Report Card: “should be applying themselves better than they are”
ACT Brumbies' Christian Lealiifano (centre) celerabtes with teammate Stephen Moore (right) during the match between the ACT Brumbies and the NSW Waratahs in Canberra. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
It’s time. Six weeks into the Super Rugby season, and we’ve been able to get a good enough look at all teams to start passing judgement.
There’s no scientific measurement applied here, nor is there any particular scale of grading. Fans of NCIS will know what I mean when I say this all comes down to my ‘gut’.
Report cards of our schooldays were largely subjective, and this one will be too. But I think they were also too specific. I mean, really, what’s the difference between a B and B+?
I only need three categories.
The Highlanders head this list for me.
They had a pretty handy team in 2012, and they recruited well for this season, but are just failing to deliver on the park.
With the names assembled, and with what is essentially an All Black-laden backline, they really should be applying themselves better than they are.
It’s true that the Highlanders have had backrow issues in the past, but I didn’t expect them to miss Adam Thompson as much as they are. I genuinely thought they’d push for a top six berth in 2013, but I just can’t see how they’ll get there now.
The Waratahs fall into this category too.
Perhaps with a new coach bringing a whole new attitude, and saying all the right things, I obviously bought into the hype. And maybe that makes such a judgement harsh, particularly since they’ve looked a lot better in the last few outings.
I will concede that I like the new-found intent, though, and there’s no doubt that something is building for Waratahs fans.
But for me, there’s still major questions around the 9-10 combination, and I’m really puzzled how the recruitment of Nick Phipps in 2014 is going to solve this.
Their breakdown presence has also been disappointing, and I just think that a team with so much evident talent should be executing the basic skills better than they are.
There’s no rational reason why I expected more of the Rebels in 2013, but I did, and they’ve disappointed me.
They still have a very limited attack – James O’Connor has to play flyhalf if Kurtley Beale isn’t going to (or isn’t available to) – and it’s just hard to see how or where their points are going to come from.
Despite having some of the best young locks in the country, the consistent fade-out of the forwards on the hour is a worrying trend.
Already looks like a long season ahead for the Melbourne men.
The ‘As Expecteds’
This is going to be the biggest grouping, as there are a lot of teams that I knew would go well, or would struggle, and they’ve largely followed through on that.
There probably won’t be many surprises here.
The Southern Kings and Western Force, and even the Hurricanes, were all never going to feature at the pointy end of the season, and were probably going to be pushing it uphill to even finish in the top ten.
They’ve showed me nothing to change my mind on this and thus they are tracking as I expected them to.
At the other end of the scale, the Chiefs, Crusaders, Stormers, and Sharks, are all building into the likely contenders they were always going to be, even if all of them have started off somewhat slowly.
The Chiefs have that clinical edge to them again. I really like the way Aaron Cruden is underplaying his hand at the moment, and Gareth Anscombe is going beautifully at fullback. The return of Richard Kahui can only be good, too.
The Crusaders look to have dropped the needle straight back into that very typical Crusaders track. I do have a slight question mark over the Crusaders’ front row, but that’s about it.
Truth be told, had I put this report card together two weeks ago, the Sharks and Stormers might have found themselves in disappointment territory.
Neither looked particularly good in the first month, and indeed, the Sharks were disappointing against the Brumbies by their own admission.
The Stormers once again shape as one of the better defensive sides in the comp, and their physicality at the collision improves every week.
And if I may allow myself a small ‘I told you so’ moment, Elton Jantjies is indeed providing the extra spark in attack I thought he might.
The Reds are the final team playing to par, for mine, and there’s no question they look a better team with James Horwill at the helm.
I don’t think there’s any coincidence they’ve improved the more Will Genia has played, and against the Bulls on Saturday night, you could see ominous signs of the Genia-Quade Cooper combination returning.
The Reds’ pack has had a strong start to the season, and Liam Gill and Eddie Quirk might be the form Australian loosies over the first six weeks.
Once they can work out their best backline – and it might be what played the Bulls – the Reds will certainly be up there.
I’ll be interested to see what impact Ewen McKenzie’s announcement has on his young squad.
A few weeks ago, I thought the Cheetahs were again looking like the Richmond of Super Rugby, that is, the perennial good-on-paper-not-quite-on-the-field team, destined to miss the playoffs yet again.
Three wins on tour, the last one without their spearhead, Johan Goosen, rockets them into this category. It’ll be interesting to see if they can maintain this form on return to Bloemfontein.
Sarel Pretorius is showing all the form that drove the Waratahs to sign him last year, and Willie ‘Spiders’ Le Roux might just be the best try-sniffer-outerer in the comp.
It’s impossible to be bored watching them play.
The Blues embarked on a similar rebuilding phase as the Waratahs under a new coach, but have done it more effectively and much more entertainingly. I can’t imagine too many of us expected them to sit in a wildcard spot after six weeks.
It’ll be interesting to see if this bubble bursts, and I mean properly, not just imploding losses like in Sydney. But the Blues look a completely different prospect under the gaze of the two knights up in the coaches box.
The Bulls, despite the loss to the Reds on Saturday night, have been playing rather well in 2013.
Much like last season, they can still play to that well-worn Bulls game plan despite a large turnover of personnel since their glory days in the old Super 14.
I really didn’t expect the Bulls to lead the South African conference this year at all, and this has been a major factor in their classification here, and why I still trail Spiro as the leading ‘Expert’ in The Roar tipping.
Apart from upsetting my tipping, I really can’t fault their start to the season.
Finally, I’m listing the Brumbies as over-achievers as well, simply because even as a fan I didn’t expect them to start as well as they have.
There’s no doubt the loss in Cape Town will lead to renewed focus at the breakdown and the collision, and the Brumbies will need to recapture their gain line effectiveness with some tough games coming up.
The Reds are coming at them, but the Brumbies remain the Australian conference benchmark in just about every facet of the game.
Their attack asks all the right questions, the set piece is solid and capable of winning opposition ball in the air or on the shove, and their breakdown presence is being led by a presumed-to-be-finished openside who’s turned the clock back to when dreadlocks were cool.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport