A sobering season
July 28, 2012
The Brumbies were arguably the best Australian side in this year's Super Rugby competition © Getty Images
What a difference a year makes. After revelling in the success of 2011, this Super Rugby season has been much more sobering for Australian fans. Three teams finished in the tournament's bottom five, and not one representative made the second week of the finals series, making grim viewing Down Under. Let's take a look over the wreckage in our end of season report card.
By virtue of making the finals the Reds can rightly claim their performance was a strong defence of their title, especially as their key player Quade Cooper sat out injured for most of the season. In fact it wasn't a good year to be a Queensland fly-half with Ben Lucas and rookie Sam Lane also pulling up lame.
Fortunately for the Reds they have the world's best scrum-half, and Will Genia again underscored his reputation by carrying the attacking burden for most of the season. Not surprisingly Genia claimed his second consecutive Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year award after a number of stirring displays. Up front Scott Higginbotham and Liam Gill were also impressive in a Reds pack missing injured captain James Horwill.
That disappointment aside, the Brumbies were Australia's best team in 2012 and new coach Jake White should take the lion share of the credit. In a province renowned for player power debacles, White's non-nonsense approach and an injection of new players such as Ben Mowen, Zack Holmes and Nic White breathed new life into the Brumbies. Flanker Michael Hooper and winger Joe Tomane also impressed, earning berths in the Wallabies squad in June, with Hooper particularly catching the eye with his barnstorming second-half appearances against the Welsh.
White also got the best out of seasoned professionals such as Ben Alexander, Pat McCabe, Stephen Moore and Christian Lealiifano's, until the latter's horrible ankle injury in week 11 ended his season, and perhaps stalled the Brumbies momentum in the late rounds.
The Tahs greatest opposition seems to come from within. Political infighting, instability and a failure to connect with Australian rugby's largest market continues to hamper the Waratahs year on year. The trend might continue with coach Michael Foley heavily linked with a move away from Sydney, following the departure of other team officials in recent times.
Despite the poor form, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans surprisingly picked seven Waratahs for the first Test against Wales in June. Among them was Berrick Barnes, who profited from Cooper's absence, to star for the Wallabies in their clean sweep of the Six Nations champions. His continued good form for the Wallabies at fly-half gives Deans a selection headache ahead of the Rugby Championship, with Cooper far from certain to regain his place earned during a stellar 2011 season.
The only consistent positive for the Waratahs was its front row of Benn Robinson, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sekope Kepu, who again showed they are the best front row combination in the land. Robbie Deans thought so too and the trio were the vanguard of the Wallabies scrum during June and will be again in August.
The Rebels did well without their key attackers amassing 362 points for the season, ranking them second of the Australian teams behind the Brumbies. As in 2011 the key problem area for coach Damien Hill was defence with the Rebels conceding a tournament worst 520 points, an average of 32 points a match. No matter how good a team's attack is, conceding more than 30 points a game is always going to make life difficult.
Welsh import Gareth Delve fully deserved the Rebel's Player of the Year award after several strong performances, particularly in the Australian derbies. With Stirling Mortlock retiring, Delve is likely to assume the captaincy next season as the Rebels push to upstage the traditional rugby powers to the north.
Then, midseason coach Richard Graham agreed to take over at the Reds in 2013 after Ewen McKenzie moves 'upstairs' into a Director of Coaching role. Not surprisingly, the Force players were not best pleased at the timing of the announcement and quickly moved behind the scenes to have Graham moved out immediately, leaving the squad in the hands of an interim coaching trio. It was soon to get worse for the Force when Will Genia looked set to move to Perth for 2013 before an 11th hour change of heart.
Now captain and arguably one of the world's best players David Pocock appears to be moving east (most likely to the Brumbies) as the Force still try to find a coach for 2013 after failing to sign preferred candidates Michael Cheika (Stade Francais) and Michael Foley so far.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The Scotland coach enters his first Six Nations with at least one familiar face to look to for inspiration - Joe Schmidt. He chats to Tom Hamilton
Italy coach Jacques Brunel spoke to ESPN ahead of his final season as Italy coach and tells of his desire to experiment and evolve
"There's no bull with me, I just tell it straight." Tom Hamilton talks to Warren Gatland in an exclusive interview
With the retirement of Adam Jones, Welsh rugby says goodbye to a great player and one of its biggest personalities too, writes Tom Hamilton