After 17 rounds, it’s time to reset for the playoffs

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    For all the debate and argument about Super Rugby’s conference format, and how that affects the finals series, what we’re left with is the eight best teams however you’d like to measure it.

    You can’t ask much more from a competition that that.

    Good form builds momentum, but ordinary form is irrelevant
    An interesting choice of words post-match from the Brumbies on Saturday night, where – after starting a match strongly and with more intent than they’ve shown in this back half of the season – everything seemed to disintegrate after halftime.

    There have been scoreless halves of Super Rugby before, but I’ve definitely not had to attempt commentary of a scoreless half of rugby before. And believe me, it was bloody hard work.

    On the field post-match for ABC Grandstand, Brumbies prop Ben Alexander told me the Western Force’s defensive intensity was a really good lead-in for the finals.

    “Oh, it’s definitely a good hit-out, rather than a cricket score where you don’t really get tested,” Alexander said, before putting a line in the sand, as far as his side’s form is concerned.

    “The definitely tested us tonight, but the comp starts again now, it really does. It’s irrelevant how we’ve been playing; it all resets, and now we’ve got a home semi against a very good Highlanders side.”

    It was a similar sentiment echoed by Stephen Larkham in the post-match presser.

    “You have your ups and downs in the tournament, and certainly the second half was a half that we’re not particularly happy with, but it’s all irrelevant now,” Larkham said.

    “It’s about putting it behind you and taking the things you can take out of it and moving onto the next job.”

    And while Lions coach Johan Ackermann might similarly suggest that his side’s performance in Buenos Aires is now irrelevant (and he might actually have a case), I can’t imagine that Chris Boyd would suggest the form that catapulted his Hurricanes to the top of the log is suddenly irrelevant.

    But such is the fine line between good and bad form. Good form is something you desire; something to milk every last inch and every last point from. Inconsistent form, or just plain horrible form, is something you want to put behind you as fast as humanly possible.

    The Brumbies need to hit the reset button, and do whatever they need to do to stay alive in the competition. If there’s a silver lining in their reaching the playoffs in the kind of form that they have, it’s that their equation on Friday night is exactly the same as the seven other teams in the quarter-finals: win, or they’re gone.

    So it’s very easy to say that Larkham is just trying to gloss over the way his side is playing. Because that’s exactly what he’s trying to do, and for the same obvious reason that he wouldn’t come out say, “Nope, we’ve been rubbish for several weeks now, and I think we’re in trouble.”

    So teams a little way off their best do have to reset for the playoffs. They have to, otherwise the past 17 weeks of Super Rugby have been for nothing.

    You can bet the Lions will be resetting while they wait for the Crusaders, and the Crusaders will want to reset too, even if for them resetting just means getting healthy again.

    The Chiefs have had to reset their touring squad selection a couple of times even before they left Hamilton, but once they get to Cape Town, they’ll be looking to put their late fade-out behind them quick smart. And the Brumbies’ need for a reset is clear.

    Momentum means everything once you reach the knockout stages. And the quicker teams can regain it, the better their chances of progression become.

    The Brumbies’ form may well suggest they’re up against it on Friday night, but the fact they’re still alive means they can’t be completely written off.

    They’ve had to finish with a better record than ten other sides over 17 rounds to get where they are, but come Friday night, they only have to play better than one team for 80 minutes.

    The Run Home predictions revisited
    Prior to Round 13 – which feels like eons ago, thanks to the June international window – you might recall I plotted the run home for the 12 teams in the competition who were, at that stage, still in the hunt for the playoffs.

    With the last five rounds now complete and the top eight sorted, it might be worth taking one last look at how those predictions panned out.

    run home final

    In short, surprisingly close to the mark, considering my tipping form this season. To summarise…

    • Six of the top eight finished in the position predicted, with the Hurricanes and Crusaders finishing in the opposite spots to my projections back in May.

    • Though I didn’t estimate bonus points at the time, I got the final points right for the Lions and Stormers. And while I was wildly off with the Hurricanes and Crusaders, the other four teams finished within two points of my predictions.

    • The four teams I had going undefeated over the final five rounds (the Lions, Stormers, Brumbies, Highlanders, and Crusaders) all suffered an unpredicted loss along the way. The Crusaders’ two unpredicted losses in the last three weeks was the difference between them finishing seventh and first, as I had projected.

    What from here?

    Well, I like the Highlanders again. And I say ‘again’, because despite writing back in February that I couldn’t understand why they weren’t starting the season as outright favourites, I don’t mind admitting that I was starting to wonder about them around mid-season.

    Currently though, their late-season run shares all the hallmarks of 2015, and they’re hitting some excellent form at the right time once again. Over the last three weeks they’ve won in South Africa, Argentina, and at home, and they could well add Australia to that list by week’s end.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (56)

    • Roar Rookie

      July 19th 2016 @ 12:34pm
      Don said | July 19th 2016 @ 12:34pm | ! Report

      Good write up Brett.
      I’m going against Spiro and looking for the “happy ending” so am tipping Todd Blackadder to exit the ‘Saders as a SR winning coach finally. And in a year where some of the best players from his tenure aren’t there anymore.

      I know its a small thing and doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things but can we still call these games the finals rather than the “play offs.”
      I love America and have travelled there many times.
      However, I detest our adopting so much of their “lingo” into our sporting speak.
      Attack became offfence, defence became deeeefence or “D” etc… I even heard a commentator call the in goal area the “end zone” a week ago.

      Am I being overly anti Americanismist?

      • Columnist

        July 19th 2016 @ 12:43pm
        Geoff Parkes said | July 19th 2016 @ 12:43pm | ! Report

        I think you are Don.

        We have a lot to thank America for. How boring would golf be if we weren’t allowed to yell “get in da hole” every time someone tees off?

        • Roar Rookie

          July 19th 2016 @ 2:01pm
          Don said | July 19th 2016 @ 2:01pm | ! Report

          You da man! Geoff.

      • July 19th 2016 @ 1:13pm
        grapeseed said | July 19th 2016 @ 1:13pm | ! Report

        That sort of Americanization makes me want to throw my cell phone straight at the dry wall of my condo, go down to the drugstore and buy a soda to put in my fannypack. It should be flushed away in the restroom or thrown in the trash can immediately. We are Australians, darn it!

        • July 19th 2016 @ 1:51pm
          A.O.Tear Rower said | July 19th 2016 @ 1:51pm | ! Report

          Chill out dude.

          Anyway Im off.
          Me, Shortie and my peeps are gonna rock-on down to Micky D’s, chillax and have a coke and a cheeseburger.
          Oh, my bad, I meant KFC.
          Peace out.

          • Roar Guru

            July 20th 2016 @ 2:36am
            Carlos the Argie said | July 20th 2016 @ 2:36am | ! Report

            A true american from the south would not order a coke, he/she would order a “soda”.

            • July 21st 2016 @ 10:33am
              Buk said | July 21st 2016 @ 10:33am | ! Report

              Dr Peppers ruled in Alabama when I was there

        • Roar Rookie

          July 19th 2016 @ 2:02pm
          Don said | July 19th 2016 @ 2:02pm | ! Report

          ‘Strayla!

          • July 19th 2016 @ 4:49pm
            KiwiHaydn said | July 19th 2016 @ 4:49pm | ! Report

            Since when did Straya have an L in it 😉

        • Roar Guru

          July 19th 2016 @ 2:33pm
          Machooka said | July 19th 2016 @ 2:33pm | ! Report

          Damn grapeseed whats up my brother… you be banging!

          Hey, you like gone large on da condo n’ all man, while me I’m just happy that I’ve still got wheels on my crib money.

          Big ups to my man G!

          Peace y’all… out.

          • July 19th 2016 @ 5:48pm
            DCNZ said | July 19th 2016 @ 5:48pm | ! Report

            Yo Machooka me man, goddam, how you doin, right on!

            I love it how the Americans call sideways (rugby) passes in the NFL – laterals.

            still cracks me up bro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKFwCJL6eFI

        • July 19th 2016 @ 8:33pm
          Jesus said | July 19th 2016 @ 8:33pm | ! Report

          Australia is an overseas state of America anyhow.

        • July 20th 2016 @ 8:38am
          avsfan said | July 20th 2016 @ 8:38am | ! Report

          Drywall is one word in America.

      • Columnist

        July 19th 2016 @ 1:36pm
        Brett McKay said | July 19th 2016 @ 1:36pm | ! Report

        Don, it’s a reasonable point, and I dislike the use of “D” myself, but from my perspective, it was just a simple matter of not wanting to use the same word too many times. I haven’t done a count, but I think I’ve interchanged with ‘finals’ and ‘playoffs’ fairly evenly, which is much better than using the same word twice as much..

        Make sense?

        • July 19th 2016 @ 2:32pm
          A.O.Tear Rower said | July 19th 2016 @ 2:32pm | ! Report

          I think Straya should invent its own terms for things and not use terms from England or America.

          A try should be called a ‘snaggy’ and a goal a ‘not-so-snaggy’ and a drop goal a ‘boo-snaggy’ or ‘boo-snag’.
          Maybe offside could be called a ‘McCaw’, a pass a ‘youavit’ and so on.

          Then everyone would be on the same page….except for Kearns, he would still have no idea whats going on.

      • July 19th 2016 @ 2:07pm
        Adsa said | July 19th 2016 @ 2:07pm | ! Report

        No Don you are not, my kids refer to biscuits now as cookies!

        • July 19th 2016 @ 7:08pm
          AlBo said | July 19th 2016 @ 7:08pm | ! Report

          To be fair biscuits and cookies has always been interchangeable. Our household would always go back and forth. Iced Vovo? That’s a biscuit. Choc Chip? Always a cookie.

        • Roar Guru

          July 20th 2016 @ 2:39am
          Carlos the Argie said | July 20th 2016 @ 2:39am | ! Report

          No, no, no, no!

          Biscuits are had for breakfast! Especially in the South! They lather something they call “gravy”, which is any kind of fat with some flavoring in it.

          Cookies are cookies. Have you ver watched Sesame Street and the Cookie Monster (I am related to him, less blue skin)?

          Do not confuse British “biscuit” with American “biscuit”. Bad for you.

      • Roar Guru

        July 19th 2016 @ 9:21pm
        Charging Rhino said | July 19th 2016 @ 9:21pm | ! Report

        Hey Don on the flip side, in my experience it’s only Australia that calls it “the finals” and the “grand final”, which I always found very odd btw. What’s wrong with simply saying the “final”?
        And Super rugby has been going 20 years with both South Africa and New Zealand, now Japan & Argentina so it’s not only Australia involved, although understandably this is an Aussie site 🙂
        So why not just the quarter finals, semi finals and final?

        • July 20th 2016 @ 12:17am
          Chinmay Hejmadi said | July 20th 2016 @ 12:17am | ! Report

          Completely agree with the grand final thing. I think I remember hearing “World Cup Grand Final” once. Dunno whether it was for League or Union. Cracked me up.

          • July 20th 2016 @ 12:33am
            AndyS said | July 20th 2016 @ 12:33am | ! Report

            I would have thought Union of all codes would understand, given the propensity for pretending that cup, bowl, plate, shield, etc finals all matter. Not to mention making the losing semifinalists in a knock-out tournament play it out to the humiliating end (the not-so-grand final perhaps?).

        • Roar Rookie

          July 20th 2016 @ 10:03am
          Don said | July 20th 2016 @ 10:03am | ! Report

          I’d prefer qtrs, semis then final too Rhino.

          The Grand Final monicker probably comes about from our 2 largest domestic codes here – League and AFL.

          They don’t have a qtrs, semis, final format. In an 8 team finals series both codes have 4 weeks or “rounds” of finals rather than 3 and the top finishing sides can’t be eliminated in week one of finals.

          • July 20th 2016 @ 9:43pm
            NaBUru38 said | July 20th 2016 @ 9:43pm | ! Report

            Correct. It’s terminology.

            I’m used to football and tennis terminology, with quarter-finals, semi-finals and final. So the NBA has a 7-game finals.

    • Columnist

      July 19th 2016 @ 12:48pm
      Geoff Parkes said | July 19th 2016 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

      Thanks Brett, felt for you having to battle through that 2nd half.
      Although there is something to the Force being tougher opposition than expected – this was a bit more like what we used to get from them. We all know their attack is limited but this year they’ve had a big drop off in defensive intensity in a lot of their matches. Until this one.

      • Columnist

        July 19th 2016 @ 1:38pm
        Brett McKay said | July 19th 2016 @ 1:38pm | ! Report

        yeah, I was really impressed with their defence, Geoff, and that along with Haylett-Petty’s performance at the back were the clear highlights. His positioning is just excellent, and I think we’re nearly at the point where we have to start discussing if he’s actually a better all-round fullback than Folau now..

        • July 19th 2016 @ 1:53pm
          Cynical Play said | July 19th 2016 @ 1:53pm | ! Report

          Haylett-Petty may well be as good at FB as Folau, all-round. Great for WBs that he has developed, with Beale out and then going.

          Brett, who was the Force No 9 with the beard? He looked sharp on TV, with good attacking sense.

          • Columnist

            July 19th 2016 @ 1:59pm
            Brett McKay said | July 19th 2016 @ 1:59pm | ! Report

            Ryan Louwrens, CP. Funnily enough, I thought that one wasn’t one of his better games…

            • Columnist

              July 19th 2016 @ 3:40pm
              Geoff Parkes said | July 19th 2016 @ 3:40pm | ! Report

              Yes, he was doing that pick the ball up and pass while taking a couple of lateral steps thing.

              It was in vogue a couple of years ago and is ok if it’s done to put the defence in two minds around the edges, but it’s never ok for servicing the backline. I really question some of the coaching, halfbacks at this level should be firing the ball from the base with no steps. Off both hands.

              Speaking of which, I thought Stirzaker’s passing game on Friday night was really good.

              Good call on DHP, looking forward to seeing how he goes in the RC, he definitely deserves a start at fullback.

        • July 20th 2016 @ 4:05pm
          kiwineil said | July 20th 2016 @ 4:05pm | ! Report

          +1
          Haylett-Petty is a better fullback than Folau now, tackles better, kicks better, covering/positioning better, and the only thing he cedes to Folau is attacking capability ….
          so on a 1:1 basis thats 3:1 to HP
          thankyou linesman, thankyou ballboys

    • July 19th 2016 @ 1:00pm
      taylorman said | July 19th 2016 @ 1:00pm | ! Report

      Think I’ll go the Canes. Lessons learnt from last year will be key to their efforts this time round. Having gone through it last year will make them that much tougher mentally. Last year I think they were a bit stunned.

      Theyre at home, theyre in form, and as everyone but me seems to think the Lions are shot may get the chance to redeem themselves in front of their fans- a luxury that they get to do that 12 months later if they get to the final.

      Canes vs Highlanders final again I hope. The best two sides going at the mo.

      Though I will be keeping an eye on those two SA sides, the growly one especially.

      • July 19th 2016 @ 4:53pm
        KiwiHaydn said | July 19th 2016 @ 4:53pm | ! Report

        I’m with you Taylorman, two H’s for the final, with Highlanders going back to back. They’ve got another strong side and the previous win under their belt, while the Hurricanes battlers will miss the experience of Conrad and Nonu come GF time.

        • Roar Guru

          July 19th 2016 @ 8:10pm
          taylorman said | July 19th 2016 @ 8:10pm | ! Report

          Yeah thought about those two…somehow I don’t think anyone’s really missed those megastars leaving, but more that NZ were well warned and just got on with the job of doing without them, and largely have. Bit different if they were injured from last week. Here they’ve had a season to get over them.

      • July 19th 2016 @ 10:12pm
        Lube Goat said | July 19th 2016 @ 10:12pm | ! Report

        The final was a close enough affair last year. The big difference for me was the late withdrawal of Ardie Savea. It was enough for me to change my bet. I have rated him a ‘7 point player’ and last year’s result confirmed that as it was hard to separate the two teams, generally speaking.
        If the Lions beat the Crusaders won’t the Highlanders meet the Hurricanes in the semis (assuming they both win their matches)?

    • Roar Guru

      July 19th 2016 @ 1:49pm
      Fox Saker said | July 19th 2016 @ 1:49pm | ! Report

      Good piece Brett and your prediction were well done just one thing you stated…

      They’ve had to finish with a better record than ten other sides”

      Actually Brett for a conference winner to go through they only have to finish with better record then the other sides in their conference so the Brumbies only “had to” be better than the the other 4 Australian sides across the season. If all the other Australian sides lost every game with no bonus points and the Brumbies only won one in the entire season they are through to the finals. Extreme example of course, but that is what would happen.

      As you know the Australasian conference as it is called as a whole, only matters for finals wildcard places not independent conference winners though obviously the more games you win against all sides matters but winning your conference still gets you through.

      Even with the wildcard spots, technically and I guess statistically correctly, you only have to finish better than five sides in the Australasian conference to qualify. The two Conference winners leaves 8 sides scrapping for 3 wild cards meaning your only have to have a better season than 5 of those to qualify.

      Hey just sayin’ that’s all and correct me if you think I’m wrong of course or misunderstood your meaning

      Naturally the conferences with the most class depth across their sides have a huge advantage for wildcard places as we have seen this year.

      • Columnist

        July 19th 2016 @ 2:01pm
        Brett McKay said | July 19th 2016 @ 2:01pm | ! Report

        No, you’re quite correct Fox, technically speaking. I was more coming from a point that they were genuinely one of the best eight teams in the comp – I think their record would have them 7th overall, above the Sharks – and therefore better than at least ten others.

        But you are right, the way the conferences work..

        • Roar Guru

          July 19th 2016 @ 3:37pm
          Fox Saker said | July 19th 2016 @ 3:37pm | ! Report

          Yep fair call Brett all good, and yeah they were one of the top seven this year for sure.

    • July 19th 2016 @ 2:12pm
      chracol said | July 19th 2016 @ 2:12pm | ! Report

      ‘rather than a cricket score where you don’t really get tested’ … could be the truth. The Crusaders and the Chiefs both won by large margins two weekends ago but failed to win their next encounter. But does that mean the Brumbies will defeat the Highlanders in meat pie heaven on a cold, cold Canberra Friday eve? Nah! Maybe? Nah! The Otago bench is possibly the best there is at this time of the season.

    • July 19th 2016 @ 2:45pm
      IceBlue said | July 19th 2016 @ 2:45pm | ! Report

      Having supported them for well over a decade, I also quite like the Highlanders :).

      That said, I am very worried about their chances in the playoffs. Working from the assumption they beat the Brumbies, there is a more than reasonable chance they will be looking at a South African-based semifinal.

      That makes their roadtrip from the end of the international window go Dunedin – Port Elizabeth – Buenos Aires – Dunedin – Canberra – Cape Town/Johannesburg. And if they win that semi, they better hope that the other South African team wins, or they’ll end up with a journey that makes Phileas Fogg’s trip look like an afternoon stroll.

      I can’t help but worry that that will take its toll.

      That said, your predictions have gone fairly well thus far, so maybe there is hope.

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