Three weeks on from Super Rugby Aotearoa's kick-off, amid far more general uncertainty, Rugby Australia's Super Rugby AU competition is nearing its launch.
Since Super Rugby was suspended on March 13, and then eventually cancelled, Australian rugby has lost a chief executive and welcomed a new chairman, announced the axing of 47 permanent jobs at head office, negotiated average pay cuts of 60 percent with its professional playing group, seen three members of that playing group break ranks and walk away from their contracts, secure a game-saving $[Aus]14.3 million loan from World Rugby and eventually settle on a broadcast deal for Super Rugby AU.
If anything, things might have just been on the up. But if reports of player strike action over potential pay cuts that will extend through the end of the year, rather than just the end of September, are to believed, it's not yet the time to be feeling all warm and fuzzy about the future of Australian rugby.
But, as it stands, Super Rugby AU will begin in a week's time when the Reds host the Waratahs in Brisbane.
Read on as we look back on the teams' fortunes earlier in the year; review what has changed, what they'll want to improve and what their chances are of winning what could be the only Super Rugby AU title ever to be played. Oh, and welcome back, Western Force!
Seven weeks of ... the Brumbies of old.
Remember when the Brumbies were winning titles in the early 2000s? Those years when it seemed like everyone else was playing for the minors besides the ACT side and the Crusaders? Well, there was more than just a bit of that in the Brumbies earlier this year. Dan McKellar's side had rumbled their way to an impressive 5-1 record, their only slip-up being a heart-breaking loss to the Highlanders in Canberra when game management inside the final minutes had let them down. It's true, the Brumbies had a favourable draw to start the season, but their 25-16 victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton, was as good as any win across the first seven weeks of the tournament. And they signed off with a blistering 47-14 demolition of the Waratahs, having coincidentally thrashed the Sunwolves by the same scoreline the week prior. Young fly-half Noah Lolesio had looked right at home in Super Rugby while, motivated by their World Cup omissions, Tom Banks and Pete Samu were in excellent form. And out of the shadow of Michael Hooper, Will Miller's first six games in the white and navy made it unnecessary to even whisper David Pocock's name. But the Brumbies were getting it done across the board, their game plan in such harmony that they conceded just 54 turnovers in six games - the lowest number in the competition and 10 fewer than the next best team.
The Brumbies have gained one lock but lost another. The franchise's recruitment of Ben Hyne appears to be an even smarter move now after Blake Enever was released on compassionate grounds, only for him to sign with Leicester as of Wednesday this week. The extended break has meanwhile been of benefit for skipper Allan Alaalatoa who had suffered a broken arm against the Waratahs, while Tom Banks should also be fit despite issues with a foot injury. The same goes for hooker Folau Fainga'a who struggled with a toe complaint earlier in the year. There is good news, too, for Brumbies fans, with 1,500 supporters cleared to sit in the stands for their opening match against the Rebels.
Work-ons: It's tough going trying to pick any real holes in the Brumbies' play from earlier this year, though they had been among the more penalised teams in Super Rugby. But even that comes with the caveat that the Brumbies themselves were earning an average of 10.2 penalties per game, which suggests they found themselves in some more heavily refereed contests.
Seven weeks of ... steady improvement.
A visit to Fukuoka to begin their Super Rugby campaign really should have presented the Rebels with an excellent opportunity to make a winning start to 2020, but instead they suffered a shock 36-27 defeat and really only had themselves to blame. They followed that up with a 13-point loss to the Brumbies a week later, meaning they had no competition points after the first two weeks of the competition. But they were able to win three of their next four, including a memorable triumph over the Highlanders in Dunedin, to finish with a 3-3 record and the quiet confidence that something might just be twigging in Melbourne. The halves combination of Ryan Louwrens and Matt To'omua had shown promise and the back three of Marika Koroibete, Andrew Kellaway and Dane Haylett-Petty had contributed a collective 12 tries. Up front, lock Matt Philip had put himself firmly in Wallabies calculations, and his longer-term retention appears even more important at national level now following the departures of Reds duo Izack Rodda and Harry Hockings. Isi Naisarani is another player to kick on from the World Cup, the Wallabies No. 8 rating among Super Rugby's top forwards for average runs, run metres and tackle busts, as an 80-minute player no less.
Given the ongoing uncertainty and the spike in COVID-19 cases in Melbourne, the Rebels will on Friday relocate to Canberra ahead of their Super Rugby AU opener against the Brumbies the following week. It is not a major issue, the only real change is that they will be sleeping in hotel beds for a few more nights than what was originally planned. The Rebels have otherwise picked up some handy recruits from Australia's sevens program in Jeral Skelton, Lewis Hollard and Lachie Anderson. Skelton, in particular, looms as a potentially game-breaking recruit with the 21-year-old adding size and speed to an already strong Rebels back-row; the youngster having previously been in the sights of NRL clubs. The unplanned break will have also given the injury-riddled Jordan Uelese the opportunity to further shore up his body. There is, however, significant uncertainty around the Rebels' playing squad beyond this season, whether that, and the wider unrest in the Australian rugby, derails their season, only the Rebels playing group can control.
Work-ons: Looking across the statistical breakdown from earlier in the year, it's tough to really pick any genuine holes in the Rebels game. They have, however, made a habit of losing games they should have won throughout their nine-year Super Rugby tenure. Victories over the Waratahs and Highlanders showed they have the ability to buck the trend, but they'll need to prove it more consistently in Super Rugby AU.
Seven weeks of ... frustrating near misses
There was a lot to like about the Reds earlier in the year, but they only had two wins to show for it. Certainly the Queenslanders' draw was anything but easy, three straight away games to start the year took them from Canberra to Johannesburg and then Buenos Aires, yet they were each games Brad Thorn's side could have won. Instead, they suffered three-, seven- and 16-point defeats to return to Brisbane with just two points from their first three games. They promptly thrashed the Sunwolves, only to then blow a golden opportunity to upset the Crusaders in Christchurch; a horror night from the kicking tee denying them what would have been a memorable triumph. And that almost metastasized into the Bulls game a week later, but the Reds rallied from an early 17-0 deficit to run out big 41-17 winners. That looked like the moment when this young Reds squad might finally have arrived, yet a few hours later the competition was suspended and they were denied the chance to really prove their worth. Still, in young No. 8 Harry Wilson, fly-half James O'Connor and skipper Liam Wright, the Reds had some of the form players in Super Rugby.
Of all the sports affected by COVID-19 in Australia, most were able to navigate their way through the financial mire by securing pay cuts for those involved in their organisations, players included. And Australian rugby was no different, but for three young Queenslanders. Reds players Izack Rodda, Harry Hockings and Isaac Lucas broke ranks with 189 of their Aussie colleagues in refusing to sign off on pay cuts negotiated by the Rugby Union Players Association, and have since had their contracts terminated by Rugby Australia. The departures were a real blow to the franchise, though for many Reds supporters it was a case of "don't let the door hit you on the way out." Henry Speight may also not be sighted too often given his early release. The break has however been a blessing for Harry Wilson and Hunter Paisami, the latter who had impressed after Jordan Petaia's unlucky run with injury had continued, with the young duo close to overcoming knee injuries.
Work-ons: Let's hope the Reds goal-kickers have used the time off wisely, as their collective 65 percent success rate is not the stuff of championship teams. The Reds' lineout also had its issues, though certainly not at crisis levels. If the Reds play the same brand of rugby they did earlier in the year, then they will be tough to beat.
Seven weeks of ... growing pains.
There was always going to be an adjustment period for this new-look Waratahs squad, but they probably didn't think the Super Rugby education was going to be quite so brutal. NSW coach Rob Penney at least stuck solid with some of the youngsters he introduced, talented fly-half Will Harrison showing he has the game to match what are some reasonable expectations. Three straight losses to start the season saw the Waratahs barely fire a shot however, the defeat by the Blues in a wet Newcastle particularly deflating. They halted the slide at home to the Lions, only to then suffer back-to-back thrashings at the hands of the Chiefs and Brumbies. The Waratahs were trying to play an expansive game, but that is difficult to do from behind the gain line; a lack of big ball-carriers up front the chief problem. That left the Waratahs exposed on the flanks, and open to turnovers by teams who were well organized at the tackle.
Coach Rob Penney has returned from New Zealand, having served his hotel quarantine in Australia to again take charge at Daceyville. But there is no Kurtley Beale, who was released from his contract earlier this week so that he may travel to France later in the year. Beale hadn't exactly been at his best, but with his departure goes another huge chunk of experience; something that is in short supply at NSW this year. Beale's replacement at fullback is likely to be Jack Maddocks, though James Ramm and Mark Nawaqanitawase could also be options. There is a further experience void in the retirement of Damien Fitzpatrick, the hooker deciding to call it quits after originally planning to retire at the end of the year. Jason Gilmore, the coach who took Australia's Under 20s to the final of the Junior World Championship last year, has joined the staff, giving him the chance to work with several of the players who were central to that runners-up finish once more.
Work-ons: It will be interesting to see whether Penney has had a rethink on how the Waratahs might approach Super Rugby AU, or sticks to his guns and persists with a game plan that wasn't working earlier in the year. If it is the latter, then the Waratahs need to find more through the middle of the paddock; shifting side to side on the gainline is only ever going to end in tears. The Waratahs will otherwise want to shore up a defensive line that shipped an average of five tries per game - behind only the Sunwolves - and make better use of their attacking opportunities; NSW were creating plenty, but could boast only an average of 2.5 tries [11th] per game.
Two years of ... Global Rapid Rugby
What a turn of events. After being banished from Super Rugby after the 2017 season, the Force are back in action on the national stage. You could have forgiven the Force if owner Andrew Forrest had told new Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan or interim chief Rob Clarke to "b----r off" when the call came to join Super Rugby AU, but instead the Force have given added credence to what is a national comp. The Force had played one game of Global Rapid Rugby before the competition was cancelled, recording a 51-14 over Malaysia Valke.
The Force have moved to strengthen their squad with the recruitment of a couple of former Wallabies, and two other decent acquisitions. The Wallabies are Greg Holmes and Kyle Godwin, the latter finding his way home to Perth after originally leaving for the Brumbies and then heading offshore. They have also picked up Jono Lance and Oliver Atkins, who have both been in the Premiership in recent years. Lance was due to move to Edinburgh, only for contract issues to arise during the current pandemic. It is unclear at this point whether the Force will get to play any games at home, but they are set for an early run of games on the east coast to begin with.
Work-ons: There is no doubt that this is a step up for the Force, and that significant improvement across the board will be necessary if they are to be competitive week in, week out. But they are also motivated to prove a point to the wider Australian rugby community, demonstrating that rugby has a bright future in Western Australia in the process.