RYAN VREDE looks at the big men who could play an important role in the 2014 Vodacom Super Rugby tournament.
DAVID POCOCK (BRUMBIES)
The two-time Super Rugby champions will hope opensider Pocock’s injury curse has been broken. The world’s pre-eminent No 6 played a handful of games for the Canberra-based side before a season-ending injury, but has returned to pre-season training and will be a force if kept fit. If he is, the Brumbies’ chances of making the step up to champions will be exponentially improved. An expert at the breakdown, Pocock’s strengths extend to his physicality as a defender and strike runner. He is one of the few opensiders in the game to boast such a complete skill set, and his value is amplified by his excellent temperament. He is the total package.
BEN McCALMAN (FORCE)
McCalman has established himself as an ever-present for the Force and Wallabies. After his 2012 campaign was ravaged by injury, McCalman recovered well, building his form and confidence in the Force’s 2013 campaign, which earned him a Test recall in the series against the British & Irish Lions and later for the November internationals. His versatility (he has played across all three back-row positions as well as at lock) has been a boon for the Force, while his abrasive approach has injected physicality into their play. Just 25, McCalman is approaching his prime and his Test education will benefit the Force.
SCOTT HIGGINBOTHAM (REBELS)
The Rebels skipper is by some distance their best forward and will carry much of their challenge single-handedly. The combative loose forward has been a force on defence and attack, and will be required to sustain his form and fitness if the Rebels are to remain competitive. He has insisted the side will continue to grow, despite their catalogue of problems, but his fighting talk is difficult to take seriously when their situation is closely examined.
LIAM GILL (REDS)
Gill is showing the benefits of his early entry into pro rugby. Just 21, he is nearing 50 Super Rugby caps and has established himself as a regular with the Wallabies. His breakdown-contesting was a big factor in the Reds’ defensive performances in 2013, while he is growing into a fine strike runner. Gill must build on his fledgling career and exhibit the value of the lessons he has learned on the Test stage.
MICHAEL HOOPER (WARATAHS)
Hooper has been spoken about in less glowing terms than his Brumbies counterpart David Pocock, but in the latter’s absence he has shown his immense class for the Wallabies. Hooper was the standout openside flank in the 2013 Rugby Championship, following on from his white-hot form in Super Rugby. Hooper’s arrival from the Brumbies seriously improved their defensive game – his breakdown omnipresence and skill allowing them to consistently slow the recycle or turn over possession. He will be an invaluable asset this season.
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