Rugby: Australian sides looking to improve

If Quade Cooper fires, the Reds will be a dangerous proposition in this year's Super Rugby competition. Photo Getty
If Quade Cooper fires, the Reds will be a dangerous proposition in this year's Super Rugby competition. Photo Getty
The Australians start the Super 15 this weekend, a week earlier than other sides, due to the Lions tour. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn assesses the chances of the five sides across the Ditch.

The only way is up for the Australians.

Of the five teams from Australia, probably only the Brumbies could look back at last season with any deal of satisfaction.

The Reds failed to back up their title-winning deeds of 2011, the Waratahs won just four games and the Rebels and the Force were both in the bottom three.

The Brumbies played above themselves for most of the season and looked certain to make the playoffs before losing a couple of games in the end and just missing out.

The Reds somehow made it into the playoffs after a season in which they misfired.

The Queenslanders still have plenty of talent throughout their side. They have an ominous-looking backline and if - this is a big if - Quade Cooper fires, the side will be dangerous.

They have lost Scott Higginbotham to the Rebels but skipper James Horwill is back from injury and if he can stay on the field for the majority of the season, the Reds should be in the mix.

They did not quite click in many of their matches but if passes go to hand and Will Genia comes back early enough from a knee injury, they will be dangerous.

Richard Graham takes over as coach from Ewen McKenzie, who moves upstairs to be the director of coaching as the Wallabies job awaits.

The Waratahs had their worst season last year and coach Michael Foley was shown the door.

In comes new coach Michael Cheika, who has an impressive overseas resume. Daryl Gibson has moved across from the Crusaders to be in charge of the backs and he has the talent of Israel Folau to harness. There is plenty of hype about the code-swapper and he is an sensational athlete.

Berrick Barnes will start in the pivot position and needs to get an injury-free run.

The Waratahs lost a few close ones last season and must be more resolved to climb back up this season.

In Canberra, coach Jake White got his Brumbies side performing well straight away last year.

This is the difficult second season for White but he has the advantage of having David Pocock in the side. The Brumbies have plenty of hard workers who play well for each other.

Clyde Rathbone makes a return from injury but at 31, his best may be behind him.

The Force, weakened by the loss of Pocock and retired lock Nathan Sharpe, does not look particularly threatening.

It has picked up former Highlander Jayden Hayward and former All Black halfback Alby Mathewson, as well as axed Waratahs coach Foley.

The Force can be plagued by making basic mistakes and must fix this quickly.

The Rebels have plenty of star power, with the likes of Higginbotham, Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor in the side, but it is defence which let them down last year.

They lacked that killer attitude and leaked tries all year. The Melbourne lot need to fix that and keep their best players on the field.

Motivation for Australian players should not be lacking. The British and Irish Lions are arriving for their first tour in 12 years and every Australian player will want to be involved in that series.


How they look
Reds
Coach:
Richard Graham (first year).
Captain: James Horwill.
Key forward: Lock Horwill.
Key back: First five-eighth Quade Cooper.
Last year: Third.
Prediction: Third.

Waratahs
Coach:
Michael Cheika (replaces Michael Foley).
Captain: Dave Dennis.
Key forward: No 8 Wycliff Palu.
Key back: Inside back Berrick Barnes.
Last year: 11th.
Prediction: 11th.

Brumbies
Coach:
Jake White (second year).
Captain: Ben Mowen.
Key forward: Hooker Stephan Moore.
Key back: Inside back Christian Lealiifano.
Last year: Seventh.
Prediction:
Sixth

Force
Coach:
Michael Foley (replaces Richard Graham).
Captain: Matt Hodgson.
Key forward: Lock Hugh McMeniman.
Key back: Halfback Alby Mathewson.
Last year: 14th.
Prediction:
13th.

Rebels
Coach:
Damien Hill (third year).
Captain: Gareth Delve.
Key forward: Lock Cadeyrn Neville.
Key back: First five Kurtley Beale.
Last year: 13th.
Prediction:
12th.