When you think of rugby in 2017, you picture the typical Aussie fan si ing in a corner, knees held tightly to chest, rocking back and forth mumbling “make it stop, make it stop”.
Yeah, it was a bit like that at times. The axing of the Western Force came at great cost: friendships, faith and trust in the national body. Forgiveness will be hard won.
On the park, Australia’s Super Rugby teams played Kiwi sides 26 times and won exactly ... none. Not once, nada, zilch, zero. So for all sorts of reasons, the new Super Rugby season can’t come quickly enough.
We were promised the axing of a team would make Australia more competitive. On paper there’s a lot to like about the Aussies, and with some early wins against the Kiwis, we might finally close the gap between expectation and reality. Proof will be in the 2018 pudding.
The Rebels are the great beneficiaries of the cull from five to four. They’ll turn out in 2018 with 14 Wallabies, along with England and Lions Test prop Geoff Parling and Japan’sTest no.8 Amanaki Mafi, Australia’s Super Rugby Player of the Year in 2017.
With Will Genia, Adam Coleman, Dane Hayle - Pe y, Marika Koroibete and Sefa Naivalu, the Rebels are genuinely star-studded.
The early spotlight, though, will fall on the coach Dave Wessels. Melbourne was the worst team in Super Rugby last year. Can Wessels, another Force refugee, mould a team of champions into a champion team in his first year?That is one of the biggest questions in Australian rugby in 2018.
While we’re talking coaches, what does Bradley Carnegie Thorn have in store? As a player, lo o was about the only thing he didn’t win. He’s a World Cup champion, Super Rugby champion and Heineken Cup champion. In league, he was an NRL champion, Origin winner and represented the Kangaroos on eight occasions. What BradThorn doesn’t know about winning as a player isn’t worth knowing.
Does that translate to coaching success? We’re about to find out. If his success with Queensland Country in the NRC is any indication, you can expect the Reds to be rocketing up the Super Rugby table.
Already the new coach has had his challenges. He’s cut Quade Cooper loose and the wash-up from Karmichael Hunt’s drugs charges is still unclear, but there’s more than enough exciting young talent – Tui, Rodda andTupou – to ensure the Reds will be big improvers in 2018.
When the Reds and the Waratahs are performing well, Australian rugby is performing well.
It will be a crucial year for the Tahs. Coach Daryl Gibson copped plenty of criticism last season and early success in 2018 will be the only way to keep those same critics at bay. He’s in the last year of his contract so the pressure will mount quickly. They’ve missed the play-offs two years in a row – Gibbo, and the entire organisation, can’t afford to make it a hat-trick.
The backline will show instant improvement with Kurtley Beale back in blue. His return from English rugby into a Wallaby jersey was excellent and the Tahs will need him at his best. The backline didn’t always function so well last year, but KB will make a huge difference to the likes of Bernard Foley and Israel Folau. Throw in winger Curtis Rona, returning to Sydney from the Force, andTahs fans are daring to dream.
The Waratahs need some mongrel and it’ll be intriguing to see who can fill that role of enforcer – think Jacques Potgieter in 2014.
And last, but given the history of Australian Super Rugby, certainly not least – the Brumbies.
“Australia’s most successful Super Rugby team.” You’ll hear Rod Kafer roll that one out most weeks on Fox Sports and while it’s true, the last title in 2004 is a long time ago.
In 2018, Dan McKellar replaces Stephen Larkham as head coach and former Brumbies boss Laurie Fisher is back in the coaching mix.
There’s good news on the park too. Last year’s best rugby story will continue to unfold in 2018 – the return of Christian Lealiifano. A£er the all-clear from his cancer treatment and a cameo for the Brums at the end of 2017, Christian spent our summer in Ireland, where he dominated for Ulster. Don’t underestimate what his return will mean for the Brumbies.
David Pocock’s sabbatical is over but unfortunately the Brumbies will have to wait just a li le longer to see him back in action. Knee surgery has delayed the star flanker's return to the field by a couple of months.