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Comment: Hopes are never higher than the first week of February

The Roar logo The Roar 2/02/2017 Brett McKay

I was lucky enough to score an invite to the Brumbies Season Launch in Canberra on Wednesday morning.

As everyone walked into the room, greeting people they haven’t seen for a little while, the smiles and the warmth confirmed one very real phenomenon.

At this time of year, anything is possible.

The smiles and the general joviality of the greetings, the handshakes, and the hugs showed that everyone is starting from the same point. No games have been lost, no coaches have been sacked, and no stat has been cited to highlight a strength or a weakness. And particularly in the case of the Brumbies, no board member was awkwardly absent.

Catching up with people and officials and players and colleagues throughout the event just rammed that home for me. What’s more, I know this feeling is being replicated around the country; it’s nearly rugby season, and it might not end the way we hope, but gee, we’re looking forward to the season.

And there’s plenty to be happy about at the moment.

Brumbies

The big news out of the function was that Sam Carter and Christian Lealiifano were named co-captains for 2017. Head coach Stephen Larkham explained to the function that Lealiifano is past the 80-day mark on the way to the crucial 100-day milestone after his bone-marrow transplant last year.

Lealiifano remains down in Melbourne, but hopes to be back based in Canberra around the end of the month. He’ll returning to Melbourne for treatment and check-ups once they become less frequent than is currently required. The news buoyed the room, and it’s very evident in the squad that they’re taking his recovery to heart.

Though Larkham has said previously there was still hope Lealiifano might play in 2017, that appears to have been revised somewhat now, with him telling the function there was a strong hope Lealiifano would be back with the squad soon enough, and training in some capacity before the end of the season.

“Christian’s a huge part of the organisation, and he’s the heart and soul of the playing group,” Carter told me for ABC Radio Canberra.

“It means a lot to the boys to know that he’s doing well (in his recovery), and every time he comes up to see us and catch up with us, it just gives us all a little bit of perspective. Every time he comes up, he lifts the spirit of the whole organisation, and having him around will be a massive plus for us this year.”

“Honoured” by his appointment, Carter said his captaincy style is pretty simple, almost “make it up as I go”, but something he said he won’t overthink. Keep everything as simple as possible. Converse with the kicker at penalty time, and if he can’t make it, kick for the line. All focus is on the Mudgee trial against the Waratahs this weekend.

And Larkham’s Brisbane Tens comeback? “I had a bit of a [hamstring] scare last week, but I should be right to join the ball sessions next week.” Passing early is going to be his approach he says, knowing he’s likely a marked man.

Force

Some seriously good news out of the west this week, with the announcement the Western Australian Road Safety Commission as naming rights partner for the 2017 season. It’s the first time the Force has had a consistent front-of-jersey sponsor since their foundation partner pulled the pin at the end of the 2013 season. Since then, they’ve used an innovative scheme that has sold individual jersey fronts to individual companies.

It’s a sizeable deal, too. “The $1.5 million partnership deal offers an opportunity for road safety messages and issues to reach the Western Australian rugby community. The partnership is effective immediately and the Western Force will run out in Round 1 against the Waratahs with the Road Safety logo proudly displayed on the front of jersey,” the announcement read.

The deal is for this season, with options for the next three seasons, and includes deliverables for both parties, including, “players and coaching staff serving as road safety ambassadors”. In short, no traffic atrocities, boys.

On the field, it was great to see young NSW Country and Australian Under-20s flyer Alex Newsome rewarded with a contract, while new recruit Tatafu Polota-Nau will pull on a Force jersey for the Brisbane Global Rugby Tens next weekend, alongside Wallaby Luke Morahan, former Brumby Robbie Coleman, and repatriated former leaguies, Curtis Rona and Chance Peni.

And a shout out to all those Twitter followers of mine displaying the ‘OWN’ tag, too, the campaign for supporters to purchase a slice of the Western Force. I love that it’s taken off so well.

Rebels

When I heard a whisper this week that a Melbourne Rebels assistant coach was set for a Brisbane 10s comeback, I had high hopes Zane Hilton was set to relive the glory days. That it turned out to be Morgan Turinui probably made more sense on a number of fronts.

Tony McGahan hasn’t mucked around with his Tens squad, including eight players with Test experience to the name: Wallabies Reece Hodge, James Hanson, Sefa Naivalu, Toby Smith and Lopeti Timani, Japanese international Amanaki Mafi, Fijian international Ben Volavola and former Wallaby Turinui. I didn’t say it was current experience.

With upwards of another dozen players with regular Super Rugby experience, the Rebels have named probably the strongest squad I’ve seen so far. And I love this; I think it’s a really good statement of intent from the Rebels, that they’re going to have a crack at everything this season. No time wasted for the Rebels in Brisbane, it would seem.

There was also the bittersweet news that a delayed start to the season for Sean McMahon, a lingering ankle injury from the Spring Tour, means that former Queensland Reds backrower Jake Schatz gets a potential second chance in Super Rugby after signing as injury cover.

Reds

At Ballymore, the Reds are obviously front and centre of the Tens’ promotion, naming a squad last week containing five capped Wallabies – one of them Chris Latham, admittedly – 20 players with Super Rugby experience and just six uncapped Reds squad members.

It’s a similar statement of intent as the Rebels, but there’s much more at stake for the Reds; strong showing at the Tens will quite likely be a factor in the size of the first few home crowds.

But maybe the coolest news for the Reds this week was that they will this season become the first Australian side to play a Super Rugby match in Samoa. The Reds will play the Blues in Apia in early June, the match coinciding with Samoa’s 55th Independence celebrations, and allows Eden Park to remain free for the first arrival of the British and Irish Lions just a few days later.

After the Chiefs and Crusaders played in front of packed house in Fiji last season, and will return again this season, it was natural that Samoa would host a Super Rugby match sooner rather than later.

And it undoubtedly fuels the demand for Super Rugby in the Pacific Islands, discussion of which a PI-based side only gains momentum over time.

And yes, I will be putting up my hand to cover the Blues-Reds in person.

Waratahs

In NSW, it’s all about the Sydney Sevens this week, which should be good fun to watch, both for those at the stadium, and those at home on the couch – or, ahem, keeping an eye on it the background while brownie points are earned at home before the year is properly lost in rugby.

The return of Lote Tuqiri for the Brisbane 10s is the big talking point, coming more than six seasons since he last played for the Waratahs in 2009. Tuqiri had stints with Leicester and Leinster, as well as a four-year return to the NRL with Wests Tigers, and winning a premiership with South Sydney.

He might be in quite the same post-playing shape as say, Latham or Larkham, but Tuqiri will undoubtedly bring plenty of experience, if not as much speed. “It will be interesting playing back at Suncorp; I’m not exactly sure what to expect but I know it will be a big atmosphere,” Tuqiri said at his announcement, perhaps hoping the Suncorp crowd remembers Lote the Queensland Maroon more than Lote the NSW Waratah.

Beyond the announcement of Tuqiri though, I was both intrigued and pleased to see former Sevens star Con Foley named in the ‘Tahs squad. I was intrigued because he spent the off-season in Perth with the Force, and pleased that he might still be a chance of playing Super Rugby this season. He’s too good a player to not be playing at this level!

And this didn’t happen last week, but I only just came across it then. Former Queensland Reds lock Dave McDuling signed to return to his home state, after stints in South Africa with the Sharks and most recently with Canterbury in New Zealand.

For the trivia buffs, McDuling would be the only player to have played in the Currie Cup in South Africa, the NPC in New Zealand, and the NRC in Australia. And he won two of those competitions, too; Canterbury won the Mitre 10 Cup last season, and McDuling was Brisbane City’s winning captain in in the first season of the NRC.

Good luck with the brownie points, Roarers! 

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