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Super Rugby takes: Reds can win it all, Taniela Tupou needs to impress

By Finn Morton
Suliasi Vunivalu of the Reds and Taniela Tupou of the Rebels. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images and Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Three rounds into Super Rugby Pacific, the Queensland Reds have emerged as the top team in Australian rugby after beating the previously undefeated Chiefs in Brisbane last time out.

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The Reds sit in third place on the ladder behind the Hurricanes and Chiefs, while the Melbourne Rebels have overcome off-field drama to sit just behind their Aussie rivals in fourth.

There’s plenty to like about the state of Australian Super Rugby at the moment with all five teams showing positive signs during a series of competitive performances.

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Heading into the fourth round of the competition, which includes a derby between the Rebels and Reds in Melbourne, it’s time to get the crystal ball out by taking a look at the Australian teams.

Brumbies good enough to continue recent dominance over Highlanders

When the Brumbies take the field at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday afternoon, they’ll be vying for both competition points and bragging rights against the Highlanders.

The Brumbies have won two of the last eight fixtures between these two sides. While that might seem to contradict the subheading above, it’s the two most recent results that deserve a mention.

In Super Rugby Pacific, the Brumbies have beaten the Dunedin-based ‘Landers in each of their last two meetings, and there’s every reason to believe they can extend that streak this weekend.

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Fixture
Super Rugby Pacific
Highlanders
21 - 27
Full-time
Brumbies
All Stats and Data

At the start of a new Rugby World Cup cycle, all teams – both club and country – look a little bit different. Take the Highlanders as an example, they no longer have the likes of Aaron Smith but have recruited some off-season signings including former Wales fly-half Rhys Patchell.

But the Brumbies are almost an exception to that rugby rule.

Sure, there’s no Nic White or Pete Samu, but the core of this Brumbies outfit has remained the same. Ryan Lonergan will lead a side that includes Noah Lolesio, wings Corey Toole and Andy Muirhead, and Wallaby backrowers Tom Hooper and Rob Valetini.

The identity of the Brumbies remains the same whereas the Highlanders, as good as they’ve been, maybe aren’t quite as settled and the combinations are not quite as familiar.

Both teams are on nine competition points with two wins from three starts, with the Highlanders ever so slightly ahead by one place on the ladder due to a better points differential.

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It may be an English football phrase but there’s a real ‘six-pointer’ feel about this clash as both teams look to stay within touching distance of those at the top.

Mark Nawaqanitawase will star at fullback

The Syndey Roosters have signed a real talent in Mark Nawaqanitawase. With one more year to go in rugby union, ‘Marky Mark’ has gotten off to a flyer in Super Rugby Pacific.

Starring on the wing, Nawaqanitawase has been impressive, and expect that to continue in round four. But things will look a little bit different with the Wallaby shifting to fullback.

Max Jorgensen has been ruled out with a hip injury which has forced coach Darren Coleman into some positional changes. But this is a good move, or even a great one.

“I think that’s a good option,” Wallabies great Tim Horan said on Stan Sports’ The Call Up.

“We’ve tried so many different fullbacks for the Wallabies over the years – you look at Tom BanksTom Wright, (Andrew) Kellaway of course, last year Ben Donaldson.

“Mark Nawaqanitawase, I think it’s good. It’s probably going to open up his eyes to the game a bit more… when you’re on the wing for such a long time, sometimes you’ve got to go looking for work where if you’re at 15 the ball is going to find you a lot more.

“He’ll get more opportunities at the back.”

Take it from Tim Horan, Nawaqanitawase will be much more dangerous with the No. 15 on his back. It’s a scary prospect for the Blues but an exciting one for the Tahs.

Head-to-Head

Last 5 Meetings

Wins
1
Draws
0
Wins
4
Average Points scored
25
34
First try wins
80%
Home team wins
60%

Taniela Tupou needs a strong performance against the Reds

It was in February last year that then-Reds prop Taniela Tupou put pen to paper with the Melbourne Rebels from 2024. It was a headline-grabbing move as the team from Victoria landed one of the biggest names in Australian rugby.

Tupou is a fan favourite in Australian rugby and has long been considered one of the best talents in the nation as well.

The prop known affectionally as ‘The Tongan Thor’ is supremely strong, and for a man that weighs more than 130kgs, Tupou is surprisingly quick and agile – not that we’ve seen too much of that this season.

The Rebels have overcome a disappointing loss in round one to win back-to-back matches. They now sit in fourth place on the ladder and they’ll be hungry to improve on that against the team just one spot above them, the Reds, this week.

Playmaker Carter Gordon has led the team around the park quite brilliantly, with the forwards laying the foundation for a red-hot Melbourne Rebels attack.

But Tupou hasn’t been front and centre. He hasn’t been the marquee recruit that the Rebels and Wallabies fans so desperately would’ve wanted him to be.

Tupou only started one match across the opening three rounds this season, but will don the No. 3 jumper once again against his old side at Melbourne’s AAMI Park in round four.

The world-class tighthead said this week that, “If I have to hurt them to make us win then I have to do it.” Friends become enemies this week, if only for 80 minutes.

But Tupou needs to back up those fighting words. If he doesn’t and the Rebels continue to shine without his starring input, then whether or not he’s been a ‘bust’ for the Rebels is a debate that maybe should be had.

The matchup of the round

On Stan Sport this week, former Wallaby Cameron Shepard insisted that Western Force fly-half Ben Donaldson is in the box seat to wear Australia’s No. 10 jersey come Test season.

Donaldson has been impressive from an individual point of view, but the Force are still anchored to the bottom of the Super Rugby Pacific standings with three losses from as many starts.

That means something. It just has to.

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Instead, the man who deserves to be top in the power rankings to be the Wallabies’ fly-half later this year is Melbourne Rebels’ Carter Gordon.

Gordon has put the horrors of last year’s Rugby World Cup campaign behind him with maturity, skill and poise, There’s no better fly-half in Australian rugby right now.

But ‘right now’ is the key phrase there. Four years out from the next World Cup on home soil, a lot can change between now and then. Gordon has been touted as a long-term Wallaby, and there’s no reason to question that at this stage.

But that doesn’t mean by 2027 Gordon won’t be playing a backup role to a more-fancied option as the Wallabies’ chief playmaker.

19-year-old Harry McLaughlin-Phillips will start at fly-half for the Reds in round four against the Rebels. The teenager was a hero for the Reds in their famous win over the Chiefs last weekend, with the fly-half putting his body on the line to claim a match-winning penalty.

There’s been some excitement brewing about McLaughlin-Phillips for a few months now. After impressing for the Junior Wallabies last year, and then earning Player of the Match honours on debut for the Reds against Panasonic Wild Knights in November, there’s no question that he’s ready to take the next step.

This week, it’s Gordon vs McLaughlin-Phillips. The incumbent Wallabies fly-half against one of the nation’s brightest young prospects.

Team Form

Last 5 Games

0
Wins
3
5
Streak
1
9
Tries Scored
26
-109
Points Difference
39
1/5
First Try
3/5
3/5
First Points
1/5
2/5
Race To 10 Points
2/5

The one Aussie team that can win Super Rugby Pacific

The gap between New Zealand and Australian Super Rugby Pacific sides isn’t just closing, it’s closed. Queensland showed that with a win over the Chiefs last weekend.

Earlier in round three, the Waratahs came within a missed penalty goal of beating the Highlanders, just a week on from a dominant win over the Crusaders in Melbourne.

That’s not to say that Australian sides will win every match, or even a majority of them, but Australian Super Rugby teams are back. They’re competitive once again.

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The Brumbies made the semi-finals last season but have been a bit shaky in 2024 so far. As for the Rebels and Waratahs, there are still some questions that need to be answered.

Then there’s the Western Force, while not as bad as the ladder may suggest, still have plenty of ground to make up.

Instead, there’s one Australian side who stands above all others at the moment. The Reds are the only Aussie team who can actually challenge for Super Rugby glory this season.

Hooker Matt Faessler is scoring tries for fun, and the rest of the forward pack hasn’t just been good but great. Peni Ravai led the way last weekend as they dominated the Chiefs’ scrum.

The Reds’ backrow trio of Liam Wright, Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson is the best loose forward combination in the competition. All three probably should probably be Wallabies under Joe Schmidt.

Then there’s the backline. Tom Lynagh and Harry McLaughlin-Phillips are both players to watch as they look to set up the likes of Jordan Petaia, Suliasi Vunivalu, Hunter Paisami (when fit) and more.

Coach Les Kiss is getting the very best out of this squad, and with Queensland well and truly in their corner now, there’s no reason the Reds can’t go deep this season.

Western Force are not as bad as the ladder suggests

After three rounds, the Western Force are last on the ladder. With zero wins, three losses and a -47 points differential, it would be easy to just call a spade a spade and say that they’re a bad team. That’s what the ladder suggests.

But the truth is that the Western Force are better than that. Super Rugby Pacific is back this year in a way that it hasn’t been in quite some time.

It’s incredibly competitive, and the Force are more than capable of a shock or two – and they came close to what would’ve been a stunning upset in round three.

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Going into the third week of the competition, the ‘easiest’ game to pick on paper was the Brumbies’ clash with the Force in Canberra. The Brumbies have been the best team in Australia for quite some time while the Force have often been at the other end.

But playmaker Ben Donaldson put on a masterful start to the fixture as the Force ran up a surprising lead. They couldn’t hold on in the end but there were certainly signs of life.

It’s all leading to their next clash back at Perth’s HBF Park against Moana Pasifika. The Force are more than capable of winning and winning well.

With Donaldson partnering Wallaby Issak Fines-Leleiwasa in the halves this week, and with Nic White set to come off the bench, the Force should be able to start strong and then close out the match with Nic White on the field.

Former Maori All Blacks Thomas Franklin and Reed Prinsep are also in the matchday 23, and there are some attacking weapons out wide including wing Harry Potter.

The Force aren’t as bad as the ladder suggests and they’ll prove that in round four.

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