The more Super Rugby changes, the more it stays the same

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    Queensland Reds players celebrate following the Reds Super Rugby final win over the Canterbury Crusaders at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Saturday, July 9, 2011.

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    With the exception of the Reds, all of the Australian Super Rugby teams have undergone some kind of off-season change to its personnel.

    For starters, there’s three new coaches around the traps. Some fairly major player movement took place as well. Yet for all the movement backward and forward, the Australian sides look pretty much the same as they did in 2011.

    Watching the Brumbies and Western Force doing their very best to put the opening night crowd to sleep in the first half of their Canberra Stadium clash, all I could think of was some very prophetic words playing out in front of me:

    “…Australian sides have tended to take the defensive option with the fear of making a mistake.”

    I don’t always agree with my new colleague, David Campese (and I knew it wouldn’t take long to get that out!), but this was a clear case of a truer word never being spoken.

    Having watched the pulsating end to the Blues-Crusaders match on arrival at the ground, what the Brumbies and Force dished out for forty minutes was the biggest letdown in the history of letdowns. When I did get around to watching the game again on Saturday, I went straight to the second half.

    The Waratahs and Reds game on Saturday night then just confirmed that the old adage is alive and well in the Australian conference. The more things change, the more they do stay the same.

    So perhaps, in hindsight, the biggest surprise is that I expected change in the first place.

    The Brumbies were always going to do whatever they had to do to secure the desperately needed win. The Force were always going to play a forwards game with minimal width off flyhalf-for-now James Stannard.

    The Waratahs were always going to show signs of improvement but ultimately fall back into their bad habits. The Reds were always going to play to Mike Harris’ strengths and not Quade Cooper’s.

    Change may happen among the Australian teams this year; it just won’t happen in Week 1. Some teams’ supporters will be sweating on that statement more than others will.

    The Reds proved they’re still going to be the team to beat in the Australian conference in 2012, pulling out the old ‘we can still win this from our own half’ play to get through some lazy Waratahs defence. Dom Shipperley somehow coaxed Rob Horne into hanging off him, and suddenly found 70m of open space in front of him to seal the improbable win.

    Harris was the story of the Reds’ night, with his accuracy off the kicking tee ensuring that the Waratahs were kept at arm’s length.

    However, his display at flyhalf was impressive even without his kicking. Playing exactly as he said he would in the build-up to this season – like Mike Harris, and not like Quade Cooper – Harris ran strongly and passed at pretty much the right times all night. Ben Tapuai and Anthony Fainga’a saw considerably more ball in space (and in general, for that matter) than Tom Carter and Horne saw from Daniel Halangahu.

    Ultimately, a couple of crucial lapses in concentration and execution invited Queensland to have one last crack. Essentially, New South Wales were again guilty of trying not to lose, rather than just playing the game out to seal the win. History now shows they failed on both fronts, a fact that hammered home to them as Shipperley scooted away.

    Regardless of the result, the Homebush match showed that there is still a fair gulf between the top and bottom Australian teams, and I say that regardless of where the Rebels might fit into that puzzle.

    The Brumbies took 42 minutes to get up to the Force’s try line, having spent most of the first half fluffing midfield bombs so that they came down between the 10m and 22m lines, rather than trying to turn the Force’s back three around.

    But once finally up on the line, they showed composure and vision, with the result being a well-worked try to winger Jesse Mogg on debut. A second try followed soon after.

    While Nic White had a solid night in general play, his goal kicking went awry in the second half. A 55m penalty goal got everyone’s attention in the opening minutes, but unfortunately, that just meant everyone was tuned in to see him pulling everything to the left of the uprights in the second forty.

    Overall, though, here was a young halfback with a bit of spunk about him, who plays a high-energy game with a decent pass, and happily, isn’t over-reliant on the box kick. It truly makes you wonder why he sat idle behind Valentine and Phibbs last season.

    Sam Carter won at least four lineout steals by my count, which is a decent night out for a lock any time. But when those steals come against Nathan Sharpe, and on your Super Rugby run-on debut, then you’ll be marked as ‘one to watch’.

    Ben Mowen put in one of the better displays in a Brumbies No.8 jersey in recent memory, too, well and truly justifying the decision to hand him the captaincy.

    Still, as far as games being a spectacle go, the Australian conference games couldn’t hold a candle to the other inter-conference games, or the meteorological derby between the Stormers and the Hurricanes. The Blues-Crusaders and Bulls-Sharks games were both belters, and none of them showed any fear of making a mistake.

    And until the Australian derbies see a major lift in quality across the board, this surely should put pay to all this ambitious but impractical talk in recent weeks about expansion plans for Super Rugby. Suggestion that more places will produce more quality players is hopeful at best, as those quality players clearly don’t exist now.

    Things have changed dramatically within Australia rugby in recent years, yet here we are in Week one of 2012, having the same discussions as in 2010. And 2008. And back beyond that too.

    And that ongoing stagnation extends to my tipping, too. All three teams identified last week as a smokey went down, and thus I’m now open to offers from teams needing their opposition talked up.

    My rates are quite affordable and return on investment appears guaranteed…

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (78)

    • February 28th 2012 @ 7:44am
      Darwin stubby said | February 28th 2012 @ 7:44am | ! Report

      We have also previously commented on the fact that historical games between Aust teams tend to throw the type of games we saw on Sat …. Sure there are exceptions but in general they’ve tended toward the messy arm wrestle …. the question has always been will that effect the enticing of new viewers to the game

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2012 @ 8:24am
        Brett McKay said | February 28th 2012 @ 8:24am | ! Report

        it’s a fair point Darwin, and combined with the traditionally slow start to Australian football seasons in general, we got what we got over the weekend. It would be interesting to compare the local derbies now against the repeat fixtures in July..

    • Roar Pro

      February 28th 2012 @ 7:51am
      Grimmace said | February 28th 2012 @ 7:51am | ! Report

      I was hoping that a game of Rugby might break out in Canberra on Firday night . As soon as the horse men held onto the ball and ran forward they instantly looked a heap better, why didn’t they do it more?!?!?!. I agree that the two young Brumby locks looked alright, but 1st start etc.

      Early on both sides showed attaciking intent, to a point. The Rugby brains trust here at work all agree that it was bit of a shame that the Reds v ‘tahs game was on in week 1 (realising they have the reverse fixture alter in the season). With a few extra weeks to click, that game could have been a belter if held in week 4 or 5. Good to see the Reds getting up while Genia and Ionie had pretty quiet games

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2012 @ 8:26am
        Brett McKay said | February 28th 2012 @ 8:26am | ! Report

        Grimmace, I was genuinely worried at half time that what we were seeing WAS the game of rugby. Fortunately, it was discovered that the ball could also be passed in the second half…

    • February 28th 2012 @ 8:38am
      simon said | February 28th 2012 @ 8:38am | ! Report

      Yep. Quite True Brett. Just goes to show that rugby is the game that has the potential to be such a thrilling, dynamic game, but also the potential to be such a fizzle.

      The attitude should not be to win at the expense of chancing you hand. But nor should it be to chance your hand at the expense of winning.

      It should be to win BY chancing your hand.

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2012 @ 9:23am
        Brett McKay said | February 28th 2012 @ 9:23am | ! Report

        Simon, this is what tripped up the Tahs, I think. When they should have just played out the game by defending as they had all game, and keeping the Reds in their own 22, they somehow panicked themselves into the pointless box kick with no chasers, which Qld gladly took as one last chance, making the most of the staggered or non-existent Tahs defence.

        As Spiro put forward yesterday, all NSW had to do was keep hold of the ball, truck it up for another two or three phases, and boot it out of play…

        • February 28th 2012 @ 12:02pm
          simon said | February 28th 2012 @ 12:02pm | ! Report

          Of course Brett, no doubt. But it could have been a possible option for the Tahs IF they were behind on the scoreboard. The difference is, they weren’t behind, which made it a silly play, rather than chancing your hand.

    • February 28th 2012 @ 8:49am
      johnny-boy said | February 28th 2012 @ 8:49am | ! Report

      Given Australians actually have other things to do besides living and breathing rugby it’s not suprising we start slow. The problem NZ and SA have is the longer the season goes the better the Australians get as they get their skill levels and fitness up to a better speed. And by then the kiwis and saffas have burnt and bashed themselves out. The Crusaders have clearly peaked too early.

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2012 @ 9:13am
        Brett McKay said | February 28th 2012 @ 9:13am | ! Report

        JB, when would you predict “The Crusaders have clearly peaked too early” is going to come back an bite you?!

        • February 28th 2012 @ 9:19am
          johnny-boy said | February 28th 2012 @ 9:19am | ! Report

          Probably the final Brett 🙂

    • February 28th 2012 @ 8:51am
      Osama bin Lockie said | February 28th 2012 @ 8:51am | ! Report

      Compare the error rates in the two Aussie games to the other games, particularly the NZ ones. The Aussies made far more basic errors, tactical and technical. To me it demonstrates the gulf between the regions, lack of depth, lack of rugby culture.

      • February 28th 2012 @ 9:31am
        Ryan said | February 28th 2012 @ 9:31am | ! Report

        Settle down, it’s week one. Reds and Tahs in the finals last year and Reds won the whole thing in 2011. Wallabies are also number 2 in the world. Oz Rugby in general could be better but it ain’t to bad for “lack of rugby culture”

      • Columnist

        February 28th 2012 @ 9:42am
        Brett McKay said | February 28th 2012 @ 9:42am | ! Report

        OBL, while I tend to agree with Ryan, that it is just the first week, it was certainly noticeable how many more unforced errors there were in the Australian conference games than in NZ or SA..

    • February 28th 2012 @ 9:24am
      johnny-boy said | February 28th 2012 @ 9:24am | ! Report

      Talking about things never changing – report out that Danny ‘The Irrepressible Prat” Cipriani has been involved in car crash along with Beale, JOC and Cooper and Rebels confirm knowledge of ‘incident’. Even I am surprised it took so little time for the Prat to be back -causing trouble for the Rebels. Bye bye Rebels to your season. Bye bye Beale and JOC sooner or later but for gawds sake Link – forbid Cooper from visiting Prattsville !

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