We have arrived at the point of the Super Rugby season when the contenders have emerged from the pack and every team will be starting to evaluate their finals chances and looking ahead to next season with their playing roster.
The time to hit the European market is now, before many of the good players are off the shelf.
Looking at the performance of the Australian teams so far, only one team has stood out as being capable of going deep into the finals.
The Brumbies are Australia’s great white hope.
They have the core game and the experience to win finals, their scrum and lineout is solid and Stephen Larkham and the coaching staff have done a great job.
They would have learnt a lot from their loss to the Chiefs a few weeks ago, where they didn’t cope with a team which played off the cuff and travel was likely a factor.
Their back row is one of the best in the competition and one player I want to mention in particular is Scott Fardy.
I couldn’t have been more impressed with Fardy’s performances at the World Cup in England, where he was nearly Australia’s best player.
David Pocock had an outstanding tournament and gets a lot of the praise, but for a player who has come on late and didn’t have any huge raps on him, Fardy has proven he is genuinely world class.
He is a similar type of player to Matt Cockbain, who won a World Cup with the Wallabies in1999, but I think he offers even more than what Matty did as a no.6.
The Brumbies will need to be at full strength to challenge for the title, but they are clearly Australia’s best chance.
Looking at the Waratahs, I feel a bit of sympathy for Daryl Gibson.
It’s never easy taking over from a coach like Michael Cheika who had such a big influence and is a huge personality.
In the past we’ve seen some very good Coaches who don’t have such a big personality come into a team and struggle.
The NSW coaching job comes with huge scrutiny, and in my day, if the team wasn’t successful the coach wouldn’t last five minutes. It’s a little different these days with the media being more understanding.
So the fact that he’s taking over from Cheika might be one issue, but the more obvious problem is that his team isn’t the team which won the competition two years ago.
It’s a new front row and the back row, outside of Michael Hooper, hasn’t been settled.
They are heavily reliant on the likes of Foley, Beale and Folau producing something special.
Hooper is an interesting case. He’s the type of player that everyone wants to play with and he’d be in my team every time.
There have been some question marks on his form but that’s because a lot of people expect him to be a big turnover man and that isn’t really his game.
I think he’s played pretty well, but the Waratahs have some injury disruptions and haven’t played well as a team.
Hooper doesn’t play like a traditional openside flanker and isn’t as strong over the ball as a Pocock or Liam Gill.
He is such a great ball carrier and plays more like a 6 or 8, so it’s a challenge for the coach but I think Michael Cheika got it right having both he and Pocock in the Wallabies side.
The Waratahs might do enough to sneak into the finals if they get on a run but it’s hard to expect them to play at the same level as they have for the past couple of years with the changes in their team.
The Rebels are highly competitive but in my view don’t have the team to make an impact into the finals just yet.
I don’t subscribe to the notion that they are a developing team because they’ve got an experienced side. Any team that comes along with their guard down will struggle against them.
A lot will depend on their halves in Stirzaker, and in particular the long striding five-eighth, Jack Debreczeni.
I wouldn’t have Debreczeni in my top six or seven no.10’s in the competition at this stage, but he is improving. He is the key man for the Rebels and for them to go deep into the finals, he has to really come along.
Up in Queensland, on the surface of it all the pleasing thing is that the players are now playing for each other and their supporters will accept that. Matt O’Connor is a capable Coach and will do a good job once his feet are fully under the table.
Losing Liam Gill is probably the biggest loss they’ve had in the past decade. On the recruitment front they’ve got to reinvent their back row and look at shoring up their halves.
Hopefully young Jake McIntyre continues to develop, but as back up, and they should immediately look to bring back Will Genia.
France may not suit Will and I know he desperately didn’t want to go. When I left the Reds last year I had a long text conversation with him and he thanked me for my support. He would thrive in an environment under Matt O’Connor.
Last year the Reds dragged the chain with their recruitment and by the time they hit the market the only players available were those that no one else wanted. They’ll need to find a big ball carrier and a couple of openside flankers.
On the positive side I’ve been impressed with the progress of Karmichael Hunt and their front row stocks and locks are in good shape.
If they can address the key positions of 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 for next season, I think they can be real contenders. The other lingering question is whether Samu Kerevi is best suited at 12 or 13.
Finally to the Western Force and stating the obvious, they have major challenges with player recruitment due to the tyranny of distance. I really like their South African connection and they’ve been very competitive this year
Some of their players are showing a lot of potential – Adam Coleman, Ben Tapuai is improving, and Dane Haylett-Petty has been very good at the back.
They are a side that will always be a nuisance for opposing teams but it’s probably too much to ask for anything better than a mid-table finish this season.
The challenges for the Force ongoing are obvious and Australian Rugby needs to support them.