The long wait is over. At last we have some squads to compare and analyze.
So what does the competition look like this year?
I`ll start off with the Australian threat:
Western Force : They now boast the services of one Andre Pretorius. While he is no Matt Giteau he`ll certainly bring some experience to them. Question on everyone`s lips : How long can he last in the toughest rugby competition in the world?
The Force have traditionally been a running team, would Pretorius change their approach?
With the exciting Ryan Cross, Mark Bartholomeusz and James O`Connor outside him it would a complete waste to kick everything away.
O`Connor, Shepherd, Cross, Harris, Bartholomeusz, Pretorius, Sheehan, Brown, Pocock, Sharpe, Stanford, Hodgson, Cowan, Whittaker and Dunning.
They have to face a very talented Brumbies team in the first round, could they bounce back from what could conceivably be a very poor start at home?
Prediction: The talismanic Giteau will be sorely missed and they`ll slump to Eleventh position.
Then we have the new threat that is the Brumbies. In the off season they`ve acquired the services of Rocky Elsom and Matt Giteau. Add these talented players to the likes of Mortlock and George Smith and you have a serious contender again. It seems coach Andy Friend would have his hands full deciding who to leave out of the team, a problem few other coaches have to struggle with.
Their front row might not be the most impressive in the competition but they know every trick in the book. They have an experienced lock combination in Chisholm and Harrison and boast a loose three that includes Elsom plus still one of the best fetchers in the game . . . George Smith.
Would they move Matt Giteau to inside centre and start with Matt Toomua who looked more than competent in the few chances he had with them and Western Province last year?
The Brumbies have to travel away to the Bulls and Waratahs but have the Crusaders at home in the last round robin fixture that could decide their fate in the semi`s.
Possible starting XV :
Ashley-Cooper, Fainifo, Mortlock, Smith, Taumoepeau, Giteau, Valentine, Hoiles, Smith, Chisholm, Harrison, Elsom, Alexander, Moore, Ma`afu.
Prediction : Semi Final
The Waratahs always have all the potential but somehow fall by the wayside a bit as the competition wears on.
Their most important acquisition would be Berrick Barnes who joined them from Queensland.
Their first match against the Reds, in Brisbane should be an interesting affair as it pits Barnes against Quade Cooper.
Traditionally the `Tahs have always had the best scrum of the Aussie competitors and while their lock combination might not be on par with the Brumbies, they certainly won`t shy away at the breakdown point with players like Waugh and Palu at their disposal. Also look out for their new lock signing from the Bulls, Hendrik Roodt.
Their forwards will see them right into the thick of this competition, but would their centre pair be good enough to deliver the knock-out punch when needed? I might be sticking my neck out here but I`m going to predict another mid-table finish.
Mitchell, Anesi, Carter, Halangahu, Turner, Barnes, Burgess, Palu, Waugh, Caldwell, Jowitt, Mumm,Baxter, Polota-Nau, Robinson.
It has been a while since the Reds made any real impact in the competition, 2001 in fact, when they reached a semi-final.
They now have Ewen McKenzie back to guide them through what could potentially be a long super 14 season for them.
They have a dangerous centre combination in Turinui and Digby Ioane with the likes of Peter Hynes on their outside.
Will Genia should be a real threat around the break-down so he`ll have to be watched but the question mark over their forwards would be a worry for coach Ewen. Scott Higginbotham was impressive last year at flank, he seemed to have the knack to keep a lot of opposition team players busy but I fear as a unit they won`t have enough to mount a serious challenge.
Possible XV :
Fetoai, Hynes, Ioane, Turinui, Morahan, Cooper, Genia, Houston, Braid, Horwill, Byrnes, Higginbotham, Holmes, Hardman and Edwards.
Prediction : Thirteenth
To summarize, while the Waratahs could be a difficult hurdle to negotiate, the main threat from Australia should be the Brumbies, but expect the Force and Reds to pull off their customary couple of surprise victories against big contenders.Tweet