Spiro predicts: Brumbies in finals, and Reds out
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Waratahs player Berrick Barnes braces as he hits the line. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)
The fearless prediction of the non-gambling Greek is that three South African sides, two New Zealand sides and just one Australian side will make the Super Rugby finals.
Those teams are the Stormers (62 points currently), the Chiefs (63) and the Brumbies (58) as the respective winners of their conferences.
The other three teams should be (provided there aren’t any massive upsets in the final round): the Crusaders (58), the Bulls (54) and the Sharks (54).
The history of the Super Rugby tournament is that the composition of the finals team is not often known until the last match of the last round is played.
In theory, this midnight knock could come again as the Bulls play the Lions to conclude the pool rounds of the 2012 tournaments.
I say, in theory, because the match is being played at Pretoria which is the home ground of the Bulls and as its nick-name ‘the bull ring’ suggests is a venue where the reverse of Christians being fed to the lions in ancient Rome will apply.
The Lions will be fed to the truest believers in world rugby, fans who put pig rings through their noses and pelt opposition teams with fruit and harder missiles if things don’t go right for their team.
I will certainly get some vicious and scatalogical emails from Bulls supporters but it should not be forgotten that this ‘anything goes’ mentality resulted, in my opinion, in one of the worst stunts in Super Rugby history earlier this year when two Bulls players complained about eye-gouging by a rampant Crusaders team. The complaints just before and after half-time completely destroyed the Crusaders momentum.
There are several very dicey aspects of these incidents (from a Bulls perspective, not a Crusaders perspective), again in my opinion, and it is worrying that the SANZAR investigation which cleared the Crusaders did not go more deeply into what actually did happen and why.
Anyway, the point here is that the Lions are not likely to defeat the Bulls at Pretoria.
The Sharks should defeat the Cheetahs at Durban. It seemed to me that the Shark were the most impressive of all the South African sides in week 20. They blitzed the Bulls, playing at home, and have the sort of team that could go deep into the finals with their power pack and hard-running backs.
On The Roar on Sunday I noticed that a fellow sports tragic ‘Sheek’ has picked the Sharks to defeat the Brumbies in the first round of the finals series.
This presumes that the Brumbies will be the third placed of the conference winners, behind the Chiefs and the Stormers, the respective New Zealand and South African conference winners.
The resolve and the rugby intelligence of the Brumbies this season should not be dismissed lightly. They are well-organised, well-led on the field by Ben Mowen, well-coached and have a clarity about their play which reflects this.
On Saturday at the Allianz Stadium they won only their second match in Sydney against the Waratahs in a Super Rugby tournament. The other victory was in 2002 in a finals match. So this was the only victory for the franchise in a pool round match.
It is a commonplace of sporting commentary to point out that ‘record are made to be broken’. But there is a pyschological drag when teams believe that there is a hoodoo on producing a certain result that has eluded them over a long period of time. Ask the NSW State of Origin players about this, or the All Blacks before last season’s RWC tournament.
The Brumbies played somewhat nervously for most of the matches knowing that a win virtually quarantees them the Australian Conference. In the end they won by only four points, 19 – 15 and by scoring only one try against the two scored by the Waratahs.
But they seemed to have the Waratahs well in hand, even when the Waratahs took the lead. When the Brumbies absolutely needed points, they scored them. They were much stronger, too, than the Waratahs in the last 20 minutes when the home side, as it has for most of the season, virtually ran out of gas.
The main worry about the Brumbies is that they lack any special players or X-factor players. This may explain their poor record against the top sides in the 2012 tournament. And the fact is that where the Stormers have lost only two matches and the Chiefs three, the Brumbies have lost five times which seems like a lot for a team that is aiming to win the entire tournament.
These five losses are put into context when it is considered that the Reds, too, have lost five matches. The Brumbies have picked up 10 bonus points (BPs). The Reds only 5 BPs.
Of the eight teams with a mathematical chance of making the finals, only the Stormers with 2 BPs have a smaller collection than the Reds.
The loss of Quade Cooper for most of the season explains the small collection of BPs by the Reds. On Saturday, too, Cooper showed against the Highlanders why with him in the side the Reds, if they somehow contrive to make the finals, could go much further into them than the Brumbies.
In finals, you need the big plays and the big match players. The Brumbies don’t really have any of these players. Cooper is a big match player, as he showed last season when he virtually won the Super Rugby championship for his team with a series of brilliant matches at the championship end of the season.
However, all of this is in the realm of speculation and fearless prediction.
What we do know is that the Brumbies need to defeat the Blues at Canberra to go into the finals with good momentum. The Blues showed some glimpses of attacking play against the Force. But their season, like the season of the Waratahs, has been blighted by an inability of the team to play with any coherence and certainty.
Both teams are poorly coached, and – in my opinion – not as fit aerobically as they should be. Players make mistakes when they crack under pressure. The pressure is intensified if the players have also run out of gas. It becomes unbearable when the players don’t have plans and systems to cope with the pressure points that come up for every team in a game.
This is a roundabout way of saying that the Waratahs and the Blues are poorly coached this season, and for the last few seasons. This time span covers Pat Lam at the Blues and Michael Foley at the Waratahs, as an assistant coach and head coach this season.
The Blues supporters at least have the comfort of knowing that Lam will be going at the end of this season. But the Waratahs board, without really much of an effort to sound out other possibilities, have allowed Foley to stay on for another year. This is despite the fact that while the June Tests were on and with a bye the Waratahs had something like five or six weeks to prepare for the match against the Brumbies.
The halves, Grayson Hart and Bernard Foley were an improvement on earlier pairing this season. But there was still the emperor penguin stance by Hart as he waited for seconds behind a ruck for the forwards to line up and then be knocked over like nine-pins by the waiting Brumbies tacklers. Greg Growden has improved on my emperor penguin metaphor by calling the play a meerkat stance (gold).
The Sunday Telegraph published some useful statistics of the game which give us broad hints as to why the Waratahs have exceeded expectations in their number of losses and the Brumbies in their number of wins:
Brumbies won only 39 per cent of possession compared with 61 per cent to the Waratahs. But they made 70 runs for 392m to the 117 runs for 618m by the Waratahs. The Brumbies kicked 23 times for 761m (average 33m) against the Waratahs 16 kicks for 396m (25).
The Brumbies missed 25 tackles and made 12 turnovers and conceded 13 penalties to the Waratahs 14 missed tackles, 18 turnovers and 7 penalties conceded.
In other words, the Waratahs beat the Brumbies on most of the statistics with the exception of the vital one, the result.
All this raises the fascinating question: what would have happened to these two teams if Jake White had coached the Waratahs and Michael Foley the Brumbies.
My guess is that both coaches would be in the same position they are in now, with White coaching a team going into the finals and Foley coaching a side that has recorded its worst losing season ever.
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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.