The talking points: Super Rugby Round 11

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    It's make or break time for the Blues. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

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    This shapes as a really interesting weekend of rugby. Round 11 has a bit of a ‘moving weekend’ feel about it.

    There are two groups of teams that this applies to. The Crusaders are going to be there or thereabouts, but the three teams immediately behind them on the table – the Hurricanes, Bulls and Highlanders – have a good chance to put one over teams in and on the fringe of the top eight.

    Below them, the Sharks, Brumbies, Waratahs and Blues all have a chance to remind the top eight teams they need to keep an eye over their shoulder.

    Here’s the Round 11 talking points, with some help from Twitter.

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    Is Super Rugby’s future Celtic?
    I actually intended to write about this on Tuesday, but such has been the ever-changing world of the Brumbies of late, that yet another episode in the saga – the finale, PLEASE! – meant that this got bumped to today.

    It goes back to articles in last weekend’s papers, around the Waratahs’ new CEO, Andrew Hore. The former Crusaders strength and conditioning coach when Super Rugby first kicked off, and most recently CEO of Welsh club Ospreys, gave a swag of interviews to Sydney media after his first week in the job, and he certainly didn’t miss the opportunity to lay out his grand ambitions for the game.

    The one that really caught my eye was this:

    “I think the SANZAAR CEOs and Celtic CEOs [Wales, Ireland and Scotland] have a real advantage here. Right now you have England and France who have said ‘right, we are going to use club rugby and international rugby to generate money,’ but what they have done is let the loonies run the loony bin. They’ve let the clubs get too big and strong,” he told Iain Payten in The Daily Telegraph.

    “Let the two loony bins sail off into the sunset, and the other eight [I presume he’s including Argentina and Japan to get to eight] tier one nations can work on creating on something special that keeps international rugby as the pinnacle, and hopefully be able to generate more money from the provincial side as well.”

    It’s an interesting thought. Hore’s idea would see South Africa join the Celts in one conference, and Australia and New Zealand – and presumably Argentina and Japan – joining up in a Pacific Rim conference. You would think there would also be scope in there to add an American conference, or at least North American teams to the PacRim conference.

    Look, it’s an idea, and an idea not without logistical and seasonal challenges, but what do we think? Could Super Rugby dominating all other regions be one way to compete with the cashed-up French and English clubs?

    Rise of the third bananas?
    In trying to find a common point around the conferences this week, I came across this.

    Right now, the three teams that perhaps loom as the most dangerous are the three teams occupying third place in their respective countries: the Hurricanes in New Zealand, the Waratahs in Australia, and the Bulls in a combined South African, Argentina and Japan group.

    All three sides are enjoying a bit of a run: the Canes have won six of their last seven games with their only loss the one-point stonker with the Chiefs the other week; the Bulls haven’t lost since Round 1; and the Waratahs of the last fortnight are nothing like the Waratahs of the first eight rounds.

    And all three look ripe to continue their run this week. I’m surprised that the Brumbies have over 60 per cent of more than 300 Crowd tipping responses as I write this, in a game that feels very winnable for the Bulls. The Waratahs shouldn’t have the slightest issue with the Cheetahs in Sydney, while the Hurricanes have more than three-quarters of the vote against the Sharks.

    In terms of strike power, all three suddenly have it in abundance and are using it way better than most. But only the Hurricanes can’t climb to the second-highest branch in their tree this weekend; the Bulls and Tahs could in fact be leading their respective conferences by Sunday night.

    Make or break week for the Blues
    This weekend and next actually represent the proverbial ‘big week ahead’ for the Blues. In that group of teams sitting up to two wins back from the last trans-Tasman wildcard spot, the Blues’ equation is simple, if they have any designs on pinching a playoff spot.

    Beat the Kings handsomely in Port Elizabeth on Sunday morning AEST and New Zealand time, so as to put the points differential back in the black, and then follow it up with a win next weekend over the Lions in Johannesburg.

    Dead easy, you say! Well, funnily enough, the Blues have won six from nine at Ellis Park over the history of the competition, including three of the last four. And their last clash there was a thriller; a 39-36 loss in 2014.

    And yes, you’d be quite right to say it’s a very different Blues side now to that one that enjoyed some success in the first decade of the competition. And it’s a very different Lions team now, too.

    But that’s what it comes down too. Win both and the Blues remain in the hunt if other results fall their way. Lose just one of the two and it’ll become pretty difficult to rein in a three-win gap, especially with their last four games being against sides ranked in and around the top eight.

    Will Steven Bradbury top the Australian conference? (From Mike Stanton on Twitter.)
    It kind of has that feel about the Australian conference at the moment, and I did write in a comment to one of you on Tuesday that all the Brumbies had to worry about going forward was being less crap than the Waratahs and Rebels.

    We all know form has been rather fleeting from the Australian teams. The Tahs looked done for in mid-April but have rocketed back into contention with two impressive wins. The Brumbies have looked more domesticated than wild and free over the last month or so, and the Rebels have been alternating wins and losses for six weeks.

    The Australian conference is begging for a standout team and at the moment it’s anyone’s guess who finishes on top. The Brumbies have a nice run home, but the Waratahs have a game in hand and their most difficult games to come will be played on their home turf.

    And I suspect if the Rebels are still in play by the June Tests, they’ll be getting rave reviews for knocking off the Brumbies and Chiefs.

    Neutral referees: It’s happening
    Following on from last week’s pondering that we might be starting to see neutral referees by stealth, three of the six ‘international’ matches in Round 11 have neutral refs in charge, and the New Zealand derby between the Chiefs and Highlanders sees Australian whistle-blower Angus Gardner in the middle.

    That’s 19 of the last 40 international games with neutral referees, plus a handful of derbies with neutrals appointed, too.

    I did say last week that it could be nothing, but now I think it’s definitely something. Neutral refs being appointed in nearly 50 per cent of international games – when it was only just one in three for the first five weeks – is well beyond coincidence now.