If a week is a long time in rugby, then a month truly is an eternity. But such is the nature and the completely fickle form lines of the Australian sides in Super Rugby this season, that just one month can be enough to see the fortunes of any one side rise and plummet.
As I outlined a fortnight ago, trying to pick the form Australian side is best left as a rhetorical question. Even sides that do win aren’t necessarily playing well at the time. There’s an argument that Queensland played the better rugby on Saturday night, yet a losing bonus point is all they took out of the loss to NSW.
About a month ago, I started writing about the Waratahs and the Brumbies but had to abandon the article to chase another column completely. At the time, the Brumbies had just thumped the Reds in Canberra – playing their best rugby in yonks in doing it – and the Waratahs had just come back from South Africa, where they proclaimed to be a raging success on the training track, but proceeded to miss tackle after tackle on the field.
With the Brumbies heading to Melbourne to face the Rebels and the Waratahs heading into a bye, the Brumbies, I was ready to propose, were on the verge of opening up a twelve-point gap in the Australian conference that might be difficult to run down.
“Have the Waratahs just missed tackled away the Australian conference?” I had pencilled in as the headline.
Several weeks on, it’s a good thing something else came up to supersede that column!
As it stands now, a losing bonus point against the Blues on Sunday means the Brumbies remain atop the Australian conference on 18 points, and are still five points clear of the Waratahs on 13. Both sides have three wins and six losses; far from the ideal start to the season.
The Reds and Western Force follow on two wins each, 11 and 9 points respectively, though the Force have a game in hand.
The Melbourne Rebels trail by only two points again with one win and a game in hand, and even though they’ve clearly got bigger problems after a 44-3 thumping at the hands of the Kings, the narrowness of this gap means they still have to be included in this conversation.
And that conversation is, simply, that the conference race is still wide open.
On current form, you’d think the Rebels will have a tough time of it. You’d think; my previous point about fickle form lines notwithstanding.
On their run home, the Rebels face three of the four current conference leaders. They’ll play the Lions and Crusaders in Melbourne, and host the Jaguares in Melbourne in the final round, too, while they’ll also face the four other Australian sides in between. It looks like a tough run home, and that’s without bringing their current form and shocking injury toll into the equation.
The Force also have four home games on their run home, but start with the southern hemisphere lap via the Sharks and Jaguares. They face the Reds in between home games against the Highlanders and Hurricanes, and finish with home games against the Rebels and Waratahs. It also looks like a tough run home.
Queensland face three New Zealand teams and three Australian sides on the way home, and while they could win as many as four of those games, they could also lose as many as five. Right at this point in the season, I don’t think they’ll get close to the playoffs. But such is their up-and-down ride at the moment, they’re just as likely to finish well out of the playoff race as they are to narrowly miss it.
The Waratahs have been underwhelming on the field for more than a month, yet they don’t have the worst run home. And the fortune – or misfortune, more likely – of other Australian teams will almost certainly play a part in how their 2017 season ends.
If the ‘Tahs can topple the Blues this weekend coming, then you’d think they should be able to topple the Rebels and Jaguares at home, and the Force in Perth in the final round. Could they knock off the Highlanders or Chiefs over the ditch? I’m not so sure, but if they found a bit of confidence and some semblance of structure, you couldn’t rule it out.
The Brumbies have a bye this weekend, and then face the Lions in Canberra before doing the Port Elizabeth-Buenos Aires lap of the hemisphere themselves. They could win two. They might lose all three. You’d think they wouldn’t dare lose to the Rebels a second time, but then finish with both the Reds and Chiefs away.
A conference leader should take out at least four of those six games, but the Brumbies have played ten good minutes of rugby in the last 160, and won’t earn any points this weekend. Depending on which Waratahs and which Blues teams run out in Sydney on Saturday night, the Brumbies’ conference lead could disappear.
With five rounds until the June Internationals recess, the Australian conference could yet become even rockier than it already is, and even though some teams look better placed than others to reach the playoffs, the current form lines mean that it wouldn’t take much to throw all that thinking out the window.
Right now, I think it comes down to the Waratahs or the Brumbies. But in a month’s time, the picture could look a whole lot different again.