing down on their shoulders. The franchise has no less than 13 internationally capped players with bags of experience in every position. The thing that sets them apart from most is that they will very rarely make a substitution that lowers the quality or experience of the 15 on the field. Their back row will dominate most in 2012, with Samo’s dynamism and Higginbotham’s work in defence and at the breakdown they are extremely tough to outgun.

Also you have the genius of Will Genia with impeccable service and a snipe that would exploit any lapse in concentration around the fringes. Then further out wide you have the solid Anthony Faingaa and tricky Ben Tapuai, but further on is when it really gets dangerous. You have the clinical Luke Morohan who rarely blows opportunities and then the pacey, agile and world class Digby Ioane to bag tries left right and centre. It really is a machine that is destined to work well.

Problem is if you throw a spanner in the works – the Quade Cooper injury – then things may begin to stutter. As much as I am optimistic that Mike Harris will be more than capable of steering the ship whilst Cooper is recovering – he isn’t Quade. After the form Cooper was in last year he left massive shoes to fill, and there is always that little worry that Harris will fold under the pressure and expectation from the fans. If there is one position on the field where you can’t afford for that to happen, it’s at 10. If Harris is poor then the backline can’t fire, the team will begin to lose their confidence and the season could be dead and buried before King Quade returns. But as I say, I’m optimistic that Harris has enough quality and experience around in the form of Genia and Faingaa that he should be okay.

How can Digby Ioane not be my man to watch in 2012? The man is absolutely scintillating. He picks majestic lines and is powerful and fast enough to burst through them before you realise what has just happened. In 20 Wallaby appearances he’s scored 9 times, which is a decent return at international level; in Super Rugby he will score a try in roughly every 3 games since his career has began (although in recent years I feel he may have been more prolific). Outside defences should ignore the threat of this man at their peril; he’s going to be big again in 2012.

The Reds face a tricky journey to the Waratahs in Week 1. This is going to be another tight one to call; a massive factor in this game is whether or not Mike Harris steps up. He’ll be facing either Halangahu or Barnes and both have proven that they know how to steer their teams to winning positions and are experienced which may be a contributing factor. Other than that the battle in the back row is going to be interesting with Rocky Elsom and Wycliff Palu facing off against Higginbotham and Samo. I say it a lot but whoever wins the battle of the back row will have a massive say in the outcome of this match. I really don’t want to try and predict this one but I’m going to stick my neck out and go with the Waratahs.

Western Force

Coach: Richard Graham
Former Wins: None
Last Season: 13th

Last season was another mediocre season for the Force. Even though they didn’t win until round 5 vs Lions – they had drawn a game and grabbed a couple of losing bonus points, so I thought the Force might finally become the franchise of it’s potential. However they then lost heavily to the Stormers and then lost their next 2 matches, killing their momentum. In my opinion, to be a successful team you need to have a good home record; for example last year the Reds won 9 out of 10 home games, and the Crusaders 8 out of 10, the Force however only managed to win just 1 of their home matches and 5 out of 16 overall. I think the Force always look like ‘a team for next season’ and by that I mean a team that possess quality, but isn’t quite ready to challenge – and the story hasn’t changed.

Young outside back Patrick Dellit was causing somewhat of a stir in July when he signed on for another 2 years. I don’t know an awful lot about Dellit but the coaching staff at the Force seem to be very excited by the 25-year-old. His ability to play both midfield and as an outside back makes him a valuable commodity, he started the final 9 matches of last season taking his total appearances up to 12. Force coach Richard Graham says: "What appealed to me in recruiting Patrick was that he had done a fair apprenticeship at club rugby and I believed that by giving him an opportunity in a professional programme he could improve”
"He worked hard to get an opportunity and his performances warranted continued selection. Given his physical size and attributes as a player he has plenty of potential still to be realised and I think he'll be a consistently good Super Rugby player. "

The Force also secured the signing of centre Winston Stanley, formally of the Auckland Blues. The young New Zealander shows a lot of promise and has a big career ahead of him. He won the Junior World Championship with New Zealand at under 19 and under 20 level; he was also nominated for IRB young player of the year in 2009. Stanley joins some decent midfield players at the Force in the form of Nick Cummins and Gene Fairbanks who have plenty of experience at this level, and is under no illusions: ”I know there are some pretty handy midfielders already there so I have no misgivings about how much work I'll need to do to challenge those guys for a place in the side. Competition is good though and I'm sure it will make all of us better players overall."
One of the things that has attracted Stanley, and some other signings in the off-season is the new $17 million state of the art training facility in Perth. Also Stanley highlights the strong foundations being laid by the forward pack: “The club has a really strong forward pack with plenty of current Wallabies and also boasts some exciting backs which I hope I can add to and be a strong contributor.”
The Force have also signed young Lachlan McCaffrey, an exciting young back rower who will be surrounded by international experience which can only can only bring him along. Also they have moved previous rookie Phoenix Battye into the full squad packing out their stocks in the second row. Two young players who are definitely in to gain experience and build for the future.
The stand out signing for the Force has been Fijian ace Napolioni Nalaga. The winger set the French league on fire upon his arrival in 2007-08 by becoming top try scorer in his first 2 seasons, scoring 16 and 21 tries respectively. He has also been crowned Top 14 Player of the Year and is definitely prolific and is somebody who has to be respected by opposition defences. Nalaga is looking forward to joining up with the Force and the new challenge: "I'm pretty excited about coming to Super Rugby, it is a competition I have been following for a long time,"
“I enjoyed my time in France and I'm thankful for the opportunities Clermont gave me but I'm looking forward to a new challenge as well. I haven't ever been to Perth but I know it is a good place and it will be good for my rugby.”
Coach Graham spent some time looking for a winger to replace the departed David Smith, and is ecstatic to secure such a talented winger: "Nalaga obviously has the ability to score tries but also importantly he has shown that he can quickly gel into a new environment and different styles of rugby on the back of his efforts when he first arrived in France," Graham said.
"Given we lost David (Smith) and his try scoring I wanted a like for like replacement and I'm confident we've achieved that.”
The Force are not blessed with quality in every position, but what they do have is a lot of experience, players who have been around the block a few times. Their forward pack is particularly experienced, which is going to be massive for them next year, with 12 forwards all internationally capped, namely Nathan Sharpe and David Pocock. They also have 8 players who have over 30 Super Rugby appearances. I expect they forward pack to set a very solid platform for their backline next year, Pocock is going to have to disrupt opposition ball on a regular basis to protect their backline from the quality that other teams possess, and I full expect him to do so.
I think the backline may prove to be their downfall in 2012. They do however have some experience particularly in the centre with Gene Fairbanks and Nick Cummins, and at fullback with Cameron Shepherd; but their backline is far from exciting, on paper. I can only really see a significant number of tries coming from Nalaga and they have two rookie fly-half’s in their ranks, which could prove to be a massive problem. I just expect other teams to have far too much quality in the backline for them to deal with.
David Pocock is going to need to continue performing at the highest level to give his team a chance this season. His work at the breakdown is outstanding, and his ability to disrupt and turnover opposition ball could prove to be a thorn in the side for many opposition. He has bags of experience for a 23-year-old, 40 caps for the Wallabies and 55 in Super Rugby, which is going to be crucial. If Pocock is absent in games this season then I believe the Force are going to struggle, he is that important to them.
In their opening match of the Super 15 season the Force face a tricky trip to Canberra to face the Brumbies. The Force have got a good forward pack who may be able to get the upper hand and set a good foundation for the backline. They could prove to be awkward opposition for the Brumbies, and if I had to call I’d say the Force may snatch this one. But the Brumbies have a big point to prove this season so expect them to give everything.
Just as a side note for all my Southern Hemisphere readers that are on twitter, keep an eye out for the hashtag - #rugbyunited - and @trevorlarge. 

It's great what Trevor is doing, bringing rugby fans together from all around the world to discuss and meet fans from other countries. Also there is an event starting on February 8th, in the lead up to the start of the Super 15 season each day will be dedicated to a different franchise to get their fans involved in the #rugbyunited community, which is growing by the day. See their website for details 

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