Super Rugby
Super Rugby preview: who will top the Australian conference?
Sam Bruce
February 18, 2016
Super Rugby Australia: Brumbies look like the team to beat

The Australian Super Rugby conference is tipped to be played out between the Brumbies and Waratahs; but what can we expect from the Reds, Force and Rebels? Read on for a full preview.

BRUMBIES

Best finish: Champions (01, 04)

Last year: Semi-finalists; second in Australia.

Stephen Larkham's side enjoyed a solid season in 2015 before they were eliminated at the semi-final stage, this time by the Hurricanes. While their backline was full of Test talent, it was their near-unstoppable rolling maul that did much of the damage on the try-scoring front. David Pocock was often the beneficiary of that eight-man drive while his work at the breakdown was only a sign of things to come at the Rugby World Cup later in 2015.

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Squad: Robbie Abel, Nigel Ah Wong, Allan Alaalatoa, Ben Alexander, Albert Anae, Rory Arnold, Jarrad Butler, Sam Carter, Robbie Coleman, Tomas Cubelli James Dargaville, Michael Dowsett, Blake Enever, Scott Fardy, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Leali'ifano, Les Makin, Josh Mann-Rea, Stephen Moore, David Pocock, Scott Sio, Joe Powell, Jordan Smiler, Andrew Smith, Ruan Smith, Henry Speight, Tom Staniforth, Lausii Taliauli, Joe Tomane, Michael Wells, Ita Vaea, Matt Toomua, Aidan Toua.

Fixtures: Hurricanes (H), Waratahs (H), Force (A), Stormers (A), Cheetahs (A), Chiefs (H), BYE, Waratahs (A), Crusaders (H), Highlanders (A), Bulls (H), Rebels (A), BYE, Sunwolves (H), Reds (H), Blues (A), Force (H)

© Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

This year: The Brumbies certainly have the squad depth to challenge, particularly with the arrival of Tomas Cubelli; the Pumas scrum-half offsetting the loss of Nic White. Still, there were questions marks over their attack last season - a surprising reality given Larkham's pedigree as a playmaker. Another off-season under the Wallabies great should have helped that, while the mere sight of the peerless Pocock is enough to make any opposition pack wary - providing he remains injury-free. The looming departures Stephen Moore, Joe Tomane, Matt Toomua and, possibly Pocock, have many declaring it's now or never for the two-time champions.

Greg Growden says: There are a lot of big names such as Stephen Moore and Matt Toomua leaving Canberra at the end of this season, so it is up to Stephen Larkham to get as much as possible out of them while he can. They'll be close, with Argentina Test halfback Tomas Cubelli one smart signing.

Tip: First in conference

Odds: $7.50

FORCE

Best finish: Eighth (14)

Last year: 15th; fifth in Australia. 2015 proved to be a disastrous year for the Force as they managed just three wins - two of which came against the Waratahs - and slid from a credible eighth position in 2014 to dead last. The loss of star back-rowers Ben McCalman and Matt Hodgson for large chunks of the season certainly didn't help but it was largely the same old story in Perth - they had next to no attack. A lowly 245 points-for - a competition low - is nowhere near enough to contend in Super Rugby.

Squad: Chris Alcock, Marcel Brache, Luke Burton, Nathan Charles, Adam Coleman, Angus Cottrell, Pek Cowan, Tetera Faulkner, Peter Grant, Kyle Godwin, Dane Haylett-Petty, Ross Haylett-Petty, Chris Heiberg, Matt Hodgson, Oliver Hoskins, Kane Koteka, Brad Lacey, Jono Lance, Ryan Louwrens, Steve Mafi, Alby Mathewson, Ben McCalman, Guy Millar, Ammon Matuauto, Luke Morahan, Albert Nikoro, Ian Prior, Solomoni Rasolea, Tom Sexton, Brynard Stander, Ben Tapuai, Francois van Wyk, Rory Walton.

Fixtures: Rebels (H), Reds (A), Brumbies (H), Hurricanes (A), Chiefs (A), Highlanders (A), Crusaders (H), BYE, Waratahs (H), Bulls (H), Sunwolves (A), BYE, Blues (H), Rebels (A), Cheetahs (A), Stormers (H), Brumbies (A)

© Paul Kane/Getty Images

This year: Coach Michael Foley has been granted another season to try and turn things around but anything other than a significant move up the table will likely cost him his job. Foley has moved to address his attacking woes with the additions of Ben Tapuai, Jono Lance and Peter Grant, the veteran South African tasked with achieving what his fellow countryman, Sias Ebersohn, could not. An improvement on last year's woeful effort is attainable; a maiden playoffs berth far less so.

Greg Growden says: It should be another meandering year for the Force, who have become at times almost unwatchable- due to their tedious, ultra-defensive tactics. As big a question as how did Richard Graham keep his job in Brisbane, is how do the Force fans- one of the most committed and zealous in Australia- keep putting up with watching such dirge? There mustn't be anything else to do in Perth.

Tip: Last in Australia

Odds: $151

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REBELS

Best finish: 10th (15)

Last year: 10th; third in Australia.

The Rebels enjoyed their best ever season in 2015, despite a disappointing final-round defeat at home to the Force. Seven wins, including a maiden triumph outside of Australia, reflected the side's dramatic improvement under coach Tony McGahan while young halves Nic Stirzaker and Jack Debreczeni confirmed their status as Wallabies of the future. Capping off the season was news of the private ownership sale to the Imperium Capital Group, headed by Christchurch-born Andrew Cox.

Squad: Cruze Ah-Nau, Cam Crawford, Ryan Cocker, Steve Cummins, Jack Debreczeni, Tamati Ellison, Tom English, Colby Fainga'a, Scott Fuglistaller, Jamie Hagan, Mike Harris, James Hanson, Reece Hodge, Mitch Inman, Sam Jeffries, Luke Jones, Pat Leafa, Sean McMahon, Ben Meehan, Tim Metcher, Sefanaia Naivalu, Jonah Placid, Jordy Reid, Culum Retallick, Dom Shipperley, Siliva Siliva, Toby Smith, Nic Stirzaker, Adam Thomson, Lopeti Timani, Laurie Weeks.

Fixtures: Force (A), Bulls (A), Reds (H), Sunwolves (A), Highlanders (H), Waratahs (A), BYE, Hurricanes (H), Cheetahs (H), Blues (A), BYE, Brumbies (H), Chiefs (A), Force (H), Stormers (H), Crusaders (A), Reds (A)

© Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

This season: Buoyed by the success of last year, there is plenty of cause for optimism among Rebels fans in 2016. The club has added some forward depth in the likes of Wallabies hooker James Hanson, and Kiwi veterans Adam Thomson and Culum Retallick. The loss of skipper Scott Higginbotham is a setback but in Sean McMahon, Jordy Reid and Colby Fainga'a they have some of the best young back-row talent in Australia. A maiden playoffs appearance must be the clear goal this season.

Greg Growden says: It is all slowly coming together for the Melbourne franchise. A new ownership group, and some pretty shrewd signings, should see them hovering. A lot will depend on how the halves pairing of Nic Stirzaker and Jack Debreczeni hold up. Their biggest hurdle is finding someone to be as authoritative as their long-time skipper Scott Higginbotham, who has headed off overseas.

Tip: Third in Australia

Odds: $81

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REDS

Best finish: Champions (11)

Last year: 13th; fourth in Australia.

It was a season that promised so much but delivered so little. The Reds endured a shambolic 2015, as they dealt with Karmichael Hunt's drug conviction, constant speculation about Quade Cooper's future and player unrest all amid an ongoing review of the club's rugby operations. Coach Richard Graham ultimately survived that review - to the confusion of many fans - while James O'Connor was later granted a release to return to Toulon. A lowly four-win season was not the way stalwarts James Horwill and Will Genia deserved to bow out.

Squad: Curtis Browning, Ben Daley, Kane Douglas, Sef Fa'agase, Anthony Fainga'a, Saia Fainga'a, Lolo Fakaosilea, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Nick Frisby, Scott Gale, Liam Gill, Ayumu Goromaru, Sam Greene, Michael Gunn, Greg Holmes, Karmichael Hunt, Samu Kerevi, Adam Korczyk, Chris Kuridrani, Junior Laloifi, Campbell Magnay, Ben Matwijow, Jake McIntyre, Eto Nabuli, Cadeyrn Neville, Duncan Paia'aua, Pettowa Paraka, Izaia Perese, Andrew Ready, Jake Schatz, Rob Simmons, James Slipper, Sam Talakai, Jamie-Jerry Taulagi, Lukhan Tui, Hendrik Tui, Taniela Tupou, James Tuttle.

Fixtures: Waratahs (A), Force (H), Rebels (A), Blues (H), Waratahs (H), BYE, Highlanders (H), Bulls (A), Stormers (A), Crusaders (A), Hurricanes (A), Sunwolves (H), BYE, Brumbies (A), Chiefs (H), Rebels (H)

© Chris Hyde/Getty Images

This season: The one thing the Reds have going for them is that there has been such a turnover in playing personnel that the group can't help but sense a 'clean slate' feel. The problem is that the man running the show has struggled at Super Rugby level for a number of years now and the new kids on the block are hardly going to send shudders through opposition defences. The recruitment of Japanese World Cup star Ayumu Goromaru has generated interest however, and Samu Kerevi and Liam Gill are proven consistent performers. News that Gill will depart for Toulon at the end of this season will only have further infuriated the Ballymore faithful.

Greg Growden says: How long will their coach last? How long will it take before the ever shrinking Reds fan base again call for his head? It looms as another wacky season at the Reds, as they persist with Richard Graham- who struggled when he had notable players around him, and now has to make do with the next best. Can't see them being anything but also-rans.

Tip: Fourth in Australia

Odds: $34

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WARATAHS

Best finish: Champions (14)

Last year: Semi-finalists; first in Australia.

The Waratahs were on track to match the Chiefs' back-to-back titles of 2012/13 before they were stunned at home by eventual champions, the Highlanders. Truth be told, that home final was the product of the conference system as the Highlanders were more deserving of their place in the decider via a higher points total. NSW showed glimpses of their title-winning form from 2014, but lacked the consistency and were found out by dogged forward packs that were able to slow down their ball. There was also the fact coach Michael Cheika was balancing two jobs, which, despite all the denials, must have been a distraction.

Squad: Kurtley Beale, Matt Carraro, Jack Dempsey, Dave Dennis, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Zac Guildford, Ned Hanigan, Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Rob Horne, David Horwitz, Andrew Kellaway, Tolu Latu, Sam Lousi, Matt Lucas, Dean Mumm, Wycliff Palu, Nick Phipps, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Hugh Roach, Benn Robinson, Reece Robinson, Paddy Ryan, Will Skelton, Jim Stewart, Angus Ta'avao, Jeremy Tilse, Brad Wilkin.

Fixtures: Reds (H), Brumbies (A), BYE, Highlanders (H), Reds (A), Rebels (H), BYE, Brumbies (H), Force (A), Stormers (A), Cheetahs (H), Bulls (H), Crusaders (A), Chiefs (H), Sunwolves (A), Hurricanes (H), Blues (A)

© Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

This year: Assistant coach Daryl Gibson has stepped into the post vacated by Cheika, and will be eager to make his mark at the franchise with complete control of the clipboard. Whether he reinvents the Tahs or tweaks the Cheika blueprint will be interesting, particularly after several sides were able to suffocate the NSW attack. There are some interesting recruits in the form of All Blacks bad boy Zac Guildford and code-hopper Reece Robinson while there have also been rumblings of a switch to the centres for superstar full-back Israel Folau. A season of intrigue awaits.

Greg Growden says: Has the new coach Daryl Gibson got enough Cheika-esque mongrel dog in him to keep this often lazy mob on track? He will need to, because he hasn't the same squad depth that Cheika had at his disposal. Hopefully he can keep the wayward All Blacks winger Zac Guildford in check. It could be a long year in Tahland.

Tip: Second in Australia.

Odds: $7

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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