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Ready as they’ll ever be

Christy Doran

The trans-Tasman bubble is at long last open and already Australia’s New Zealand counterparts are licking their lips.

Fresh from their 35-29 win over the Blues that kept their Super Rugby Aotearoa finals hopes alive, Highlanders coach Tony Brown – Jamie Joseph’s right-hand man with Japan’s Sunwolves at the 2019 World Cup – was talking bullishly about the upcoming crossover competition.

“We just need our guys really believing they are as good as everyone else in this competition,” Brown said.

“Whatever happens around the playoff, around the Aotearoa comp, will happen, but going forward into the Australian leg, I think we can win all those games. If our guys believe they are good enough to do it, we’ll beat every team in that competition.”

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie had a different take.

Will Jordan
While some may believe that the New Zealand Super Rugby sides are comfortable butting heads every weekend, former Chiefs coach Dave Rennie believes that NZ needs Australia just as much as Australia needs NZ. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Over some fish and chips in Coogee, the former Chiefs coach explained that New Zealand’s sides needed to face Australian opposition just as much as they needed them.

“I reckon a lot of people think we need to play the Kiwis and they don’t need to play us because they can play each other,” Rennie said from the Wallabies’ team base during a quick two-night camp on Sydney’s eastern beaches.

“But the New Zealand sides are very similar. They play a high speed, high skill game, they defend similarly, they attack similarly and I reckon when they played the Argentinians last year, a team that defended totally different, it took them a long time to break them down. They obviously got beaten in the first one and they worked it out in game two, but it was a totally different way of defending; committing no numbers [at the breakdown], two guys to the tackle, slow ball.

“We’ve got teams that play different footy too; the Rebels are a very territory-based side and they’re prepared to kick and kick and apply pressure through that; the Brumbies are very strong at set-piece but they’ve got more of a mix; and the Reds can hurt you from anywhere.

“So it will be good for us but I think it’ll be good for them too.”

Australians have become used to their cousins across the ditch talking tough.

We want two Australian teams in the final. I want to be clear with that. That’s the ambition.

RA Director of Rugby Scott Johnson

It’s not without reason, of course. After all, the Kiwi sides did go through the entire 2017 Super season undefeated against Australian opposition and that run of wins wasn’t broken until well into the 2018 season. Then there’s the shimmering Bledisloe Cup that is all but a distant reminder of all that was good in Australian rugby at the turn of the century.

But if 2020 proved anything, it’s that New Zealand’s Super sides are no unstoppable beast.

The Brumbies managed one win over the ditch – beating Warren Gatland’s Chiefs – as did Dave Wessels’ Rebels, who fought out a victory under the roof against the Highlanders.

The Reds, too, pushed the Crusaders right until the death and scored more tries than the kings of Super Rugby but couldn’t kick a goal to save themselves, before COVID-19 ended the competition.
Twelve months on and there is genuine optimism at least two of Australia’s teams can beat their counterparts – and regularly.

Although the Chiefs were flying high at the time, the Brumbies travelled to Hamilton in 2020 and comfortably accounted for KIwi side. (Photo by Jeremy Ward/Photosport)

“We want to take on the Kiwis. I want one of our teams to win Super Rugby Trans-Tasman,” Rugby Australia Director of Rugby Scott Johnson said, before going a step further.

“We want two Australian teams in the final. I want to be clear with that. That’s the ambition.”

Australian rugby has always been ambitious.

For some, too ambitious.

The well-trotted out line of “we can win the Bledisloe” has become a broken record over the past decade.

But running with Rennie and Johnson’s hopes, how are Australia’s Super Rugby sides placed to compete with New Zealand’s?

Reds

Brad Thorn’s Reds are miles ahead of where they were in 2020.

If the Reds can sort out their defence against the rolling maul – with Taniela Tupou the biggest culprit and a perennial infringer coming in from the side – they can give the crossover tournament a genuine shake.

We know the Reds can score points.

They’ve got a dynamic halfback in Tate McDermott, whose running threat gives him a point of difference in the competition.

His halves partner James O’Connor is going from strength to strength, but it’s the threat of Hunter Paisami in the midfield which allows the Reds to attack in multiple ways. Paisami, cast off by the Rebels because of his apparent lack of size, has a run-pass-kick threat and he’s Australia’s breakthrough star of the past 18 months.

Hunter Paisami was one of the Wallabies’ busiest players in last year’s Tri-Nations competition. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The back row is mobile and talented with Junior Wallabies stars Fraser McReight and Harry Wilson developing into world-class talents.

If there’s a weakness at the Reds, it’s in the tight five.

The lineout has improved and any scrum with Tupou in it is a force to be reckoned with, but they’re still a tad lean in the second row and the throw is a continual work-on.

The Reds’ discipline is the other area which remains a concern.

In last year’s Super Rugby AU final, just like Bledisloe III in Sydney, Filipo Daugunu got in a spot of bother and he and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, who continues to develop, remain hot heads. Along with loosehead prop Feao Fotuaika and Tupou, they’re ticking time bombs who could, as they did against the Brumbies in the big dance, cost the Reds matches.

Brumbies

Ahead of the 2019 World Cup, then England forward coach Steve Borthwick reached out to Dan McKellar to ask him his secrets around the rolling maul.

It was a cunning move by the England lineout guru and something Australian rugby missed a trick on by failing to tap into McKellar’s knowledge.

It’s a moving train that few stop in Australian rugby and their test hooker, Folau Fainga’a, who has been given a kick up the backside by Rennie by missing the recent Wallabies training camp, threatens to become the Brumbies’ greatest try scorer.

The Brumbies’ set-piece prowess means they will always be competitive against New Zealand opposition.

With Allan Alaalatoa, James Slipper and Scott Sio in the front row, the Brumbies have the foundations to match any provincial side in the world.

The back row has taken a hit in recent times with injuries to Jahrome Brown and Pete Samu but with assistant coach Laurie Fisher still at the club, there’s never a shortage of quality of loose forwards.

With Nic White at halfback, they also have a general who marshals his side around with authority.

The likes of Noah Lolesio and Len Ikitau will be names to watch in the years to come.

Lolesio was handed a short-ball by Rennie when he was given a debut in the No 10 jersey in Bledisloe III alongside club teammate Irae Simone, who might have the size of an inside centre but doesn’t possess the necessary skill-set for international rugby. Both had shockers as they turned over possession haplessly.

The back row has taken a hit in recent times with injuries to Jahrome Brown and Pete Samu but with assistant coach Laurie Fisher still at the club, there’s never a shortage of quality of loose forwards.

Where the Brumbies are leaner than usual and can be attacked is in the second row.

Cadeyrn Neville gives the Brumbies some starch, but the Brumbies don’t have the same quality in the second row without world-class lock Rory Arnold in the pack.

The Brumbies will be competitive and after years of being at the top of Australian rugby, need to be pushed against New Zealand opposition.

Western Force

Had the trans-Tasman competition gone ahead last year, the Force would have been the laughing stock of Southern Hemisphere rugby.

But on the back of a strong recruitment drive, they will at least go the 80 minutes.

The additions of Argentinian quartet Tomas Cubelli, loose forward Tomas Lezana, prop Santiago Medrano and playmaker Domingo Miotti have helped the Force immensely.

Wallabies Kyle Godwin, Tevita Kuridrani and Tom Robertson, as well as Irish legend Rob Kearney, have given the Force class and experience across the squad.

Former Ireland international Rob Kearney (left) was a key performer for the Western Force in the formative part of the season and looked at home amongst his new teammates. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

But it’s their latest addition, Wallaby Sitaleki Timani, that has been one of the best signings.

Timani returned home from France in March for family reasons and his presence in the tight five has given the Force some punch, size and set-piece prowess.

The Force’s tight five looked more like a 20-year school reunion than a professional rugby team in 2020, but they’ve now found the right balance of youth and experience.

Consecutive wins late in the AU season could see the Force progress for their maiden finals campaign but even if they don’t qualify, the recent victories will give them some much-needed confidence before the trans-Tasman competition.

Loose forward Tim Anstee – a graduate from the sevens program – and hooker Feleti Kaitu’u are two forwards on the rise.

Rebels

Forget about the drama engulfing the Waratahs, the Rebels have been Australian rugby’s biggest disappointment in 2021.

After winning just two of their opening seven matches, the Rebels must beat the Waratahs in their final match of the regular season and rely on the unbeaten Reds to beat the Force a night earlier to progress through to the playoffs.

If they do scrape through, they have the potential of plucking a win in the first weekend of the playoffs and making it through to the final against the Reds.

But looking at their season to date, they’ve been extremely underwhelming.

Coach Dave Wessels is off-contract at season’s end and the forthcoming trans-Tasman crossover could play a role in whether he remains at the helm of the Rebels.

The Rebels have lost three games by three points or less, two games which were decided on the last kick of the game, and a fourth match by less than a converted try.

Wessels is the master of deflection.

He never gets too high and never gets too low, but he has an excuse for everything.

The Rebels were hit hard by COVID and lost a number of their players overseas because of the timing of the pandemic.

But for years, Wessels has had enough star-power in his squad to be higher on the standings than they are.

The Rebels have lost three games by three points or less, two games which were decided on the last kick of the game, and a fourth match by less than a converted try.

That gives you a reading of where the Rebels are; they’re a competitive and niggly team, but don’t have the game plan or vision to take a game away from someone.

Against New Zealand’s Super sides, the Rebels will have to do more than rely on Matt To’omua’s boot.

Waratahs

Winless from their opening seven matches, the Waratahs could have mathematically made the three-team finals playoffs had they not conceded an 85th minute penalty to the Force in their penultimate match.

But there are signs of progress at the Waratahs.

Without the National Rugby Championship to help the next generation of talent form combinations, the Waratahs were always likely to start the season slowly.

Captain Jake Gordon left the field injured in the Waratahs’ opening match of the Super Rugby AU season but has since returned to the fold in the hopes of helping to stop the rot. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The loss of their halfback and midfield inside the opening hour of their first match of the season put the Waratahs further behind the eight-ball.

Since captain Jake Gordon and outside centre Izaia Perese returned from suspension though, the Waratahs have been much potent in attack.

Where they will struggle against New Zealand opposition is in the tight five.

They have a decent front row, but the depth in the second row and the cavalry off the bench aren’t near the standard they need to be.

Nor are Wallabies Ned Hanigan and Michael Hooper expected to take any part in the Waratahs’ trans-Tasman matches. Back-rower Will Harris remains one to watch, as does Perese in the midfield but it will be a struggle for NSW.

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