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Preview: Aus Conference

Fri, 15 Feb 2013 15:17
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Brumbies or Reds?
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The Melbourne Rebels drew first blood in the Australian Conference with victory over the Western Force in the Super Rugby season opener at AAMI Park on Friday.

Saturday sees the favourites for the Australian Conference title the Brumbies and the Reds square off at Canberra Stadium.

The Waratahs are the dark-horses of the Conference.

Brumbies:

Coach: Jake White
Captain: Ben Mowen
Stadium: Canberra Stadium
Best finish: Champions (2001, 2004)

Under former World Cup-winning Springbok coach Jake White, the Brumbies narrowly failed to win last season's Australian conference and a place in the play-offs with a final-round loss to the Blues.

The Brumbies have bolstered their squad with the addition of Wallabies' star flank David Pocock from the Western Force and South African lock Etienne Oosthuizen, while former Wallaby back Clyde Rathbone has come out of a three-year retirement.

White has also recruited former National Rugby League coach Brian Smith as the team's defence coach. The Brumbies have a core of experience with Wallabies Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander and Pat McCabe and some exciting young talent in Matt Toomua, Joseph Tomane, Henry Speight and Christian Lealiifano.

The White influence should have the Brumbies among Australia's leading challengers for the Super Rugby title.

Melbourne Rebels:

Coach: Damien Hill
Captain: Gareth Delve
Stadium: AAMI Park
Best finish: 13th (2012)

The Rebels embark on their third Super Rugby season bolstered by hooker Shota Horie, who is in line to become the first Japanese player in the competition's 17-year history, and the arrival of Wallaby back row Scott Higginbotham from the Reds.

Much of the Rebels' hopes hinge on their Wallaby duo Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor, who missed much of last season through injury. Welsh No.8 Gareth Delve will be a driving influence in the forwards.

Damien Hill is into his second term as coach since taking over from coach Rod Macqueen. The Rebels, missing the experience this year of senior backs Mark Gerrard and Stirling Mortlock, face a challenge to test the other strong Australian teams as they continue to lay foundations of rugby in the Australian Football League heartland of Melbourne.

Reds:

Coach: Richard Graham
Captain: James Horwill
Stadium: Suncorp Stadium
Best finish: Champions (2011)

The Reds failed in their bid for back-to-back Super Rugby titles when they went down to the Sharks in the play-offs, after winning six straight matches to get to their home qualifying final as Australian Conference champions.

The 2011 winners have a new head coach in last year's Western Force mentor Richard Graham, with Ewen McKenzie moving above him in a director of coaching role.

Much of the Reds' hopes this season hinge on the creativity of their Wallaby playmakers Quade Cooper and Will Genia behind a strong forward pack, led by skipper James Horwill. A strong all-round squad features Wallaby backs Digby Ioane, Michael Harris and Ben Tapuai.

The Reds are expected to push strongly to finish top of the Australian conference along with their traditional rivals the Brumbies and the Waratahs.

Waratahs:

Coach: Michael Cheika
Captain: Dave Dennis
Stadium: Allianz Stadium
Best finish: Runners-up (2005, 2008)

The Waratahs are Australia's great Super Rugby under-achievers, given the large number of Wallabies in their squad, and Michael Cheika has the task as the incoming head coach from Leinster to realise glory for the Sydney-based team.

The Waratahs have added emerging flank Michael Hooper and former Rugby League international back Israel Folau to their ranks, to be led this season by blindside flank Dave Dennis.

The Waratahs won only four games out of 16 last season, leading to the departure of Michael Foley who is now coach of the Western Force.

If Cheika can turn it around, the 'Tahs have the attacking players in Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Rob Horne, Folau, Drew Mitchell and Lachie Turner to match any backline in Super Rugby. The trick will be to realise it.

Western Force:

Coach: Michael Foley
Captain: Pek Cowan
Stadium: NIB Stadium
Best finish: Seventh (2007)

The Western Force have struggled to make an impact in their seven Super Rugby seasons and have been much changed under new coach Michael Foley in a bid to become competitive.

They have recruited four-time All Black scrumhalf Alby Mathewson and Cheetahs flyhalf Sias Ebersohn to solve their problems, while adding former Wallabies lock Hugh McMeniman and utility back Sam Norton-Knight from Japanese clubs.

But skipper David Pocock's defection to the Brumbies will be a huge loss. The Force will be looking for an improvement in fortunes this season, as they have in other years.

AFP

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