The new kids on the Super 15 rugby block — the Rod Macqueen-led Melbourne Rebels — have been impressive in the lead-up games to the start of the revamped competition starts.
The first-year Rebels will join the Queensland Reds, New South Wales Waratahs, Western Force and ACT Brumbies in the five-team Australian conference in the expanded competition. Play begins for the Rebels on February 18 when they host the Waratahs.
Melbourne was beaten 19-14 by New Zealand’s Canterbury Crusaders — Super rugby’s most successful team — in its first outing last week, but did enough to give coach Macqueen and their fans — 13 013 who turned out for a warm-up game — plenty of cause for optimism.
“We got a lot out of that game, it gave us a measure of where we are,” Macqueen said. “Certainly pleased with a lot of aspects of it and am not surprised at some of the other ones, we again turned over a lot of ball.”
Macqueen was foundation coach at the ACT Brumbies in what was then an expanded Super 12 competition in 1996, and turned a squad of castoffs from New South Wales and Queensland into a highly competitive outfit. Macqueen then moved into the Australia job and guided the Wallabies to the 1999 World Cup title, so his experience at the highest level and as a club builder will help the Rebels considerably.
Another person already impressed with Macqueen’s early impact at the Rebels was Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder.
“They were a really good side and in the first half they really took the game to us and put us under pressure,” he said. “They’ve got some good strengths there. The Rebels can take a lot of confidence; they’ll be really, really competitive.”
The Rebels cruised through their opening trials against Tonga and Fiji.
Former Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock, who has scored more than 1 000 points in Super rugby for the Brumbies, will lead the Rebels in their first season. Ex-Wallabies Rodney Blake and Mark Gerrard are among the Rebels signings, as are ex-All Blacks prop Greg Somerville and England international Danny Cipriani.
The Waratahs have beefed up this year and will try to get physical with their opponents.
Lock Kane Douglas has added five kilograms to his frame and backrower Ben Mowen has gone from 103kg to 114kg.
Regular Waratahs winger Lachie Turner said he’d like to make a permanent switch to outside centre this season after a strong performance against Fiji in a preseason trial. In the number 13 jersey, Turner scored two tries in the first half.
“At this stage I’m really happy playing 13, it means I’m one step closer and I get a few more touches so I’m really looking forward to hopefully staying there,” he said.
The Waratahs’ traditional rival, the Queensland Reds, had two away wins in the preseason, and coach Ewen McKenzie said he didn’t want to get ahead of himself despite the strong start. The injury-free Reds beat the Brumbies 38-5 following a 42-15 win over the Crusaders.
“We’ve won plenty of trial games before, but what matters are the games that count,” McKenzie told Australian Associated Press.
The match against ACT continued the return to fitness of captain James Horwill, who suffered a serious knee injury last February that ruled him out of the entire season, and Digby Ioane, who had shoulder surgery last July. Both had strong games, with Horwill earning man-of-the-match honors.
For the Perth-based Western Force, New Zealand recruits Willie Ripia and David Smith made positive first impressions, helping their side to a 40-24 trial victory over an Australian Barbarians side in Sydney. The Force scored six tries to four against the collection of fringe Waratahs and Sydney club players.
Winger Smith was among the Force tryscorers and impressed along with another recruited speedster, former Brumbies and Waratahs flyer Alfi Mafi, who also crossed. Centre Mitch Inman and each member of the all-Wallabies backrow of Ben McCalman, Matt Hodgson and Richard Brown also scored Force tries.
Wallabies utility James O’Connor, who started at fullback, kicked four conversions, with Ripia adding another.
O’Connor, though, could start the season at flyhalf for the Force after playing well at number 10 in a 38-22 loss to New South Wales on Thursday in the teams’ final trial match. Test winger Drew Mitchell scored two second-half tries for the Waratahs.
O’Connor spent the majority of the 2010 season at fullback for the Force, but new coach Richard Graham appears intent on bringing him closer to the play with the 20-year-old showing an early willingness to run the ball from deep in his own territory.
Graham refused to confirm O’Connor would wear the number 10 jersey in the season opener against the Reds.
“I don’t think it matters where he plays, he’s going to ask a lot of questions,” Graham said.
Captain and lock Nathan Sharpe is still recovering from hernia surgery going into the Force’s first match against the Reds at Brisbane on Sunday, February 20.
In Australia’s national capital, ACT coach Andy Friend says Wallaby veteran Matt Giteau is a “completely different animal” following his quiet 2010. He’ll get a chance to prove that when the Brumbies open against New Zealand’s Waikato Chiefs in Canberra on February 19.
Giteau’s lackluster 2010 saw him dumped from the Australian starting team for the first time in five years for the Test against Italy on the Wallabies’ European tour.
However, Friend said Giteau is a more settled person following his recent marriage and expects his senior inside back to have a good year.
“He’s got married, he’s come back refreshed and reinvigorated, ready to go for a good year so we are excited about that, Friend said.
In the Brumbies’ final trial, a converted try on fulltime gave the Wellington Hurricances a 21-21 draw. Giteau led the Brumbies for the first time, directing the backline for the 46 minutes he was on the field.
Wallabies skipper and Brumbies flanker Rocky Elsom isn’t expected to return from a hamstring injury until round six. – Sapa-AP