Jim Morton: Tough Cheika the coach to rewrite Horror-tahs tale

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Michael Cheika is seen as the man to lead Australia's biggest rugby franchise to the promised land. Photo / Getty Images
Michael Cheika is seen as the man to lead Australia's biggest rugby franchise to the promised land. Photo / Getty Images

Every February it's uttered, like a broken record, and often proclaimed in raptures: "This is the year of the 'Tahs".

In 2013, it's more like a whisper - so many have been burned before that they almost can't bring themselves to even think it.

But the hype has begun ... again.

With a test-quality forward pack and a logjam of Wallabies out wide, topped off by code-hopping instant hit Israel Folau, the humiliation of 2012 is quickly fading away. They were truly the Horror-tahs last season, winning just four games.

Their downfall was an embarrassing inability to close out games - losing eight by seven points or less, and several in the final moments.

But new hard-nosed coach Michael Cheika is seen as the man to lead Australia's biggest rugby franchise to the promised land.

Former Randwick No8 Cheika, who guided Leinster to the 2009 European Cup, is working overtime to put pride back into the sky blue jersey and galavanise his troops.

The Waratahs were first baited as "perennial underachievers" way back in 1999 by former Reds and Wallabies coach John Connolly and little has changed.

The closest they've come to breaking through was final losses to the Crusaders in 2005 and 2008 under Ewen McKenzie, whose "reward" was being told to find another job.

McKenzie, who took the Reds to the 2011 title, is one fully aware of what dangers lurk with Cheika building a new culture at his old franchise.

"There's no question they will improve," he said. "Cheika will culturally get them focused. He's very motivated, he understands team culture and will do a good job."

They rival the Crusaders as the best scrum in the competition, all members of their starting pack finished last year as Wallabies regulars, and they have added a new dimension with the recruitment of impressive young openside Michael Hooper.

But Cheika desperately needs rising Bernard Foley to step up as a linchpin No10 - something they have rarely possessed.

Make no bones about it, Australia was the weak link in the Sanzar alliance in 2012.

The Waratahs were among three franchises to finish in the bottom five on the table, and most Aussie derbies were turgid, grinding affairs lacking in inspiration or creativity.

McKenzie's Reds were the only team to make the playoffs, then were bumped out quickly by the Sharks.

The Reds boast virtually the same team as 2011, losing only athletic No8 Scott Higginbotham last year, and deserve narrow conference favouritism.

Quade Cooper is back fit and clear-headed after his boxing foray, but the biggest question mark hovers over how they replace his partner-in-crime, Will Genia (knee), for at least a month. With the pair starting in the past three seasons, the Reds' success rate is 78 per cent. With just one of them it's 50.

It was only a Blues' last-round upset of the Brumbies which helped Queensland top the 2012 conference and the Canberra-based side is hungry to make amends with an immediate statement of intent tomorrow night.

While the Brumbies have lost Hooper, they have been boosted by the acquisition of David Pocock who will add muscle, leadership and extra breakdown nous.

Clyde Rathbone looms as the fairytale story. Jake White has already reinstated the 31-year-old on the wing to end a three-year retirement when he battled depression and weight gain.

Buoyed by upsets over the Crusaders and Blues last year, the Melbourne Rebels enter their third season ready to stand up and be counted. With Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor both fit and Higginbotham adding an X-factor to their pack, the Victorians genuinely believe they can qualify for finals.

However the Rebels still lack depth in key areas. The Perth-based Western Force are rank outsiders.

Without Pocock and fellow former skipper Nathan Sharpe, new coach Michael Foley - who quit the Waratahs to head west - has a massive assignment.

But Foley has recruited wisely, especially in luring destructive lock-flanker Hugh McMeniman back from Japan.

Former Blues No9 Alby Mathewson looks tailor-made for the job behind the Force's competitive pack.

South African Sias Ebersohn will start at first five-eighth but there's little talent or depth to scare rivals out wide.

Super rugby kickoff

Tonight
Rebels v Force
Melbourne, 9.40pm
Referee: Angus Gardner
TAB: Rebels $1.40 Force $2.80

Tomorrow
Brumbies v Reds
Canberra, 9.40pm
Referee: Andrew Lees
TAB: Brumbies $1.65 Reds $2.15

Byes
Blues, Bulls, Cheetahs, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes, Kings, Sharks, Stormers, Waratahs.

Morton's predicted conference finish
Reds 1st, Waratahs 2nd, Brumbies 3rd, Rebels 4th, Force 5th.

- NZ Herald

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