RUGBY NEWS - Super Rugby resumes in Australia this week after a near four-month coronavirus hibernation with new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie watching closely as he ponders his first line-up.
Queensland Reds will kick off the domestic 10-round season against NSW Waratahs in Brisbane Friday, before the ACT Brumbies face the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra a day later.
Perth's Western Force, who were axed from Super Rugby at the end of 2017, will make their return to top-flight competition against the Waratahs in Sydney in round two.
Officially named Super Rugby AU, the Australian domestic tournament is helping to fill the gap left when the 15-team southern hemisphere club competition was halted after seven rounds because of the pandemic in mid-March.
It mirrors New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa which began last month, and will similarly trial new rules including goal-line dropouts and a 10-minute golden point period if matches are tied.
Former Glasgow coach Rennie will be keeping an eye on proceedings from home in his native New Zealand, where he has been isolating.
With a host of Wallabies calling it quits after last year's World Cup, the door is open leading into what is expected to be a four-match Bledisloe Cup series against the All Blacks later in the year.
"Obviously, the next three months is a great opportunity for players," Rennie said, adding that he currently had around 30 players in his sights.
"But there's still opportunities for guys to jump in from outside that group. So that's what the next three months is about, really."
'Haven't missed a beat'
Getting the competition started has not been easy.
Some state borders remain closed, with Western Force basing themselves in New South Wales while the Rebels dashed to Canberra early after a spike of coronavirus cases in Melbourne last week.
The home Rebels fixture on July 10 has already been moved to New South Wales and the team could be forced to play games in neutral venues if the outbreak persists.
On the plus side, Rugby Australia managed to renegotiate a broadcast deal to show all matches live, but pay talks with players remain unresolved.
Players are currently on an average pay cut of 60 percent until September 30, but their pay for the rest of the year is still being negotiated.
There were murmurs last week about strike action, but that appears unlikely as the opening day approaches.
"Obviously there have been discussions going on in the background (about pay) that we haven't been privy to, but the boys haven't missed a beat during this whole period," Brumbies attack coach Peter Hewat said.
The Alan Alaalatoa-led Brumbies start as favourites. Their team, including flying centre Tevita Kuridrani and prolific try-scoring hooker Folau Fainga'a, were the pacesetters before Super Rugby was suspended in March.
They won five out of six to top the Australian conference ahead of their Saturday night opponents, the Rebels, who will look towards last season's Australian player of the year, powerhouse wing Marika Koroibete, and captain Dane Haylett-Petty among a dynamic backs line-up.
The Waratahs managed just one win before the interruption and they will restart without their France-bound veteran playmaker Kurtley Beale.
His absence will place more responsibility on the senior shoulders of tireless flanker Michael Hooper, Australia's World Cup captain last year, and second row forward Rob Simmons who has taken over the Waratahs' armband.
The Reds have were hit hard during the shutdown by the departures of Izack Rodda, Harry Hockings and Isaac Lucas, who left after refusing to accept the pay cut, leaving coach Brad Thorn with an inexperienced side brimming with young potential but with plenty to prove.
Western Force have a bye on opening weekend, but hooker Heath Tessmann said his team were hungry to make an impact after nearly three years away from Super Rugby.
"We're not putting our hand up to be part of this competition just to play a bit of rugby because we're bored," he said.
Super Rugby AU will culminate in a two-week finals series starting on September 12.