The Super Rugby season is once again upon us. If it feels like it's come around faster than normal you'd be correct, the opening round kicking off with a full round of fixtures on Friday January 31 -- two weeks earlier than 2019.
Here, we analyse the Australia conference and each of the five teams' chances in 2020.
Coach: Dan McKellar
Captain: Allan Alaalatoa
Last year: The Brumbies were the most successful Australian side in 2019 and one of the form teams of the competition, forcing their way into the semifinal before they were soundly beaten by the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. After a varied start to the year with four wins in their opening eight matches -- including the memorable 54-17 thumping over the Chiefs in Round 2 -- a six game unbeaten run to finish the season typified their improvement and had them full of confidence ahead the finals. Their superior rolling maul was perhaps the best reason for their season turnaround. Finishing the year with 11 tries to his name, Folau Fainga'a was the linchpin for the Brumbies' match-winning maul, and their decision to keep the ball up front in the final matches proved pivotal. Their explosive backs, including Toni Pulu and Tom Banks , still found space to work in out wide and their contributions should not be forgotten. Playing just three matches in all season, David Pocock eventually called time on his Super Rugby career; coach Dan McKellar may have been frustrated by Pocock's predicament but by midseason the flanker's absence was hardly noticeable as Locky McCaffrey, Pete Samu and Tom Cusack all stepping up at varying stages.
This year: Despite the loss of big names Pocock, Christian Lealiifano, Rory Arnold and Sam Carter, McKellar and the Brumbies should be bouyed by their first semifinal appearance since 2016 and the solid game plan that they developed in 2019. Retaining their Test front-row in Allan Alaalatoa, Scott Sio, James Slipper and Fainga'a, you should expect to see the big men rumble the ball just as often in 2020. But don't fall into the trap in believing the Brumbies won't be playing exciting rugby. With Banks and Pulu on the edges, and Tevita Kuridrani alongside NRL recruit Solome Kata through the middle, the backline packs plenty of punch. The big question is whether their 9-10 combination will have found their feet ahead of January 31 kickoff. Joe Powell has made the halfback jersey his own over the past three seasons and will not easily relinquish the role, but McKellar may not be so clear on his fly-half. With Lealiifano, Wharenui Hawera, and Jordan Jackson-Hope moving on, Junior Wallaby Noah Lolesio will be given the chance to find his feet at Super Rugby level; but he could be tested by fellow young guns Bayley Kuenzle and Reesjan Pasitoa. Whether McKellar can find the missing link in a side flooded with talent could determine if the Brumbies sink or swim in 2020.
Draw: Reds (H), Rebels (H), Highlanders (H), Chiefs (A), BYE, Sunwolves (A), Waratahs (H), Blues (A), Reds (A), Hurricanes (H), Jaguares (H), BYE, Sharks (A), Bulls (A), Stormers (H), Rebels (A), Waratahs (A), Sunwolves (H).
Predicted conference finish: First
Coach: Dave Wessels
Captain: Dane Haylett-Petty
Last year: Another year, another missed opportunity to reach their first ever finals appearance. Starting 2019 with a bang, the Rebels were unbeaten in the opening four rounds, sat at the top of the Australian conference ladder and had star power for days in a team list that included Will Genia and Quade Cooper. The duo brought style and flair reminiscent of their Queensland Reds days, while their international forward pack brought the force up front. But by the halfway mark of the season, the wheels had begun to fall off. Playing a flat style of attack, their game plan was eventually found out and by the end of the season they'd won just two of their last nine matches. Inconsistency and "softness" according to coach Dave Wessels, had crept in, and by the final two rounds everything had imploded. A 66-0 thrashing by the Crusaders in Christchurch in the penultimate round and a 59-8 embarrassing a week later brought a season that had begun with so much promise to an embarrassing halt.
This year: After two promising seasons under Wessels, the pressure is now on for the young coach to take Melbourne to their first finals series. But with the losses of Adam Coleman, Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Jack Maddocks, that will be difficult. Matt Toomua, who arrived late last season, will more than make up for the loss of Cooper, while Fijian scrum-half Frank Lomani is a more than adequate replacement for Genia. Wessels has acquired some decent talent over the offseason in Michael Wells, Ruan Smith and former Australia U20s star Andrew Kellaway, particularly after his team used the least number of players in 2019. However, the Rebels' game plan from 2019 will need updating; former Wallabies attack coach Shaun Berne will likely make some changes, just how effective they are will be evident from the opening weeks.
Draw: Sunwolves (A), Brumbies (A), Waratahs (H), Sharks (H), Highlanders (A), Lions (H), BYE, Sunwolves (H), Stormers (A), Jaguares (A), Reds (A), Crusaders (H), Blues (H), Waratahs (A), BYE, Brumbies (H), Chiefs (A), Reds (H).
Predicted conference finish: Fourth
Coach: Brad Thorn
Captain: Liam Wright
Last year: It was another year of transition for the Reds in 2019, but players and fans had a better idea of what to expect They continued to shed dead weight with James Slipper and Karmichael Hunt moved along, while Quade Cooper was a distant memory. A young squad, their season started slowly with their first win not coming until Round 4 against the Sunwolves; it ended with six wins in total -- the same as 2018. Despite their lack of results, there was still plenty of highlights. Jordan Petaia made only two appearances for Queensland before injury, but he was somewhat of a revelation for the side, while Junior Wallaby Isaac Lucas made eight appearances, announcing himself as a star of the future. But it was captain Samu Kerevi's standout performances that became one of the high points of the season, the Reds skipper proving to be one of the dominant individual players of 2019. From a team perspective, it was the Reds' win over the Sharks on the road in South Africa that displayed their true potential, but inexperience and inconsistency saw them finish fourth in Australia's conference and well out of finals contention.
This year: Despite having just one player over 30 - new recruit Henry Speight - expectations of the young Reds side will be high heading into 2020. With two years to solidify his game plan and secure his line up, Thorn won't be afforded much leeway when it comes to results this year. With a matured James O'Connor joining the ranks and slotting into the Kerevi-sized hole in the centres, the backline will at least have some spark in what has at times been a disjointed attack. But it's Petaia who Thorn will be most excited to unleash after his breakout performance at the World Cup. The 21-year-old's ability to stay injury free in 2020 will be paramount for his side, while the growth of Taniela Tupou into one of Australia's best will see the Reds finally mix it with the competition's best. They'll be tested from Round 1 with a road trip to Canberra, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires kicking off their season - but if they come away with at least one win on tour they'll be getting their season off to a solid start.
Draw: Brumbies (A), Lions (A), Jaguares (A), Sunwolves (H), Sharks (H), Crusaders (A), Bulls (H), BYE, Brumbies (H), Sunwolves (A), Rebels (H), Waratahs (A), Highlanders (H), BYE, Blues (A), Waratahs (H), Hurricanes (H), Rebels (A).
Predicted conference finish: Second
Coach: Naoya Okubo
Last year: News midseason of their eventual departure from Super Rugby following 2020 was a cruel blow for the struggling, yet entertaining, franchise and it clearly made an impact on their results. Securing two wins in the early rounds -- Chiefs (Rd 3) and Waratahs (Rd 7) -- the Sunwolves cleaned up their all-out attacking game plan from 2018 to become more competitive, but from the midway results began to blow out. With two high-scoring whitewashes, the Sunwolves ended the season with a points difference of -290 and for a third season finished the year at the bottom of the combined table.
This year: In their last season of Super Rugby, the Sunwolves have been ravaged by departures. Welcoming a new coach, and close to 30 new squad members, the Sunwolves of 2020 look nothing like the Japanese franchise of 2019, while their winning record is unlikely to change. The signing of England's Ben Te'o will give them experience in the backs, but it's unlikely to be enough in the tight Australia conference. The Sunwolves are sure to bring their highly-entertaining game plan, but expect to see plenty of blowouts.
Draw: Rebels (H), BYE, Chiefs (H), Reds (A), Hurricanes (A), Brumbies (H), Crusaders (H), Rebels (A), Waratahs (A), Reds (H), BYE, Lions (A), Bulls (A), Jaguares (H), Waratahs (H), Stormers (H), Highlanders (A), Brumbies (A).
Predicted conference finish: Fifth
Coach: Rob Penney
Captain: Rob Simmons
Last year: In a season that featured more off-field drama than on-field highlights, the Waratahs missed the finals for the second time in three years with woeful performances tied in with dazzling rugby. For a second year running, the Tahs were forced to deal with Israel Folau's anti-gay media posts which saw the star fullback dropped from the side and the NSW Waratahs taken to court alongside Rugby Australia for wrongful dismissal. His absence and the wider impact of the saga can't be ignored, despite Kurtley Beale's impressive efforts in the No.15 jersey, with the side falling to equal 10th for tries scored in 2019 - bettering only the Sunwoles in the Australian conference. A positive, though, came from their defensive structures, moving from mid-table in terms of tackling percentage in 2018 to topping the table in 2019. Their shock 20-12 win over the Crusaders in Sydney was perhaps the most memorable moment of their season as they ended the Crusaders' yearlong unbeaten streak with a robust defensive effort.
This year: It's a mix of the old and the new at the Waratahs in 2020. Introducing a new coach in Rob Penney, a new starting fly-half in either veteran outside back Kurtley Beale, Mack Mason or Junior Wallaby Will Harrison and the potential debut of Junior Wallaby Mark Nawaqanitawase at fullback. Despite just taking on the role mere months ago, Waratahs fans will be expecting plenty from Penney, including a return to the finals. One of his first tasks will be to change up their attacking structures and improve their set play. They scored just 46 tries compared to the Crusaders' 82, Brumbies' 71 and Hurricanes' 68, while they were middle of the pack for scrum and lineout wins. Opening the season away at Christchurch is the ultimate test for Penney and should give fans a fair indication of what to expect for the rest of 2020. A chunk of Wallabies experiences mixed with some promising young talent prove an intriguing cocktail, but how well that younger generation handles the transition to Super Rugby will likely be the defining factor in their bid to return to the playoffs.
Draw: Crusaders (A), Blues (H), Rebels (A), BYE, Lions (H), Chiefs (H), Brumbies (A), Bulls (H), Sunwolves (H), Stormers (A), Sharks (H), Reds (H), BYE, Rebels (H), Sunwolves (A), Reds (A), Brumbies (H), Hurricanes (A).
Predicted conference finish: Third