Stage is set for return of Super men
Top of the crop ... James O'Connor Photo: Getty Images
There is so much anticipation about this season after a year of disappointment. How can it be that the perception and the players' demeanour can change in such a short period? The players have already spoken about the changes. The introduction of a coach who is instilling an old-fashioned work ethic has something to do with it. As have the recruits and the push for players to take ''ownership'' of their own performance. This has reinvigorated the squad. Season 2013 is all about starting afresh with everything going back into the melting pot. Coach Michael Cheika seems to have a way with the players that keeps them on their toes. A point in case with the announcement of the Tahs captain.
The recipient, Dave Dennis, learnt he was the new skipper 30 minutes before it was made public.
Punching above his weight ... Quade Cooper. Photo: AFP
Cheika will be supported by Alan Gaffney and Daryl Gibson, assistants who know what it takes to win. They would be asking for improvements at training each day. They will be specific in what they want to achieve, and stress that players cannot achieve success without putting in the hard work.
There is competition for positions, as was seen in the first trial. Younger squad members and new recruits are taking opportunities but perhaps the biggest expectation is how the senior players will adapt to the new regime.
My theory is they will thrive on the new direction. The introduction of some key recruits will plug some holes left by outgoing players and also add to the depth of the squad.
Michael Hooper had an outstanding season last year and was lauded with his style of play. New captain Dennis won his first cap last year after claiming the players' player award. Drew Mitchell is back and looks to have shelved a frustrating 18 months. Lachie Turner gets a full pre-season under his belt while seasoned Wallabies Adam Ashley-Cooper, Benn Robinson, Sekope Kepu and Tatafu Polota-Nau look refreshed and ready to play.
Oh, yeah, some bloke called Izzy has generated some interest, too. It seems so far that nothing is a given, but like always, Waratahs fans are expecting big things.
As a group the Rebels have agreed they can no longer use the excuse of, "We are a new team just finding our feet." To me that says they are serious about making headway. Having recruited former Reds No.8 Scott Higginbotham, the Rebels have tried to strengthen the forward pack to complement the likes of Gareth Delve, Nic Henderson, Hugh Pyle and Laurie Weeks.
It is important they find a suitable replacement for the retired Michael Lipman at openside breakaway to be competitive at the breakdown.
Damien Hill has the reins with former Wallabies Nathan Grey and Matt Cockbain by his side. Having played with these two blokes, I know they have a commitment and work ethic that will rub off on the players.
The Rebels can just about fill a Wallabies nine, 10 and 12 combination in Nick Phipps, Kurtley Beale and the fit-again James O'Connor. They have recruited Jason Woodward, a highly talented Kiwi. Mitch Inman, a Wallabies tourist, should make an impression at centre. Perhaps the only question mark is the forwards and whether they will have the firepower to match it with some of the more fancied packs. Last season however, they proved they can mix it with the best. The Rebels had a classic win over the Crusaders and dominated up front. They have the ability to use the width of the field as well as allowing for good ball movement.
Ten, dieci, dix, diez, no matter what language you say it in, this is the key number for the Force to have some kind of success this season. South African Sias Ebersohn has played South Africa under-20s and will handle the pace of the game and has a prodigious left boot to match. His job is simple. Control the game off the boot, put the team in the right spots around the field and to convert opportunities by means of penalty goals and conversions. No doubt he will partner Brett Sheehan after he recovers from an ankle injury and should form quite the formidable combination. They also picked up former Blues halfback Alby Mathewson. Nick Cummins's return to state level after excelling on the spring tour last year with the Wallabies should be exciting. Exposure like that, and succeeding will put more emphasis on him to take that leadership role in the back line. The Force retain the services of a very good back-row combination in captain Matt Hodgson, Ben McCalman and Richard Brown all of whom have tasted Wallabies success. Even with this experience there is a huge void in the leadership ranks with the retirement of Nathan Sharpe and defection of David Pocock to the Brumbies. They will look to dominate the set piece with new coach Michael Foley an advocate of getting this area right.
Can they continue where they left off last year? Yes, it was disappointing to fall at the last hurdle, but the inroads this team made under the guidance of Jake White were encouraging. Expect the expansive play again with Stephen Larkham pulling strings as the attack coach. The style of play the Brumbies put on the field was refreshing and the results followed. A great sign of the positive play is the faith shown by Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander re-signing. They also get back Christian Lealiifano, a playmaker that was destined to make his Wallabies debut before injury struck. They will miss Pat McCabe getting across the advantage. On the flipside is the welcome return of Clyde Rathbone. No doubt one of the coups of last season was the signing of David Pocock after drawn-out negotiations. It was the Force's loss and a massive gain for the men from the ACT. His influence on the field will only strengthen the side and with the quality squad around him, may even bolster his already complete game.
Just fell short of making it back-to-back titles. Once again they have a squad full of internationals. The competition for spots is a nice headache indeed for Ewen McKenzie.
Early trial form indicates Quade Cooper is in a good space to play rugby. Perhaps the distraction of having to prepare for his fight has reinvigorated his zest for the game. He will be the link for the Reds to play the width and stress teams with the speed of the game. Easy to use the likes of Anthony Faingga, Ben Tapuai, Digby Ioane, Dom Shipperley and Michael Harris to get the point across.
Up front is where the Reds were so dominant in 2011 and that brought about the success. You talk about the platform for the rest of the team to play and it was here that it provided the likes of Will Genia and Cooper to form that bond.
James Horwill returns as captain and will be looking to get off to a good start. The combination with Rob Simmons will again figure in the lineout and provide the clean ball needed. Beau Robinson and Liam Gill could work well together in the back row and who's to say that Radike Samo won't star again. Massive year for the Reds who have gained plenty of supporters with their style of play.