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Confessions of a rugby addict

Greg Truman


Greg Truman

Written on Friday, 24 February 2012 00:00

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(Greg Truman writes more at his own blog, www.gregtruman.com)

I have a problem. I think about rugby way too much, often at inappropriate times.

It can be a welcome distraction if at a dull dinner party or sitting through an interpretative dance performance (an aside: it's come to my attention some lead performers would make excellent loose forwards given their axial movement expertise). However, I do understand it's not completely acceptable, for example, when getting married, during the birth of your first child or while trying to console emotionally distraught friends. Well, some of them.

The glory of the start of the Super Rugby season is you have, in my rugby-centric universe at least, the excuse to muse with less inhibition about all the important things in life:

Will the Reds be able to repeat their 2011 success?

What will Quade Cooper's injury enforced absence mean to them?

Can the Waratahs stop kicking the ball away?

Will Danny Cipriani steal vodka from nightclubs?

Are the star-gutted Brumbies a dead loss or will Jake White and his fresh young things shock?

Will the Western Force score a try this season?

Is there anyone capable of making more than two tackles a game in Melbourne Rebels' backline?

And then, of course, there are the broader questions impacting Australian rugby such as whether a solution will be found to the perennial problems of tight five consistency and lack of penetration around the ruck area which were evident again in last year's World Cup?

To be sure, this season's task for all the Australian teams will be greater than in 2011. Queensland is no longer a surprise packet and the South African and New Zealand sides will be better prepared and arguably more focused in a non-World Cup year.

THE REDS

The defending champions are already winners. With a membership base approaching 30,000 and a commitment to playing rugby that entertains, they have done more for the game in Australia in the last couple of years as they climbed from second last to first, than any team since the Brumbies a decade ago.

You've got to like coach Ewen McKenzie's bold but not brazen invitation for contenders to come and get the Reds. After-all, their triumph last year was anything but a fluke and they have maintained the same key personnel, including Will Genia, Digby Ioane and James Horwill.

With Cooper on the sidelines for the start of the season, it'll be fascinating to watch how the squad adapts. His replacement Mike Harris is a big, talented unit, but Cooper was unquestionably the key to unleashing the Reds' potential last year.

His critics, who justifiably grew louder during the New Zealand-born five eighth's awful World Cup, might belch that Queensland will be a better all-round side without him, but that ignores the fact he's allowed to run the game on a whim with the Reds and was trying, against every instinct, to be a more subdued and wisened link man for the Wallabies under Robbie Deans.

No doubt it'll be a different ball game for the Reds for at least part of this season, but they have also shown an ability to adapt their style of play when required: out-boring the South Africans with tactical kicking and tenacious defence on occasion. A remarkable achievement for a team with an average age around 24.

I'll be intrigued to watch the development of second rower Rob Simmons alongside Horwill. The Reds' tight five -- like the Wallabies' -- went backwards every so often last year, but Simmons, along with prop James Slipper, both who have just past puberty or something could be crucial in rectifying that for state and country.

PROS:

They know how to win. A well coached, tight and committed unit. Genia and Ioane are priceless assets. Great home support.

CONS:

No Cooper. The lack of a world class No. 8 (Jake Schatz, the run-on, is going to be good, but an intimidator at the back their scrum would be a rich addition).

THE WARATAHS

If the Waratahs were an actor, they'd be Nicolas Cage. Great pedigree, talent, an impressive body of work, a decent drawcard, but never really fulfilling potential. Worst of all, like Cage, they tend to have a ‘look' - earnest and wooden -they default to when things aren't going so well.

Michael Foley has taken over as coach this year, so you know they'll boast a beastly and technically astute pack, but the happy clappers in the stands in Sydney want their boys to razzle dazzle.

They have the capacity to do so, despite the loss of flyers Lachlan Turner and Drew Mitchell to injury. Much depends on how playmaker Berrick Barnes decides to lead his team: he's good enough, and his three quarters are flash enough to inject a little bit of unpredictability into the game but Barnes has an a tendency to be a maddening kicker of first resort sometimes.

The fact that the Waratahs were amongst the leading try scorers in the comp last year is testament to their talent but not their approach. They need to be a team that dominates and dictates, not just a mob who are nearly a complete side.

Finding and expressing the x-factor in their game will take them to the next level and make them genuine contenders.

PROS:

Great mobile forwards and potential match winners throughout the squad. Wycliff Palu at the back of the scrum is a wrecking machine (if fit).

CONS:

They come across as scared to take a chance and that makes them vulnerable. They have injury worries and have lost the most potently unpredictable attacking force in the game, Kurtley Beale, to Melbourne.

WESTERN FORCE

Last season, at times, the Force were the gutsiest Australian team in the comp. They have a great backrow, including the world's best flanker David Pocock and the pack's foundation is second row legend Nathan Sharpe, who'll be fronting for his final season.

But, overall, the Perth fellas were off the pace last year and this season have lost their most enterprising player James O'Connor to the Rebels, so, um, yikes.

It's a shame they haven't been able to nail a quality No. 10 in recent years -- Willie Ripia was a questionable acquisition even before they had to let him go preseason after discovering the poor bloke was allegedly flogging his teammates things to fund a gambling problem.

For coach Richard Graham it's going to be about instilling discipline and playing to a tight game plan if the Force are to screw around with the big guys this season, but there's a distinct Kardashian feel about the squad -- no depth, so if they lose a few of their starters, it could get ugly, pretty quickly.

PROS:

David Pocock, David Pocock and David Pocock. Being in Perth in the middle of nowhere.

CONS:

Lack of squad depth and an inability to make use of quality breakdown ball.

THE BRUMBIES

Canberra is currently being reminded about why it has a reputation as a city of backstabbers. The capital's penchant for political posturing hasn't been restricted to the ranks of government with the Brumbies' ‘player power' debacle last year managing to plunge the club into crisis.

Jake White, the World Cup winning South African coach, has stepped into the fray and by both necessity and choice has put a broom through the joint.

He's got a lot of unknowns and a few fringe Super players on call to make up for the bevy of internationals who fled the club like refugees last season. Crucially, he's opted for an outsider, Ben Mowen, to be his captain.

Mowen, is a rare talent, hopefully with little baggage. He'll be playing at the rear of a Brumbies pack that might struggle to hold its own in set pieces, but he'll be helming a new breed who may actually give 100 percent as a team in games.

Pleasingly, the infinitely talented Matt Toomua will get his chance at No. 10 for a Brumbies lineup that will also try to get the most out of yet to be polished gems such as Peter Kimlin.

White's ambitions won't be too grand this season, but he will want to make sure the trip to Canberra for all teams is a testing experience.

PROS:

New blood and a fine coach. World class hooker Stephen Moore is at the bulkhead.

CONS:

It's friggin Canberra. Few big names and short on big game experience.

MELBOURNE REBELS

A confession: I thought Danny Cipriani would rip it up last year. Little did I know he would focus on the nightlife in Melbourne rather than the rugby. I really wanted the Englishman to succeed because he is a southern hemisphere style player who was discarded by the annoying Poms, in part, because of that very trait. But what does he do? He moves to Melbourne and gets so much into the local culture, he's becomes an alleged nightclub whore and tackles like he's playing Australian rules.

He's back again, despite the slip-ups, and this time he has some genuinely terrifyingly good attacking quality outside him in the form of James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale.

If the Rebels had a forward pack with a bit of grit to complement the backline's dancing feet, they would shock a few people this season. However, there is not a lot of evidence that Melbourne's eight will be able to provide their pretty boys with enough pretty ball to make an impression.

An even bigger problem is the team's previously demonstrated inability to tackle. To at least be competitive, Melbourne will have to work to shut down teams far quicker and block the attacking lines around Cipriani's channel.

PROS:

First class attacking players including Cipriani, O'Connor and Beale. Excellent goal kickers (O'Connor and Cipriani).

CONS:

Their defence is awful, in structure and execution. Lack explosive forward power -- likely to play on the backfoot at the breakdown.

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