It's heating up Down Under
February 2, 2009
The Waratahs' Will Caldwell will be hoping to catch the eye of Wallabies coach Robbie Deans © Getty Images
Ben Alexander Berrick Barnes Quade Cooper Robbie Deans Matt Dunning Matt Giteau James Horwill Drew Mitchell Stephen Moore Benn Robinson Nathan Sharpe George Smith
It's been a long hot summer, and we're in desperate need of something to distract a proud sporting nation from the malaise affecting our once indomitable cricketers.
Thankfully, the world's best provincial competition is back to lighten the dark days Down Under. With the Wallabies now back in form the latest instalment of Super 14 promises to be, not only, intriguing for the four Australian provinces, but also for the shape of Robbie Deans' squad come June. So what about the four contenders (or is that pretenders) for the crown…
As always with the Tahs, their season will be defined by the stability off the park. It was a very sorry state of affairs last term when the NSW Board ousted long-time coach Ewen McKenzie halfway through the season, only to have not lined up a replacement. Always a wily character, McKenzie had the last laugh by guiding the Tahs through to the final against the Crusaders, before accepting a lucrative deal in Paris.
McKenzie's departure has ushered in the Chris Hickey era, who is fortunate to possess one of the best packs, not just in the country, but in the competition.
The loss of seasoned performers Rocky Elsom and Dan Vickerman will be hard to overcome but Hickey has plenty of firepower available. An all-Wallaby front row of Matt Dunning, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Benn Robinson, with Wallabies Adam Freier and Sekope Kepu in reserve will be a dominant force in the competiiton.
The Tahs are just as strong in the second and back rows as well. One to watch is lock Will Caldwell, a quiet achiever with 50 caps already for the Waratahs. The 26-year-old has an opportunity to make hay while Vickerman is absent and will be hoping to match his line out partner, Dean Mumm's, sudden rise to the Wallabies in June.
Captain Phil Waugh also finds himself at a crossroads. Fast becoming a forgotten man in Australian Rugby after seeing more of the bench than the field in Europe, Waugh is under immense pressure to even maintain his place as second in the pecking order to George Smith. With younger rivals now on the scene, Waugh must have a dominant Super 14 if he stands any chance of adding to his 77 Wallabies caps.
Predicted finish: Semi-finalists
It's been a tumultuous off-season for the Force. First they were rocked by rumours star player Matt Giteau was off to chase Euros, and then the majority of the squad fell out with coach John Mitchell. Hardly the stability required to be a genuine force (pardon the pun) for the title.
It's a shame that the franchise has not been able to sort out the back-room issues as they have a squad capable of being involved at the pointy end of the competition.
Matt Giteau is undeniably the jewel in the crown and the Force's finals ambitions are closely linked to the country's, if not the world's, best fly-half.
Loose forward Richard Brown wrestled the Wallabies No.8 jersey off regular Wycliff Palu last season and it is no secret that Robbie Deans is a fan of Brown's aggressive streak and mobility, two buzz words of the new Wallabies administration.
Another man on the radar is James O'Connor, who is being groomed as the future Australian fullback. The Wallabies have failed to find a replacement for Chris Latham's reliability and flair and many have pinned their hopes on the young tyro in the West.
The question is how soon can O'Connor live up to his talent? And now that he is a known threat, will he be able to manage the extra on-field attention he will receive this time around?
The other part of this equation is where John Mitchell decides to play O'Connor. The Force see him as a natural partner for Giteau at inside centre, not fullback, which may leave a hole in Deans' Wallabies blueprint.
Predicted finish: 6th
The best piece of poaching for the 2009 season must go to the Brumbies who have prised Wallabies first choice hooker, Stephen Moore, away from the Reds after six years in Queensland.
After a stellar 2008 international season, which saw the 25-year-old play every Test under new coach Robbie Deans, Moore is firmly placed in the top echelon of international rakes. His presence in a pack including captain George Smith, Mark Chisholm and Ben Alexander should trouble most teams, particularly in Canberra.
It will be a career-defining tournament for lock Chisholm, who found himself frozen out of Deans' plans early in the 2008 season, only to be recalled for the spring tour due to injury and absence of regulars James Horwill, Rocky Elsom and Dan Vickerman.
The same can be said for young scrum-half Josh Holmes, who after making a stunning arrival in 2007, failed to live up to the talent with the Brumbies last term.
This year's tournament also sees the return of winger Clyde Rathbone, but whether he is able to recapture his rampaging form after serious injury may be a bridge too far.
Predicted finish: 5th
The semi-finals look a tad optimistic for Phil Mooney's team this season, but with a number of promising youth internationals in their ranks, this year could well be later viewed as a very strategic investment by Queensland Rugby. That is if they are able to keep prying fingers from the south and west at bay.
The loss of Stephen Moore is a massive blow for the Reds, already suffering a dearth of senior players and with regular captain James Horwill unavailable for the early rounds, the Reds may find the going tough.
However, it's not all bad news in the sunny north with Berrick Barnes and Quade Cooper set to form what could be a profitable combination in midfield. The Reds' fortunes this season will rest heavily on the, at times, suspect shoulders of Barnes. The more games he is at pivot, the more likely the Reds are to be competitive.
The third prong of this attacking trio is scrum-half Ben Lucas. Almost picked from obscurity by then Wallabies coach John Connolly for the 2007 World Cup, Lucas became a regular for the Reds in their rollercoaster 2008 season.
With current Wallabies incumbent Luke Burgess yet to cement his place as the successor to George Gregan, and Sam Cordingley now departed, the attacking-minded Lucas has the perfect opportunity to surpass his Waratahs colleague in the scrumhalf race.
Predicted finish: 11th