The Australian Super Rugby conference is, by a long stretch, the easiest of the three. No matter how you spin it, the Rebels and Western Force are soft touches and almost certainly walking bonus points.
There have been a lot of changes in the conference - in fact there are three new coaches, one of them a World Cup winner no less.
The Reds are, without doubt, one of the pre-season favourites and in the Waratahs you have a team that often flatters, only to deceive.
The biggest poser of this conference is the influence of former World Cup-winning Springboks Jake White on the Brumbies, who had their worst season in 2011 ... a 13th-place finish.
The other new coaches who will hope to make an impact are Michael Foley, who replaced Chris Hickey at the Waratahs, and Damien Hill, in place of Rod Macqueen at the Rebels.
No doubt the conference system favours the Australians, as they are big on domestic derbies and the lack of physical intensity from most of their teams the extended season will ensure their squads stay intact so much longer.
Yes, they will be targeted and teams will have a better idea about how to come with their strong-running game. However, With 27 of their championship-winning squad retained for this season, the Reds will fancy their chances of joining the Bulls, Crusaders and Blues in the exclusive club of back-to-back winners. The key for them will be the return of Quade Cooper (from surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament he ruptured at the World Cup). His combination with Will Genia is vital to their cause.
Captain: James Horwill
Coach: Ewen McKenzie
Squad: James Horwill, Quade Cooper, Ben Daley, Rod Davies, Anthony Faingaa, Saia Faingaa, Will Genia, Liam Gill, James Hanson, Michael Harris, Scott Higginbotham, Greg Holmes, Jono Lance, Van Humphries, Peter Hynes, Digby Ioane, Ben Lucas, Luke Morahan, Eddie Quirk, Radike Samo, Jake Schatz, Guy Shepherdson, Dom Shipperley, Rob Simmons, Aidan Toua, Beau Robinson, Chris Feauai-Sautia, James Slipper, Ben Tapuai, David McDuling, Adam Wallace-Harrison.
There are two key acquisitions that have been major talking points. Firstly they named Michael Foley - who moved straight into a coaching role with Bath in England at the conclusion of his playing career - as their head coach and they imported South African scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius. The nippy scrumhalf, who played for the Cheetahs and Griquas for the last few years and was one of the most improved players in 2011, has already made a huge impact in Sydney. Expect big things from the 27-year-old. They may be thin at lock, especially if Dan Vickerman is forced to retire through injury.
Captain: Rocky Elsom
Coach: Michael Foley
Squad: Chris Alcock, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Tom Carter, Dave Dennis, Kane Douglas, Rocky Elsom, Damien Fitzpatrick, Bernard Foley, Daniel Halangahu, Rob Horne, Brackin Karauria-Henry, Sekope Kepu, Tom Kingston, Pat McCutcheon, Brendan McKibbin, Drew Mitchell, Dean Mumm, Atieli Pakalani, Wycliff Palu, Greg Peterson, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Sarel Pretorius, Benn Robinson, Paddy Ryan, Jeremy Tilse, Sitaleki Timani, Lachie Turner, John Ulugia, Dan Vickerman.
No other team boasts as many changes to their roster, with 16 players departing. The clean-out in Canberra started with Jake White replacing Tony Rea - although he himself only took over from Andy Friend, after the latter had his contract terminated on March 1, 2011, in the wake of a loss to the tournament rookies Melbourne Rebels and rumours to player discontent. Players who have departed include Huia Edmonds (to England), Salesi Ma'afu (to Western Force), Mark Chisholm (to Bayonne), Mitchell Chapman (to Japan), Julian Salvi (to Leicester), Rocky Elsom (to Waratahs), Patrick Phibbs (to Saracens), Josh Valentine (released), Matt Giteau (to Toulon), Tyrone Smith (to Japan), Adam Ashley-Cooper (to Waratahs) and Stephen Hoiles (released), The only remaining internationals are Ben Alexander, Peter Kimlin, Stephen Moore and Pat McCabe. But then, White also started with a clean slate as Springbok coach and four years later won the World Cup.
Captain: Ben Mowen
Coach: Jake White
Squad: Fotu Auelua, Ben Alexander, Sam Carter, Tom Cox, Robbie Coleman, Ben Hand, Cam Crawford, Ruaidhri Murphy, Michael Hooper, Peter Kimlin, Christian Lealiifano, Pat McCabe, Stephen Moore, Dan Palmer, Jono Owen, Siliva Siliva, Ben Mowen, Jesse Mogg, Andrew Smith, Henry Speight, Matt Toomua, Ita Vaea, Ian Prior, Joseph Tomane, Kimami Sitauti, Tevita Kuridrani, Anthony Hegarty, Leon Power, Dylan Sigg, Scott Sio, Zack Holmes, Scott Fardy, Colby Faingaa, Nic White, Jerry Yanuyanutawa.
Despite their extraordinary attempts to lure and keep superstars in Perth, the Force remain one of the biggest disappointments of the tournament. In six seasons they have only once featured in the top half of the standings and the past two years they finished 12th and 13th. Perennial player problems - either the alcohol-fuelled fall-outs or more recently stealing from teammates - have contributed to the team's dwindling status as a possible Super power. The most notable departures were James O'Connor (to the Rebels), David Smith (to Toulon) and Willie Ripia (who quit after he was caught stealing from his teammates). They have gained the services of players like Toby Lynn, Salesi Ma'afu, Napolioni Nalaga and Winston Stanley. However, it is difficult to see them emerge from the shadows of the established Australian franchises.
Captain: David Pocock
Coach: Richard Graham
Squad: Phoenix Battye, Richard Brown, Nathan Charles, Angus Cottrell, Pekahou Cowan, Nick Cummins, Patrick Dellit, Gene Fairbanks, Tetera Faulkner, Kyle Godwin, Matt Hodgson, Kieran Longbottom, Toby Lynn, Salesi Ma'afu, Salesi Manu, Alfie Mafi, Lachlan McCaffrey, Ben McCalman, Napolioni Nalaga, David Pocock, Jordan Rapana, Ben Seymour, Nathan Sharpe, Brett Sheehan, Cameron Shepherd, Rory Sidey, Winston Stanley, James Stannard, Elvis Taione, Will Tupou, Justin Turner, Samu Wara, Ben Whittaker, Sam Wykes.
Rod Macqueen was not the saviour many thought he would be and this year Damien Hill is tasked with trying to lift them off the bottom of the table. Victories over the Brumbies, Hurricanes and Force were hailed as 'positive signs' last year, but it was more indicative of the sad states of those franchises than any serious progress made by the Rebels. There has been some serious off-season recruiting - James O'Connor, Mitch Inman (both from the Western Force) and Kurtley Beale from the Waratahs. There were three retirees from the inaugural squad - Kevin O'Neill, Greg Somerville and Sam Cordingley, while Luke Rooney returned to Toulon.
Captain: Stirling Mortlock
Coach: Damien Hill
Squad: Paul Alo-Emile, Kurtley Beale, Rodney Blake, Adam Byrnes, Alister Campbell, Tom Chamberlain, Danny Cipriani, Tim Davidson, Gareth Delve, Adam Freier, Mark Gerrard, Nic Henderson, James Hilgendorf, Julian Huxley, Mitch Inman, Lloyd Johansson, Luke Jones, James King, Richard Kingi, Michael Lipman, Lachlan Mitchell, Stirling Mortlock, James O'Connor, Nick Phipps, Hugh Pyle, Ged Robinson, Jarrod Saffy, Heath Tessmann, Cooper Vuna, Laurie Weeks.
Australian conference prediction: There is little doubt that the Reds are the team to beat and should again top the Aussie conference. However, it is below them that there could be a surprise. The Brumbies are likely to improve out of sight and should finish a close second, followed by the Waratahs - with the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels again propping up the foot of the table.
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