It’s been a long old wait since last October, but at last we get some good southern hemisphere rugby back on the telly. What’s intriguing about this years competition though is trying to pick the key runners and riders, because this year there are a couple of extra factors in play.
To start with, there are plenty of players who have pissed off up here to Europe and are therefore out of the mix;
- From NZ – McAlister, Mauger, Jack, Tuilagi, Hayman, Flutey, Mapasua, Howlett, Gear, Oliver, Kellaher, Tuitopou, Holah
- From SA – Smit, Montgomery, Butch James,
- From Aus – Gregan, Larkham, Whittaker, Hewitt
The above is by no means a comprehensive list, but what it gives you a flavour of is just how much talent has moved up here, especially from NZ. In the long run, this will probably be a great thing for Kiwi rugby (dammit), blooding a whole crop of new talent just in time to mix with the hardened veterans before RWC 2011. But for 2008 you’d have to hope this opens the door for for the rest of us.
The other factor are the Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) that will be given a whirl this year (you can see a list of them here). They’ve been designed to encourage attacking play, simplify the breakdown and keep the ball in play more. Being a cut-down version of what they played in the ARC you’d think that would give the Aussie teams some sort of advantage at least at the beginning of the competition. So it was a little disconcerting to hear the likes of Laurie Fisher say that they’d taken him by surprise in the trial games.
In fact it sounds as though the likes of the Crusaders, now under the undisputed best coach in the world, Aussie Robbie, have taken to them like a duck to water. The offside line at the tackle really advantages those teams that can offload in it, the changes to the quick line-out and abundance of free-kicks also helping those with a counter-attack. I’d also expect the likes of the Blues to cash in on them as well.
With all this in mind who are this years runners and riders and where do the Aussie teams sit?
- Brumbies – the magic from the Nucifora years is just about all gone, the only things keeping them in with a sniff last year – Gregan and Larkham – are now overseas. Also the new laws favour unpredictable attacking over relentless phase play, which seems to have taken crazy ol’ Laurie by surprise. A tough year ahead. Verdict: bottom half of table
- Force – After the worst possible year 1, the improvement last year was pretty impressive. So will the absolute lunacy – financial scandals, quokka fiddling, alcoholism, pub brawls – translate into self-destruction or on-field dynamism? Verdict: Just above mid-table.
- Reds – The goal this year will be to not come last, again. Verdict: Not good
- Waratahs – Shaping up as the favourite among the Aussie teams and having won all their trial games, the Waratahs kick off the ’08 season with momentum. They’ve definitely got a shot this year but there is still some (talented) inexperience in few key roles, especially in the backs. Verdict: Possible semi’s
- Crusaders – They’ve got Aussie Robbie, Carter, McCaw, the ELVs and no bullshit All Black conditioning camp. Verdict: In the final. Bet the farm here if you have to.
- Bulls – Still got the forwards juggernaut that won the comp last year with Habana out wide, but with completely new coaching staff and the ELVs could have a bumpier year. Verdict: Probable semi’s
- Blues – Showed flashes of brilliance last year to come 4th, but have lost quite a few star players including Doug Howlett, Luke McAlister, Sam Tuitupou and Ali Williams. However, Nucifora must be pissed at having been treated like a bitch by the ARU over the Wallabies job. Verdict: Semi’s again
- Sharks – Have lost too many stars to harder currencies. Verdict: Above mid-table
So there you have it, the predictions are a bit fuzzy with all the changes this year, and I hope the Aussie teams all prove me wrong and we get all four semi spots (dream on), but it’s going to be an interesting few months ahead.
A few links that might be useful as well:
- An ical subscription to all Aussie games in 2008 (might work in outlook?) http://ical.mac.com/gjmarshall/Australian%20Rugby%202008.ics
- The skysports page where you can see which S14 games they’ll be showing up here in pommyland