How the teams fare at halfway point of Super Season

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    This week of Super Rugby – the lead up, the rumours, the shake ups and then the games – give us a good picture of where the Australian teams lie.

    Here is a snapshot of what situation each team finds themselves in at this stage of the season, based on the weekend’s performances.

    Waratahs nitty gritty
    The Waratahs are can play well but have very obvious limitations. They aren’t supremely coached; they have to shuffle players to cover holes; they pay superstars to sit on the sidelines and have reached their ceiling with the current pieces in place.

    I was at Sunday’s game, as part of one of the Waratah’s best crowds in recent memory. Over 30,000 turned up in the waning afternoon sun, creating a good atmosphere. The passing shower before kick-off was the only possible dampener to the spectacle, and that didn’t last.

    I thought the Waratahs played about as well as could be expected: they played good but not great. They shovelled the ball around the backline a little unimaginatively, but at least with more regularity than usual. The forwards performed quite well and matched the Crusaders pack for large parts of the game, especially in the scrum where the dominance led to a well taken Sarel Pretorius try.

    One area that would result in instant improvement would be to give the ball to Tatafu Polota-Nau more often. He is physical and almost always takes two or three men to ground. I saw him gain about 10m in the early part of the second half and wondered why he hadn’t been involved more. He only carried the ball twice all match. He’s much more effective than players such as Mumm or Robinson when running hard.

    Sometimes, coaching is to blame. One very obvious tactical error by the Waratahs was their deployment to receive kick-offs. This should be blamed on coaching. They should see the formations and adjust their troops accordingly.

    The Crusaders lined up balanced across the halfway line most times – close to equal numbers on both sides of the kicker. The Waratahs continued to line-up with the forwards over to the right where kicks normally go.

    However the Crusaders sent the vast majority of their kicks to the undermanned backs. The first few kicks were a bit deep and safely countered by Ashley-Cooper; this possibly lulled them into believing they were correctly positioned.

    Then Tom Taylor adjusted his range and that meant that Tom Kingston was left trying to field short kicks without much room to run up as he was positioned right on the 10m line. He was isolated on his side with the opposition lose forwards charging through on him. There was no forward support over there. This meant there were numerous dropped balls and he was getting pummelled out of the air. The Waratahs never adjusted to the balanced Crusaders kick-off line. Very poor coaching, indeed.

    Afa Pakalani and Peter Betham showed us that they aren’t good enough at the Super Rugby level. I can’t say that they were the sole reason the Waratahs were beaten on Sunday – the Crusaders definitely deserved victory for a few other reasons too – but they were a huge part of the problem.

    In defence they were all at sea. The Crusaders were able to peel off massive chunks of space out wide whenever they went there. They could rely on the Waratahs’ winger (either one) getting itchy and lunging out of the line instead of patiently sliding and letting the full-back come and help as good defensive lines do.

    Another example is the try where Robbie Fruean scored under the posts. The set play was interesting with the half-back looping around the fly-half. Fruean was put into space and he accelerated. But the Waratahs should have had it covered. Barnes was back there covering his line to the corner. Pakalani, the blind-side winger was coming across to make sure the inside line was covered too. Only he didn’t. He bolted across behind Barnes and covered the outside line also, leaving Fruean untouched to the line.

    The Waratahs wingers on the weekend were admittedly thrown into the fire. They had new combinations to work with because of injury. The problem I have with the Waratahs process is, while other sides seem to be able to produce a replacement player for each specific position, they need to shuffle things endlessly. A direct swap means that the replacement is good at his individual role, knows the inherent relationships needed to work in that position and hopefully can make up for lost time.

    Other, more successful sides would have just replaced the outside centre (Rob Horne) and full-back (Bernard Foley) with the next in line groomed for that position.

    Tom Kingston has the potential to be a great winger, but we know for sure now he is not suited to the centres. He isn’t big enough and doesn’t know how to make the crucial decisions in defence for that role. Adam Ashley-Cooper has more experience at full back, but has played on the wing all year as he did last year at the Brumbies and Wallabies level too.

    Where is the next in line at full-back after Foley? The Queensland Reds used replacements for Cooper at 10, such as Mike Harris and Sam Lane. Although Lane was inexperienced at this level he showed a bit of skill and potential because he’s played in that position many times before.

    If the Waratahs are insistent on shuffling players around to cover the holes in the side I would suggest devising something radical. Find a way to have Sarel Pretorius and Brendan McKibbon on the field together.

    There are brutally obvious problems with shuffling the fly-half and full-back around in defence and attack. We all saw it fail with the Wallabies last year and know that you shouldn’t really try to get away with it at this level. If Barnes wasn’t fit to play he shouldn’t play. Without Barnes marshalling the backline in defence the other main occurrence was Tom Carter being isolated against much faster backs regularly. It didn’t take a rugby genius to see how that turned out.

    Reds and Force continue to cannibalise Australian rugby
    Before we get into the mess of rugby administration for the thousandth time (I’m starting to believe this may just be my hobby horse now) I want to talk about the play of both teams this weekend.

    The Reds go as good as Will Genia goes.

    Genia has struggled to control matches the last few weeks – possibly off-field matters were clouding his mind – and the Reds struggled accordingly. This weekend Genia played with precision and picked apart a team of superior players than his own. He was directing the play and initiating attack noticeably quicker this week than against the Stormers. The other notable improvement was his kicking. I think he kicks a bit much, but this week it was more accurate, either aiming for space or giving his side a chance to compete.

    Another player to keep an eye on is Rod Davies. He has been very quiet this year. Dom Shipperley has completely out-played him. Once Digby Ioane can get back to his wing spot, I hope the Reds drop Davies, rather than the more promising Shipperly.

    Davies just doesn’t seem to back himself anymore and won’t take the ball deep and at pace. He is very shallow in the backline indicating that he wants the perfect pass or he doesn’t want it at all. (See last week’s blindside break where he was in front of the pass.) He hasn’t got the confidence of either Shipperley or Ioane.

    Shipperley had the quietest game of his season against the Blues. There is a simple reason for that: Ioane is not a passing centre and needs to be put back on the wing as soon as possible.

    The loose forward trio of Beau Robinson, Liam Gill and Scott Higginbotham that was used against the Blues is the best option this team has. None of those players are the complete package at their position. You can name faults for all of them but together they complement each other and this is a team game. There is enough ball-hawking, forward running, tackling and nuisance making among them to get the job done. You can obviously make a case for Radike Samo, but due to his utility value he may be best used off the bench.

    The other side of the administration circus is the Western Force, who also played a rugby game on the weekend. Their match against the Stormers was a nasty affair. Plenty of forward niggle, hits, kicking the leather of it, a sneaky try and lots of water.

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen players splash water as they walked from a free-kick to a lineout, but that’s the kind of deluge they endured.

    The Stormers won the game handily. There was a simple try to Peter Grant that came about because their forwards steamrolled the Force and sucked in the defence. There was a simple try to Bryan Habana who snaffled an intercept, raced down the field and put the ball down before the line and lost control but was awarded the try.

    The Force side was particularly ineffective under the guidance of David Harvey at fly-half. Ben Seymour brought the loose forwards and the likes of Nick Cummins and Alfie Mafi into the game more successfully than Harvey.

    Fly-halves aren’t what win you a game in a swamp, though.

    The inter-play between the Stormers forwards was so much more useful than the Force, it wasn’t even close. They were able to off-load in the wet. Pick and drives were fast and supported well. Those types of quick combinations and decisions did lead to the Stormers being able to throw it wide effectively a few times, but it was all off the base of solid forward momentum.

    Now for this weekend’s instalment of the recruitment circus.

    Let’s just run through the series of events quickly in short form. Then we can add them to our very special list of very special administrative blunders in Australian Rugby that has grown since the game turned professional and left behind those who run it.

    Firstly, the Reds pull a ‘Director of This and That’ position out of their hat for Ewen McKenzie, presumably so that he could be made available should the Wallabies position be open.

    I don’t think that is a bad thing in and of its self, although, it is very short-sighted. The Reds just won a championship, have a slew of young stars that have gelled together over some very tough times and risen to be the cream of the crop.

    Did they really think that best thing to do was reshuffle, disrupting that momentum and distracting everyone from the ultimate goal?

    Wouldn’t you want to have the chance to build something special there? Why does McKenzie have to coach the Wallabies at the next change-over? He could stay the Reds coach and win another championship or two.

    The second trick was for the Reds to appoint a very average coach to take over the helm next year – Richard Graham.

    The Force has arguably gone backwards and been further neutered in their playing style since he took over the job. I’ve also never seen a more zoned out, disinterested coach watching his side play.

    Thirdly they announce the reshuffle while the season is underway, completely disrupting the Reds and Force for the rest of the year. To the point where the Force players had Graham fired.

    Enough said.

    Then, fourthly, Will Genia is supposedly moving to the Force. The news comes just before the Force play and horribly sprung upon David Pocock in the captain’s interview at the end of the match.

    Then all parties realise the deal isn’t yet completed and that the salary cap will probably not be increased next year. So now Genia has to hold a press conference to let everyone know that it was much ado about nothing.

    Who makes decisions for these clubs!? This wouldn’t look at all out of place on a Friday Night Lights script!

    Tim Horan certainly proved he is a savvy politician. He broke the non-move on twitter as early as he could. This meant that while on-air for Fox Sports covering the Force game, he could be supportive of the Force bring a star into the fold but knowing that eventually it would lead to speculation and renegotiation.

    Surely the Force and Reds are able to have a relatively private negotiation. Whenever a contract for a good player comes up it ends up like Lote Tuqiri all over again.

    Rebels are without a cause
    It was probably out of hope more than realism, but two weeks ago, coming off the win against the Blues, some were saying it was a possibility that the Rebels could make some sort of run at the Australian Conference leaders. They were on 18 competition points at that time and the Brumbies were only on 21. That was more a reflection of the poor Australian results than the quality of the Rebels side.

    Round eight saw the Brumbies tear the Rebels to shreds. Round nine saw the Waratahs tear them up as much as a Tahs side can, before coasting home and allowing the Rebels to make it a little more respectable.

    The problem is that the Rebels don’t have an engine room. A rugby field is cluttered with 15 players on each side. To make good use of the attacking weapons of James O’Connor (not for a while now), Kurtley Beale and Danny Cipriani (not any more) there needs to be initial go-forward.

    There are plenty of attacking sides in the competition, but most of them do it brilliantly on the counter and struggle to create their own points. The best teams at creating their own chances are the Stormers and the Highlanders. They do it by creating a vicious cycle of momentum in the forwards, repeatedly fracturing the defensive line and drawing the wider players into the middle and then going wide with real space.

    The Rebels absolutely must replicate that style to make use of the unique skills their backs have.

    Brumbies are our best
    The Brumbies are currently our best coached, best performing, best viewed and best bet in the Australian conference. They have a more stable body of work so far.

    This side has built a style that would be suited to knock out rugby. They aren’t overly reliant on kicking, but they aren’t going to do something silly with the ball to put the side under useless pressure.

    Christian Lealiifano has played himself into a Wallabies spot this year. Safe-bet Deans may still pick Berrick Barnes in the 10 jersey for the main tests, but you’d think there was no way Lealiifano could be ignored for the mid-week tests if Deans wants to play two essentially different sides. He hasn’t overplayed his hand all year but is a good mix of running and passing.

    Jake White has identified the talent of his running wide players, relative to the competition and make it a priority to get them the ball. His Springboks were often kick first, kick second, kick third teams. The Brumbies have shown a willingness to attack with the ball in hand. Credit should go to White for being able to set up the side to do something very different to his previous team.

    White has organised the team to play using Nic White as the fulcrum as he did with his Springbok sides. This is a very effective way to simplify the game plan. The halfback touches the ball the most and is therefore in a great position to guide the team. Will Genia does this for the Reds in a similar way. The halfback is the primary in field kicker and keeps the forwards on task. The South Africans and French both play rugby in this style whereas New Zealand and Australian sides have traditionally made the fly-half the most important player on the field.

    We need to hope that the Brumbies are able to hold off the Reds, who I think will finish fast. The Brumbies are the Australian conference best chance to win a play-off match this year.

    Get well soon, Johan Goosen
    Cheetahs fans, South Africans or rugby fans in general for that matter, answer this question.

    As Johan Goosen fielded that short Highlanders clearing kick at the 49min mark and started picking up speed, would you rather he: (A) Speed past one defender, swerve round another and crash over in the corner for the dagger-21-point-lead-try while blowing out his shoulder, or, (B) Go past two defenders and is tackled into touch for a Highlanders line-out with a 14 pt deficit.

    Everyone selected option B.

    I was watching the replay of the Highlanders v Cheetahs match on Sunday morning and was delighted with the play of Goosen. It seemed as though this 20-year old star was a limitless ceiling of talent. He can literally do it all. If I’m honest with myself he’s probably exactly what I wish James O’Connor was.

    I was talking myself into how good it was for rugby that the South Africans had a player with the electric quality of Goosen tearing up Australian defences for the next 10 years. As he caught that ball and galloped down the sideline I accepted that it was just good to watch no matter what side you were on.

    He can pass with the best of them and isn’t afraid to move it early giving his wide men space. He can evade and accelerate with the best of them. The uprights at the Cheetahs home ground must be some of the tallest in the world, but when he converts a try out wide, 22m from the line, the ball is still going upward as it goes through to posts at the very upper red marks. His in play kicking is fearsome because he can clear the blind-side winger no matter how far back they sit and when they do sit deep he just runs with it.

    Now he is out of rugby for 4 months, with more months of getting back to his best.

    That exhilarating 60m run was one of the saddest moments in rugby this year.

    Let’s hope he quickly returns to his best.

    Elisha Pearce
    Elisha Pearce

    Long-time Roarer Elisha Pearce joined us as a rugby union expert in 2015. He also works for Fairfax Media and has confused more Roarers with his name than anyone in the history of the site.

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    The Crowd Says (22)

    • May 1st 2012 @ 5:45am
      mania said | May 1st 2012 @ 5:45am | ! Report

      elisha – TPN doesnt run it as much because he’s unfit. must admit though that he was throwing into the lineouts better than usual. think only had 1 not straight.
      totally agree about Rod Davies. he’s lost his nuts and doesnt want to play anymore. weekends game he achieved nothing. didnt go hunting for work, didnt inject himself into any backs moves. WASTE OF SPACE. drop him now, he needs to soul search and find his cajones but on the field is not the place to do this. wow elisha your quoting exactly what i said last week bout davies.
      yes ioane isnt a passing centre, and after nonu was finished with him, put on his butt twice, he wasnt a running centre either.
      totally agree about the graham – reds gate saga. appalling and real amatuer hour stuff. do they not realise they’re in the middle of a season??!!??
      rebels – again agreein with u here elisha. to the rebels “duh, buy some forwards.”
      i’m gutted goosen is out. i’m almost positive he would’ve been a bok this year, how could he not be? alas we’ll have to wait another season before he appears in a 4Nations game.

      • May 1st 2012 @ 7:30am
        Elisha Pearce said | May 1st 2012 @ 7:30am | ! Report

        Quoting what you wrote? Sorry if it was too similar for you! I can’t remember reading the Davies bit anywhere? Does that makes us both geniuses!? :p
        The Rebels problems were obvious before they played a game. So I can’t say its hard to write their bit. Just a little sad everyone could see it coming and it is STILL the main thing everyone notices. They don’t even have specific plans to use the forwards well. Not focus on mauls or pick and drive for instance.

        • May 1st 2012 @ 7:37am
          mania said | May 1st 2012 @ 7:37am | ! Report

          no sorry needed and i was blogging it, i hadnt written an entire article. genius? i’m not but u may be but davies has definately lost his nerve. after that samoa game he’s just been luggage
          rebels? yeah its the old adage bout winning the game upfront. i cant believe they dont realise this either. with the money and the imports they’re allowed they could’ve brought a decent tight 5. thought it was telling how short sighted they were when they tried to get sommerville back.

    • May 1st 2012 @ 6:32am
      Red Kev said | May 1st 2012 @ 6:32am | ! Report

      Great wrap up, I can’t significantly disagree with anything posted.
      The Waratahs just can’t get it together, the Reds and the Brumbies remain Australia’s best chances to win Super Rugby titles and this year the Reds don’t it (whether it is the ability, the drive, or the coaching I don’t know).

    • May 1st 2012 @ 6:43am
      Moaman said | May 1st 2012 @ 6:43am | ! Report

      Enjoyed reading your viewpoint; One major gripe though….don’t think it reasonable to blame “poor coaching” on the ‘Tahs’ inability to adjust to what is happening on the field-specifically the kickoff reception.Be a sad day in sport when players go out robotically following instructions and ignoring what is actually happening on the park.

      • May 1st 2012 @ 6:58am
        mania said | May 1st 2012 @ 6:58am | ! Report

        agree MM – like the blues the players have to take responsibilty for their performance. the players are the ones that are being made to look foolish losers

        • May 1st 2012 @ 7:32am
          Elisha Pearce said | May 1st 2012 @ 7:32am | ! Report

          Moaman, I do agree the players should make those adjustments too. But my point is, what are the coaches looking at or paying attention to if they don’t see that?! Are they just playing angry birds?

    • May 1st 2012 @ 8:28am
      Justin said | May 1st 2012 @ 8:28am | ! Report

      Elisha – greta work on the report cards.

      have to take issue with your reading and criticism of the Tahs wingers. It was not the wingers defending poorly but the player one in from touch on most occasions letting their man easily get on the outside. The main offender was Tom Carter (check the tape) and AAC on occasion as well (Read got around him with ease). I also find it staggering you have banished Kingston as to never play 13 again based on one performance where he effectively never did play in that spot anyway. He is in his first year of pro football.

      The coaching criticism I agree with and much of it was to do with moving the backs all over the place in defence. They rarely played in the positions that they were named. Quite ridiculous really and was a key factor in them losing on Saturday.

      On TPN – he needs to look at Moore’s work rate. If he had Moore’s work rate he would be the best hooker in the world bar none. At the moment he doesnt produce near enough work…

      • May 1st 2012 @ 8:34am
        Red Kev said | May 1st 2012 @ 8:34am | ! Report

        TPN can’t put in that work rate, if he does his body will fall apart – like Palu he’s a glass cannon – fires hard then breaks down. Instead he relies on cameo big hits/runs and his superior scrummaging. Unfortunately his scrum work is not that far ahead of Moore’s and in a couple of years (assuming he keeps improving) Hanson will be at a similar level and take the no.2 rake spot.
        The fact that Palu is the same is the reason I like Mowen and Higginbotham as a back row, neither has the big power game but both do more work.

      • May 1st 2012 @ 8:36am
        Elisha Pearce said | May 1st 2012 @ 8:36am | ! Report

        Thanks for the input Justin. I agree with the man second in letting people get outside them a bit easily. But the problem was also the wingers lunging too much. Most rugby sides play 1 short in defence out wide, they play to purposefully slide over as far as possible before making the tackle. That allows them to have the fullback deep and halfback sweeping behind the line on all plays. So if the wing keeps rushing up and leaving all the space behind him it defeats that structure completely.
        I agree the centre was out of sorts often (switching the players from fullback to flyhalf all the time didn’t help that) but that has been covered. I just thought I’d explain something else that happened regularly too.

        About Kingston, I may have been a little harsh. One performance doesn’t mean that he can’t play centre. I don’t think he it suited to it though. I also think that he is a great wing with lots of potential. Again, moving players around is very frustrating. He was showing flashes of very strong running on the wing and if he stayed there and the Waratahs had an actual centre to play in the centres then the defensive problems wouldn’t have been so easy to exploit. On his side of the field at least.

        • May 1st 2012 @ 8:53am
          Justin said | May 1st 2012 @ 8:53am | ! Report

          Elsisha all good but the wingers rushing up (if they actually did) didnt change the fact the out centre was beaten for pace. I would agree with you if the Crusaders had chipped over where the rushing winger was meant to be but they didnt so not really relevant. The Tahs were playing a drift defense they were just too dam slow, particularly Carter and they didnt adjust at all.

          I agree with the blind winger going to far. Blind wingers in defence need to stay “inside” the ball in cover. Never get outside it as you leave the channel back inside wide open for a switch.

    • May 1st 2012 @ 9:21am
      Roy said | May 1st 2012 @ 9:21am | ! Report

      Yes Tom Kingston like any first year player needs to build confidence, a run in the centers against a formidable opponent would test even the best! He is best on the wing for now but I suspect we will see him back in the centres as he matures, he played well there for university last season in Shute Shield… On the subject of the Brumbies, how strong is their squad…when you get punters picking Kevita in the Wallabies centre spot… And he can’t get a regular spot in the Brums! Both he , Holmes And Coleman would walk into most teams at the moment and they are fighting for bench spots. That is how good Jake Whites player selection and training is!

    • May 1st 2012 @ 10:22am
      chuck said | May 1st 2012 @ 10:22am | ! Report

      Yes Tatafu-polonau-nau had a good game as you say taking the ball up only twice then went missing that’s a fitness problem he has too get himself into position to up the ante on the second or third pick and drive the pack did very well at stages of the game against the crusaders.
      Crusaders seemed too be stuck in second gear the fluency in the back line was wayward at times Robbie Fruean had a blinder no doubt Lets Hope Foley recognises the holes too cover .

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