Super Rugby mid-season report card
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The Western Force celebrate their 21-20 win over the Waratahs at full time during their Super Rugby match at Allianz Stadium in 2012. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
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For the last few seasons, I’ve offered up my mid-season report card for Super Rugby around this time of year. It seems logical and even traditional that I should continue my trend.
Yet the new-bloated Super Rugby season, with a fasting period for the inbound June Internationals, has meant it’s not quite the same mid-season mark it once was.
There’s no real dramas, I suppose; I’ll just have to write another report card later in the season.
Super Rugby has been great in 2012.
It’s been as open as it’s ever been, and with upsets or surprise results every week. At least that’s what I’m concluding based on my once-again horrendous tipping form.
The Stormers, Chiefs, and Highlanders fall into this category, simply by leading the way in this year’s tournament. I’m not sure who will host the final quite yet, but I’m thinking it will be one of these three sides.
The Stormers just keep rolling on, home or away.
Saturday’s loss to the Crusaders was their first of the tournament, and even that was a close-run thing.
Their defence is still excellent and they seem to play more attacking rugby than you might expect.
Joe Pietersen provides the spark from the back and Bryan Habana looks to be regaining form from seasons’ past. Only a lack of bonus points keeps them out of top spot overall.
The Highlanders are toward the pointy end of the Super Rugby standings, just by doing the simple things well.
There’s probably no harder team at the breakdown and they seem to be capable of adapting on the run better than most teams.
Under the Perspex roof in Dunedin, or in the cold of Invercargill, the Highlanders seem to have the uncanny knack of dragging their opponents into the game they want to play, and then just playing that game better.
It’s simple, effective, winning rugby.
The Chiefs are here because I thought they’d go well this year.
They were one of my three pre-season smokeys and now that they lead the comp, they certainly haven’t let me down.
They’re now also on a six-game winning streak, including three from three away from home.
A new coach and a new playmaker seems to have breathed new life into the Chiefs, and they’re playing exciting rugby as a result.
Aaron Cruden is clearly enjoying the benefit of his off-season switch from the Hurricanes, while Sonny Bill Williams is also enjoying his move from the Crusaders.
In turn, guys like Richard Kahui and Lelia Masaga are enjoying the extra space and time they often find themselves in.
The Chiefs’ scrum, though, is what’s literally laying the platform for the sparkling attack.
A massive front row is making their scrum near immovable, and it’s scary to think what 136kg 20 year-old Ben Tameifuna might become.
The Reds and Crusaders, despite both being a bit off, are also doing about as well as I thought they would this year.
Both struggled to a degree to replace their key playmakers early on and the Crusaders are very deliberately bubble-wrapping Dan Carter back to full match fitness now.
I expect the Reds will do the same when Quade Cooper returns.
The Rebels and Lions fall into this category because I just didn’t expect much at all, and they’ve proved this to be the case.
The Rebels, to their credit, have shown signs of improvement in both defence and attack. But much like Matt Giteau last season for the Brumbies, James O’Connor looks like the Lone Ranger trying to spark things.
And it’s hard to see anything but a long season still to come for the Lions. As expected.
The surprise packets
The Hurricanes, Brumbies, and Bulls all fall into this category by virtue of losing so many quality and established players after the 2011 season and bouncing back in spectacular fashion.
I wouldn’t be alone in saying that I truly didn’t expect much in 2012 for any of them; if any of them snuck into the top half of the overall table by season’s end, I was going to prepare hats for eating.
Yet here we are, after week eight and all three of them are in the top six.
The Brumbies lead the Australian conference again after a brutal demolition of the Rebels. The Bulls and Hurricanes occupy wildcard spots.
The Bulls and Hurricanes have found ways of reinventing their sides, while maintaining high standards on the field.
They haven’t tried to find another Matfield or Weepu. Instead they’ve preferred to back lesser-known players to fill in behind them.
Both teams are being helped enormously by their respective captains Pierre Spies and Conrad Smith, both of whom are quite literally playing super rugby.
The Brumbies might be the feel-good story of 2012.
Decimated by big-name departures, and with 18 new faces in their squad, they are reaping the benefits of an off-season that started last July.
What’s more, with rolling mauls and now a massive human being at number eight, the Jake White influence only requires a stadium car park braai to be complete.
The Cheetahs also fall into the surprise bracket in 2012. Despite having had a very good season in 2011, I thought the loss of Sarel Pretorius and the injection of a relatively inexperienced fly-half would be too big a hurdle to overcome.
What I didn’t realise was that Johan Goosen is something of a goal-kicking freak, who is also a bloody good ball-player to boot.
It may be a touch scary to think about, but Goosen could well be the next long term Springbok fly-half.
The Force and Sharks were my two other smokeys pre-season and, despite showing decent form in patches, haven’t been able to maintain it.
The thing about consistency, you see, is that you have to do it all the time.
The presence of the Blues and Waratahs here probably doesn’t need to be explained.
So take it away, Roarers. Who’ have been your ‘as-expected’s, surprise packets and disappointments so far in 2012?
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
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