Report card revision: movement in the rankings
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Queensland Reds player Quade Cooper (centre) is help by ACT Brumbies' Henry Speight (right) and Nic White during their round 10 Super Rugby match at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Saturday, April 20, 2013. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)
After the completion of Super Rugby Round 6 I put out my early-season report card, using three simple subjective ratings: teams that disappointed me to that point, the teams going as I expected them to, and those I considered to be over-achieving.
With only nine rounds of the competition remaining, and with the June internationals and British and Irish Lions Tour of Australia a bit over a month away, it’s time to re-apply those ratings and see how the teams have fared since the last report.
There’s been much movement, for mine, and not a lot of it is in an upward direction.
The Highlanders led this category for me last time, and they remain at the head of the queue this time, too.
After Round 11 last year, the Highlanders sat in the last wildcard spot on 34 points, with seven wins. The lowly Blues were last on 12 points and one win.
After Round 11 this year, the Highlanders are in worse shape than even the Blues of 2012. Their ten points have come via two byes and two bonus points, and it’s hard to see where their first win will come. Might even be getting worse.
The Rebels are similarly continuing to disappoint me, and it’s actually hard to see how they don’t sit right down with the Highlanders.
The month ahead for the Rebels is full of top-performing teams, too, and I can’t see them providing much more than ‘training run’ value.
How much of it is due to ongoing club issues or inexperience is immaterial; they’re not playing well enough.
The Western Force were tracking ‘as expected’ in the first report, but despite showing some good signs – I gave them a big wrap last week for just that – they remain consistently inconsistent, and thus disappointing overall.
A surprising win over the Crusaders was let down by surprising losses to the Rebels, Hurricanes, and even the Waratahs, and it’s wins over those teams of similar mid-tier stature the Force need to start stringing together.
And that’s without thinking about the flogging to the Brumbies.
Finally, the Stormers and Sharks both sit among the disappointments this time around after I had them both in the ‘as expecteds’ previously.
Two teams that were among the best in the comp last season just don’t look close to their 2012 editions, and now find themselves in that logjam of teams mid-table.
Both are having trouble finding any real sustained form of attack, and have remained where they are on the table on the back of their defensive efforts. The Sharks did well to come back at the Chiefs as they did, and Pat Lambie does look a bigger threat running off Charl McLeod.
They’ll need that threat if they are to repeat their 2012 Finals appearance this year.
The ‘As Expecteds’
A few weeks ago, I might’ve been inclined to list the Southern Kings as over-achievers, but a return to the Republic has brought with it a return to earth with a thud.
Along with the Hurricanes, they remain in this category with no real surprise element likely to boost them in my ratings, and their respective table positioning is a fair reflection.
Similarly, the Chiefs, Crusaders, and Reds remain with the same ranking as last time, and all look on track to feature in the play-offs this season.
The Chiefs keep rolling along and, even despite twin losses to the Waratahs and Reds, remain comfortably atop the New Zealand conference. Only the Crusaders loom as a proper test before the June recess.
The Crusaders started their African tour well with a tough win in Cape Town, and tight losses to the Sharks and Force were evened out by wins over the Highlanders and Rebels since.
Moreover, the cavalry is returning, too, with Israel Dagg back in his preferred position and Daniel Carter back from the bench on Sunday. Kieran Read is thought to be close to returning, too.
They’ll be there or thereabouts, the Crusaders always are.
The Reds are tracking along nicely, too, and have essentially been sitting in the top wildcard spot from the last month. They’ve been through the full range in that time too; too good for the Chiefs, not quite good enough against the Brumbies, and maybe a touch lucky against the Blues.
However, the Reds are going to be a danger side without doubt, and they carry class in several combinations across the park, namely all three rows of the scrum, and the halves. Discount and/or tip against them at your peril.
The Brumbies, Blues, and Bulls round out the ‘as expecteds’, having all been listed as over-achievers last report. That’s not to say that they’ve regressed since, but rather my expectations of them have been adjusted.
They are all literally running as I expect them to now.
Last time around, the Cheetahs headed this list, and this time they’re the lone inhabitants.
Put simply, I cannot be more impressed with the way the Cheetahs have not just stayed on their winning ways, but have actually improved the way they’re playing. They’ve always been worth watching, but now it’s almost a case of them being a ‘must watch’ every weekend.
The big difference from last year to this year is the Cheetahs are winning their conference matches. Where last year they lost seven of eight, this year they’ve already won three of five, including the scalps of the Stormers and Sharks.
They’re only a point off leading the South African conference now, and have two byes and four home games between now and the playoffs. Cheetahs fans, the time to start believing is here.
Still counting teams? Feels like I’ve missed one, doesn’t it?
I’ve actually found it hard to rate the Waratahs using my three-pronged system. They were disappointing last time around, have improved greatly as I expected they would, but still aren’t quite over-achieving due to some lingering inconsistency.
I’ll give them an ‘as expected’-plus.
Last week in comments, I said of Tahs’ Coach Michael Cheika, and his assistants, “…they refused to shy away from their plan when things weren’t looking flash in the opening rounds. He knew his plan would work, and would get the desired results, and he stuck to them. It’s excellent coaching.”
Even with the composure deserting them at times in Pretoria over the weekend, that remains the case.
There wouldn’t be many players in the squad who haven’t improved since the last report, but Bernard Foley, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Michael Hooper, and yes, especially Israel Folau have been the main beacons of progression.
The 2013 playoffs might be too soon, but on this current form, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Tahs pushing for the post-season next year.
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