Any finalist could win a wide open Super Rugby tournament
The Crusaders' Robbie Fruean (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
Round 11 revealed that there is very little separating Super Rugby’s winning sides from its losing sides. With this in mind, any team that makes the final has a good shot at winning the tournament.
There is no side this year like the Crusaders in their pomp, or even the Brumbies and Bulls in their championship years, that stands head and shoulders above the pack.
The Chiefs got their bonus point win over the Lions, for instance, but the match was hardly the sort of walk-over you’d expect from the top side playing the second-bottom side.
There are no undefeated sides. The Bulls have the leading points differential of +105, followed by the Chiefs (+92), the Stormers (+66), the Brumbies (+53), the Crusaders (+51) and the Highlanders (+13). The other nine are negative.
The bottom New Zealand side, the Blues, have one win this season, as have the bottom South African side, the Lions. The Blues’ win, though, was at Pretoria, when they defeated the top South African side, the Bulls.
The general tightness of most of the matches was on show over the weekend, which encourages me to make the statement that this is the closest Super Rugby tournament we have had.
The latest round also suggested that the local conference winners are likely to be the Brumbies (Australia), the Chiefs (New Zealand) and Bulls or Stormers (South Africa).
In no particular order, the other three spots could go to any number of sides: the Crusaders, the Highlanders, or a remote possibility the Hurricanes from the New Zealand conference; then whichever of the Bulls and Stormers does not go top, along with the remote possibility of the Sharks in the South African conference.
It is hard to see how a second Australian side can make the final six. This is a pity because the Reds showed at Christchurch on Sunday that they are capable of defeating any of the top sides. But it is likely they won’t get a shot in the finals.
They and the Waratahs (26) are nine points behind the Brumbies on 35.
For the record the top eight teams are the Chiefs (44), the Bulls (42), the Stormers (41), the Crusaders (37), the Brumbies (35), the Highlanders (34), the Sharks (31) and the Hurricanes (30).
The Brumbies, who are fifth on the table, have a bye next weekend. This means they will get an automatic four points to go 39 .
The Waratahs play the Bulls at Allianz Stadium on Friday night. If the Waratahs play with the lack of venom and smarts they showed against the Brumbies, you’d have to think the Bulls will win this match. Against this is the fact that the Waratahs are a strong home stadium side.
Moreover, South African sides, even the Bulls, drop more games than they win on their overseas tours of Australia and New Zealand.
However, the week after they play the Bulls the Waratahs go on their tour of South Africa and play the Stormers at Cape Town, then the Cheetahs at Bloemfontein.
Even the most ardent Waratahs supporter would admit that even one win from these two games might be too much of an ask for a side that has played well below expectations this season.
I know, I know, there have been injuries. But some of the players moved in to cover for the injured players, Bernard Foley, Tom Kingston (but not at centre) and Dave Dennis, have been the few stand-outs in a lacklustre squad.
The problem is that the coaching and selection this year have been poor. It has taken the coach until the season is more than halfway over, for instance, to discover that Dean Mumm is not a second rower of quality.
It was disheartening, to say the least, to see the way the Waratahs tried to play ball-in-hand rugby against the Brumbies, for the first time this season, without a clue on how to do this.
Devoted readers of The Roar will know that last week David Campese opined about the lack of passing and kicking skills of the Waratahs. The Waratahs proved this gloomy summation correct against the Brumbies.
For the first time this season Berrick Barnes took the ball to the line, holding it in both hands. He looked to slip inside balls or cut-out passes to runners aiming up at the gaps.
Unfortunately, as Rod Kafer pointed out frequently in his commentary, there were no runners doing this for him to pass to.
Instead we had old faithful Tom Carter plodding into tackles and slowing down the flow of the Waratahs attacks. So for all the ball-in-hand play, the Waratahs were unable to score even one try against the Brumbies.
The Brumbies, on the other hand, played like a team that knew the game plan and had the skills and the determination to carry out the plan. The ball was smashed over the advantage line by an aggressive and quick-thinking pack of forwards.
Then it was moved to the backs who ran, again as Kafer noted, with their shoulders square to the tacklers and on lines that put the defensive line of the defenders under continual stress.
And like all good winning sides, they scored vital points before and after half time. This domination of the championship period of matches is the sign of a potential championship side.
The critical question mark over the Brumbies is how crucial was the direct, hard, clever running and dead-eyed goal-kicking of Christian Lealiifano?
There is no doubt that Lealiifano was destined for the Wallaby number 10 jumper this season. Even when Quade Cooper came back, I’d slot him (if Lealiifano was available) on to the wing to play the Shane Williams game and let the Brumbies playmaker run the show for the Wallabies. This might happen on the Wallabies European tour.
But how cruel that after time was up, Lealiifano damaged his ankle and will be out for a long while. Can the Brumbies win without him? They have a bye and then play the Hurricanes at Wellington, and the week after this a defining match for the Australian Conference, the Reds at Canberra. This last match will be a defining contest for both these Australian sides.
Even though the Waratahs and the Reds have the same number of points, the Waratahs are dead in the water in my view as far as winning the Australian conference is concerned.
But the Reds, as they showed against the Crusaders, still have the macho in them to win more matches and possibly overtake the Brumbies, if that side cannot cope with the loss of Lealiifano.
Like the Brumbies, the Reds kept their line intact. This is a great achievement against the Crusaders. Someone will know the statistics but there must be very few matches the Crusaders have played at home where they haven’t scored a try.
As Justin Marshall pointed out in his commentary (and as an aside, how great it is that he and Tim Horan show respect for visiting teams in their commentary), a side that defends staunchly is a side with great spirit. And great spirit can take a team to victories that might ordinarily be beyond them. The Reds showed this at Christchurch.
There was a period, for instance, when the Crusaders forced a series of 5m scrums near the Reds try line. Throughout the match, the Reds scrum had been under pressure and had conceded penalties. But in this goal-line stand they held for two scrums and then turned the third, won the feed, and held steady in the next scrum to clear to their 22.
For the second time in two weeks, the Reds playing away from home have embarrassed a New Zealand side into playing very poorly.
I can’t finish off this discussion without making the point that the sooner the local referee system is chopped the better. The penalty count from Bryce Lawrence (a New Zealander) was 17-7 against the Reds. Even the commentators from Christchurch couldn’t explain several of the decisions.
A similar penalty count, 18-7, was awarded by the South African referee Stuart Berry, in his first Super Rugby match, in the Cheetahs-Force match at Bloemfontein. The acting Force coach Phil Blake took the unusual approach of being openly critical of the referee: “At the end of the day you would like the players to decide the result.”
There was one incident that clearly riled the normally taciturn David Pocock. Just before half-time the Force went from one side of the field to the other to score a splendid try in the far corner.
The ‘try’ would have given the Force a scorecard, depending on the conversion, of 11-9 or 13-9. Right after half-time the Force scored a try under the posts. This would have taken the score out to 18-9 or 20-9.
The final result was Cheetahs 17, Force 13.
And that Force ‘try’? The assistant referee claimed that Force prop Salesi Ma’afu illegally affected play in the lead-up. Ma’afu wrapped his arms around a Cheetahs player on the ground at the breakdown to prevent him from playing the ball.
The ball was well away from the two players and Justin Chadwick’s match report noted that “In reality the incident had little effect on Samu Wara’s ability to break through the Cheetahs defence moments later.”
To be fair, the referee did ask if play was affected by the incident. He was assured that it was. But I think he should have asked specifically what happened, and when told the details he should have over-ruled his assistant referee.
No one is accusing referees or assistant referees of cheating. But the referees particularly should not be put into the situation where accusations of this sort can even be made. SANZAR has got to realise that justice must not just be done but be seen to be done in these matters. Perceptions can too easily be seen as the reality.
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.