With the Wallabies undergoing a renaissance under Robbie Deans in 2008, expect the Australian franchises to be revitalised entering the 2009 championship.
While Deans himself has stressed that he wishes for the teams to operate independently and with their own styles, one can surmise that, with imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, we will see shades of Deans Canterbury style in the Australian teams this year.
Unlike SANZAR national coaches in the past, Deans is unlikely to make specific requests of the Super 14 coaches in Australia, but the Wallabies will no doubt be a stronger force in 2009 for the benefit of “Dingo” watching his cadre of players without the concerns of his own Crusader team.
No doubt, as Deans appreciates, the Wallabies will re-enter their Super 14 teams with ideas and innovations learnt from the national setup. But Deans has made it clear that the more diverse the styles of the Australian teams, the better it will be for both the players and eventually the Wallabies.
Last season’s finalists the NSW Waratahs will begin the season under new coach Chris Hickey. He was appointed amidst mixed opinions, having only a brief stint at professional level, serving as Assistant to Rod McQueen at the Brumbies in 1997.
Hickey has the outstanding record of having 16 straight years of involvement in Grand Finals, dating back to 1990 with Ballina (NSW north coast) in four straight finals, followed by seven consecutive finals with Tuggeranong (Canberra) and then taking Eastwood to five Grand Finals, winning back to back titles in 2002/2003.
Despite the losses of forwards Dan Vickerman, David Lyons, and Rocky Elsom—and the late season injuries to props Matt Dunning and Sekope Kepu, much will be expected from the Sydney faithful.
The pivot position will be fought between the brilliant young talents of Kurtley Beale and Daniel Halangahu, which will suit the promised new expansive approach of the Waratahs.
Hickey uses the term positive risk—a step away from the forward-orientated approach of former coach Ewen McKenzie, which took NSW to two finals in four years.
It will either do wonders or great harm to Australian rugby’s traditional powerhouse, as history has shown teams can stutter when their game plan and style shift. I expect them to challenge, but narrowly miss out on a top four position with three matches in SA to finish the season.
The Western Force enter their fourth year of competition—after coach John Mitchell initially stated it would take five years for the team to reach their full potential. Despite finishing eighth last year, they were a contender, taking the scalps of the Brumbies, Chiefs, Bulls, Highlanders, Blues, Lions, and Cheetahs.
They will not begin the season with optimal preparation after controversies with both Mitchell and star player Matt Giteau. Mitchell has reportedly been placed on “restricted duties” after alienating players with his straight talking approach and despite apparent board support has had an inquiry launched against him.
Giteau’s position was under scrutiny after his lucrative third-party deal with sponser Firepower fell through—but he will remain with the team for the season.
There is depth to challenge for the title, with Ryan Cross and Drew Mitchell combining with the reliability of Cameron Shephard and Scott Staniforth. Some questions marks still exist over their tight five, but not over their back row, with both David Pocock and Richard Brown capped for the Wallabies in 2008.
They have the ability to finish in the top half of the table, but controversy off the field may cost them their first ever top four position.
The Queensland Reds could be a dark horse for the season, with the backline fielding four Wallabies in Berrick Barnes, Peter Hynes, Quade Cooper, and Digby Ioane. Certainly Phil Mooney will not be lacking for creativity and with old head Morgan Turinui in the fold—it will certainly be one of the more threatening Reds teams in recent memory.
In the pack, glamour signing Daniel Braid, New Zealand rugby’s 2007 player of the year, will combine with first choice Wallaby lock James Horwill, who again will captain the team.
They will be aiming high—being absent from the semifinals since 2001. Key will be the beginning and end of the season when they embark on a two match road trip to South Africa to kick of 2008, and then finish the season playing two Kiwi powerhouses Canterbury (away) and the Hurricanes (at home).
The Brumbies will be consistent, as to be expected with a team fielding both the Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock and Australia’s premier forward George Smith. Former Harlequins coach Andy Friend begins his first season bringing much experience to the capitals franchise.
Clyde Rathbone will return after a long injury layoff as will Gene Fairbanks, both vital players to the setup. Joining the team this year are four new faces, including former Australian Sevens captain Shawn Mackay.
However, with Alistair Campell’s departure to Montpellier, a lack of depth in the tight five will see the Brumbies struggle and will finish in the bottom half of the table.
Last year: Second
This year prediction: Sixth
HOME: Chiefs, Highlanders, Reds, Crusaders, Stormers, Bulls, Force
AWAY: Hurricanes, Brumbies, Blues, Cheetahs, Sharks, Lions
This year prediction:Fourth
HOME: Cheetahs, Sharks, Chiefs, Lions, Brumbies, Hurricanes
AWAY: Bulls, Stormers, Waratahs, Force, Highlanders, Blues, Crusaders
Last year: Eighth
This year prediction: Seventh
HOME: Blues, Cheetahs, Sharks, Reds, Hurricanes, Lions, Highlanders
AWAY: Brumbies, Chiefs, Crusaders, Waratahs, Bulls, Stormers
Last year: Ninth
This year prediction: 11th
HOME: Crusaders, Force, Waratahs, Stormers, Bulls, Blues
AWAY: Highlanders, Lions, Sharks, Cheetahs, Hurricanes, Reds, Chiefs