Super Rugby returns to Australia for the first time in four months this weekend in the form of the five-team Super Rugby AU.
Not only will the nation’s four Super Rugby franchises – the Reds, Waratahs, Brumbies and Rebels – continue to do battle as they had done prior to the original competition’s cancellation, but they will welcome back the Western Force into the fold.
The Perth-based outfit was one of three teams axed from Super Rugby in 2017, but will return to the league – albeit in a domestic format only – for the next three months to decide the best team in Australia.
Heralded as comfortable underdogs, the Force will be eager to prove they can foot it with the big boys of Australian rugby after two seasons of toiling away in both the Global Rapid Rugby and National Rugby Championship tournaments.
They have tasted title-winning success in both competitions, running out champions in both the Asian and Pacific showcase series in Global Rapid Rugby last year, before adding an NRC crown to their winners’ board four months later.
Perhaps those accolades indicate that they are ready for a competitive return to Australia’s top flight, not that they didn’t hold their own in their final Super Rugby campaign three years ago.
Despite their dismissal from the southern hemisphere’s premier club tournament, the Force finished second in a lacklustre Australian conference, notching two wins over the Reds and one apiece against the Rebels and Waratahs.
Former All Blacks lock Jeremy Thrush, who has been part of the Force’s set-up since moving to Western Australia from Premiership club Gloucester in 2018, sent out a warning to rival sides earlier this week that they could suffer a similar fate should his team be underestimated.
“We’re not here just to be invited to make up numbers so that there’s an extra game on TV,” he said, according to AAP. “We’re here to push ourselves and compete to win.”
A quick glance over the Force’s squad adds weight to Trush’s statement, as the Tim Sampson-coached side boasts considerable test match experience.
Aside from the 12 caps Thrush earned for New Zealand between 2013 and 2015, the squad also features two ex-Wallabies in the form of prop Greg Holmes and midfielder Kyle Godwin.
The pair have re-located to Perth ahead of Super Rugby AU from the Exeter Chiefs and Connacht, respectively, with Godwin publicly outlining his ambition to add to the sole Wallabies cap he won against France in four years ago.
“My dream of playing for the Wallabies definitely hasn’t died for me,” Godwin, who played for the Force between 2012 and 2016, said.
“I think it’s at the back of every player’s mind in Australia to play for your country. It’s the pinnacle of your sport, so it will definitely be in the back of my mind.”
Elsewhere, journeyman playmaker Jono Lance has returned to his homeland after a three-year spell with Worcester Warriors in England and is set to form an experienced halves combo with captain Ian Prior at halfback.
Manu Samoa trio Henry Stowers, AJ Alatimu and Henry Taefu will join USA Eagles wing Marcel Brache in providing the Force with international class, with all four having played for their nations at last year’s World Cup in Japan.
Watch out for electric fullback Jack McGregor, who has shown glimpses of his attacking skill set in Global Rapid Rugby that could be of good use in Super Rugby AU.
The Force will have to wait until round two to make their highly-anticipated start to Super Rugby AU, though, where they will face off against the Waratahs at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The hosts will be eager to make amends for their shocking start to the initial Super Rugby competition earlier in the year, where they made the worst start to the league in their history with three consecutive defeats off the bat.
It didn’t get much better for Rob Penney’s side, who enjoyed just one win from six outings to sit in second-last place at the time of Super Rugby’s suspension.
Things won’t get much easier for them when they kick-off their Super Rugby AU campaign against the Reds in Brisbane on Friday, as they will be without a raft of their veteran players.
Wallabies trio Karmichael Hunt, Jake Gordon and Tom Robertson will join midfielder Lalakai Foketi in missing the opening match of the tournament through injury, while New South Wales legend Kurtley Beale has left the club early to take up his contract with Racing 92 in France.
That leaves the 2014 Super Rugby champions void of plenty of their regular starters, with incumbent Wallabies captain Michael Hooper the sole survivor of their championship campaign six years ago.
The 99-test flanker will thus be expected to lead a match day side that features five debutants – Will Harris, Joey Walton, Tom Horton, Tiaan Tauakipulu and Ben Donaldson – from the front in two days’ time.
To give an idea of how youthful that team is, Harris, Walton, Donaldson, reserve halfback Michael McDonald and promising starting pair Angus Bell and Mark Nawaqanitawase were all members of last year’s Australia U20 squad.
Furthermore, tighthead prop Tauakipulu was part of the 2019 New Zealand Schools side, while five of the seven backs starting for the Waratahs have played 11 games or fewer in Super Rugby.
The onus, therefore, will certainly be on Hooper and his fellow Wallabies – Harry Johnson-Holmes, Ned Hanigan, Rob Simmons, Jack Maddocks and Jack Dempsey – to help ease the youngsters’ transition into the professional scene.
That will be no easy task against an exciting Reds outfit at Suncorp Stadium, although if Nawaqanitawase and prospective Wallabies pivot Will Harrison can re-create their impressive early season form, the Waratahs could threaten to upset the Queenslanders.
Nevertheless, the safe money remains with Brad Thorn’s side, who were beginning to find their rhythm before Super Rugby was ground to a halt.
A monstrous 64-5 thumping of the Sunwolves highlighted their attacking capabilities, while their 41-17 come-from-behind win against the Bulls was an illustration of the 2011 Super Rugby champions’ mental fortitude.
Combine that with their tight 24-20 defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch, which they really should have won had at least two of their four conversion attempts went over, and there is more to the Reds than their 2-5 record suggested earlier in the year.
In young halfback Tate McDermott, Brad Thorn may have uncovered the Wallabies’ long-term replacement to Will Genia, and the return of James O’Connor from overseas has been mightily successful.
A proven operator across the backline, the 52-test utility back has found a home in Queensland’s five-eighths positions, where his playmaking prowess and strong running ability has become a real asset.
Starting at first-five this weekend, it appears the No. 10 jersey may be where O’Connor is set to stay, which should frighten opposition sides given the ability of McDermott inside of him.
Further out the backline, 22-year-old Hunter Paisami proved to be among the finds of the seasons with his physical displays, and should form a destructive midfield pairing with Wallabies prodigy Jordan Petaia once the latter returns from injury.
Exciting wing Filipo Daugnu, speedster Jock Campbell and playmaker Bryce Hegarty will occupy the back three spots this weekend, all of whom can expect extensive game time following the sudden departures of Henry Speight and Isaac Lucas.
While Speight was released to join French club Biarritz during the lockdown period, Lucas was among three players involved in a highly-publicised exit from the club after refusing to take pay cuts bought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The other two players, Wallabies lock Izack Rodda and second row partner Harry Hockings, will leave some holes in the Reds’ forward pack, but that isn’t to say there aren’t some impressive options for Queensland up front.
The loose forwards is a particular area of strength, with youthful trio Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight – who was last year’s Junior Wallaby Player of the Year – and Liam Wright all named to start against the Waratahs.
One-cap Wallaby Wright will captain the side, but it’s 20-year-old Wilson who caught much of the attention a few months ago thanks to his commanding performances off the back of the scrum.
That led Crusaders coach Scott Robertson to express that he had “officially fallen in love” with the 1.95m, 110kg brute, who should continue to blossom alongside Wright and McReight.
Their cause will be aided by the presence of blockbusting Wallabies prop Taniela Tupou and the sizeable Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, while Australian international Brandon Paenga-Amosa will keep jostling with Alex Mafi for the side’s starting hooker role.
In the weekend’s other clash, the Brumbies will host the Rebels in a match that the home side will likely stand as favourites for.
The Canberra club sat in the lofty position of second place at the time of Super Rugby’s pause, winning five games from six in a run that included an impressive 26-14 victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton.
That should come as little surprise given the Brumbies have probably the best-balanced squad in Australia, and will loom as strong title contenders.
Their admirable dept in the front row means they have Wallabies quartet Scott Sio, captain Michael Alaalatoa, Folau Fainga’a and James Slipper at their disposal.
Those four help create a strong tight five when two-cap Wallabies lock Blake Enever, highly-regarded youngster Nick Frost and the previously in-form Caderyn Neville are added into the mix.
Likewise, Wallabies pair Pete Samu and Rob Valetini give an imposing look to the Brumbies’ loose forward contingent, which also features the long-serving Lachlan McCaffrey and promising Jahrome Brown.
In the backline, 20-year-old Noah Lolesio earned a plethora of plaudits for his efforts at the beginning of this year, and will resume his halves partnership with nippy Wallabies halfback Joe Powell.
That’s provided the four-test international can maintain his place in the starting side after back-up scrum-half Ryan Lonergan took his chance well in the Brumbies’ most recent outing against the Sunwolves.
Rugby league convert Solomone Kata showed off his finishing prowess in his handful of outings from January through to March, and should be the favourite to start on the wing this week along with ex-Chiefs speedster Toni Pulu.
Those two have the potential to form a lethal back three combination with Wallabies fullback Tom Banks, while Tevita Kuridrani and Irae Simone will look to build on their midfield partnership.
As for the Rebels, the ability to kill of their inconsistency could be the key to a successful Super Rugby AU campaign this season.
Three wins and three losses left them stranded in ninth spot in the original Super Rugby standings, but their last two efforts – victories against the Highlanders and Lions – should provide some inspiration ahead of the forthcoming weeks.
Dave Wessels will look to his Wallabies to spurn an upset at GIO Stadium on Saturday, with the likes of Isi Naisarani, Matt Toomua, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge and reigning John Eales Medallist Marika Koroibete all expected to start.
Koroibete, in particular, may prove to be a crucial cog in the Rebels’ success, with the wing’s speed and power vital to the side’s attacking prowess.
Jordan Uelese may join those five, but he will have to first fight off the challenge of New Zealand-born Anaru Rangi, who was one of Super Rugby’s form hookers earlier this year.
This campaign will serve to be the final one in Rebels colours for Wallabies trio Jermaine Ainsley, Matt Philip and Luke Jones, who will leave Melbourne for the Highlanders, Pau and Racing 92, respectively, next season.
Perhaps this week’s assignment against the Brumbies could be too tough to overcome, but should they emerge victorious the following week against the Reds, back-to-back matches against the Waratahs and Force could put them in good stead.
Super Rugby AU Predicted Standings
5. Western Force
Super Rugby AU Round One
Friday 3 July – Reds vs Waratahs at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Saturday 4 July – Brumbies vs Rebels at GIO Stadium, Canberra
Bye – Western Force
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