Brute Force opens up Super Rugby’s Australian conference
The Western Force smashed the Reds to open up the Australian Super Rugby conference
The Western Force’s brilliantly executed 45-19 victory over the hapless Queensland Reds has thrown the Australian Super Rugby conference wide open.
It defies the predictive powers of Dr Nostradamus himself to suggest which of the five teams can stagger through the tournament and gain enough points to top the Australian list.
Before the weekend, I would have argued, though without too much vehemence, that either the Brumbies, Reds or Waratahs would emerge as the top dogs.
I would have dismissed the chances of the Force (and in fact did in the Sydney Morning Herald) on the grounds that they had no attack. The Rebels had some, especially when they could get either or both of James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale on the ground, but their defence was more porous than their attack was potent.
But not now. Not after their terrific victory over the Reds.
Harold Wilson, the former UK Prime Minister, once famously remarked that a week is a long time in politics. The insight works in sport as well.
In the sixth round of the Super Rugby season we had the Brumbies going down to the Sharks. But not before staging a remarkable 60m surge with time up, from their own 22 to the Sharks 22, before a pass was dropped during a charge toward the posts for what might have been the winning try.
The Waratahs, after playing smart and winning rugby in the first half of their match against the Chiefs at Hamilton, cracked in the second half under the intense attack of one of the undoubtedly strongest sides in 2012.
Then we have the Reds totally outplayed, in both halves of the game, by a dynamic, enterprising and determined Force side in front of a Perth crowd that absolutely loved every second of the thrashing. The last Force try was a length-of-the-field beauty.
It involved Alfie Mafi on the burst inside his own 22, Nick Cummins smashing through tacklers to continue the attack, the impressive and neat Ben Symour taking the ball to the line before releasing to David Pocock, for Matt Hodgson to cross over in the far corner.
A generous Tim Horan (with Rod Kafer, the best expert commentator going around) exclaimed as the ball was planted over the Reds’ try line, “One of the tries of the year!”
And so it was, in a year and a round that has seen any number of similar, length-of-the-field beauties. The Cheetahs’ 47-38 boilover in Wellington had about half a dozen similarly enthralling ensemble tries.
One of the aspects of the Australian sides that struck me was the absence of strike players in comparison to their abundance in the South African and New Zealand teams. It leads the eye to the Force’s Nick Cummins, the Reds’ Dom Shipperley, and the Brumbies’ Jess Mogg.
An old champion like Adam Ashley-Cooper, for instance, seems to be nowhere near as effective with the ball as he used to be. Rob Horne is a disappointment too.
My feeling is that the Wallabies are going to need a couple of outside backs with size, pace and a sort of derring-do, almost madcap determination in their running.
A game or two is hardly the basis for elevating players to the national colours. But Cummins was the energiser for the Force playing in the centres, rather than on the wing. Every time he got the ball he made huge tracts of ground, with would-be defenders lying prone. His bursts put the Force on the front foot and terrorised the Reds defence.
Shipperley scored a terrific long-range try in the last seconds of the match against the Waratahs to snatch a victory for the Reds. He scored another beauty, again on time but with his team well-beaten, against the Reds. The old gridiron coach who enunciated the mantra ‘you can’t coach speed’ was absolutely right.
Shipperley has got real speed, ‘gas’ in the modern idiom. He has a step and an eye for the try line. For a rugby team, having a winger like this is like a tennis player having a huge serve. It means plenty of easy points.
Jesse Mogg is the Brumbies fullback I know nothing about. Rod Kafer, who is close to the Brumbies, said in his commentary that he has only played six matches of rugby union. Is he a former leaguie? Kafer also said that Stephen Larkham reckons he is the most gifted player he has come across. Certainly, Mogg has the same loping speed of Larkham and a willingness to have a go.
They are three players Robbie Deans should be looking closely at. Now, back to the Australian conference.
The Brumbies are leading with 17 points. They have played five and won three. They have also had their bye, which is worth four points.
I wrote in my notebook while watching the terrific match against the Sharks that Jake White has got the Brumbies playing an aggressive game at the breakdown, using the rolling maul effectively, kicking for position a lot and exploiting their strong set pieces, the lineouts and scrums.
They lack some killer moves in the backs, something they could learn from the Brumbies of old. They also lack some line-breakers in the backs and forwards.
And on a number of occasions when they were close to the Sharks try line and pressing, they lost all their shape in the back line. This is something that Larkham, the backs coach, needs to address.
But given the fact that they defeated the Highlanders at home and lost narrowly to the Chiefs at Hamilton, and have a quality head coach, I’d make the fearful prediction (without too much enthusiasm it must be said) that they will, just might, possibly, perhaps, win (or not lose) the Australian conference title.
The Reds and the Waratahs have played all six matches in the tournament. Both teams are on 13 points, with an additional four points in the bank for both of them. The Reds have lost three of their matches. The Waratahs have lost four. The Reds have earned only one bonus point. The Waratahs have won five. The Reds have a points differential of -60, the Waratahs -3.
The Waratahs beat the Sharks, who beat the Brumbies. But against the Chiefs, once Wycliff Palu was off the field early in the second half, after 11 strong carries, the Waratahs did not have much attack. Their defence was excellent and a rampant Chiefs side in the second half was held out for long periods of time.
A strong defence is not a compliment that can be made about the Reds. Their points differential is the worst in the tournament. Despite this, I feel that they are a better chance to win the Australian conference than the Waratahs. Quade Cooper when he comes back will give the backs some edge they are missing. The pack is a good one but it is not firing. Ewen McKenzie is a shrewd coach. I expect the Reds to be the main challengers to the Brumbies.
There will be a huge test of this contention next weekend, on Good Friday, when the Reds play the Brumbies before a huge crowd (the Reds have 30,000 members) at Suncorp Stadium.
The Force have lost four of their matches, as have the Waratahs. Most of these losses have been close. This is the reason they have accumulated four bonus points, the second best in the Australian conference. They have defeated the Waratahs in Sydney and the Reds at home in Perth.
One of the keys to winning the home conference is to win the local matches. Their victory against the Reds was impressive. They play the Chiefs at Perth on Friday. A win, however unlikely, would propel them into real conference considerations.
The Brumbies, Reds, Waratahs, and Force have some chance (to greater and lesser degrees) of winning the Australian conference. I can’t make a similar prediction about the Rebels. They have no hope.
The Rebels played a good first half against the Highlanders at Invercargill. But in the second half they were the equivalent of that boxing award that used to be given to the kid who was stupid enough to keep coming back after he was smashed to smithereens, ‘the gamest loser.’ The Highlanders ran in five tries in 40 minutes, an assault on John Muggleton’s defensive system that truly muggled it.
This weekend, the Rebels play the Blues at Auckland. The Blues must win to keep their faltering 2012 campaign somewhere near the right track. The Reds play the Brumbies at Brisbane. The Force play the Chiefs at Perth.
Only the Waratahs, who have a bye, are guaranteed of coming out of the round with any tournament points.
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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.