We run through the five Australian franchises competing in this year’s competition
Super Rugby AU Team Guide 2021
The 2021 Super Rugby AU season kicks off this week with a double bill on Friday 19 February – Reds v Waratahs followed by Western Force v Brumbies.
The competition will again be played with law variations and the five teams involved are due to play the New Zealand franchises in a Trans-Tasman competition In May-June, although that is under threat due to new Covid outbreaks in Australasia.
Unfortunately there is still no UK television deal in place for Super Rugby matches – either the AU tournament or NZ’s Aotearoa, which gets underway next week – but here is the lowdown on the five Australian sides competing for the title.
Super Rugby AU Team Guide 2021
Last year Champions
Coach Dan McKellar took over for the 2018 season, moving up from an assistant role to replace Wallabies-bound coach Stephen Larkham.
Squad news The Canberra franchise have retained the bulk of their 2020 title-winning side, but they have lost experienced Wallabies centre Tevita Kuridrani to Western Force and scrum-half Joe Powell to the Rebels.
As well as a handful of promotions from the academy squad, Kiwi lock James Tucker, outside back Reece Tapine and prop Archer Holz have been recruited.
Key player The Brumbies are known for their strength up front – not surprising with international props like Scott Sio, James Slipper and Allan Alaalatoa in their ranks – and they have been famed for the power of their maul. But they have looked to improve their attacking game in recent years and that’s where scrum-half Nic White comes in.
His time with Montpellier and Exeter means he’s adept at playing it tight, but he also knows when to make a sniping break and complements exciting 21-year-old fly-half Noah Lolesio.
Stat attack The Brumbies’ balance of tight drives and wide attacks is perfectly illustrated by the fact hooker Folau Fainga’a and wing Tom Wright were joint top try-scorers (five each) for the team in Super Rugby AU last year.
Last year Third
Coach When Western Force were axed from Super Rugby in 2017, David Wessels made the switch to the Rebels and has been in charge ever since.
Squad news Matt Philip, who established himself as a first-choice lock for the Wallabies last season, is a big loss in the engine room – he has taken up a year’s contract at Pau. Billy Meakes, another experienced head, has also left for the LA Giltinis.
They have brought in Australia No 9 Joe Powell as well as centre Young Tonumaipea, who makes the switch from league and previously spent two years on a Mormon mission in Germany. Hooker James Hanson and Argentinean duo Lucio Sordoni and Ignacio Calas were late additions to the squad in February.
Key player The Rebels, who had to play all their games outside of Melbourne last year due to border restrictions relating to Covid, don’t have a squad packed with big names but they do have some stardust in the back-line with the likes of Marika Koroibete, Matt Toomua and Reece Hodge.
The latter’s versatility is illustrated by the fact he has played every position for the Wallabies bar scrum-half. He’ll have been disappointed to sign off 2020 by missing potential match-winning kicks in three Australia Tests, but the power of his boot will be integral in helping the Rebels get territory as well as points in this campaign.
Stat attack The Rebels had the best lineout in Super Rugby AU 2020, with a 90% success rate. The challenge now is whether they can maintain that sort of figure without Philip.
Last year Runners-up
Coach World Cup-winning All Blacks lock and former rugby league star Brad Thorn was named Reds coach in October 2017 and last year took the side to their first final since 2013.
Squad news There’s a familiar feel to Thorn’s squad, with more than 30 players retained from last season. Aside from academy players moving into the first team, their big signing is Suliasi Vunivalu from league side Melbourne Storm.
The wing/centre is so highly rated he was called into the Wallabies squad two weeks after winning the NRL with Storm and before he’d linked up with the Reds.
However, he will miss the season opener after being charged by police over an incident at a bar in Brisbane. He said: “I’m embarrassed to be in this position and I apologise to the QRU and my team-mates for that.”
Key player Young back-rowers Harry Wilson, Liam Wright and Fraser McReight were among the breakthrough stars of 2020, while James O’Connor, now 30, looked assured at fly-half upon returning to Australia after four years in Europe (he was also the top point-scorer). O’Connor will captain the Reds at the start of the season as Wright is injured.
It’s prop Taniela Tupou we’re going to highlight here, though, as his destructive power, whether at the scrum or in the loose, is crucial to team-mates thriving.
Stat attack Filipo Daugunu dominated the stats charts in 2020, with 771 metres made (more than 150 metres further than any other player), 117 carries, 36 defenders beaten, 13 offloads and six tries. Those figures put him in top spot for all those categories.
Last year Fourth
Coach Former Munster boss Rob Penney signed a three-year deal with the Sydney franchise in late 2019 so this is his second season at the helm.
Squad news The revolving door has been spinning, with the players coming in not matching the quality of those going out. Michael Hooper and Ned Hanigan have taken up contracts in Japan while another Wallaby forward, Rob Simmons, is at London Irish. Kurtley Beale is now at Racing 92 too.
So what of the arrivals? Former league player Izaia Perese bolsters the outside back options while locks Jack Whetton, son of All Black Gary, Sam Wykes and Sam Caird have also come in.
Key player Lachie Swinton had something of a nightmare start to his Test career when he was red-carded, and subsequently banned for four matches, which includes the Super Rugby opener, for a high hit on Sam Whitelock.
He clearly needs to work on lowering his body height when tackling/clearing, but his physicality and abrasiveness at blindside could be just what the Waratahs need going into a campaign where they lack the class across the board most of the other franchises have.
Stat attack The transitional period the Waratahs are in is highlighted by the fact that the number of players in the squad with Test experience has halved in just two years, from 16 in 2019 to eight in 2021. One of them is new skipper Jake Gordon, a scrum-half.
Last year Fifth
Coach Tim Sampson took charge of Western Force in 2018 and extended his contract until 2022 late last year. Former Fiji coach John McKee has also joined the set-up as an assistant.
Squad news Having been axed from Super Rugby in 2017, Force were welcomed back into the fold for the domestic competition last year – and they have bolstered their squad with big names for their second AU campaign.
Former Ireland full-back Rob Kearney has headed Down Under, Wallaby centre Tevita Kuridrani has joined from the Brumbies and several Argentina players have also signed up. Pumas Tomás Cubelli, who previously played in Australia for the Brumbies, Tomás Lezana, Santiago Medrano and Domingo Miotti are all playing for the Perth team in 2021.
Key player Former All Blacks lock Jeremy Thrush, who joined the Force from Gloucester in 2018, is the ideal figurehead for this eclectic squad that features players from seven different countries.
It will be important for the team to bond quickly and the 35-year-old has a wealth of experience in different environments to draw on as well as the determination to see the Force improve on a winless 2020 campaign. He also won more lineouts (39) than any other player last year.
Stat attack The Force scored only 15 tries in last year’s campaign and were bottom of most of the attacking stats by a considerable distance, such as offloads, defenders beaten, carries and clean breaks. They need to improve in those areas if they are to be more competitive in the coming weeks.
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