With the Super Rugby AU competition kicking off this weekend, Quintin van Jaarsveld identifies each franchise’s key player.
Brumbies: Noah Lolesio
Australian rugby’s breakout star of 2020, the sky’s the limit for Lolesio. The former schoolboy prodigy showed what a special talent he is as he guided the Brumbies to the inaugural Super Rugby AU title in his rookie season. At 20, he displayed the poise and game-generalship of a seasoned No.10 while exhibiting exciting playmaking prowess, proving he’s as electrifying and mesmerizing in the big leagues as he was as a teen sensation.
His Man of the Match performance in the final against the Reds was the perfect showcase of the Auckland-born ace’s game-breaking flair and vision, his tactical nous, confidence and composure. He set up Andy Muirhead for his try and contributed 13 points with the boot, including a drop goal, to steer his team to a 28-23 triumph. As intelligent a player as he is talented, he’s the future at flyhalf for the Wallabies.
Having capped off his remarkable rookie year with two Test appearances, both against the All Blacks, he has a big 2021 ahead of him, beginning with him being tasked with steering the Brumbies to a second successive title.
Melbourne Rebels: Reece Hodge
Melbourne’s multi-talented titan will have to carry quite the load and use all of his tools if the Rebels are to make a stronger push for the silverware the second time around. The Brumbies and Reds ran roughshod in the maiden campaign, but Dave Wessels’ charges showed promise, finishing third with a record of four wins, three losses and a draw.
A versatile virtuoso, Hodge has played every position in the backline bar scrumhalf. The 26-year-old’s rare natural ability, size (standing 1.91m tall and weighing 94kg), willingness to put the team first, seamless transition from one role to the next and strong work ethic make him any coach’s dream and a franchise player. Plus, he has a siege-gun boot that allows him to punish the opposition from inside his own half.
As a senior and highly-respected member of the Rebels set-up (he’s heading into his seventh season at the franchise), Hodge has to set the standard for his fellow backs to follow in terms of intensity, energy and output. His is a uniquely all-encompassing task, probably more so than ever this season, and if “Mr. Fix It” fires, the Rebels generally shine.
Reds: James O’Connor
O’Connor’s story is one worth celebrating. The youngest-ever Super Rugby debutant at just 17, the then-Western Force prodigy made his Wallabies debut a year later. He’d go on to rack up Test caps and move to Melbourne before the dark side of superstardom took him on a downward spiral. He was ostracized from Australian rugby, battled drug and alcohol issues as well as depression.
Stints at London Irish, Toulon and Sale formed part of the rough road to redemption. Through honest introspection, accountability and good old-fashioned hard work, that yearning redemption came with the Reds and Wallabies in 2019 and was solidified last year. The 30-year-old version of O’Connor is the most complete and consistent yet; he’s matured, as a man and as a player.
THIS O’Connor is the Reds’ commander-in-chief – an assured, polished pivot who pulls the strings with conviction. He offers the Reds direction and confidence, which led them all the way to the final last year. Without him, the Queenslanders seem to question themselves, thus, it’s imperative that O’Connor stays healthy so that he can kick on.
Waratahs: Jake Gordon
How the mighty have fallen. The Waratahs, who are one of the traditional top forces from Down Under and were famously crowned Super Rugby champions in 2014, are a shell of their former selves. They’ve been a non-factor in recent years, so much so that they finished second from bottom in the inaugural Super Rugby AU tournament.
Last year’s struggles were seemingly the last straw, leading to the Sydney side losing their final three top stars – Rob Simmons (London Irish), who’d served as captain, Kurtley Beale (Racing 92) and even the heart and soul of the franchise for close to a decade, Michael Hooper, whose deal with Toyota Verblitz rules him out for the entire 2021 tournament.
Gordon’s the man tasked with picking up the pieces and leading a young team into battle. He’s a “true blue Tah”, having been with the franchise since 2017, and boasts five Wallabies caps, but he’s no Chris Whittaker, who was the club’s first centurion and captained them for three seasons.
Gordon’s only game as captain was at second-tier NRC level two years ago. He’s a class act at No.9 and at 1.86m and 85kg, he’s the biggest Wallabies scrumhalf since Nick Farr-Jones, but he has his work cut out for him as much will weigh on how he handles the leadership role.
Western Force: Tevita Kuridrani
Winless wooden spoonists last year, the Western Force have gone on a spending spree to turn things around in 2021. The Perth franchise have pulled in a quartet of Pumas – Santiago Medrano, Tomas Lezana, Tomas Cubelli and Domingo Miotti – Irish legend Rob Kearney, All Blacks duo Richard Kahui and Jeremy Thrush and USA international Marcel Brache.
Lezana could be the one to make the biggest immediate impact as he looks likely to slot into the start line-up. With captain Ian Prior having a settled halfback partnership with Jono Lance, Cubelli and Miotti will probably be primarily used as super-subs, at least early on in the tournament.
Thus, I believe Kuridrani will be the key man from start to finish, not only due to his proven pedigree but also because he finds himself at a crossroads in this career. Another top recruit, the monstrous midfielder’s coming off a title-winning season with the Brumbies, who he represented on 135 occasions. The bullocking centre boasts 61 Wallabies caps but was omitted from Dave Rennie’s squad last year.
Joining the Force offers the Fijian a clean slate. At 29, he’s still a human Hummer with plenty of gas in the tank, and with a renewed fire to reclaim his place in the national squad, he’s bound to activate beast mode.