Ahead of the Super Rugby season, which starts on Friday, we are making five predictions from each Conference. Next up, it is Australia.
Melbourne Rebels to top Conference for first time: Eight points may have separated them and the Waratahs at the end of the 2018 campaign but Dave Wessels’ men have strengthened over the off-season. Quade Cooper, after being discarded by the Reds, could prove to be an astute signing, while Matt Toomua’s arrival after Leicester Tigers’ season has finished will add quality and composure in the playmaking positions; something they lacked last season. Alongside an improving forward pack and potentially potent back three, with Marika Koroibete, Dane Haylett-Petty and Jack Maddocks all fine players, Wessels’ outfit appear to be the team to beat.
Two sides to make it into the play-offs: Predicting the Rebels to finish at the summit does not mean the end of the Waratahs as a top-eight contender and they should still challenge. Although Taqele Naiyaravoro, who was superb in 2018, has departed, their backline still contains Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley. The pack is also strong and they should have enough to get into the play-offs at the end of the regular season. The Brumbies will also fancy their chances of being up there, particularly if David Pocock manages to stay fit.
Jordan Petaia to come into genuine Wallaby contention: There is no doubt that the Reds player is highly-rated and he got significant Super Rugby experience last season considering his age. This year may therefore be the campaign where he truly breaks through and puts himself in the frame for the World Cup. The 18-year-old would have made his Test debut against Italy had it not been for injury but you would think that the youngster will have to go some to displace the current options. However, should Brad Thorn trust Petaia in the first team then the outside back could be a firm fixture in the national team heading into Japan.
Antipodean influence to have desired effect for Sunwolves but at what cost: They may not be play-off challengers but the Japanese outfit should still be stronger, although it is a shame they have to rely on Sean McMahon, Dan Pryor and Rene Ranger to bolster their ranks. When you add Michael Little, Jason Emery and Semisi Masirewa, there is a very decent team in there. It is debatable as to whether it is aiding the development of Japanese rugby but at least they should have a more competitive outfit to cheer on.
Reds to finish bottom: With the Sunwolves strengthening, that leaves the Reds who look set for another season of struggle. They haven’t finished higher than 13th position in the table since 2013 and, although they have some talented players like Petaia, it is hard to see them finishing above the other Australian teams. Thorn, particularly earlier on in the 2018 season, established a bit of resilience but they failed to build on that and began to concede points with regularity. Although their attack developed slightly and they ended the campaign with successive victories, it is unlikely that they will improve and may well slip behind the Japanese outfit.
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