Only points difference kept the Rebels from making their maiden finals appearance last season and under the guidance of Dave Wessels, it would be a brave person who discounts them from breaking the duck this year. From No.1 to No.15 they have the best line-up in the country and, finally, a quality five-eighth in Quade Cooper. Wessels and Cooper’s great mate, Wallabies halfback Will Genia, believe he may be the missing piece of the puzzle.
The Reds – with an average squad age of 23 – won six games last year and played patches of football that would have brought grins to the faces of their long-suffering supporters.
Brad Thorn is coaching this team the only way he knows how and, to his credit, the buy-in among his squad is undeniable. They are now rid of the off-field distractions that Cooper, Hunt and James Slipper presented and should be trending towards eight or nine wins if Hamish Stewart can take the leap from good to very good at five-eighth.
Dan McKellar had the Brumbies playing fantastic football by the time they were out of the finals hunt and if they can start this season as well as they finished 2018, anything is possible. David Pocock will be wrapped in cotton wool throughout the year, but the encore to Tom Banks’ breakout season will be worth the price of admission at GIO Stadium.
Wrap all of that into one neat package and, at a glance, there is cause for hope on the Australian Super Rugby scene. Perhaps more so than any year since the Tahs hoisted the silverware in 2014.
But as Morgan Freeman’s wonderfully wise Ellis ‘‘Red’’ Redding so perfectly put it in Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
Many Australian rugby fans would agree.
Major gains: Karmichael Hunt, Adam Ashley-Cooper, John Folau.
Major losses: Taqele Naiyaravoro, Bryce Hegarty, Irae Simone.
The Waratahs’ greatest strength will double as their biggest weakness this season. The sheer star power of Michael Hooper, Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley has been the difference in their Australian conference matches in the past two seasons but this year they will face matches in which they are forced to win without that star core.
The above quartet are on strict match and minutes workloads with all eyes on the World Cup and that means coach Daryl Gibson must rely on depth.
Building on that depth was a significant factor in handing Karmichael Hunt one last lifeline. He will prove an invaluable addition as cover for Beale and Folau.
Gibson also has players capable of filling the holes left by Hooper and Foley. Norths cult hero Will Miller is as tireless as Hooper in his work across the park and Mack Mason deserves a chance to shine at five-eighth.
Australian rugby is frantically searching for its next great No.10 and while Hamish Stewart has taken great strides north of the border, Mason has quietly plied his trade fortwo seasons at Easts. That grounding will finally be put to the test this season.
If he can transfer his Shute Shield and NRC form to Super Rugby — which is far easier said than done — then the Waratahs just might find themselves hosting a semi-final, rather than travelling for one.
The return of Adam Ashley-Cooper will be as intriguing to watch as the trajectory of Mason. At his best, Ashley-Cooper was Mr Reliable, rarely putting a foot wrong in either attack or defence. He was part of the 2014 title-winning team, played an integral role in the Wallabies’ 2015 World Cup run and could prove a bargain buy if age really is just a number.
Major gains: James Slipper, Pete Samu, Irae Simone, Toni Pulu.
Major losses: Isi Naisarani, Kyle Godwin.
If the Brumbies start this season as well as they finished last year, anything is possible.
After a rather patchy first season under new coach Dan McKellar, ACTclicked in the final five games of 2018. They beat the Bulls in Pretoria before reeling off impressive wins against the Sunwolves, Hurricanes and Waratahs. Their only loss in the run home was a 24-19 defeat at the hands of the Chiefs in New Zealand.
McKellar preached patience all season as he implemented a new attacking approach and it eventually paid dividends. The remarkable run of form Tom Banks pieced together didn’t hurt, either.
Where does that leave ACT for thiscampaign? They were relatively quiet on the recruitment front but are confident they have built a squad capable of scaling the standings. Picking up banished Queenslander James Slipper was a smart play with Scott Sio one of several key Wallabies who will be managed throughout the year. McKellar now has the best front row in the country at his disposal and superb depth in the second row.
David Pocock will be placed in cotton wool throughout the year, leaving a heavy workload for new recruit Pete Samu. Boom young gun Rob Valetini must replace the reliable running game of Isi Naisarani, but is more than capable of doing so.
The only thing missing is some X-factor in the backs. Banks has that in spades, but outside of his obvious talent, ACT must find gold in one of Irae Simone, Henry Speight or Toni Pulu. Tevita Kuridrani also has a point to prove at outside-centre.
If McKellar can find one more diamond in the rough this team is well in the finals football mix.
Major gains: Sefa Naivalu, Bryce Hegarty.
Major losses: Karmichael Hunt, James Slipper, Quade Cooper, Izaia Perese, Jono Lance, George Smith, Kane Douglas.
The Reds are the Australian conference’s great unknown.
They won six games last season — their best effort since they last played finals in 2013 — but mixed patches of promises with some abhorrent football at times. Their 63-28 loss to the Sunwolves was a low point, which left many at the club quietly shaking their heads in disbelief.
Many coaches would have panicked, considering the investment made in the team’s young core, but Brad Thorn brushed off the loss and pushed on, shoving all his chips on a group with an average age of 23. It is a decision that will make or break Thorn’s tenure as coach.
As Hunt, Slipper, Cooper, Perese, Lance, Smith and Douglas walked out the door they took more than 550 Super Rugby caps with them. That void has not been filled in the off-season and that leaves the keys to the Queensland kingdom in the hands of a group Thorn led to under-20s and NRC glory.
The good news on that front is in Taniela Tupou, Samu Kerevi, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Jordan Petaia, Thorn has players who have already shown the ability required to star on a weekly basis.
Where there is trepidation, however, is in the critical spine positions. Hamish Stewart has been earmarked as a future Wallabies No.10 and must take a big step forward if the Reds are to be competitive.
Liam Wright shone in Friday’s trial loss to the Chiefs and has the pilfering power of former favourite son Liam Gill.
At halfback, Tate McDermott must make the position his own.
If they can deliver, Thorn’s all-in gamble may just come up trumps.
Major gains: Quade Cooper, Luke Jones, Isi Naisarani, Matt Toomua, Campbell Magnay.
Major losses: Amanaki Mafi, Lopeti Timani, Sefa Naivalu.
On paper, one could argue the Rebels had the best line-up in the country last year.
There is no argument this season.
Coach Dave Wessels has the best starting XV in Australia and is talking titles in pre-season chatter.
His confidence is justified.
Only points difference kept Melbourne from a maiden finals berth in a season that essentially merged the core from Wessels’ Force with the Rebels. They also made their run without any continuity in the halves.
In signing Cooper, Wessels believes he has solved that problem. While Cooper is highly unlikely to ever reach the heights that made him the face of the game during Queensland’s 2011 title run, he still has plenty to offer. His combination with Wallabies halfback Will Genia will make or break Melbourne’s season.
Cooper, like many playmakers, relies on front-foot ball. The Rebels pack — led by big ball-carriers Jordan Uelese, Adam Coleman, Angus Cottrell and Isi Naisarani — will provide the mercurial five-eighth with all the front-foot ball he needs.
Genia, Cooper and Matt Toomua will, from there, unleash Marika Koroibete, Jack Maddocks, Reece Hodge, Magnay and new skipper Dane Haylett-Petty into space.
It seems simple on paper, but if and when Melbourne click, they will be mighty tough to stop this season.
Charging from ninth to first would be some achievement, but in a World Cup year with rosters constantly fluctuating due to imposed rests, the Rebels have the depth to prosper.
A maiden finals appearance is now an expectation for the club. Anything less will be marked as a failure.
Sam is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.