My first month Super Rugby report card

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Before Super Rugby kicked off, predictions were made and justifications put forward to back up said predictions.

    Of most sides, and particularly the Australian sides, I made references to the first five rounds being the sample size to determine how good or otherwise each side is going.

    But four rounds now behind us, I don’t really think we need to wait another week. It’s pretty obvious that some predictions are well off already, and therefore, we can already put the line through some teams.

    So, to recap…

    After a first glance at all the squads back in mid-February, I put these guestimations forward:

    Conference guesses
    AFRICA 1: Bulls, Stormers, Sunwolves, Cheetahs
    AFRICA 2: Lions, Jaguares, Sharks, Kings
    NEW ZEALAND: Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs, Crusaders, Blues
    AUSTRALIA: Reds, Waratahs, Rebels, Brumbies, Force

    Africa 1
    It already looks like it’s the Stormers’ conference to lose. We still won’t know about them properly until they tour New Zealand, but they’ve started the season better than I expected and the off-season consolidation has worked very well.

    The Bulls on the other hand, have been underwhelming and I think they’re in for a hard time in New Zealand starting this weekend coming. They’ve been very hot and cold and Handre Pollard, even coming back from serious injury, has been the poster boy for their consistent inconsistency.

    The Cheetahs are having more moments than I thought they would, but it’s the opposite for the Sunwolves. The Cheetahs are a big chance of knocking off the Sharks this weekend, but I’m really not sure when the Moondogs’ first win will come.

    Africa 2
    It’s pleasantly surprising to see how tight this conference already is. After four rounds, the Jaguares, Lions, and Sharks all have three wins, and are separated by just one competition point, and 17 points for-and-against. I’m still happy with the finishing order I put forward, but it’s going to be a whole lot tighter than appeared would be the case six weeks ago.

    The Lions will give the competition a very good shake this season. They won’t go through unbeaten from here, but there’s also not that many games that jump out as games they will definitely lose. In the Force-Rebels-Brumbies, they’ve got very favourable Australian tour, and a top two finish looks very, very likely.

    The Jaguares and the Sharks will battle out for second in this conference, but the Jaguares look well ahead already. On two games’ evidence, I’m not sure who can beat them at home, and they’re good enough to win games on tour as well – if they can hold their discipline. The Sharks look a bit too Patrick Lambie-dependent suddenly, and none of the concerns I had about them pre-season have been resolved.

    The Kings won’t get anywhere near the playoffs, that’s no surprise, but they are definitely a better team than I suspect most of us thought would be the case. They’ve effectively started from scratch, but have stumbled upon a team of hard-working, honest toilers. And a sharp-shooting goal-kicker in former Shark and Jake White Brumby, Lionel Cronje! I think they’ll get a big scalp somewhere in the next month.

    New Zealand
    Even knowing what I know now, there probably isn’t much to change about the New Zealand prediction. I’d swap the Crusaders and the Highlanders, but the rest would stay as is. And that might be rough on the Chiefs, keeping them at third, but they haven’t quite shaken that feeling I have that the bubble will burst at some point.

    The Crusaders, too, have started a whole lot better then I expected, but on reflection it’s not that surprising at all. For years now the Crusaders have lost players, pulled the lever, cranked the wheel in the factory, and out pops yet another ready-made replacement.

    The Highlanders look vulnerable at the moment, and the worry with them will be that if they lose too many more games, they won’t be able to make up the lost ground. They’ve had a shocking start to the season injury-wise, and I’m not sure they’ve got the depth as the teams above them in the conference.

    And the Hurricanes and Blues will finish where I had them from the start. The Blues are a better side than last year, and worryingly, so are the Hurricanes, but where the Hurricanes already look well-drilled and well-oiled, the Blues look their very up-and-down best (or worst, depending on your perspective).

    Mitch Hunt Crusaders Super Rugby Union 2017

    Australia
    If there’s one thing in the Australian conference I’m pleased about, it’s that it is going to be as tight in 2017 as I thought it might be. And I’m actually more pleased for the fact that the two teams playing the best rugby so far are the teams I had finishing fourth and fifth.

    I didn’t think the Brumbies would get anywhere near finishing as conference champion, but that now looks very real. If they can keep showing the weekly glimpse of improved attack as they have across four games, then they’d deserve to be part of the playoff discussions.

    And I’m confident the Force won’t finish fifth in the conference now. To be fair, I wrote at the time that I thought it was harsh ranking them at fifth, and I’m pleased that’s proved to be the case already. There’s a lot to like about the Force, and this mini-tour of New Zealand is a really good challenge. Ryan Louwrens and Jonno Lance have started well in the halves, the pack is working well despite some injuries, and Curtis Rona and Chance Peni already present biggest right-edge defence in Australia.

    The Reds were terrible in Johannesburg, there’s no doubt about that, but that doesn’t erase the good showings in the matches before the Ellis Park thumping. How they now cope without Quade Cooper and James Slipper will be the big test for the young blokes, but if they embrace the challenge and not shy away from it, there’s plenty of time to set up a successful season.

    Reds Super Rugby player Quade Cooper

    There’s plenty of time for the Waratahs too, and they should be able to do just that with the talent available. But they’ve looked flat for most of the opening month, to the point where I’m not even sure if they can beat the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday night, especially if Bernard Foley remains in the ‘civvies’.

    A team that strong shouldn’t be fourth in the conference, and it will be interesting to see if Darryl Gibson follows through with his threat to swing the axe this week. I wonder if it will extend to some big names?

    And that just leaves the Rebels. I can’t really work why a team in which a large chunk of players who have been together now for several years can be playing like they just met in February, and nor am I sure that they’re capable of making the improvements they so desperately need.

    So to finish this exercise, I’ll say this: the Rebels will not finish anywhere near the playoffs this season as I hoped they might.

    And though I absolutely look forward to them proving me wrong, it’s worth noting that after three games this season, the Rebels have a larger negative points differential and have scored fewer while conceding more tries than the Kings had managed this time last season.

    And they were playing their first games together.

    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 (60)

    • March 21st 2017 @ 9:37am
      jimmyjames said | March 21st 2017 @ 9:37am | ! Report

      Brett

      Off topic, but how can SANZAAR justify retaining the Sunwolves in a revised Super 15 (5NZ, 4Aus, 4SA, 1Arg and 1Jpn) ahead of a 5th Aus or SA team? Is the JRU taking Super Rugby seriously? Wasn’t there talk of the Sunwolves been dumped before the 2016 competition because of its weak roster and non-availability of a number of the best top league and cherry blossom players. There would need to be a massive shift in its recruitment strategy as well as help from other SANZAAR nations, e.g. NZ could allow its players to be selected for the ABs from the Sunwolves.

      Actually, if the NZRU is really interested in improving Super Rugby, maybe it should consider sharing its player depth with non-NZ teams, not just the Sunwolves. It’s unlikely to happen but it’s an interesting proposition and goes to the heart of the issue of whether Super Rugby should be seen a stand alone competition or simply a production line for Test rugby.

      • Roar Guru

        March 21st 2017 @ 9:48am
        Nobrain said | March 21st 2017 @ 9:48am | ! Report

        RWC 2019 rings a bell?

      • March 21st 2017 @ 4:50pm
        cuw said | March 21st 2017 @ 4:50pm | ! Report

        the most plausible reason for Japan being taken into the super teams and being retained as far as i can think is becoz of the world cup.

        else imo it was a rubbish decision, considering the distances involved and the way they have played in Singapore or HongKong just to reduce travel. why would u get an almost national team and then not play in their home country???

        the only country atm that can consistently feed 5 teams and sustain the demand for 45 players a season is NZ. though saffers have players , most of their good ones go to Europe so they too can only manage 4 good teams. Aussy never had enuf players to have 5 good teams.

    • March 21st 2017 @ 10:03am
      Celtic334 said | March 21st 2017 @ 10:03am | ! Report

      Im personally not reading into any of the Aus teams so far, as apart from the Brums victory over the Tahs, every Aus derby has gone to the home team. The Brums are on top but haven’t traveled to Africa like the Tahs and Reds. The Force have only played 3 games and are behind the 8 ball with having had a bye (so not as many ops to collect points). Even my Rebels have had a tough start, but have already played most of their NZ games. Matches which most likely Aus teams wont win, so in a strange way those results might not matter. A win on Friday will see them not far off the other teams as strange as it would sound

      • March 21st 2017 @ 10:54am
        Bakkies said | March 21st 2017 @ 10:54am | ! Report

        Would rather have the bye now than later on.

    • March 21st 2017 @ 10:52am
      Rhys Bosley said | March 21st 2017 @ 10:52am | ! Report

      “Curtis Rona and Chance Peni already present biggest right-edge defence in Australia.”

      Ahem, I think Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight might have something to say about that!

      Apart from that, good write up Brett.

      • Roar Rookie

        March 21st 2017 @ 12:23pm
        piru said | March 21st 2017 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

        Indeed they might

      • Columnist

        March 21st 2017 @ 2:54pm
        Brett McKay said | March 21st 2017 @ 2:54pm | ! Report

        I’m not sure Speight is quite as big as Peni, Boz, and I say that having seen the Force right edge at close quarters a fortnight ago!

    • March 21st 2017 @ 11:09am
      Old Bugger said | March 21st 2017 @ 11:09am | ! Report

      No worries Brett – a good read but, each to their own, aye mate.

      Funny how folks say, a good measure of a rugby side, is how that side, wins the ugly games. If the bubble is these ugly games then, there will always be many more games like this, to come. But, that is the beauty of measuring how a side will fare……win the ugly games, in particular, those on the road and then, invite the others, to your home turf.

      We all know, the NZ conference isn’t easy for any of those sides and right now, my greatest concern is the Saders and their on-field ability, after the crew changes, are made. It may mean the Chiefs don’t make any crew changes, I don’t know but gees, those Saders replacements, are certainly turning their opponents, inside out.

      The Chiefs have set the target. It’s now up to the other NZ sides to take aim and, apart from the 2nd half of the upcoming Saders match, I don’t have too many concerns atm, with the others. The game for the others, will be to dissect the Chiefs pack or face being, dissected.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 12:40pm
        taylorman said | March 21st 2017 @ 12:40pm | ! Report

        Just between you and I OB…(Chiefs to be holding the trophy in Hamilton in a few months)…shhh.

        • March 21st 2017 @ 12:46pm
          Old Bugger said | March 21st 2017 @ 12:46pm | ! Report

          Cheers TM but, I’ll whisper this one then…..the last tip you did, that team tripped at the final hurdle……so, we’ll keep this one between you and me, aye…..haha!!

    • March 21st 2017 @ 12:24pm
      WQ said | March 21st 2017 @ 12:24pm | ! Report

      Can’t argue with too much there Brett other than perhaps your optimism for the Reds, I think they are shot!
      When will the Blues ever live up to their potential, they are incredibly frustrating to tip!!

      • March 21st 2017 @ 4:40pm
        Akari said | March 21st 2017 @ 4:40pm | ! Report

        The loss of Luatua hasn’t helped the Blues leadership but Kaino and Tuipulotu seems to have lifted their game. I suspect that the Tana is yet to get his selections right, eg, Moulds should start with Parsons sent back to club rugby and Nanai should be at 14. Tana is s getting there and we’ll find out more this weekend. The Bulls may also help in getting the Blues in perfecting their mauling defence/technique. When they do, watch out all comers.

        • March 21st 2017 @ 5:38pm
          WQ said | March 21st 2017 @ 5:38pm | ! Report

          I hope so Akari, I’m starting to lose the faith.

          • March 21st 2017 @ 11:06pm
            Rugby Tragic said | March 21st 2017 @ 11:06pm | ! Report

            Hang in there buddy!

    • March 21st 2017 @ 3:01pm
      kunming tiger said | March 21st 2017 @ 3:01pm | ! Report

      And that just leaves the Rebels. I can’t really work why a team in which a large chunk of players who have been together now for several years can be playing like they just met in February, and nor am I sure that they’re capable of making the improvements they so desperately need.

      I concur with this assessment, the only upside is that they have just named nine young rebels in the EPS for the Australian U20s. I think there is talent coming through it is a matter of taking a short term risk for long term gain and selecting them.

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