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Yawning gap between Tests and Super Rugby

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    Pierre Spies (C) of the Bulls tackles Liam Gill of the Reds during the Super Rugby match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, March 24, 2012. (AFP Photo: Alexander Joe)

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    It is that wonderful time of the rugby year, when the matches start to carry that extra bit of significance.

    There is a touch more tension in the air, the tackles contain a little extra bite and the big players start to remind the Test selectors that they are still the main men.

    The Brumbies vs Waratahs game and the Crusaders v Reds clash this weekend will come under the watchful eye of the national selectors.

    Furious notes would have been taken at the New South Wales v Crusaders match at Allianz Stadium, particularly on the scrum battle, in which the home side acquitted itself well.

    Each side was stacked with caps.

    The temptation, therefore, to describe these type of encounters as ‘Test-like’ is compelling.

    I have fallen into the trap myself, drawing too much significance from the Reds’ group-stage victory over the Crusaders last year in a column for RugbyHeaven. We all make mistakes.

    But what stood out from that Waratahs v Crusaders game, above a host of interesting subplots, was the following: it was a good Super Rugby game and nothing more. The pace was admirable, but not breathtaking. But the game made it clear that the gap between Super Rugby and the Test rugby is significant, and constant.

    There were a number of performances over the weekend that bolstered that view.

    Tom Carter is a committed, experienced midfielder who has carved out a decent career in the hardest provincial competition in the world, but when that little extra is required of him he falls short.

    A lack of pace was exposed twice by Robbie Fruean on defence and a short inside ball in a first-half attacking move was poorly executed.

    Dean Mumm was another who made Fruean look exceptionally good in the first half as the giant midfielder exposed him on the outside.

    On the other side of the coin for the Waratahs, Tatafu Polota-Nau gave us all a glimpse of the unbridled aggression required at Test level with some brutal carries of the ball and a central role in the lineout drive that led to Wycliff Palu’s try.

    His attraction to confrontation was mirrored in the Crusaders by the exceptional Kieran Read, who clearly outpointed Palu in the battle of the No. 8s and has grown into a classic All Blacks loose forward.

    The pair’s performances stood out as genuine Test quality, as the others around them operated at the next level down, for reasons of ability and occasion. It is impossible to bring Bledisloe intensity every week – both mentally and physically – in a long provincial campaign of weekly skirmishes.

    It seems churlish to say so after two tries and a performance that hogged the headlines, but Fruean’s display was further evidence of the yawning gap. The big man is a wonderful sight in full flight but no more closer to the All Blacks midfield in 2012 than he was last year.

    He was to blame for the Waratahs’ first try after a bad defensive mis-read on Adam Ashley-Cooper and ignored a simple inside pass to Dan Carter in the lead-up to Zac Guildford’s try.

    Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Richard Kahui and Ma’a Nonu are stronger options and the All Blacks selectors will have to start considering Carter as an option at No.12 for certain game situations if the form of Aaron Cruden and Tom Taylor continues. The trend of the game in 2012 – more tactical kicking and a premium on territory – also points towards such a consideration.

    Fruean’s supporters might contest the inclusion of Nonu in that list due to the struggles of the Blues but they are dreaming. It has been a recurring theme of New Zealand rugby in recent years that senior players have drifted through the first part of the year and find an extra gear when the All Blacks jersey is produced.

    The phenomenon is not as marked on the Australian side of the ditch but I suspect it is the case at the Reds. There had to be a comedown from 2011’s emotional high and while this year’s side is trying, Will Genia’s performance in Auckland showed that class acts can move into higher gears when the time is right.

    Knowing the gap between the two arenas, it is therefore far too simple to say that the poor state of the Australian conference indicates a bad year ahead for the Wallabies. Super Rugby has many admirable traits, but it is not a shadow Test arena.

    Paul Cully
    Paul Cully

    Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.

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    The Crowd Says (134)

    • May 2nd 2012 @ 3:45am
      kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 3:45am | ! Report

      I agree that the two arenas are different, but this can lead to apprehension over choosing players to move up to the next stage, a problem that severely damages New Zealand but doesn’t damage Australia simply because the only players remotely good enough have to be selected and such is the shortfall of talent many who aren’t are on display too. In New Zealand however, players who are long past their best keep out young talent because it is assumed that Super form can never translate into international form, and the coaches would rather avoid the difficult task of transforming slightly raw talent into good test players, wasting huge swathes of ability and often putting out a virtual second team. Chris Rattue, despite an anti-All Black agenda, wrote last year that despite all its playing talent the All Blacks had ended up fielding Kahui and Jane, who did little more than chase up kicks and were silent in attack, while even with almost no resources the Wallabies were able to field JOC and Ioane who could also chase up the kicks but could attack far better. The moment Deans gets a few more decent players, the All Blacks are ripe for the taking. In Australia, you may well see a player like one of the Timanis or Tomane on show this year, because the Wallabies have to take selection risks to win and put out raw players. The coach trusts himself to eradicate their mistakes and turn them into test players. The very best XV possible has to play to stand any chance of competing in the Tri-nations, whereas almost any All Black XV can win the thing. The advantage this gives to a coach like Deans of course is that he doesn’t actually have to face the team the All Blacks could be, just the safe, lesser version. If he can turn Timanis and Tomane into test players as New Zealand cannot with Fruean, Ranger etc… then the Tri-nations and possibly world number 1 spot is his.

      This year it would be good to see BOTH Timanis, Vaea, Gill, Hooper, Tomane involved at some point. It would be nice if more backs had appeared but they haven’t. In any case what the Wallabies really need are forwards, as they are only two players short in the backs. I’m not sure the comparison between Palu and Reid is quite fair. Palu has been injured for most of the past 12 months and is still only playing 60 minutes most of the time. If he ever had a run without injury Reid might well have a serious challenge, as Palu on his day is as powerful as any player.

      • May 2nd 2012 @ 5:42am
        Darwin Stubbie said | May 2nd 2012 @ 5:42am | ! Report

        Initially I thought you were just trolling – but clearly you really just don’t get it

        Cully really is a breath of fresh on this site – and generally across the board regarding rugby writing in the mainstream media long may it continue

      • May 2nd 2012 @ 6:29am
        mania said | May 2nd 2012 @ 6:29am | ! Report

        keep dreaming KPM – what is with u in attacking NZ’s experienced players? jane and kahui now? these two were awesome in the WC, who would be better? modern day tactics (defined by the boks in 2009) shows that wingers these days have to know how to defuse bombs. AB’s gave a lesson to aus in the semi’s as to what happens when 1) u defuse your own bombs (kahui, jane and dagg dropped nothing that day) and 2) how to expose a team that doesnt having a bomb squad at the back.
        AB’s won the WC with kahui, jane, nonu, conradSmith and Piri on the field. give it up KPM, AB’s were the best team last year with these experienced players. are you griping that even though the AB’s are the best they should be better? nit picky
        joc and ioane vs kahui and jane. the skill factor alone is in favour of the kiwi’s, oops they’re all kiwis. i mean the AB’s.
        AB’s ripe for the taking? dream on. aus is at least 2 years away from doing this consistently.

        • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:15am
          kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:15am | ! Report

          mania don’t get me wrong the All Blacks could put out a spellbinding array of talent this year having lost so few first choices abroad. In fact Kaino and possibly Carl Hayman are the only first choice players they won’t have access to. There’s Andre Taylor and Dagg, incredible to have two full-backs like that, and a galaxy of centres. But I think that having so much to choose from can create it’s own problems. My question is really whether they will put the best possible team on the field or play it safe?

          • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:25am
            mania said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:25am | ! Report

            kpm – hayman isnt good enough to be in the AB’s anymore. his fitness alone would keep him out. and vs owenFranks who not only holds his side up against all the big teams but enjoys work around the field and is a defensive demon.
            kaino would probably be at the top of his game for another couple of years but is leaving on his terms and getting himself a well deserved nest egg. kaino has never done an OE and nows his opportunity and he deserves it.
            “My question is really whether they will put the best possible team on the field or play it safe?” it will hopefully b both. u dont discard test players like day old newspaper. proven test players who can handle the big games and consistently bring their a game everytime is rare and you treasure those resources.
            form is temporary, class is permanent. AB’s are class and so will some of the up and coming rookies

      • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:11am
        Thurl said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:11am | ! Report

        If Chris Rattue is the best back up you’ve got KPM, your arguement is in trouble, not that we didn’t know that already. If you want the opinion of someone who’s been there, done that, this article is closer to the mark.
        http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/super-rugby/6841369/Robbie-Fruean-must-find-consistency-Bunce

        • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:16am
          mania said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:16am | ! Report

          thurl – fruean never should’ve left wellington. the part of his game that is lacking is what conradSmith does. if fruen had conrad as a mentor and actually learnt what was taught he’d be deadly.

          • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:42am
            Thurl said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:42am | ! Report

            Unfortunately for fruean, he wouldn’t get too much game time at centre if he stayed in Wellington. We’d probably be seeing him as a winger instead

        • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:17am
          kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:17am | ! Report

          Thurl I agree that Rattue writes with a strong agenda and would like to attack rugby wherever he can, but because of this he is often able to say things that more mainstream New Zealand commentators would never dare. Besides one can’t dismiss his arguments because of the position they come from.

          I think Hansen should be able to sort out Fruean’s occasional defensive issues better than Blackadder. Besides, if the damage he causes in attack would probably make up for any mistake in defense.

          • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:36am
            mania said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:36am | ! Report

            KPM – from the article that thurls put forward
            http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/super-rugby/6841369/Robbie-Fruean-must-find-consistency-Bunce
            this is from frankBunce one of the hardest smartest centres the worlds ever seen. i’m not the only one spouting this bunce tots agrees with me and a whole bunch of other kiwi’s

            “All Blacks incumbent Conrad Smith remains the best No 13 in New Zealand, with Richard Kahui the next option if the Hurricanes skipper is unavailable. ”

            “You need to perform at that sort of level that Conrad Smith does for 80 minutes and he rarely makes a mistake,” Bunce stated. “It is not only vision on attack and vision in defence. Robbie needs to work on those things but that will come with experience.”

            ps – its not up to the coaches to teach fruean to tackle. its frueans responsibility to take some initiative and learn.

          • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:37am
            Thurl said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:37am | ! Report

            Actually KPM, you’re wrong there on many levels;
            -Hansons forte with the AB’s wasn’t defence.
            -Frueans mistakes aren’t occassional
            -Defensive mistakes cannot be more than made up for with a bit of attack.

            The problem you have KPM, is that you are selecting the All Black midfield on one criteria only. But the true worth of a player is judged by what he does without the ball more so than what he does with it

            • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:44am
              kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:44am | ! Report

              Thurl and mania there is a broader theoretical question here. Is it better to select slightly flaky players who contribute to the attack but may have defensive lapses, or solid defensive players who contribute nothing to the attack? Is it better to have a player who might create a try but let one in or one who won’t let in a try but won’t create one?

              At the moment it would seem in New Zealand the latter type of player is in favour. The non-attacking, defensively sound, safe player.

              • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:52am
                Thurl said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:52am | ! Report

                LOL KPM, thats a selective question and I don’t think its relevant to the situation you attach it to. Who are these players that don’t create try’s that you speak of??

                In fact as a theoretical question, its probably one you should be asking Robbie Deans

              • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:52am
                mania said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:52am | ! Report

                kpm – thats because offense wins games but defense wins championsips. the latter as imho an AB has to be able to tackle. in the tight games its defense and lack of mistakes that will win the day. fruean will be good against 2nd – 3rd tier teams but against a team like the boks who can defend a raging elephant, pure sporadic brute force isnt enough.
                oh well conrads the man and you are in the minority writing him off. i cant understand why and how blind u are to conrads talent and contributions.

              • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:11am
                Moaman said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:11am | ! Report

                ” At the moment it would seem in New Zealand the latter type of player is in favour. The non-attacking, defensively sound, safe player. ” Yep….I’m afraid you may be right…after all,look at who our current Government is. Point you may be missing KPM is there should always be a sprinkling of glue amidst the glitter to mould a good team.You wouldn’t see an IPL lineup in a Test match would you? Elsewhere,Jerome Kaino’s absence will be sorely felt but there may be a silver lining there too.We might see a specialist fetcher like Todd introduced and RMcCaw move to 6,perhaps? Or Vito might get the nod.Thomson? Messam? Hmmmm…..

              • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:28am
                kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:28am | ! Report

                Moaman sure there needs to be glue, and this is hardly a desperate season for New Zealand as it is for Australia so they can afford to be leisurely: I think there’s a difference between high-performance glue such as the experienced Kaino, and non-adhesive glue such as some players I could refer to who are there from reputation and long-ago feats rather than current day form.

              • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:38am
                Thurl said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:38am | ! Report

                The All Blacks can never afford to be leisurely.
                And please explain the non adhesive glue…..

              • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:42am
                mania said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:42am | ! Report

                thurl- dont go there. KPM means nonu and conradSmith

              • May 2nd 2012 @ 10:22am
                nomis said | May 2nd 2012 @ 10:22am | ! Report

                Very, very rarely, if ever, are the Allblacks easy to beat. To beat the Allblacks, teams have to play their very, very best – every time.

                AUS should never assume they will have an advantage over the AB’s. As soon as the Wallabies do that, they automatically take their foot off the accelerator. There is just something about the Aussie psyche – that causes them to take a break when ever the opportunity arrises.

                I am generalising of course. But there is some truth in it. I remember when Dean’s Wallabies beat the AB’s in his first game as coach against them. He was then quoted in the paper leading up to the next game, how the Wallabies were at the bottom of the hill ready to climb to victory – or some confidence-inspiring thing like that. The Wallabies then went on to lose the next however many against the AB’s

                It wasn’t Deans fault – he just didn’t understand that the Wallabies always play their worst when they’re over-confident. Rarely do they play well against minor nations (even when they win big).

                The Wallabies always play their best when they are the underdogs (even when they lose). This is what gives Qld a special strength and spirit when they play the ‘bigger’ NSW in RL’s SOO.

                The AB’s will always be tricky for the Wallabies. As well as the NZ being so good at rugby, the Wallabies know they are good, but can’t help view them as the ‘little nation’ in their mind’s eye.

                I know everyone will think I’m over-analysing it, especially in the professional era, but I just can’t help but think there’s truth in it.

                In any case, SR is not a good enough indication of what will happen at test level for either the Wallabies or the Allblacks. The scenario for the Wallabies and the AB’s will be the same as it has been forever. The Wallabies will either just win, or the AB’s will dominate.

              • May 2nd 2012 @ 10:37am
                kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 10:37am | ! Report

                nomis I thought after that game he said they had created a rod for their backs the next week and they were duly beaten.

                I think the problem here is that Australia’s players are so much worse that New Zealand’s that they can if everything goes well pull off a one-off victory, but not two in a row.

    • May 2nd 2012 @ 6:34am
      Emric said | May 2nd 2012 @ 6:34am | ! Report

      KPM

      The one time last year we put out a “shadow” All Black side we were belted around the park by the boks.

      • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:01am
        kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:01am | ! Report

        True Emric, I wouldn’t suggest putting them all in at the same time. It’s probably best to phase them in slowly so they can get a handle on the systems and integrate into the team.

    • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:32am
      Moaman said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:32am | ! Report

      PC…a good read,perhaps marred by the obvious silver lining in the last paragraph! I disagree with your contention that the AB Selectors should consider DC for 2nd 5. It won’t happen unless it’s following a bench move eg Cruden coming on and Carter moving out.DC is simply not built for the modern role of 2nd 5/8 and in any case,Ma’a Nonu has a mortgage on that spot currently.

      KPM,KPM,KPM…..Where do I start? Your contention that Dean’s could field his ‘dream xv’ and topple the ‘Has-Beens’ in black and thereby regain(?) slash attain #1 spot has one major flaw (at least 😉 ); The presumption that the NZ System will sit on it’s hands and watch the inexorable march by the Wallabies is fantasy.The moment this AB team starts losing is the moment when the microscope is trundled out.Great players like Buck Shelford,Christian Cullen etc have all felt the sharp edge of the selectorial axe; this lot are not immune.As The ABs themselves like to say…they are merely the current custodians of a long legacy……

    • May 2nd 2012 @ 7:41am
      kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 7:41am | ! Report

      Moaman certainly if they prune the deadwood in the team at the moment quickly, then there is an avalanche of talent that could form a dream team indeed, but will Hansen be brave enough to cull world-cup winning heros? I suppose I’m thinking of this year, because if they run into trouble certainly next year the old stagers would have been well and truly retired if they hadn’t performed. Hansen has a lot of work to do because players like Fruean need his expert moulding and fast, while he has the political task of retiring legendary untouchable sacred world-cup winning cows such as Conrad Smith, either now, or later, but some day soonish because they won’t make the next RWC.

      I think he’ll actually have to put out a pretty good team this year because Kaino was key to the pack last year and if he’s not there some new brilliance elsewhere will have to account for his absence.

      • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:17am
        Thurl said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:17am | ! Report

        I think you’ll find that there’s an evolution with the All Blacks over the next two years, rather than a revolution. I don’t think that a lot of this “avalanche” is ready for Test Match Rugby this year, but 2013 will see a lot more new faces in the AB lineup

        • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:28am
          mania said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:28am | ! Report

          KPM – classic. WC recipients are deadwood. lol
          thurl – true very true. i reckon evolution more than revolution as well. forgot that next WC is 4 years away and the rookies are young. there’s no rush and hansen has the luxury of picking and mixing his combinations of exp vs enthusiasm

          • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:30am
            kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:30am | ! Report

            Thurl I’m sure that’s right, it will be steady and measured.
            mania only a small number are such lumber, the majority despite age still top performers. Look at Kaino and Reid, still firing on all cylinders. Hansen does have the luxury of time at his disposal: no Lions tour, four years from a RWC.

            • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:36am
              mania said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:36am | ! Report

              yeah KPM. hopefully hansen doesnt take his foot off the pedal and keeps looking to evolve the AB’s. yes the WC is 4 years away but AB’s mentality is about winning every game.
              hopefully the lumber can keep up and prove they deserve their spots. GO CONRAD!!!

      • May 2nd 2012 @ 1:03pm
        WQ said | May 2nd 2012 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

        See this is where you come unstuck KPM, there is no deadwood in the current Team!

    • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:51am
      kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:51am | ! Report

      mania I think this should be the best Tri-nations in years: SA will have a real coach, Australia perhaps enough players to put out a competitive side for the first time in a long time, and with any luck some dazzling new saplings will appear in the Black forest.

      • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:55am
        mania said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:55am | ! Report

        and a big beldisloe year. yes agree its gonna b a good year

      • May 2nd 2012 @ 9:11am
        Moaman said | May 2nd 2012 @ 9:11am | ! Report

        Nice metaphor there KPM. When the giant kauri come down they naturally create space and allow light into the forest floor…ideal for the saplings to flourish.I would like to see the expanded squad that Hansen has apparently asked for;Some of the fresh talent could then come in and the selectors could see how well they fit in….. Only possible changes I envisage would be in 2nd Row(Donnelly versus Bekhuis/Retallick) Loose Forward(whether or not they employ a “genuine fetcher”) and in the halves….who will back up Ellis and who will start at 10?

        • May 2nd 2012 @ 9:29am
          kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 9:29am | ! Report

          Moaman it will be interesting to see if he sticks with Cruden as back-up to Carter or brings in one of the younger 10s, and what he thinks of Kerr-Barlow, and indeed what he thinks of all sorts of players: as part of a coaching team its hard to know what any of those involved think or would do as individuals. How similar will Hansen be as a selector to Henry?

          • May 2nd 2012 @ 10:17am
            Moaman said | May 2nd 2012 @ 10:17am | ! Report

            KPM–Cruden has been mighty impressive…his game is growing and I would have no qualms about him slotting in to 10 except a concern about his ability to kick goals from halfway. Barrett has to shore up his defensive game to be a true contender;not sure about Tom Taylor’s all round game but there is no doubting his temperament and goal-kicking prowess.
            Tawera Kerr-Barlow looked great until perhaps his last game where the wheels appeared to fall off his decision-making process.A good thing he was rested over the weekend…definitely a prospect but not this year I wouldn’t think.The Manawatu and now Highlander #9 Aaron Smith might be a go as Ellis’s understudy.Slick pass and nippy.Steve Hansen is an unknown factor,to me.I really have no idea how he will turn out.The only reason I am unconcerned at his being at the helm is the fact that he was endorsed by Henry-surely(?) a good judge?

            • May 2nd 2012 @ 10:33am
              kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 10:33am | ! Report

              Moaman all those 10s will be hard to fit into one Tri-nations (or whatever it’s called) squad, probably three of them will make it so I suppose it’s between Barrett and Taylor to miss out.
              I would say Kerr-Barlow might actually get a run as 9 has been unsatisfactory for several years and so anyone who stands out like him might be fast-tracked where they wouldn’t in other positions.

              As the All Black pack is so good I wonder who if anyone will make it through this year.

          • May 2nd 2012 @ 1:06pm
            WQ said | May 2nd 2012 @ 1:06pm | ! Report

            KPM, Cruden is one of the younger number 10’s!

            • May 2nd 2012 @ 1:16pm
              kingplaymaker said | May 2nd 2012 @ 1:16pm | ! Report

              Ok WQ, the youngest 10s then…

              • May 2nd 2012 @ 2:44pm
                WQ said | May 2nd 2012 @ 2:44pm | ! Report

                I am not sure that your argument is stacking up in this instance, how young do you want NZ number 10’s to be?
                Cruden played for NZ under 20’s in 2009 and was only just out of school prior to that, how old do you think he is?
                Hang on, wait a minute, I think I am now starting to understand where you are coming from KPM. By the time NZ are playing Test match Rugby using players straight out of the Palmerston North Boys High 1st XV, the rest of the world may have a chance of beating them!

    • May 2nd 2012 @ 8:55am
      reds fan said | May 2nd 2012 @ 8:55am | ! Report

      RE. your claims made after the Reds v Cru round match last year. apology accepted 😉

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