PREVIEW-Rugby-Australians may struggle as Lions loom large

Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The British and Irish Lions tour at the sharp end of the Super Rugby season means it is going to be an uphill battle for Australia to get more than their one guaranteed team into the playoffs this year.

The arrival of the fabled red-shirted tourists may have Australia's finest playing out of their skins in the hope of winning a green and gold jersey, but national duty will rob the five teams of their top players just when they need them most.

Exactly how long Wallabies duties will keep them away from their provinces is yet to be determined but Australia coach Robbie Deans has talked of assembling his squad for a three-week camp ahead of the first Lions test on June 22.

That would leave teams scrapping for a playoff spot without their best players in their third-last and penultimate matches of the season.

The Australian Rugby Union, which hopes to reap A$30 million ($31 million) from the Lions tour, has made it clear national glory trumps everything but has held out the possibility that Deans may not get things entirely his own way.

"Clearly sanity will prevail," ARU chief executive Bill Pulver told Reuters in Melbourne on Wednesday.

"There are a couple of games in that final round of the Super Rugby competition that could be influential in terms of teams making the semi-finals.

"And making the finals series is actually a big deal for any Super team, so we will address those on their merits when that arises."

That hurdle aside, the competition's rules hold that at least one side will join New Zealand and South African teams in the finals by winning the Australian conference.

The Canberra-based ACT Brumbies appeared to be cantering into the playoffs last year only to suffer a shock loss at home in the final round and thereby surrender the conference to the 2011 champion Queensland Reds.

The Reds were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but their qualification was a credit in itself after having suffered a horror run of injuries throughout the season.

Unfortunately, it is 'deja vu' for Reds fans this year with the team battling another bout of injuries ahead of their season-opener at the Brumbies.

World class scrumhalf Will Genia will miss at least the first six rounds with a knee injury, while captain James Horwill is set to miss at least the Brumbies match with a rolled ankle.

The team is also short of quality back-rowers with the evergreen Radike Samo sidelined and Wallabies flanker Scott Higginbotham lost to the Melbourne Rebels in the offseason.

Of all the Australian teams, the Reds know how to cope with adversity, however, and their run of victories in six straight "must win" matches to qualify for last year's playoffs show they know how to win the tight ones.

"We've got a strong focus on making sure we've got the depth to get through a torrid lengthy season without any breaks in it," Queensland's title-winning head coach Ewen McKenzie told Reuters.

"The teams that get through are the ones that cover their injury situations."

The Brumbies were the surprise package last year as they shrugged off several seasons of under-achievement under World Cup-winning South African coach Jake White.

Their pack will be boosted by the recruitment of one of the world's best openside flankers in David Pocock, while a much-improved backline led by livewire flyhalf Christian Lealiifano should trouble most sides in the competition.

The New South Wales Waratahs will look to emulate the turnaround the Brumbies enjoyed last year after their Wallabies-laden squad won just four matches in 2012.

A new coach in Michael Cheika, who guided Leinster to a Heineken Cup triumph in 2009, and a new skipper in flanker Dave Dennis has shaken up the team, but the ever-sceptical Waratahs fans will be wary of another false dawn.

The Perth-based Western Force and Melbourne Rebels have underlined Australia's lack of depth in rugby by struggling to make an impression since joining the competition in 2006 and 2011 respectively.

With new recruit Higginbotham and quality backs in young Wallabies James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale, the Rebels have the means to improve on their four wins last year.

There appears precious little up-side for Force, however, who lost their best player Pocock to the Brumbies and captain Nathan Sharpe to retirement. ($1 = 0.9700 Australian dollars) (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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