With Super Rugby one sleep away it’s a good time to look at the Australian sides as each team has a couple of trials under the belt and there is that unmistakable air of optimism a new season brings.
The trials themselves have been more readily available than in years gone by as each team (commendably) streams the fixtures when they can so punters like myself can get a feel for how the teams are tracking and how they might fare come round one.
Now you’ll hear plenty of pearls of wisdom at this time of year along the lines of “Premierships aren’t won in January” or “You can’t read too much into trial form” but honestly, I call phooey on that. Too many key players missing from two teams in particular looks set to result in a slow start for nearly all of the Australian teams.
After a disastrous couple of seasons we can’t afford a slow start if we want to win back crowds and the players themselves need success early to build the belief required to win flags. I understand it is a World Cup year but surely regaining some parity at Super Rugby is a priority as well.
If we look back at last season, outside of the general malaise there were some specific shortcomings for each team that really stood out. So how do we gauge who has actively worked to rectify them and get a podium finish? Easy, trials.
Let’s start with the best Australian team last year, the Waratahs. You don’t need to be a keen student of the game to see that the biggest factor in how well the Waratahs perform is their forward pack. The backline is stacked with ability and when you give them front foot ball they can carve anyone up. We all remember the end result when guys like Cliffy Palu and Jacques Potgieter were hammering away at the gain line. So given that last year they failed to win the collision up front in the matches they lost, you would think there is an obvious recruitment mandate.
Maybe I am missing something because they haven’t recruited that way at all.
They have built depth smartly in the backline but the forwards have mostly been a case of promoting from their academy. Yes they have brought in a big bopper from South Africa but no one of the class of Potgieter and while the forward pack is full of players with potential, it isn’t going to scare anyone right now or give you better front foot ball. We saw this in particular in the Brumbies trial at the scrum and maul where the Waratahs struggled to stay in the contest and their forwards only started to get some go forward in the loose towards the back end of the fixture.
Next we’ve got the Rebels and if this team isn’t the great hope of Aussie fans I must be reading the wrong mail. They have incredible depth and talent to burn but were inconsistent for much of last season which was to be expected after the influx of Western Force players. Teams don’t click overnight.
At times they also lacked direction at flyhalf and the recruitment of Quade Cooper is seen by nearly all to be a masterstroke.
Anytime you have a new 10 however, particularly one like Cooper, there is an even greater need for your first choice XV to be on paddock together and we really didn’t see that during the trials. We saw a lot of fringe players get an opportunity so the Rebels will be go into round 1 with what will be the first real hitout for a good percentage of the team. How quickly the team gets into Quade’s rhythm could well be the determining factor of their season.
For the sake of my narrative I’ll look at the Reds next and their most obvious shortcomings last year boil down to experience and direction. Similar to the Waratahs they have promoted mostly from within and I think the organisation is cognizant of there being more hurt before the playing group matures and results are expected.
That leaves us with the Brumbies and having watched their two trials I feel they are the team that have taken the best steps to improve their game. Firstly they have recruited seasoned individuals in guys like James Slipper, Toni Pulu, Murray Douglas and Pete Samu which will mean they aren’t relying on inexperience when Wallabies are rested. The competition for spots in the backrow, wings and at inside centre is going to be intense and it is exciting to see who will get the nod as the season progresses.
They have also recognised a need to return to the more expansive style of old and we saw a number of well worked and long range tries in the trials. Crucially, in my mind, they have also given their best players in the key positions of 8, 9, 10 and 15 a good amount of game time which can only put the team in a better position to win in the early rounds. Their only real shortcoming so far is a tendency to let the opposition back into the match after scoring points which is a relatively easy fix.
Maybe I’m wrong and trial form means nothing in the context of a season. I really hope I am wrong and the teams aren’t as short of a run as they look because we need to get some level pegging back with NZ. My gut however says there is only one Australian team that will be primed for it come round 1 and that is our most successful Super Rugby team, the Brumbies.
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