SYDNEY, February 15- The established trio of the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies hold Australia's title hopes for this season's expanded Super 15 series, but it's the Melbourne Rebels newcomers who will dominate the early interest.Australian sides have just two titles in the 15 years of Super rugby and there is little expectation that will change in this season’s southern hemisphere championship.
But Australia’s new fifth team, based in the Australian Football League-obsessed heartland of Melbourne, increases the talent pool for the Wallabies against the numerically superior rugby resources of New Zealand and South Africa.
The chief beneficiary of Super rugby’s 15th team is Australia with the Rebels beating off strong competition from South Africa’s Eastern Cape to reconfigure the competition into a three-conference system each comprising nationally-based teams.
History is against the Rebels with the last Australian entry into the competition, Perth’s Western Force, winning just one match in their 2006 debut season and most new clubs struggling on debut.
But the Rebels have built strong foundations by hiring World Cup-winning coach Rod Macqueen, installing former Wallabies’ skipper Stirling Mortlock as foundation captain and recruiting an experienced playing core.
The Rebels have signed Wallabies, Sam Cordingley, Adam Freier, Mark Gerrard, Julian Huxley and Rodney Blake, augmented with the international experience of Welshman Gareth Delve, England’s Danny Cipriani and Michael Lipman and Kiwis Greg Somerville, Kevin O’Neill and Hoani Macdonald.
"The last (new Australian) team in Super Rugby won one game, so we’re not going into this competition under any delusions from that perspective," said Macqueen, who won 34 of his 43 matches in charge of the Wallabies.
"We’ve really set our sights on being a competitive side from the very first game."
The Rebels impressed Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder in their pre-season trial outing.
"I thought they were a really good side and they’ve got some good strengths there," Blackadder said.
"I think the Rebels will be really really competitive, they’re a good side."
Bookmakers rate the NSW Waratahs as Australia’s top Super 15 contender and they have added Wallabies’ centre Ryan Cross from Western Force to the side that finished third last season.
"A lot of forwards have done a lot of work in terms of having good body mass, putting on more weight and being able to carry it," skipper Phil Waugh said.
"(But) being able to transfer that into games and making it a significant difference is still a challenge."
The Waratahs, who have been runners-up twice, have plenty of strikepower in the backs with Kurtley Beale, Drew Mitchell, Lachie Turner, Berrick Barnes and Rob Horne.
The Queensland Reds, revelations last season with their expansive running style to finish in fifth spot, will be looking to take it further through their inventive Wallaby halves, Quade Cooper and Will Genia.
The Reds last made the playoffs back in 2001 and spent most of the second half of the last decade entrenched in the bottom three on the ladder.
But under coach Ewen McKenzie they have their fans with their adventurous brand of rugby, and if they can nail down some consistency they could be finalists this season.
Two-time champions ACT Brumbies have an impressive roster, headed by Wallabies’ Matt Giteau, Rocky Elsom and Adam Ashley-Cooper, but they failed to flatter with last season’s sixth placing.
The Western Force, under new coach Richard Graham, have recruited Hurricanes’ pair Willie Ripia and David Smith, but much will again depend on young Wallabies, James O’Connor, David Pocock, Ben McCalman and stalwart captain Nathan Sharpe.