The Wallabies’ run to last year’s World Cup final helped rejuvenate Australian rugby after some troubled times and the nation’s five Super Rugby teams will be eager to harness the momentum in the newly expanded competition.
Only three have genuine hopes of making the playoffs, however, with the ACT Brumbies and New South Wales Waratahs expected to vie for the conference title.
The much-improved Melbourne Rebels will hope to pinch one of the three wildcard berths into the postseason for the next best-performing Australian and New Zealand sides but another season of toil looms for Western Force and the Queensland Reds.
Like regional heavyweights South Africa and New Zealand, Australia lost a number of seasoned players to European leagues after the World Cup in England.
The Brumbies and Waratahs maintain the lion’s share of remaining internationals and unsurprisingly hold the keys to Australia’s hopes of a third Super Rugby title in six years.
Stephen Larkham’s Brumbies may just have the edge over the Waratahs, who have lost master coach Michael Cheika and are now guided by his former assistant, Daryl Gibson.
The Brumbies made semi-final appearances in the last two seasons after a trip to the 2013 final and 2016 is seen as their last title tilt at another title before waving farewell to a number of veterans.
Boasting the competition’s stingiest defence in 2015, the Brumbies aim to boost their firepower and have brought in lively Argentina scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli as a replacement for Nic White, who has left to play in France.
The Waratahs’ 2014 championship was a ray of light in an otherwise tempestuous year for Australian rugby, when financial problems and off-field scandal rocked the Wallabies’ brand.
But the Sydney team’s title defence never appeared on solid ground despite their run to the semi-finals and they head into 2016 shorn of a raft of quality players including Wallabies utility back Adam Ashley-Cooper and prop Sekope Kepu.
They retain one of the better starting sides in the competition, however, and Gibson, the attack coach under Cheika, has pledged to maintain his predecessor’s enterprising game.
His main concern may be simply to keep his stars on the field as a lack of depth could be exposed by a string of injuries.
The Rebels notched a club record seven wins last season and expect to improve on that mark after retaining the bulk of their squad under third-year coach Tony McGahan and adding some strong recruits.
Western Force will also hope to improve, though they could hardly do worse after their bottom-placed finish last season after just missing out on the playoffs the previous year.
Beset by scoring woes last year, coach Michael Foley has unveiled a more attacking game in the pre-season but the Perth side are expected to struggle to reach mid-table.
The Reds have been in a tail-spin since their 2011 title and pundits wonder how coach Richard Graham managed to keep his job after overseeing only nine wins from the past two seasons.
With attendances plummeting at home games, much of the Reds’ roster has gone the way of the fans, with Wallabies halves Quade Cooper and Will Genia, and former captain James Horwill key among the departed.
Kane Douglas will be a valuable replacement for lock Horwill but many of the Reds’ reinforcements are rookies, pointing to another tough year for the fallen Brisbane team.