Ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the tournament's 15 teams participating. Next up, it's the Brumbies.
Under a new head coach in Dan McKellar and with other rivals having strengthened, the Brumbies surely must post a better return this season or they will miss out on knockout rugby.
Yes, they can once again qualify by being top dog in Australia, but they will not want another year like the last when they were the best of a bad bunch. Without a now Wallaby full-timer Stephen Larkham, that challenge sits at the door of McKellar, who has a job on his hands.
Last year: Six wins and nine defeats proved enough to secure the Brumbies a home quarter-final. Indeed if it was a normal table they would have ended up in ninth spot instead of fourth. Crucially though they finished atop the pile in Australia, ahead of the second-placed Force.
Exactly the same thing happened in 2016 as their poor return did not deny them a Super Rugby Qualifier game. But in both years that was as far as the Brumbies progressed, with the Hurricanes last season brushing them aside in a 35-16 win in Canberra to bring down their season.
First up losses to the Crusaders and Sharks put them on the back foot from the outset, but they recovered with key wins over the Force and Waratahs, which did their Conference hopes the power of good. After a loss to the Highlanders before a bye week, they beat the Reds 43-10.
The Brumbies were subsequently sitting pretty in Australia and could afford losses to teams from abroad due to their countrymen struggling for results. In the end they finished eight points clear of the Force, who in fact won the same amount of games, with the Reds and Waratahs well off the pace while the Rebels won just once all term, against the Brumbies in Round Eight. A strange season due largely to the format.
This year: They have lost some decent talent in Scott Fardy, Chris Alcock and Tomás Cubelli but have done strong business in replacing the back-rows with David Pocock and Isi Naisarani, while Chance Peni, Lachlan McCaffrey and Richie Arnold are also solid acquisitions for 2018.
Their opening six games will also give their fans hope as they open at the Sunwolves, then go to the Reds and Rebels before welcoming the Sharks, Waratahs and Reds to Canberra. A tough trip to the Highlanders is followed by three home matches, against the Jaguares, Crusaders and Rebels, before travelling to the Lions and Bulls. Finally they host the Sunwolves and 'Canes before visiting the Chiefs and Waratahs.
The new fixture list therefore sees them face just four Kiwi sides so an improved return on 2017 has to be the minimum for McKellar's men.
Key players: The return of David Pocock is much needed following the off-season departures of Jarrad Butler and Scott Fardy. The Brumbies will hope he returns from knee surgery fully fit and firing to form a solid back-row combination with Lachlan McCaffrey and Isi Naisarani. A strong year from Pocock is vital to the Brumbies as there are few better breakdown operators than the Wallaby. It is good to see him back.
The same is said for Christian Lealiifano, who returns from Ulster in decent form after his stint in the PRO14 gaining match fitness. His story is one of real character and he'll look to enjoy a full term in Brumbies colours as co-captain. A real inspiration to all in rugby.
Players to watch: If the Brumbies are to push for knockout rugby they need Tevita Kuridrani in top line-busting form. The Wallaby is a big carrier and the likes of Lealiifano and Kyle Godwin will look unleash the number 13 as much as possible. The same can be said of wing Henry Speight with the Brumbies well stocked at wing in 2018, with the ever improving James Dargaville and new arrival of Chance Peni in reserve.
Prospects: They need their senior men to stand up and lead, which we expect them to do, while the likes of Kuridrani has to be consistent in terms of troubling opponents. If Joe Powell and Lealiifano shine at half-back they should make the knockouts again.
Players in: Mees Erasmus (Perth Spirit), Folau Fainga'a (NSW Country Eagles), Richie Arnold (Force), Darcy Swain (Canberra Vikings), Lachlan McCaffrey (Leicester Tigers), David Pocock (return from sabbatical), Isi Naisarani (Force), Matt Lucas (Waratahs), Chance Peni (Force), Mack Hansen (Canberra Vikings), James Verity-Amm (Force)
Players out: Saia Fainga'a (London Irish), Tom Staniforth (Waratahs), Chris Alcock (Kamaishi Seawaves), Scott Fardy (Leinster), Jordan Smiler (Suntory Sungoliath), Jarrad Butler (Connacht), Tomás Cubelli (Argentina Jaguares), De Wet Roos (Southern Districts), Nick Jooste (Perth Spirit), Isaac Thompson (Mazda Blue Zoomers), Anthony Fainga'a (Kintetsu Liners), Nigel Ah Wong (Counties Manukau), Aidan Toua (Reds)
Round One: Bye Saturday, February 24 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium) Friday, March 2 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium) Friday, March 9 v Rebels (AAMI Park) Saturday, March 17 v Sharks (GIO Stadium) Round Six: Bye Saturday, March 31 v Waratahs (GIO Stadium) Saturday, April 7 v Reds (GIO Stadium) Saturday, April 14 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium) Sunday, April 22 v Jaguares (GIO Stadium) Saturday, April 28 v Crusaders (GIO Stadium) Round 12: Bye Saturday, May 12 v Rebels (GIO Stadium) Saturday, May 19 v Lions (Ellis Park) Saturday, May 26 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld) Sunday, June 3 v Sunwolves (GIO Stadium) Saturday, June 30 v Hurricanes (GIO Stadium) Saturday, July 7 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium) Saturday, July 14 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium)
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