The more Super Rugby changes, the more it stays the same
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 is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport