March 20, 2012
Does James O'Connor have what it takes to be the Wallabies' fly-half? © Getty Images
It's early going, but a few things have already come to light in the current Super Rugby campaign. Here are the things we've learned about the Australian teams' prospects for this year's tournament, both at the top and bottom of the standings.
The Reds are the real deal
The Queensland Reds look good value to defend their crown after showing the form of a champion team by grinding out results against the Western Force, Melbourne Rebels and, albeit fortunately, the Waratahs.
A degree of uncertainty hung over the side going into the campaign, with star playmaker Quade Cooper set to miss a large part of the season due to injury. Stand-in fly-half Mike Harris has proven an adept replacement, despite being a different proposition to the flamboyant Cooper. Harris' goal kicking alone has proven invaluable as opposition teams have tried to stifle Will Genia's quick ball at the ruck, only to be penalised for cheap points. Ewen McKenzie will be disappointed not to have made it four straight wins against the Sharks last weekend, having led 17-0, but a bonus point at the 'Shark Tank' is always useful and sees the Reds sitting on top of the Australian conference, exactly where they would have wanted to be at this point of the season.
Rugby is an 80-minute game, sometimes longer
In one weekend, both the Brumbies and the Rebels conceded late tries to lose. Add the Waratahs suffering the ignominy of allowing their greatest rivals, the Reds, to steal victory after the siren in round one and there's a worrying trend developing across the Australian teams.
The Brumbies had shown plenty of character to keep with the Chiefs in Tauranga and levelled it late with Christian Lealiifano's pressure conversion, only to concede quickly and leave with one point rather than two. The Rebels going down to the Cheetahs in the final play of the match will be particularly galling to coach Damien Hill, given the team from Bloemfontein had only ever won once outside South Africa.
The message in the Rebels and Brumbies dressing rooms will be they need to close out these tight matches. The Cheetahs, particularly, had no right to go through multiple phases and travel the length of the field to score. At 26-26 and without the ball in the final minute the Rebels couldn't really expect to win, but they certainly should never have lost against a team that has one of the worst travelling records in Super rugby.
James O'Connor, the next Wallabies fly-half?
He carried an average team last season in Perth, he was one of only a few Wallabies to enhance his reputation at the World Cup and now he's almost single-handedly keeping the Rebels in the contest. There doesn't appear to be any real gap in O'Connor's skillset. He's strong off both feet with the ball, can run at the line and has a solid kicking game. He's also good in defence, which could all be quite advantageous come June.
If Cooper's return is delayed or less than spectacular, pressure will mount on Wallabies coach Robbie Deans to strongly consider O'Connor at fly-half during the June internationals. There's always a good case for selecting a player in form, especially in their preferred position, and O'Connor is clearly the best around. Berrick Barnes is also in the mix, but Deans seems to prefer the Waratahs' pivot at 12, leaving the potential for O'Connor to be given a chance at fly-half for the Tests against Scotland and Six Nations champions Wales.
It's shaping as a massive season for the Western Force
Losing star playmakers Matt Giteau and O'Connor in consecutive seasons suggested the Force should struggle in 2012. That certainly looked the case with the Reds and Hurricanes beating them reasonably comfortably after they narrowly fell to the Brumbies in a horrible match in round one.
Yet, Richard Graham's men upset the Waratahs' apple cart on Saturday with a courageous 21-20 victory in Sydney, just the second time in their short history they have beaten New South Wales. The Force were good value for their win as well, with the 'Tahs scoring a lucky try against the run of play. Whether the Force can replicate that performance more regularly will define their season. They certainly have the forwards to do it, with Nathan Sharpe and David Pocock the stand-outs in a pack boasting multiple internationals.
The Force's key battle this year could be to convince Pocock to reject the overtures of rival provinces during his contract negotiations with the Australian Rugby Union (ARU). While dollars speak loudly in professional sport, Pocock will be acutely aware that a player of his quality needs to be featuring at the pointy end of Super Rugby, not mid table, so the Force's on field performances this season are vital. The stakes are high as Sharpe retires at the end of this season, so their leadership ranks would be decimated should Pocock follow him through the exit door. Not a pleasant thought for those hardy Force fans at all.
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