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.
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.