Six burning questions for Aussie teams heading into Super Rugby Pacific
The squads are out for the Super Rugby franchises as the attention of Southern Hemisphere fans turns to a new era in the competition. The new competition sees the introduction of an eight-team finals series, so it is guaranteed that an Australian team will nab a spot.
If the competition goes ahead, Super Rugby Pacific presents the perfect reset for many of the Aussie teams who are eager to test their mettle against the Kiwis, and competition newcomers the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika.
While teams are currently entrenched in the off-season, there are some questions still facing the Australian teams, and the Fijian Drua who will play their matches in Australia for the 2022 season.
The Brumbies continue to add key pieces to their organisation with the recruitment of Cam Clark, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Ed Kennedy and Jesse Mogg, and are set to build their strengths for the upcoming season.
They have perhaps the most well-balanced squad of all the Australian teams, but the linchpin of the team is flyhalf Noah Lolesio. A stand-out season in 2020 from the mercurial playmaker in Super Rugby delivered the Brumbies a Super Rugby AU title, and he followed that up by bringing them agonisingly close to a repeat when they met the Queensland Reds in the 2021 Super Rugby AU final.
Lolesio’s ascension to the Wallabies has been a rapid rise. Debuting against the All Blacks over a year ago, the youngster was dropped from the side for the Wallabies recent European Tour, with Rennie claiming he wanted to give Lolesio a proper pre-season. He was then recalled to the squad following the exit of Quade Cooper but only received minimal game time, with O’Connor running the cutter for the majority of the tour.
A supremely talented player, Lolesio has been handed the keys to the proverbial Brumbies’ Ferrari, and it’s now his team to lead around.
Without an extended pre-season under his belt to develop his body and fine-tune his game, the jury is out on whether Lolesio can take the next big strides needed to compete week-in week-out against the competition’s top tier playmakers. If he can put it all together, the Brumbies have all the ingredients needed to win Super Rugby Pacific.
Coach Dan McKellar will be relying on his Wallabies contingent to set the platform for Lolesio to deliver on his potential.
2) Can Darren Coleman turn the Waratahs into a competitive force again?
Let’s be honest, the Waratahs organisation has been a basket case in recent years. Between top tier players heading offshore, tightening their belt during covid, then sacking Rob Penney after a winless season, the only way is up for the Waratahs.
The well-travelled Darren Coleman has finally got his dream gig as Waratahs head coach and could lead them to the promised land in the coming years. After a remarkable coaching career that has seen him take Shute Shield cellar-dwellers to Grand Finals and guide the L.A. Giltinis to an MLR title in their first season, Coleman has returned to the Waratahs over twenty years after he was skills coach.
While the offseason recruiting hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, the Tahs have brought back stalwarts Ned Hanigan, Jed Holloway and Michael Hooper from Japan to bolster the forward pack. They still seem very light on second rowers and will rely on Hanigan, Holloway and Hugh Sinclair to fill in.
On the flipside, there is a group of young and upcoming prospects that get to stake their claim at the Super Rugby level. In the backline, it seems Mark Nawaqanitawase and Tevita Funa will battle it out for fullback, while Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese will form a newly-minted Wallabies combo in the centres. Perhaps the most intriguing is the flyhalf puzzle, and how Coleman manages to fit in all three of the Tahs’ talented playmakers Will Harrison, Ben Donaldson and Tane Edmed in the game-day team.
Coleman has made a habit of turning struggling teams to title contenders by instilling the right environment and team culture that gets a lot of buy-in from his players. His connections with Sydney club rugby run deep and that can only help. While he has a three-year contract, Coleman recently outlined that he is working off a two plan to get the franchise back on track.
A high profile coaching gig like the Waratahs comes with lofty expectations. The Tahs sit right in the middle of one of the world’s most competitive sporting markets, and rugby fights for eyeballs on television and spectators at the stadium every weekend. It comes with the territory that Coleman must make significant improvements very quickly if they are to win back the support of rusted-on supporters and capture the attention of Sydney sports fans.
It’s not going to be easy, but with more local derbies against Australian teams, and the Waratahs planning to take their games to regional centres and rugby heartlands ahead of the reopening of the Sydney Football Stadium, there is plenty to be hopeful about.
3) Will Brad Thorn’s long-term vision for the Reds come to fruition?
When the Reds won the Super Rugby AU title, it was seen as vindication for coach Brad Thorn’s long term vision of turning Queensland back into a rugby powerhouse. For all the Aussies teams, Super Rugby Trans-Tasman was a sobering reality check. For the Reds, a crucial win over the Chiefs in round three and a hard-fought loss to the Blues was enough to quell fears that things had gone off the rails.
A strong Super Rugby Pacific campaign, especially against New Zealand opposition, will serve to cement the Reds as a title contender and Thorn as one of the top coaches in the competition. The Reds under Thorn have been on a mission to engage with the rugby community and restore pride in the Queensland jersey, and while there were some growing pains with the high profile exits of Quade Cooper and James Slipper, Queenslanders have been quick to embrace the stoic Thorn and his band of home-grown Reds.
With a new contract through to 2023, this season marks the next era of Thorn’s tenure where results will be expected and their star-studded squad will need to fire against top-tier opposition.
The Reds have been able to retain the vast majority of their squad for their 2022 campaign, with the only major losses being Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Bryce Hegarty and Moses Sorovi. Since taking over, Thorn has focused on bringing talent through the Queensland pathways and promoting them to the senior squad.
When all are fit and healthy, the Reds have an incredibly well-rounded squad. It’s an important year for a number of players, especially Jock Campbell, with Jordan Petaia expected to get an extended run at fullback.
This upcoming season the Reds need to unlock their full potential under Brad Thorn if they are to have a chance of creating a legacy in this new competition.
Throughout their history, the Rebels have failed to deliver on the promise despite encouraging seasons and a plethora of superstars coming in and out of the squad. Most recently in 2019, it was the combo of Quade Cooper and Will Genia that propelled them into finals contention before petering out in the second half of the season.
Over the last two years, the Rebels have been handed the rough end of the stick; forced to be on the road and play away from home the majority of the 2020 and 2021 seasons due to border restrictions in victoria. The Rebels are now under the guidance of Kevin Foote, who took over from Dave Wessels ahead of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
One of the few highlights of the 2021 season was the breakout performance of 20-year-old Carter Gordon, a mid-season recruit from the Wests Bulldogs club in Brisbane. Thrust into the starting role during the Trans-Tasman season, Gordon quickly established himself as the Rebels future long-term flyhalf.
After a tough start against the Blues, Gordon showed he could compete at the top level against the Kiwi teams in narrow losses to the Highlanders and Chiefs.
This has given him plenty of confidence ahead of 2022, with Gordon eager to impose his voice to help guide them around the park.
He has been listed on the Rebels roster as the sole flyhalf in the team, with Toomua tipped to move back into inside centre. He will have a lot of responsibility on his shoulders leading around a backline that has lost Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete, while Reece Hodge and Matt Toomua will be returning from injury.
Australian rugby has a history of throwing young players into Super Rugby too early, but if Gordon is managed by the Rebels correctly he could be a superstar in the years to come.
5) What can we expect from the Western Force?
The return of the Western Force to Super Rugby was the feel-good story of the year in 2020, but what many didn’t expect was their ability to follow it up this year with some excellent performances.
The Force qualified for the finals of Super Rugby AU, provided entertainment and spectacle that brought the Sea Of Blue back to their home games and pushed the New Zealand teams all the way in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
This season, the Force has the highest turnover of players than any other Australian team in Super Rugby and have lost a host of international stars. Marquee players like Tomas Cubelli, Rob Kearney, Tomas Lezana, Domingo Miotti and Jordan Olowofela have all moved on, along with club stalwarts Marcel Brache, Tevita Kuridrani, Jono Lance and Kieran Longbottom.
In their stead, the club has drafted in a number of exciting players in Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, Bayley Kuenzle, Manasa Mataele and Reece Tapine. Western Australian-born playmaker Reesjan Pasitoa has also been recruited and is poised to have a breakout season. Perhaps their biggest signing is Wallabies lock Izack Rodda, who returns to Australian shores after a stint with Lyon.
Team cohesion could prove a real challenge for the Force and head coach Tim Sampson will have to lean on his senior players for guidance and leadership. It will be interesting to see what role the likes of Greg Holmes, Richard Kahui, Ian Prior and Jeremy Thrush will have throughout the season as the Force find their feet at Super Rugby level.
The Force may surprise a few teams.
6) Are the Fijian Drua the dark-horses of Super Rugby Pacific?
The Fijian Drua announced an impressive 34-player squad for their inaugural season. The team includes Olympic gold medallists Kalione Nasoko, Napolioni Bolaca and Ratu Meli Derenalagi alongside a mix of Fijian internationals and local talent.
While not exactly the same team that appeared in Australia’s National Rugby Championship, their performance in that competition should provide an insight into the brand of rugby the Drua want to play. They have a hard, aggressive edge that allows them to play a high-temp, razzle-dazzle style that proved a challenge for the Aussie NRC sides. In fact, they won the competition in 2018 after an incredible season.
An upheaval in the format of Super Rugby has provided the Drua with a chance to compete in the big league, and they will grab it with both hands.
If nothing else, they will bring the entertainment factor back to Super Rugby, but with a host of experience in hooker Mesu Dolokoto, flanker Nemani Nagusa and prop Manasa Saulo, with flyhalf Teti Tela pulling the strings, expect the Drua to strike a balance between flair and substance.
They are a team that the rest of the competition would be wise to keep an eye on, because if they are expecting an easy win they will be sorely mistaken.
The Fijian Drua are expected to be based in Lennox Head in New South Wales for the duration of the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific season.
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