Super 14 set to sizzle
January 26, 2010
Rocky Elsom and Matt Giteau have added extra power to the Brumbies' challenge © Getty Images
The Super 14 is back and with it comes the usual round of predictions, premonitions and just plain fantasy. The beauty of this competition is that despite what may have been a disastrous campaign last time around a new season is an entirely new proposition, full of opportunity.
In 2009 the Aussie teams' toughest opponent proved to be consistency and time again the big "C" proved a bridge too far. In hindsight, the performance of the four local franchises was a precursor for the international season where the Wallabies' inconsistency led them to their worst finish since 2005.
However, 2010 is a new season and with the annual edition of player musical chairs now complete, let's cast an eye over each of the four Australian provinces and see what lies in store.
Once again, the Brumbies have recruited well in the off-season, to follow on from the key acquisition of Stephen Moore in 2009.
Despite the Waratahs poaching Berrick Barnes from Queensland, the Brumbies have again secured pre-season honours with the luring of Matt Giteau (Force) and Wallabies captain Rocky Elsom (Leinster) to Canberra. They've also brought home Justin Harrison from Bath and have no less than eight frontline Wallabies (and several on the fringe) in what appears the strongest Australian provincial line up in a number of years.
With this excitement come expectation and Andy Friend's side will need to be at the sharp end come May, where a third Super Rugby title could be a distinct possibility.
With 41 points proving to be the threshold to qualify for the semi finals in the past two seasons, the Brumbies will need to hit the ground running in their away fixtures against the Force (Feb 12), before their South African expedition against defending champions the Bulls and the Stormers.
Player to watch: Matt Giteau - returning to Canberra after three years in the West and hoping to re-capture the form that makes him Australia's undisputed best fly-half.
Predicted finish: Finalists
Where the Brumbies look to be on an upward trajectory, life does not appear as promising for the Reds, with the landscape for this season again looking barren for the Queenslanders.
The loss of Berrick Barnes to the latte and surfing lifestyle of Sydney's eastern suburbs is a massive blow, not least as the boy from Kingaroy now lines up for their fiercest of rivals - the Waratahs.
Barnes' departure might not have looked so grim with Quade Cooper's strong performances during the Wallabies' spring tour but a bizarre incident involving allegations of burglary has landed Cooper in hot water. How the 21-year old handles the uncertainty over his future remains to be seen.
The Reds though may have an ace up their sleeve in coach Ewen McKenzie, who returns from France, and the former Waratahs mentor gets his dream matchup in round one when NSW visit Brisbane.
While the Reds may struggle to retain their talent, they never have had any problems in producing it. Wallabies Will Genia and Digby Ioane are a potent source of attack, while captain James Horwill will be looking to retain the form that has made him a key part of the Australian pack.
Despite all the wounds the Reds managed to suffer (admittedly many were self inflicted) in 2009 they still have a good shot of toppling their more fancied opponents in what will be a physical derby in Brisbane, before two more home fixtures against the Crusaders and the Blues to kick off the season.
Predicted finish: 12th
Player to watch: Will Genia - the scrum-half's quick wits and electrifying pace around the ruck will be a key feature of the Reds' attack this season.
Finalists in 2008 and pipped at the post for a semi-final berth in 2009, the Waratahs have proven Australia's most successful team in the past two years. With the recruitment of Berrick Barnes to fill what has been a troublesome fly-half position, 2010 may be the year the Waratahs finally capture that elusive Super Rugby title.
Coach Chris Hickey has some interesting decisions to make in his backline, not least at fullback and inside-centre. With Barnes certain to start at fly-half, Hickey has both Kurtley Beale and Daniel Halangahu as second pivot alternatives. At fullback it's a choice of four with Lachie Turner, Beale, Drew Mitchell and former All Black Sosene Anesi all in contention.
Where the backline may have been inconsistent in recent years, the forward pack has been rock solid for the Waratahs. Captain Phil Waugh and No. 8 Wycliff Palu are expert back-row practitioners and a front row of Benn Robinson, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sekope Kepu will be a match for any team at scrum-time.
Another new face is the two-metres tall, Emerging Springbok Hendrik Roodt, who will join Wallaby Dean Mumm in the new look second row.
Player to watch: Berrick Barnes - He's as Queensland as they come but now finds himself wearing blue. If he settles quickly and can stay injury-free, he could lead the Waratahs to the semi-finals.
Predicted finish: Semi-finalists
The transit lounge has been busy for the Force with Wallabies Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell checking out for returns back east. To replace Giteau, Springbok Andre Pretorius has arrived and the veteran will be a steadying influence in a team being rebuilt.
With Matt Dunning and Brett Sheehan also now in Perth, the Force have plenty of Super Rugby experience. Whether that will be enough to reverse their horrible home form will be the determining factor of their season.
Although history is just that. With the Force moving to a rectangular stadium for the 2010 season there is a bounce in the step of the fans, who now won't require binoculars to see the action. It's now up to the players to give their (very) loyal fans something tangible to cheer and a team with the talents of James O'Connor, Ryan Cross and Cameron Shepherd in their backline can certainly provide that.
With the opening match against the Brumbies in Perth before another four home games (and the bye) in the first half of the tournament, the Force need to make best use of their new surroundings, before their three-match South African sojourn begins in week 12.
Predicted finish: 10th
Player to watch: Cameron Shepherd - The forgotten man of Australian Rugby has seen his recent career disrupted by injury. With Robbie Deans' fullback selection far from settled, 2010 may be Shepherd's chance to shine.
With the deadline for World Cup ticket applications now over, Tom May outlines his hopes, gripes and wishes for next year's global gathering
Floundering Leicester, exquisite Exeter and two old England players tearing up trees - it's the Monday Maul
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Rugby Championship and all the domestic action from the northern hemisphere
Chris Robshaw talks to Tom Hamilton about mental and physical preparation and coping with pressure ahead of the World Cup