Kafer: Blowtorch on Aussie Super Rugby battlers in 2020
IT looks like the same old story for the Queensland Reds in 2020 - loads of potential … just like last year and the year before that.
They have a young talent pool that is the best in Australia; quality in every age group from the under 15s through to their Academy program.
The question for the Reds is: When is it going to come together and produce a Super Rugby season to remember?
The loss of skipper Samu Kerevi, which is sure to change the way they play, and the departures of fellow old stagers Scott Higginbottom, Sefa Naivalu and Caleb Timu means the Reds now have only three players in the squad over the age of 30.
Get it right and they could be a finals contender but they are coming from a low base and have little history of winning.
They need a season where they contend and they can use it as a springboard to be a force in the future.
A season of six wins or less, again, under coach Brad Thorn will be unacceptable.
There is a saying in coaching "it's a player's potential that ends up getting coaches sacked". Let's hope this is not the future for this talented group of youngsters.
To be successful, teams need at the start of the season to have vital personal locked into key positions - tight-head prop, hooker, No.8, scrum-half, No.10 and fullback - or have young stars in the making to be rated a genuine threat.
The Waratahs have some of both but maybe not enough of either to be confident of their ability to win the competition.
They have solid starters in most positions but they are only solid, which raises questions about the quality of the squad overall.
There is also a question about who wears the No.10 jersey following the departure of Bernard Foley.
Kurtley Beale can do it but I have never thought flyhalf his best position as most No.10s need to be curators of games, rather than game breakers. (Of course on his day Kurtley is both).
There are positives for the Waratahs in the return of Jack Maddock and the early-season form of Mark Nawaqanitawase and Angus Bell.
They have also installed a new coaching team and with a new approach to the game it might bring out the best in the youth and drag the rest of the squad into a winner's circle.
With no other option, the Brumbies have looked to youth to make up their backline this season.
The decision means the Brumbies have the potential to get it really right and play a brand of rugby built on taking risks or find themselves the victim of a divided team, where a battle-hardened forward pack refuses to give the ball to the young backs and instead tucks it under the jumper.
It won't take long to see whether that trust is there. How many times the forwards release the ball from the driving maul - one of the best in the competition - will provide a good gauge.
There is no doubt the Brumbies have a forward pack to match it with most, even after the losses of Rory Arnold and Sam Carter whose replacements are young, hungry and good.
Key for the Brumbies will be if they have the defensive skills and discipline to be a real threat this season.
They have the pack, they have upside in their backline, but whether they have the grit … time will tell.
The integration of players from the now-defunct Western Force into the Melbourne Rebels has been disappointing.
What promised so much, has failed to deliver.
The Rebels have, on their day, been tantalising close to the best team in the competition but at times they have also been one of the worst.
That lack of consistency is an issue that threatens to derail the Rebels' season before it begins.
How to deliver that consistency is something coach Dave Wessels and his staff will have been working on during the off-season.
If they can find the answer they could contend for a finals berth but if they fail to address it, their season is done and dusted.
We saw last season the Sunwolves had plenty of points in them and if they can remember how to defend they will surely cause some upsets.
With exciting news about Japanese's rugby starting to emerge, players will see the opportunity for continuity of making a long-term playing career in Japan with strong performances.
Look for some standout performances when contracts are being discussed for next season.
After years of failing to live up to expectations, albeit in Super Rugby's toughest conference, is this the year the Blues shake off the under-performers tag?
The Blues have been busy recruiting in the off-season and the addition of Beauden Barrett is surely one of the great signings.
How many games the Blues get from the star will be key to their fortunes this year. While one star player does not make a team, you would probably take this star over any other in the world right now in Super Rugby and get an immediate boost - not many better!
Why is it not possible? That is the only question on the lips of most long-term watchers of Super Rugby, as they puzzle over whether the Crusaders can produce a "four-peat".
Surely they will be hurt by the losses of some of their long-term Cantabrian and All Black stars - but I've read this script before and see the defending champions as the team to beat this season.
Well coached, great cultured, great youngsters, etc, etc … we all know the drill.
Injuries to stars and the loss of key players and coaching staff create an uncertain picture for the Hurricanes in 2019.
However one of their best, Dane Coles, is free from injury and looking forward to leading from the front (and out on the wings) as the Hurricanes try to maintain the momentum of the past few seasons moving forward.
One thing to look out for will be TJ Perenara taking great personal pleasure in becoming the leading try scorer in Super Rugby history with just seven tries needed to eclipse the record.
It's been a little ho hum for the Highlanders since they dominated the competition in 2015.
The loss of key ball players and with Aaron Smith on the other side of 30, where is the spark going to come from to return the Highlanders to the winner's circle?
I don't have an answer for it, but often it comes from surprising places in quality teams.
Let's see if the Highlanders unearth another talent as good as some of those that have departed.
The Chiefs are one of the few teams to retain most of their stars and will be boosted by the return of others from injury.
Are they the team with the best chance of upending the Crusaders? Probably.
The Chiefs have always had expressive backs and pragmatic and hard-working forwards.
It is more of the same and I could see a Chiefs v Crusaders final in 2020.
While not wanting to be the bearer of bad news, the window has surely closed on the opportunity for the Lions to win a Super Rugby title.
Three finals in three years with three losses ended the run for one of the turnaround teams from South Africa in 2018. Rebuild they must.
The Lions have however unearthed lots of new talent in the past five years. Something will come from this fertile ground and the quicker the better.
A team that have failed to inspire over the past few seasons.
The loss of some of their greats and the lack of Springbok stars outside of standout Lukhanyo Am, as well as the departure of the du Preez family will create both challenges and opportunities for this reasonably well-balanced squad.
May contend with the Stormers and Jaguares to be the best in the conference.
Inspirational captain Siya Kolisi and the Stormers are likely to be the best of the South African sides.
However the season following a World Cup win can be hard on players. Rediscovering their best form is a tough ask.
The Stormers have the greatest number of Springboks players staying this season, with seven of the nine who played in Japan, and they will need all seven fit to be a contender at the end of the season.
Post-World Cup blues could severely impact the Jaguares.
The surprise packet of last year's Super Rugby competition and then the disappointments of the RWC with Argentina, the Jaguares players have much to do to appease their supporters.
After finishing runners-up last year, they have lost some experience, including the outstanding Pablo Matera, but are well lead and excellently coached and if they start winning on the road, they should win the South African conference and go deep into the competition.
The Bulls have lost six players who were part of South Africa's RWC winning squad and that is sure to severely test their depth.
They have however added some experienced players in Kruger and Steyn and whether they can lift to previous heights will have a big say in how the Bulls perform.
They will need to get their season off to a fast start and maintain some momentum otherwise it might be a long year.