This is turning into the best ever Super Rugby tournament
Is this the best ever season of Super Rugby? (Image: NSW Waratahs)
Wayne Smith, the former All Blacks coach and All Black in his own right, reckoned last week that the 2012 Super Rugby tournament matches had the physicality, skills, tension and drama of Test match rugby. In my opinion, he is right in this assessment.
And, more importantly, I reckon that we are enjoying and will continue to enjoy the best ever Super Rugby tournament.
In the opening three rounds there have been only a handful of blowouts. Most of the games have been still alive right up to the final whistle.
Favoured teams before the tournament started have been beaten. Underdog teams have caused upsets or got close to achieving one. And in all the matches, the players were exhausted with the punishment they had absorbed and the energy they had expended.
I know on The Roar there have been columns and comments about invidious comparisons between the Super Rugby tournament and the NRL.
Before I say nonsense to these comments, let me make this point so that the rugby league tragics, in particular, are not offended by my defence of the Super Rugby tournament.
Rugby league is a great game. No ifs and no buts. However, rugby union is also a great game. It is a different game, though.
When people complain about the penalties and the scrums what they are really saying is that rugby union should be played exactly like rugby league. This is a nonsensical proposition. The games are different. Vive la différence!
On the matter of penalties, for instance, they are as much a part of the DNA of rugby union as free shots are with basketball.
The scrums, with their man-on-man contests, the shoving, the disruptions and the possibilities of turnovers and penalties are also as much a part of the DNA of rugby union as the line of scrimmage is in American gridiron football.
So when I say this 2012 Super Rugby tournament is shaping up into the best ever tournament, I am talking from a rugby union and not a rugby league, football or AFL perspective.
After three rounds we have the Reds on top of the table, without their match-winner Quade Cooper. The Reds struggled to get on top of the Melbourne Rebels at Brisbane on Saturday night. They also had to score an 80m try on time to defeat the Waratahs, admittedly in Sydney, in the first round.
The Stormers and the Brumbies are also on 12 points but both these teams have benefited from the 4-points they have gained from their bye.
The Stormers were fortunate with an inexplicable TMO decision in their favour (and they also enjoyed a massive penalty count in their favour) when they defeated the Hurricanes in the first round.
The Brumbies relied on two penalties in the last five minutes to defeat the winless Cheetahs on Saturday at Canberra. In all their matches in Australia, the Cheetahs have won a grand total of: one.
They came ever so close on Saturday to picking up their second ever win, but conceded a scrum penalty on fulltime which was booted over by the dead-eyed, steely-nerved Christian Lealiifano.
The fourth team on 12 points, and arguably the most impressive of the leading sides, is the Highlanders.
The Highlanders defeated the Chiefs in the opening round of the tournament and then, very comprehensively in fact, smashed the Crusaders, including in the scrums. And on Saturday night they played out a thriller with the tenacious Waratahs.
There has been some criticism already on The Roar of the Waratahs. As readers will know I have been critical, extremely critical at times, of the way the Waratahs have played, especially their determination to win (or lose) in an ugly manner.
But I have nothing but praise for their performance at Dunedin on Saturday night. The new totally enclosed stadium at Dunedin is becoming a New House of Pain in the deep south. The fantastic surface, which is a mixture of articifical grass and the real stuff, is a perfect layout for the brutal, high-octane, smashing, ball-in-hand game the Highlanders are developing.
The defence of the Waratahs, particularly, was impressive. A side that defends tenaciously is a side that has plenty of ticker. And the Waratahs showed that.
They were helped by some curious decisions by the Highlanders not to take easy kickable penalties (incidentally the Blues in Pretoria enjoyed the same generosity from the Bulls who have the super-boot Morne Steyn to convert any chances from halfway or closer).
I thought the Waratahs made a tactical mistake when Benn Robinson, the chunky and effective prop, was substituted. The first scrum without him resulted in an important penalty to the Highlanders.
Also I cannot understand why Sarel Pretorius was substituted, again at a crucial stage in the match. This coaching by numbers, with the game plan drawn up before the match calling for this sort of substitution is a form of tactical madness, in my view.
The Highlanders, too, almost gifted the match right on time when Jimmy Cowan, who had replaced the brilliant Aaron Smith, booted the ball to a Waratahs wing who could easily have scooted away for the winning try.
Brendan McKibbin has not made an impact when he has come on towards the end of matches, indeed his chip kick against the Reds lost the Waratahs the match. The clock-work replacement of Pretorius is even more ridiculous when it is noted that he is the most lethal running back the Waratahs have right now.
I thought the tactic of using Daniel Halanghu and Berrick Barnes in the NZ two five-eights game worked well. Halangahu is not one my favourite players (his defence is usually about as non-existent as that of Quade Cooper). He also generally stands too deep. But against the Highlanders he stood up on defence and made a couple of breaks.
Rob Horne was a tower of strength with his defence. But his attack has been muted so far this season. The Waratahs desperately need Drew Mitchell, a strike runner, back on the field as soon as possible.
Kurtley Beale, lost to the Melbourne Rebels, would also be useful for the Waratahs. As it is he is playing very well for the Rebels. His defence against the Reds was terrific. The Rebels, as a team, are much improved on last season’s side.
There have been rumours coming out of Melbourne that the coach Damien Hill is for the chopper. But on the strength of their performance against the Reds, the Rebels are one of the better coached sides in the tournament.
At this stage in the tournament the Rebels, the Force, the Lions and the Cheetahs are the only teams that can be discounted from being potential winners of the 2012 Super Rugby tournment.
Having said that, the Rebels were impressive in going down to the Reds. And the Cheetahs have a potential super-star number 10 in Johan Goosen. They also scored the try of the round with a long lineout, a prop popping the ball inside to a flying winger who cleared out to defeat two covering defenders to score under the posts.
Finally, a word about a virtuous circle for New Zealand rugby. The NZ national under-20 side have won every IRB Under-20 tournament held so far. The value of this development of talent is now showing up for sides like the Chiefs, the Hurricanes, the Blues and the Highlanders.
A crop of young, massive, no-neck, squat, fast and skilful props have emerged. At the other end of the weight scale, a number of brilliant halfbacks and fly-halves have emerged this season as well: number 10s, Tyler Bleyendaal, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett (NZ’s next Dan Carter), Gareth Anscombe (a new Grant Fox?) : Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, TJ Perenara.
Question: where are the Australian equivalents of these young stars?
Player of the round: TJ Perenara, 19 years old, and three tries from halfback in his Super Rugby debut.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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