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

Brett McKay Columnist

By , 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.