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Aussie conference is for taking

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The race for the Australian conference is on, but does that mean anything for Wallaby selections?

With seven rounds left in the regular Super Rugby season, the Australian conference and automatic finals qualification is still anyone’s race to win.

In recent times the only Australian sides that could offer any genuine resistance and a finals threat has been the NSW Waratahs and ACT Brumbies, yet 2019 is proving to be a year of near parity for the Australian teams that may influence Wallaby World Cup selections later in the year.

Currently, the ill-disciplined Melbourne Rebels still enjoy top billing sitting on 24 points despite their last round loss to the second-placed Waratahs who managed the win without controversial star Israel Folau. The Waratahs have ground their way to 20 points due to their defensive prowess yet the most encouraging news for Australian rugby fans was the fact that both the ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds were victorious in South Africa, keeping both within real striking distance sitting on 19 and 18 points respectively.

The flat, direct running Melbourne Rebels have the squad, set-piece and running game to play finals rugby yet despite such qualities, discipline is an issue that may yet cost Dave Wessels men. Presently the Rebels are the most penalized team in the Australian conference infringing 107 times sustaining no less than 7 yellow cards in the process. A statistic that should not be lost on Wallaby selectors.

The Rebels will find maintaining the conference lead a difficult task indeed as in the coming weeks they face an away fixture to the Hurricanes who enjoy an 85% penalty conversation rate followed by the resurgent Queensland Reds at home who convert their penalties at a greater 87%. If the Rebels maintain giving away penalties at an average of just over 11 per match, it is quite conceivable they will struggle in both matches and fall away from the lead.

Nevertheless, the most difficult aspect of the Rebels run to the finals is their final four matches where they play the Sunwolves away which have proven to be nail-biting affairs for both the Waratahs and Reds earlier in the season. Followed by the Waratahs at home, then away to the Crusaders and finally at home to the Chiefs who would enjoy nothing more than knocking off the Wallaby-laden Rebels in the final round.

Despite the Israel Folau controversy, the Waratahs are proving to be a resilient group that may yet grind away to the lead the Australian conference into the finals. God knows they have the quality and experience with the likes of Hooper, Foley, Ashley-Cooper, Beale, and Kepu within their ranks. If Darryl Gibson’s men are to threaten at the business end of the season, they must address their kicking game, in particular, their general kicking and try conversions.

The often-maligned kicker, Bernard Foley must improve the conversion rate of near 61% and the general kicking that sits on about 72% effectiveness. Whilst Bernard Foley and Quade Copper are hotly contesting the fly-half role for the Wallabies, clearly, the New South Welshman’s kicking game must improve if his side and chances of Wallaby selection are to advance. His costly missed conversion attempt from virtually in front against the Sharks denied the Waratahs an important bonus point.

The Waratahs now set out on a three-week road trip against the Bulls, Lions and then the Reds. It is quite conceivable they could leave Africa with no points and return to face a reinvigorated Queensland Reds who take no greater delight than defeating their traditional enemy and will be looking for a better effort than their previous encounter this season at the Sydney Cricket Ground where they were defeated 28-17 in a rather limp performance.

The Waratahs season will be defined in the next month, if they can return from the three-week road trip with points and limited injuries, they are setting themselves up nicely but they have a formidable task ahead. If their experience does not see them through, this may have implications when Wallaby positions are considered.

The Brumbies must also make similar improvements if they are to go longer into the season. Whilst they have been a competitive unit in 2019, they have lacked the mental discipline to shut down the opposition as their predecessors have. With a conversion rate and successful kicking rate under 70%, coupled with a successful tackle rate of just under 85% these are numbers that don’t translate into finals football.

Furthermore, with the loss of experienced hooker Josh Mann-Rea with a season-ending knee injury and the calf of star flanker David Pocock still causing concern, the depth of the Brumbies will be tested in the run to the finals.

Despite missing an opportunity to go the top of the conference by losing to the Jaguares, the losing bonus point on the last leg of their road trip could prove decisive. They no doubt will be enthused by the fact they have a run of three home games which will be a seminal period for the Brumbies season. If the Brumbies can string together three wins at home against the Blues, Sunwolves and Bulls then they are in a strong position to take the conference.

This will be a period where the experience of Sam Carter, James Slipper, Scott Sio, and Christian Lealiifano will be called upon. I tend to think the Brumbies spirit will respond accordingly.

At the beginning of the season, Brad Thorn has asked all Queenslanders to believe, and believe they should. Despite sitting in 4th place on the Australian conference it is hardly a position they are languishing in. Injuries and poor selection have been an issue for the Reds this season, the loss of powerhouse centre Jordan Petaia in round three against the Crusaders has caused Thorn to move Samu Kerevi away from his favoured 12-jersey, however, when Kerevi is playing 12, with Chris Feauai-Sautia at 13 the Reds appear most potent. This combination must remain if the Reds wish to move higher up the ladder.

Furthermore, the form of utility back Bryce Hegarty and the emergence of live-wire scrum-half Tate McDermott are proving to be a playmaking duo that no doubt would be attracting the eye of Wallabies selectors. They are an unlikely duo, but Queensland to many are an unlikely team. Write them off at your peril.

The Reds do not have a particularly difficult run home in the finals and play the Waratahs at home when they return from a two-week African road trip. The Reds fans are starved of success against their old foe, and I’d suggest if an emphatic victory over the Waratahs is achieved on the 18th of May, it will launch their run to the finals as the Reds have the game to win in Hamilton and in Canberra.

The Reds must eradicate the lulls in their game they are prone to and become a more consistent ’80-minute’ side if they are to win the conference. There are rumblings of discontent from within the playing group due to the coaching style of Brad Thorn but such rumblings should be quelled as clearly the rugby coming out of Queensland is the best since the McKenzie era. Like then, anything is possible.

In their last season as a Super Rugby team, the Sunwolves have been stoic and have deserved every accolade they have received in 2019. But as the finals approach, reality bights and they simply do not have the class to push to the finals from the last place position they currently find themselves in.

From a Wallaby selection perspective, there is a reason for cautious optimism as this Super Rugby season has seen the rise of ‘bolters’ such as Tate McDermott and Lachlan McCaffrey yet it has also seen the re-emergence of the likes of Quade Cooper, Scott Higginbotham, and James Slipper thus providing both experience and depth.

However, I do stress any optimism must be treated with the right amount of caution as the simple fact is only the Rebels are currently placed in an overall finals position. That fact must change before Australian Rugby fans should unbridle their optimism and let it run free.

The great Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer is understood to believe that to win a Rugby World Cup a team must have at least five world-class players. Whilst the Wallabies have a number of high-quality players the only player who is turning in consistent world-class performances this season is Queensland skipper Samu Kerevi when he plays in the 12 jersey.

There have world class moments by the likes of Michael Hooper, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, and Israel Folau but not performances that would demand selection into a World XV today. Even Kerevi would be under some serious competition but his form justifies the discussion.

It is hard to determine what the Wallaby selectors will do as its not entirely clear what style of rugby they will be playing in 2019. However, going off their form the Australian Super rugby teams, placekicking and kicking in general play is not at a World Cup-winning standard. There are encouraging signs from the set-piece but the reality is the lineout is coming off a pretty low base. I am not sure how Simon Raiwalui is best equipped to improve it?

The headache for the Wallabies selectors is trying to decipher what style of rugby head Coach Michael Cheika actually wants to play. If it is anything like the second half against Argentina in Salta in 2018 then there may be cause for further cautious optimism. If its anything like the rest of 2018 it doesn’t matter who is selected. It is over before it begins.

2019 Rugby World Cup city guide – Sapporo:

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The race for the Australian conference is on, but does that mean anything for Wallaby selections?