Aussies gear up for Super Rugby assault
Keiran Smith
February 20, 2012
The Reds celebrate with the Super Rugby trophy, Reds v Crusaders, Super Rugby Final, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, Australia, July 9, 2011
Will the Reds be celebrating Super Rugby glory again in 2012? © Getty Images

Super Rugby's back, and for the first time since 2005 the tournament has a defending Australian champion.

The 2011 season saw the high and lows of Australian rugby, from the 'Redolution' in Queensland to the player-driven fiasco in Canberra. With the competition pausing for the June internationals, the season will encroach into August for the first time, meaning 2012 will have its fair share of twists and turns.

Let's look at how the Aussie provinces are shaping up for the latest campaign.

Queensland Reds
It's difficult to predict what we may see from the Reds this season. The 2011 champions suffered an early hammer blow when Quade Cooper's knee gave way against Wales at the Rugby World Cup. While Cooper will still be involved at some point this season, there's no doubt the Reds will miss their talisman. Who can forget his electric game-winning performances against the Crusaders and then later against the Blues in the semi-final?

The man carrying the bulk of the attacking burden is new recruit Mike Harris. The Kiwi is in a race with Ben Lucas for the No.10 jersey and seems to have the inside running after strong performances against the Brumbies and the Force. One key attribute is his precision goal kicking, having only missed one kick at goal in two trials, which will give the Reds another avenue to accumulate points should opposition teams shut down Will Genia securing quick ball.

A key man to watch will be flanker Beau Robinson. After looking like his career had stalled at the Waratahs, McKenzie threw the 25-year-old a lifeline and Robinson finished the season unlucky not to have made Robbie Deans' World Cup squad.

NSW Waratahs
The Waratahs' 2012 campaign hasn't started well with the backline already ravaged by injuries. Drew Mitchell is still recovering from the ankle injuries that blighted his season in 2011, while fellow winger Lachie Turner suffered a serious hamstring injury in a trial match.

Combined with the loss of Kurtley Beale to the Melbourne Rebels, the Waratahs find themselves in the position of needing to find a new back three before the opening match against the Reds in Sydney. There's still plenty of talent in the backline though, with Rob Horne and Berrick Barnes joined by new recruits Adam Ashley-Cooper and former Cheetahs scrum-half Sarel Pretorius.

While Phil Waugh has retired and Dan Vickerman's ongoing leg injuries look to have curtailed his playing days, up front the Tahs will again be a force. Benn Robinson, Wycliff Palu and even Tatafu Polota-Nau are all expected to be available from the start of the season, and Stephen Hoiles is likely to fill the gap left by Vickerman. It's a big year for Rocky Elsom too. Back with the Waratahs after a two-year stint with the Brumbies, Elsom will be looking for the devastating form that made him the world's best blindside flanker just a few years ago.

Melbourne Rebels
The Rebels may have the bye first up, but have already won a couple of key off field battles securing the services of two of the country's most exciting talents, Beale and James O'Connor. While the Rebels' trial results have not been great, this team is still a work in progress and will no doubt be far more competitive this season. It's the least their terrific fan base deserve, after the southern city embraced their first professional rugby team in season one.

While O'Connor and Beale, joining Danny Cipriani, will give the Rebels much more in attack, it was in defence where the real problems were last term. Conceding 570 points, an average of 31.7 a game, was never good enough and this is the area coach Damien Hill will want vast improvement - especially so with the Waratahs and Reds their first two opponents this season. Other players to watch this season are former Force player Mitch Inman (centre) and joint vice captain's Hugh Pyle (lock) and Welsh veteran Gareth Delve (No. 8).

Western Force
For the Western Force the 2012 season will be judged on how well they recover from the loss of O'Connor to the Rebels, so often their shining light last season. Early indications are that the Force are in trouble after successive trial thumpings at the hands of the Reds and Brumbies.

Coach Richard Graham says you can't read too much into trial form and with the team boasting several current and former Wallabies, especially in the forwards, there is every chance the Force can be a contender for the Australian conference this season. With back-row players of the ilk of David Pocock, Matt Hodgson and Richard Brown the Force's strength will be at the ruck.

The Force won't be short of motivation either, with one of the most likeable men in the game, Nathan Sharpe hanging up his boots at the end of the Super Rugby tournament. Sharpe has been a Wallaby and provincial stalwart since the late 90s when he partnered John Eales at the Reds, before joining the Force in 2006. Expect a few emotional swansongs for Australia's most capped Super rugby player later in the season.

ACT Brumbies
After sacking coach Andy Friend after just two matches in 2011 the Brumbies lurched from crisis to crisis. New coach Jake White wasted no time making showing who's boss, naming new recruit Ben Mowen captain, ahead of Wallabies stalwart Stephen Moore.

While senior players Matt Giteau and captain Rocky Elsom have moved on, there's still plenty of talent in Canberra with current Wallabies Moore, Ben Alexander and Pat McCabe all expected to be available from round one after injury concerns. At the other end of the experience spectrum, Robbie Coleman continues to impress and will likely start the season at fullback, given McCabe's availability at centre.

Giteau's departure gives Matt Toomua his chance at fly-half, after playing a bit-part role last season. The former Australian schoolboy has followed a path similar to Quade Cooper and the Brumbies fans will be hoping the 22 year-old can become similarly as influential in Canberra.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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