Spiro: Prediction wrong, as Reds fire and Brumbies fizzle
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Will Genia hits the line for the Queensland Reds (Image: Steve Bell / White Devil Images)
Last week the non-gambling Greek made the fearless prediction that the Reds were finished and the Brumbies would be the only Australians in the Super Rugby finals. You can see now why I don’t punt.
The Reds were on fire in demolishing the hapless, hopeless Waratahs to gain a bonus-point victory. And the Brumbies allowed the formerly hapless, hopeless Blues to defeat them so comfortably that the home side could not get even a single bonus point out of the game.
This fizzle by the Brumbies upset all the predictions. The theory last week was that the Crusaders, the Sharks, the Bulls and the Brumbies would win their matches.
The Brumbies, in fact, only needed to get a bonus point to ensure that they finished ahead of the Reds. No-one contemplated that they wouldn’t achieve this, even if they somehow contrived to lose to the Blues at home.
The Crusaders, the Sharks and the Bulls all delivered, even if there were alarms on the way. The Brumbies did not.
The Reds seized their chance, and have now given themselves a good shot at a repeat of last year’s heroics.
So we have the Crusaders playing the Bulls at Christchurch earlier on Saturday, followed by the Reds at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium playing the Sharks in a qualifying finals round.
We got to this enticing line-up of finals matches with a superb last round of the 2012 Super Rugby tournament, with the favoured teams in all the matches enduring the rugby equivalent of the Perils of Pauline (where the film series often ended with the heroine tied to the railway tracks as a train chugged towards her).
The Chiefs lost to an exuberant Hurricanes side with a last-second, time-up try, which the TMO awarded without much evidence of the ball being grounded. This controversy probably took the gloss off a terrific match played with the right spirit and with high skills in every phase.
The first scrum came in the 18th minute. Jonathan Kaplan, predictably gave a short-arm penalty against the Hurricane scrum for moving forward on the first syllable of his “en-GAGE” call.
I have argued for years that it is stupid to have a two-syllable word to get the packs scrumming. I note with interest that the call is to be replaced next season with the short, sharp “set”, a word that is over as soon as it is pronounced.
My feeling about the outcome of this match is that the Hurricanes played like the players believed in themselves. The Chiefs played like a team that believed in their game plan.
I had the same feeling during the Brumbies-Blues match. For the first hour the conditions, although slightly blowy, favoured the athletic, often hard-shouldered running and passing game of the Blues. They put on several terrific tries and numerous break-outs that a strangely lacklustre Brumbies side could not match.
Jake White said after the match that after the initial Blues onslaught, the Brumbies played too defensively in accruing points to get back into the match.
I wrote in my notebook during the game that it seemed the Brumbies tried too hard to lose the match by fewer than seven points. “Playing for a bonus point loss!” is how I expressed it. So they took long-range shots at goal even though Jesse Mogg wasn’t getting anywhere near the target.
For the Paulines/Brumbies, the players let the film roll and the train was coming very close to the hapless victim. At the end of the match I wrote in my notebook “The Reds need a four-try win and they’re in as Australian Conference winners!”
The Brumbies were still – just – alive, depending on the results of the Crusaders, the Sharks and the Bulls.
All three teams finally got the victories they needed, but not without some nervous moments for the players, coaches and supporters. The Crusaders (according to the commentators, who seem to go out of their way not to favour the Crusaders) got a couple of lucky TMO decisions.
New Zealand rugby writers described the performance of the Crusaders as ‘untidy.’ But really this was after Dan Carter and Richie McCaw (now back to his magnificent best) were off the field.
The Cheetahs led the Sharks 15-6 at half-time. But the Sharks regrouped and took the lead in the 59th minute to run away with the match 34-15. For me, on their day, the Sharks could be the best of the South African sides, with a tough pack and a lively set of backs.
The Bulls also struggled in the first half of their match against the Lions. It was 20-20 at half-time, but in the second half the Bulls scored 17 unanswered points.
None of these teams, except for the Crusaders in their first half, could match the enterprise, energy, pace and skills of the Reds as they demolished the Waratahs 32-16. This is only the second time in Super Rugby that the Reds have gained a four-try bonus point victory against the Waratahs.
The Reds were lucky they were playing the Waratahs, who performed the worst of all the teams in the round. You could absolutely rely on the Waratahs to do the wrong thing at exactly the time when it would most hurt them.
An example: at half-time the Waratahs were still in the game with at 11-12, but they had a lineout on their own five-metre mark. As soon as I saw them opt for a short lineout I had a premonition that something terrible was going to happen for them. The only time a team should go for a short lineout in this situation is when the thrower can execute a long, straight throw well beyond the lineout.
But the Waratahs thrower was Tatafu Polota-Nau, a terrible exponent. He over-threw straight to unmarked Reds prop James Slipper at the end of the lineout. A third try for the Reds, and it was obvious that the Waratahs were going to fold in the second half as they have throughout the season.
Still, the overall outcome of the round is a good one for Australian rugby. The Brumbies don’t have any X-factor players just yet, to give a championship gloss to their team of smart, hard-working battlers.
The Reds are confident. They did it last year to win the Super Rugby tournament. They have a favourable draw now that they have won the Australian Conference. They play the Sharks at home.
If they win (deduced from the SANZAR notes about the rights of conference winners over teams higher than them on the points table) they only travel to Hamilton for their semi-final.
And if they win there and somehow the Stormers lose their semi, the Reds have another home final.
But don’t count on me making any fearless predictions that any of this will happen.
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.
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