Updated: Jul 5, 2020
It's back! The game they play in heaven returns on Friday night, the Reds do battle with the Waratahs at Suncorp Stadium. It's been a long wait, the soap opera that is Australian Rugby has somewhat kept us entertained during the COVID period, now it's just good to see rugby back on the field in this revised domestic Super Rugby competition that we find ourselves in.
Each day this week, we're going to have a look each of the 5 local teams and how they shape up in the post-COVID world. Today, it's the ACT Brumbies.
Stability! That's the word you'd associate with the Brumbies throughout this COVID break. They've not changed anything in the way of their coaching staff and there's only been a couple of changes to the playing roster. Towering lock, Blake Enever has been released early to head overseas whilst an injury to Cadeyrn Neville has freed a spot up on the Brumbies roster for Ben Hyne, a man who has had his fair share of injuries but is given another opportunity to return to Canberra.
Before the shutdown, the Brumbies were rolling hot. 5 wins from 6 outings and a stranglehold on the Australian conference. The Brumbies boast a terrifically balanced roster, with experienced old heads, mixed in with some up and coming stars of the sport. A front row with names such as Slipper, Scott Sio, Fainga'a and skipper Allan Alaalatoa, the engine room for the Brumbies is formidable and they will continue to dominate set piece. Tom Banks, who will miss their Round 1 clash with the Rebels, is also someone I expect to be cementing his name as the best fullback in the country, a Wallaby jersey surely awaits him.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Noah Lolesio
Another one firmly on the Wallaby radar, he has slotted into Super Rugby with consummate ease. Lolesio is the one responsible for linking the dominant Brumbies forward pack with their talented outside backs in Kuridrani, Banks & co. This guy is a star and on his form prior to the break, should be given first crack at the Wallabies 10 spot when the time comes.
The Brumbies, likely dominant in this domestic comp, I think they'll play a final against the Reds. It's great to have rugby back!
They're back! Twiggy's boys in blue and yellow are back in Super Rugby, albeit a revised format. It's been 3 years since they last contested a Super Rugby match, biding their time in Global Rapid Rugby, NRC and anything else they could get their hands on to be truthful. A reasonably inexperienced squad, but in recent weeks have added a stack of experience to their roster with names like Jono Lance and Greg Holmes coming in, and then just today, former Wallaby scrum-half Nick Frisby and Pek Cowan heading west as well. The Force have made it clear they not there to make the numbers, they want more than that. They get the Bye in Round 1, before heading to Sydney next week to take on the Tahs.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Byron Ralston
Just 20 years of age and plenty of upside to this former QLD'er. His opportunity for representative honours with Australia's Under 20's has been wiped out by COVID-19, Ralston was the leading try scorer in QLD Premier Rugby in 2019 prior to joining the Force. One of the brightest young stars in NRC last year, Ralston is one to watch out for this year on the end of the Force backline.
Are the Force contenders? Not sure. They've been the least effected by the COVID pandemic, with Twiggy continuing to pay his 'staff'. They probably lack some of the star power of other clubs, but maybe time together and limited disruption will mean they can be competitive. The media will say that a lot of their roster are offcuts or perhaps some that might have past their best, some of that criticism may be fair. Time will tell, I think they will find it tough but it's great to have them back in the competition!
If the Rebels squad aren’t all COVID infected, they’ll take on the Brumbies this Saturday Night in Canberra. What a nightmare that’s turning out to be, with the Rebels needing to relocate their home base for the foreseeable future as the second wave of Coronavirus runs rampant across Victoria.
At least they're in good spirits!
After a bad start in 2020, the Rebels turned it around with back-to-back wins against the Waratahs and Lions. Then in Round 5, they travelled across the ditch and beat the Highlanders, what a win that was. I can’t see the revised format being kind to the Rebels, plenty of uncertainty with the schedule, away from home and their families, no home ground to rely on, it’s going to take a mammoth effort for them to be featuring at the business end of the season.
The Rebels too have had some changes to their roster, with Luke Jones released early to join the Top 14. Harry Potter, the wizard, has signed with English club Leicester, whilst Prop Fereti Sa’aga has announced his retirement. With the World 7’s Series paused indefinitely, the Rebels pounced, securing the services of Lewis Holland and Lachie Anderson, who will join former 7’s teammate Jeral Skelton in Melbourne, well, Canberra at least.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Billy Meakes
As tough as he is skilful, Meakes is a crucial piece of the Rebels puzzle at Inside Centre. Social media tells us he’s been working hard during the COVID shutdown and a good domestic campaign could put Meakes’ name firmly in the mind of Wallabies coach, Dave Rennie. It would be wonderful to see the Fijian flyer, Marika Koroibete get plenty of ball, perhaps a lot relies on Meakes and flyhallf Matt Toomua to ensure that happens. The Rebels have all the pieces for the Super Rugby puzzle, but the cards are heavily stacked against them.
It was less than encouraging start to the year for the Waratahs, struggling their way through the early part of the Super Rugby season, registering just the one win. Coach Rob Penney has taken a leaf out of the Brad Thorn playbook, throwing his support behind a very young roster. The Tahs look far from anything the side that dominated the Austrailan conference just a few years ago.
I wouldn't say the Waratahs were big winners of the COVID shutdown. They've lost a lot of experience. Damien Fitzpatrick has retired and the most capped Waratah of all-time, Kurtley Beale has been released immediately from his contract and is off to France. That's a lot of experience out the door, with Mack Mason, a victim of limited playing opportunities at his time in NSW, also not re-joining the squad. The one notable staffing change for the Tahs is the addition of Jason Gilmore, the Australian Under 20's Coach is back in Super Rugby, taking on the defense role.
PLAYERS TO WATCH - Angus Bell & Mark Nawaqanitawase
The Waratahs aren't short of exciting young talent and there's a couple to keep an eye on throughout this domestic Super Rugby competition. Bell, a 120kg powerhouse and Australian U20's representative, he was arguably the best for the Waratahs prior to lockdown.
Then there's the flying Mark Nawaqanitawase, another member of the 2019 Under 20's side that finished second at the junior World Cup, Nawaqanitawase combines electric feet with silky smooth skill. The comparisons are already in place with Israel Folau.
The Waratahs kick off their revised 2020 campaign with a trip to Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane for a showdown with the Queensland Reds. Despite a somewhat exciting roster, they'll be relying on the experienced old heads in Hooper and Simmons, whilst Jack Maddocks will likely fill the spot left by Beale at fullback, with much of the Waratahs backline hopes depending on him. I think they'll struggle this year, and that will start this Friday against the Reds, guessing the Waratahs starting VX is a bit of a lottery, so I'll leave that to people smarter than me.
When the season shut down amid COVID-19, the QLD Reds had had weeks of mixed performances. Recording just two wins from seven, the Reds sat at the latter end of the Super Rugby table. The youngest team in the competition, with an average age of just 21, they'd shown glimpses of a really impressive side. They went down to the wire with the superstar Crusaders in Christchurch, and amassed a whopping 64 points against the Sunwolves. The Reds can play.
What happened during COVID at Ballymore? A bit of controversy you could say. Izack Rodda, Isaac Lucas and Harry Hockings did not agree to Rugby Australia's salary reduction resulting in their contracts being terminated by both the RA and the QLD Reds. Rodda has since signed with French club Lyon with the futures of Lucas and Hockings still seemingly undecided.
"It's not as though you hate them, they made their decisions, I don't agree with those decisions, they'll do what they're doing there and in the meantime we've just got to get on with what we're doing”, said coach Brad Thorn.
The loss of 21-Test 'veteran' Rodda and rising star Harry Hockings is a massive blow for the young forward pack, in particular the depth in the second row.
As a result, coach Brad Thorn looked locally to bring in some fire power. Brothers second rower, Ryan Smith is on the verge of a Super Rugby start after a huge year of NRC in 2019 and pre-season with the Brumbies. With the two regular starting second rowers missing he could play an important role in Super Rugby AU for the Reds.
So, Rodda, Lucas and Hockings gone, then the Reds said goodbye to Henry Speight, releasing him early from his contract to pursue a deal in French Rugby. Changes to their coaching staff as well, with Peter Ryan shifting from Ballymore to Red Hill to join the Broncos.
With positions opening up in their roster, the Reds were able to look to the future and sign some local schoolboy talent that have been cutting their teeth through the Reds Academy program and club rugby. There's some talent in there, none more so than Josh Flook – the 2019 Australian Schools captain was unlucky to miss out on the squad at the start of the year. The hard hitting outside centre was named QLD U19s player of the year after an impressive year at Brothers. Flook has baulked up and a debut this year is not beyond him. The Reds also bought in Downlands flyer Mac Grealy and Ipswich Grammar School product, Kalani Thomas who in his 8-game GPS season amassed 7 tries, 12 line breaks and 13 try assists.
The COVID enforced break has been a blessing for two stars, Harry Wilson and Hunter Paisami, who have since returned from injury. Both Wilson and Paisami will be looking to continue their great form which saw their names be talked about in Rennie’s end of year squad. Jordan Petaia, however, still remains on the sidelines as he battles his way back from injury.
If the Reds can play at their best, more often, they will be a hard team to beat.
PLAYER TO WATCH - Harry Wilson
In his rookie season, the boy from Gunnedah, Harry Wilson has the been one of the form players in Australia.
Wilson led the competition for carries, and topped the stats for the Reds for both runs (88) and run metres (486) in 2020. Prior to its suspension, Wilson was also voted by the rugby public as the Australian Super Rugby Player of the 2020 season.
"I've officially fallen for, have I mentioned, Harry Wilson", Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said to Fox Sports commentator Greg Martin. Expect Wilson to be at his dynamic and powerful self when the Reds and Waratahs open the season at Suncorp Stadium this Friday night.
Expected Starting XV
1. JP Smith 2. Alex Mafi 3. Taniela Tupou 4. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto 5. Angus Blyth 6. Fraser McReight 7. Liam Wright (c) 8. Harry Wilson 9. Tate McDermott 10. James O’Connor 11. Jock Campbell 12. Hamish Stewart 13. Hunter Paisami 14.Chris Feauai-Sautia 15. Bryce Hegarty