Super Rugby season gets even more unpredictable
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The Hurricanes' Conrad Smith celebrates a try against the Waratahs (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
It just shouldn’t be this way. Going into the penultimate round of the season, the race for the finals should be becoming clearer.
Yet unsurprisingly, in this the most even-handed season in Super Rugby history, the view to the end is as cloudy as ever.
The best example of this complicated unpredictability is probably the Hurricanes, who were superb in knocking off the Crusaders in Christchurch, a win that keeps their season alive and continues to make my predictions look sillier by the month.
In local sports magazine PLAY Canberra I’ve now twice written of their supposedly impending demise, only to be well and truly proven wrong. In the July issue, it looks even worse:
“I know I said this in last month’s issue, but this time they really could be done by the time you’re reading this over your coffee,” I boldly predicted. Just die, already, will you!
Certainly, the Crusaders missed Dan Carter – what team wouldn’t – but for mine, the biggest missing link in their play was that of Kieran Read. Richie McCaw will always play very well, and he’s more than capable of filling in at blindside and at No.8 as he has done in the past few weeks while Read recovers from a concussion-related injury.
But McCaw seems to have lost more than a yard of pace in the last year or two, and as a result, the Crusaders couldn’t get that same dynamic running game from the back of the scrum that Read provides. The All Blacks could fill in around McCaw and counter Read’s absence, but it’s just that much harder for the Crusaders.
And that’s not to say that the Hurricanes were dominant throughout the game, either. Rather, their play was pretty indicative of their 2012 season: good in patches, poor in others, but somehow, from somewhere, they can eke out a win when it’s least expected.
If the Hurricanes do want to get anywhere in this race to the finals – despite my best efforts at death riding them – they will need to address some major deficiencies in their set piece. Both their lineout and scrum had trouble for good parts of the match, with their scrum at one stage completely folding back on itself late the second half.
That said, while Conrad Smith maintains the supreme form he’s currently in, and while Andre Taylor piles on the running metres and tackle busts from fullback, they just can’t be written off yet. Believe me, I’ve learned that lesson.
The Crusaders are far from a spent force, though. Read and Carter may be back for the vital clash with the Chiefs this weekend, and they will certainly make a difference.
That all said, the Crusaders find themselves on the knife’s edge. It’s equally conceivable that they could win both their remaining games and possibly top the New Zealand conference, or that they could take no points away from the Chiefs and face the risk of missing the top six completely.
The Bulls and Stormers continued their pre-break form, though the Stormers took more than an hour to put away the Lions, and the Bulls might be concerned at how they lost their structures to allow the Cheetahs in for four late tries, having led 40-0 on the hour.
Australian fans will be happy to see the Reds and Brumbies continue their push toward the pointy end, but again, neither were without their troubles. Both were in control in the first half of their respective games over the weekend, but suffered changes in fortunes after the break.
The Reds lost a lot of shape in attack once Quade Cooper was put in the cotton wool, and saw the Rebels come back with two tries, though Will Genia was able to ice the game late with a bullet-flat pass on the Rebels line putting Nick Frisby over in the corner.
The Brumbies had secured the bonus point by halftime with a mountain of possession against the Force in Perth, only to see the Force swing the possession stats right back in the second half, too. Peter Kimlin continued his upward trend of form, playing at blindside flanker, and Zack Holmes spent the last few weeks watching Berrick Barnes, evidently, playing noticeably flatter in attack than he had been before the break.
The Brumbies will need Holmes to rectify his goal-kicking issues in rapid time, though. Three from seven might not be good enough against the Waratahs this Saturday, never mind come finals time.
It’s fitting, then, that this second-last round features five games of the seven that can have some kind of bearing on the race to the finals.
All eyes will be focussed on the Chiefs-Crusaders opening the weekend in Hamilton, where the Crusaders simply must win if they have any desires of topping the New Zealand conference. A win for the Chiefs will kill that Crusaders dream dead, and will also go a long way toward securing top spot overall.
The Highlanders must beat the Reds well to maintain their slim hopes, while the Reds need to win to make a last break into the top six. The Brumbies must beat the Waratahs because, well, they just must. The Stormers can just about secure the South African conference with a win over the Cheetahs.
To close out the round, the Sharks take on the Bulls in Durban. With a bonus point win separating the Bulls in fourth and the Sharks in eighth on the overall table, this game could have the biggest ramifications for the wildcard contenders.
The Bulls should secure a wildcard spot with a win, but a loss and other results could see them drop out of the six completely. The Sharks simply have to win everything from here on, so desperation can drive their destiny.
Whatever happens to whichever teams, we’re in for another cracking round.
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