The end of the off-season is near. We are now into the low single figures for the number of sleeps until Super Rugby AU kicks off for 2021. The same level of anticipation is already on show within the squads around the country. “The boys are sick of training” has been on high rotation among coaches and players for the last fortnight, and now is the period that preparation routines are formulated over the days counting down to game day. Now is also the time for the five captains to stand up. Leading teams is not for everyone, yet the choices around the country feel reasonably logical and obvious. Allan Ala’alatoa returning as Brumbies skipper is obvious. One title in as many seasons in charge is as solid a strike rate as any new captain could hope for. It was a rapid learning experience for the tighthead last season, but one that ultimately finished with him holding the Super Rugby AU cup up in front a wall of flamethrowers, surrounded by teammates who had burst into song. He had to find a way to speak to referees and deal with the media, while continuing to provide that on-field example for his team to follow. Whether he can keep up the increased minutes he played in 2020 will be found out soon enough and will be something he and coach Dan McKellar will need to stay on top of. There is no question Ala’alatoa has the support of his team and the whole Brumbies organisation, and he’s also a chance of earning his 100th Super Rugby cap this season. With Liam Wright set to miss most of the Australian leg of Super Rugby, James O’Connor being named Reds captain feels equally obvious. James O’Connor. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images) O’Connor’s redemption story is well-known and often repeated, but with a forward pack that is still on the young side, despite their experience, O’Connor’s leadership compacted in with his game management is going to be the ultimate ‘follow me’ statement out of the field. The debate is still there about O’Connor’s effectiveness as a flyhalf, but he will still be the best player on the field in whatever number he runs out in. It is true that the captaincy in Wright’s absence will add another chapter to the O’Connor redemption story, and it is not hard to see that chapter expanding should Wright miss the whole AU season and the Reds take the Australian title. But his experience in the game is going to play a huge role if this Reds team is to learn from their 2020 shortcomings and go one better this season. No one else in that Queensland squad barring coach Brad Thorn can boast the kind of life in rugby that O’Connor has had. If the Reds cannot learn on the go with O’Connor out there with them, you must wonder if they could learn on go with anyone else. Similarly obvious, though still to be confirmed, is the widely viewed assumption that Matt To’omua will lead the Melbourne Rebels in the ongoing concussion absence of Dane Haylett-Petty. With a squad boasting plenty of talent, the steadying influence of To’omua on the field can only be a good thing for a Rebels squad now lumped with greater expectations. Despite losing the likes of Matt Philip and Jermaine Ainsley, there are still plenty of quality players in most positions for the Rebels, meaning their honeymoon is now over – if it wasn’t already. They need to start winning the close games they have had a knack of losing, and To’omua is the player to guide them through those tough spots. Matt To’omua. (Photo by Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images) But To’omua has a bit to prove himself. He needs to show that he is the premier playmaker in the country, and he needs to show that he can steer teams upfield when they find themselves on the back foot. Throw in a return from an injury layoff, and the Rebels’ season has all the hallmarks of a script waiting to write itself. Ian Prior has earned himself a lot of credits for the way he has led the Western Force on and off the field since they were booted out of Super Rugby at the end of the 2017 season, and it does seem appropriate that he will be the man to lead the team out on Friday in front of the biggest sea of blue supporters in Perth since that infamous night four seasons ago. He has effectively been the frontman of the playing group ever since, and coach Tim Sampson quickly developed a strong bond with the scrumhalf on arrival in the west from Canberra several seasons ago. Within a squad rebuilding after almost half of last year’s roster were turned over, re-installing Prior makes perfect sense from a stability and continuity point of view. But Prior’s biggest job might not be leading from the front. It might be keeping Sampson convinced that Argentinean international Tomas Cubelli is a better impact option from the bench, and that homegrown lad Michael McDonald might be a way of being ready for Super Rugby Level. Prior’s leadership will be crucial in any Western Force success in 2021, and if he can maintain his form so that two particularly good scrumhalves are locked out of the blue no.9 jersey, then the Force are in for an incredibly good year. Ian Prior. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images) Which brings us back to the Waratahs, where Rob Penney has logically gone with Jake Gordon to lead the sky blues in 2021 because there was just no one else. Jack Dempsey’s decision that his future lies in Glasgow at a time where he could be establishing himself as a senior leader in a Waratahs side on the comeback trail only confirms Penney’s choice. But if Gordon can stay fit, he does have the kind of high-velocity game that will force teammates to follow him, unless they all want to be left behind together. The Waratahs do need a captain they can rally behind, too. In fact, if Gordon can be the man to inspire the younger playing group behind him, that collection of youngsters has already played enough rugby together to suggest that going on a run as they grow in confidence is not beyond them. The Waratahs, of all the Australian teams, will be the most fascinating watch in 2021. Whether they can keep up with the other four teams is firmly up in the air, and across every part of their game is an element of the unknown. How Gordon’s leadership on the field develops is just one of those elements.
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