Australia's Super Rugby involvement this season was a 'treading water' exercise. While some green and gold blinkered observers convince themselves the standard of play by the Australian teams had improved somewhat from a diabolical 2017 season, the upgrade was marginal rather than monumental.
Remember, the teams are coming from a very low base, as the 2017 Australian conference victors -- the Brumbies -- made the quarterfinals with only six wins from 15 games; during a period when all local sides were endlessly embarrassed by their New Zealand counterparts.
This year a lift in standards was inevitable, as one of the five Australian teams -- the Force -- had been axed, and so presumably someone, somewhere had to improve. Not exactly. The Australian conference remained easily the weakest of the three, and showing up the folly of a silly competition structure, the leading team -- the Waratahs -- commanded a home quarterfinal even though finishing sixth on the overall ladder. At least the Waratahs won nine and drew one of their 16 games to make the finals -- a reasonable record.
As for the Australian teams overall, they were too inconsistent, often appeared uncertain what their actual game-plan was, lacked ingenuity from an often inexperienced head coach's box and only occasionally enlightened. Even with one less team, the Australian Super Rugby ranks has more than its fair share of pedestrian performers.
There's a simple reason why the Brumbies home crowds slumped dramatically this season, to the extent the future of the province was suddenly under threat. The Brumbies are boring.
Once the most exhilarating of Super Rugby teams, all the panache, all the ensemble play, all the inventiveness is gone. Now it's predictable, bash and barge football, made even more irritating as it is riddled with errors. So it wasn't surprising Canberrites stayed away from one of the southern hemisphere's coldest and most exposed match venues, forcing the Brumbies hierarchy to make a desperate appeal to convince the locals not to give up on them, otherwise there would be dire consequences.
The Brumbies were admittedly determined, and there were occasional glimpses of smart impromptu play from their fullback Tom Banks, but he did not have too many following them. It was often safety first football, and not surprisingly relied on a reliable if unspectacular forward pack. Out wide it was often flaky.
Assumed to be the best of the Australian provinces before the competition began before it degenerated into their worst year for some time, Dan McKellar's first season as Brumbies coach was underwhelming. A dramatic improvement will be required next year; otherwise the future of the Brumbies in Canberra will be in serious doubt. Amalgamating with the Rebels looms.
Mark: D minus
2017 mark: C plus
2016 mark: C plus
2015 mark: B
2014 mark: B plus
2013 mark: B plus
There is something seriously amiss with this propped up province. Off field their key players, after struggling to beat oppositions, decided to beat each other up. You have key officials clearly not knowing what others are doing, while there appears to be a serious disciplinary problem within the organisation. Other Australian provinces weren't too impressed with how the Rebels strutted whenever they visited their domains.
Their lofty beliefs weren't matched on the field. Considering the wealth of talent they had -- the luxury of two provinces melded into one as they had grabbed most of the Force players, anything less than a finals spot meant that their season can only be described as a flop. The players were there to do it, but something was often missing on game day.
Despite their coach Dave Wessels being the flavour of the month, and considered by some as the man to take over at the Wallabies from Michael Cheika, he didn't offer much this season to indicate he is of Test coaching standard. Some of his selections were very strange, in particular his persistence with picking the unreliable Jack Debreczeni at No.10, while the talents of their winger Marika Koroibete were often wasted due to a lack of ball going his way.
Their game-plan overlooked the importance of a dogged defence, and often the Rebels faded away. With what they had, the Rebels should have finished far higher on the ladder.
At least they found a reliable young lock in Matt Philip, while Jack Maddocks looked threatening from various attacking positions. Pity Maddocks wasn't tried at No 10. A season of missed opportunities.
Mark: C minus
2017 mark: F
2016 mark: C
2015 mark: B plus
2014 mark: D
2013 mark: D
Okay, they were never really a finals threat. But at least some spirit and menace has returned to a long deflated Reds outfit. One has to admire their new coach Brad Thorn for bringing a bit of backbone back to the once mighty province, and for sticking to his principles.
He could have easily succumbed to the public pressure of bringing back Quade Cooper and Karmichael Hunt when the losses started to mount. But no, Thorn made it clear right from the start of the season that he wanted to move on, experiment with new blood, improve the team culture, take some risks and see what happens. As well, unlike some other coaches, he showed he was no hypocrite. He was a man of his word- and as that is so rare in the rugby world, it has to be applauded.
In a season or two one should see the benefits of his policy of tough love, as well as giving youth a chance. Already there is some gold dust. Taniela Tupou was one of the revelations of the season, and easily the best tighthead prop running around among the Australian teams. Apart from his exemplary set-piece work, Tupou was a 'sit up and watch' man whenever he had the ball. It was a marked improvement from the rabble the Reds had been the previous four seasons. The Reds are on their way back.
2017 mark: F
2016 mark: D
2015 mark: F
2014 mark: F
2013 mark: B
You shouldn't feel sorry for the Waratahs. They got an easy ride to the finals due to a ridiculous competition format, and when it mattered, such as their last round match against the Brumbies where a win would have secured quarter and semifinal home matches, they dogged it. Their effort that night was easily the most insipid from any Australian team all season.
As shown in a 10-minute burst against the Highlanders in the quarterfinal, the Waratahs know how to play invigorating football, but that only occurred in rare bursts. Winger Taqele Naiyaravoro was easily their most penetrative player, and when Israel Folau wasn't unnecessarily provoking people with his anti-gay Tweets, he played some good football.
Kurtley Beale provided some frenetic moments, but his defence became worse the longer the season went. The pack was reasonable, with loosehead prop Tom Robertson having an exceptional season. When Michael Hooper was around, the forward effort was penetrative, and his backup Will Miller proved up to the standard when required. There were problems up front though, with the lock pairing- included the supposed big Tahs signing Rob Simmons- failing to make a difference. At times the lock/backrow combinations didn't like quite right.
And it wasn't a good look in their final match -- the semifinal against the Lions -- that they played No. 8 Michael Wells who the week before appeared to be in la-la land following a serious knock. With all the brouhaha going on about high tackles, concussion and protecting player's welfare, it was disconcerting to see Wells running around Ellis Park. As with some other decisions during the year, the Waratahs' season could have been conducted much better. They are another province in desperate need of a shakeup. But they are the masters of their own demise by preserving the status quo.
Mark: C plus
2017 mark: F
2016 mark: C
2015 mark: B minus
2014 mark: A plus
2013 mark: C minus
AUSTRALIAN SUPER RUGBY TEAM OF THE SEASON:
15: Israel Folau (Waratahs)
14: Taqele Naiyaravoro (Waratahs)
13: Samu Kerevi (Reds)
12: Kurtley Beale (Waratahs)
11: Jack Maddocks (Rebels)
10: Bernard Foley (Waratahs)
9: Will Genia (Rebels)
8: Amanaki Mafi (Rebels)
7: Michael Hooper (Waratahs) (capt)
6: Caleb Timu (Reds)
5: Matt Philip (Rebels)
4: Izack Rodda (Reds)
3: Taniela Tupou (Reds)
2: Folau Fainga'a (Brumbies)
1: Tom Robertson (Waratahs)