Super Rugby teams that should start 2013 planning now
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The Bulls celebrate their match winning try as a dejected Waratahs look on during their Super Rugby match (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
In what truly has been one of the more even Super Rugby competitions in recent memory, the time has finally come to rule the line through some teams for 2012.
While in some cases these lines may have ruled themselves, for other teams, they’ve clung onto what little semblance of hope they had.
So let’s start with the obvious ones first: the Lions, Blues, and Force are already looking at 2013, and probably have been for weeks.
The same now goes for the Waratahs, and Cheetahs. While both sides have had their moments in 2012, too many losses when they least needed them have cruelled their chances. Their respective weekend losses to the Stormers and Sharks have now dropped them almost two wins below the chasing pack, and their draws for the rest of the season are far from favourable, including a point-stealing match-up against each other next weekend.
Put the line through them both, thanks.
The pity in this is that the Cheetahs play some of the prettiest rugby in the competition, but just lack the ability to last the full 80 minutes. The Waratahs have also had trouble lasting the full 80 minutes, too, though the less said about their style of play, the better.
As an aside, I do hope the Cheetahs aren’t forced into an inconvenient merger in 2013. They deserve the opportunity to keep building their blossoming side in their own right.
The Rebels, somewhat surprisingly, now find themselves third in the Australian conference. I do give them some chance of playing the spoiler role in the final round of local derbies, but essentially, they’re done too.
The chasing pack: Hurricanes (9th, 35pts), Reds (8th, 36), and Highlanders (7th, 39)
The Hurricanes losing to the Brumbies at home last Friday night has the line ominously poised. Not unlike the Cheetahs, they’ve played some outstanding rugby this season, but haven’t been able to string the performances together when it counts. They may take points away from the Rebels and Waratahs before the June recess, and will have a bye in July too, but the Crusaders and Chiefs will be too big a task on the resumption.
The Reds and Highlanders have a chance of breaking into the top six, but this coming round shapes as ‘must win’ for both teams. While for the Reds that means beating the conference-leading Brumbies in chilly Canberra, the Highlanders have the slightly less-demanding job of taking on the sub-par Blues, albeit at Eden Park.
That’s not to say the Blues will be walkovers, but I’d imagine the Crusaders were telling themselves that too, before they ran out on Saturday evening.
The following week, the Reds have the bye, while the Highlanders have the tough ask of taking on the Crusaders in Christchurch. For either team to feature in the finals they just have to jag eight points before the break, it’s that simple. In fact, for the Reds, their overall hopes probably rest on the Brumbies relinquishing the conference lead anyway.
Sharks: (6th, 41pts)
At the end of Week 9, the Sharks were running mid-table with more losses than wins. Their trans-Tasman tour had netted bonus point wins against the Brumbies and Blues, but dropped games they were probably entitled to win against the Waratahs and Hurricanes. At the time, I felt they were in real danger of being overrun by the Cheetahs.
A bye in Week 10, followed by three straight wins, has the Sharks literally circling again. Over the last five rounds, they’ll have another bye and a virtual bye in Johannesburg against the Lions. Their season will come down to how many points they can take away from the Stormers this weekend, and the Bulls and Cheetahs in the final two rounds.
Crusaders: (5th, 42pts)
Dark horses don’t get any darker than the red and blacks. After their shock loss to the Rebels, plenty were left to wonder if they were looking a shaky, fading force. Five tries, and a 31-0 score against the hapless Blues by halftime quickly put paid to that.
With Carter back at 10 from now on, you’d think, McCaw coming back to full fitness and Kieran Read to return in the next week or two, the pieces are falling back into place for yet another championship tilt. They’re too good a team to ignore as contenders.
Bulls: (4th, 47pts)
If the Bulls can recapture and hold onto the South Africa conference lead, they will be a decent chance off adding to their three previous Super Rugby Championships.
It’s just a matter of ‘if’ though. They have one of the harder draws to complete the conference stage, starting with the Chiefs in Hamilton this Friday, and then the Stormers in Pretoria next weekend. After the June break, they’ll complete a final round of derbies with the Cheetahs, the Sharks in Durban, and the Lions to finish.
On current form, they could easily win at least three of those games. However, you could just as easily see them losing three, too. And that kind of sums up their season. You feel that while they’ll make the semis one way or the other, the only way they can really be seen as a contender is if they secure playoffs at Loftus Versfeld. It seems a funny condition to place on a team inside the top four, but that’s the way I see it.
Brumbies: (Australian Conference leaders, 44pts)
When flyhalf Christian Lealiifano’s season ended in the 81st minute against the Waratahs two weeks ago, so too did the Brumbies’, or so the assumptions went. Though they’d shot away to a handy Aussie conference lead, the real danger was they’d be caught and drop out of the finals calculations.
So it’s fair to say that those assumptions were thrown out the window after the Brumbies’ exceptional come-from-behind win against the Hurricanes. When the 37-25 win was confirmed, I had the instant image of Roarer LeftArmSpinner hurriedly re-doing his impressive predictions spreadsheet.
That said, the Brumbies still aren’t home yet, and must beat the Reds on Saturday night. Zack Holmes showed that there is still life post-Lealiifano, though Lordy’s weekend suggestion that Holmes “threw down the [selection] gauntlet to Wallaby coach Robbie Deans” was more than a tad optimistic from my esteemed colleague. The Brumbies’ 2012 destiny does remain in their hands, however.
Chiefs: (New Zealand Conference leaders, 49pts, nine wins)
At some point in the last few months, I suggested that one of the Highlanders, Chiefs, or Stormers would host the final. While I’ve now dropped the Highlanders from that form line, I remain convinced that the Chiefs are still staring down that barrel.
While the Chiefs were expected to improve in 2012, with a new coaching team and a quality squad of new and existing players, I don’t know that too many would’ve expected a nine-game winning streak, including a tour to Perth and South Africa in the middle of it. In fact, the Chiefs were the first New Zealand side to win consecutive games in the Republic since they last did it themselves in 2010.
The only danger I can see to them topping the New Zealand conference is the fast finishing Crusaders, and indeed, they may be the only team capable of stopping the Chiefs winning their first Super Rugby title. That said, the Chiefs will fear no-one in the finals, and nor will playing away from Hamilton worry them either.
Stormers: (South African Conference leaders, 49pts, 10 wins)
The Stormers remain a competition favourite, but like the Bulls, I feel they too will be more likely to lift the three-legged spaceship cup if they earn home finals at Newlands.
The Stormers’ title credentials are obvious; the best defence in the competition has conceded the fewest number of tries, while winning the most games.
What may count against them though, if things get tight at the top, is their lack of bonus points. Their solitary 2012 bonus point is fewer even than the tally of the cellar-dwelling Lions. The Stormers also have the second-lowest number of tries scored.
But scoring few tries hasn’t been much of a problem. As few tries as they score, their garrison-like defence means they let in less again. Their season-average score sits at 22-16, and as we can see at almost two thirds of the way through the competition, that’s more than enough to top the charts.
Come finals time, winning margins will count for even less again.
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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