Buckle up for the Australian conference run home

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    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.

    Karmichael Hunt gets a pass away

    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.

    Waratahs Super Rugby Union 2017

    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.

    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 (87)

    • May 2nd 2017 @ 6:05am
      MH01 said | May 2nd 2017 @ 6:05am | ! Report

      No need to buckle up, the Oz conference will limp into one position into the finals, thanks to the conference system. I gotta be honest and say, I really have lost interest . Waratahs should be there, though yeah anyone could still take it. Does it matter ? If it was not for The conference system it would all be over now. We don’t deserve a team in the finals. It’s plain wrong one of them will get a spot

      • May 2nd 2017 @ 6:40am
        Krash said | May 2nd 2017 @ 6:40am | ! Report

        Couldn’t agree more. SANZAAR needs to seriously reconsider this conference format, and make a serious call on whether or not it’s actually helping the competition’s reputation in world rugby or hurting it. Because right now, I think most fans would agree that the comp’s integrity is being tarnished.

        • May 2nd 2017 @ 6:53am
          Cynical Play said | May 2nd 2017 @ 6:53am | ! Report

          Sheek’s proposal of a national competition, using the current franchises to build upon, with an end of season game or games between the national winners (ie from Oz, NZ, etc) for the ultimate SR title makes much more sense to many fans it seems. Surely the Reds/Tahs derby has shown that the Oz fan likes good local derbies. Unfortunately, there is no obvious viable alternative funding model facilitating this, though I can’t see why SANZAAR could not accomodate this.

          • May 2nd 2017 @ 8:17am
            Browny said | May 2nd 2017 @ 8:17am | ! Report

            That’s the big issue with the Super-NRC concept; how do we create a strong and viable domestic competition with a fraction of the TV money while maintaining to keep at least some of our top level talent here in Australia?
            I highly doubt any capped player would remain and all those who appear like potential wallabies would be signed overseas fairly quickly. For the most part he players are already taking a salary cut to play here instead of France, Japan or the UK – cue line about Kane Douglas being paid $140k here and getting a ‘fairly average’ wage at Leinster that was double his Aus contract – but if these guys are faced with the option of apprentice wages (or even being amateur footballers!) the residence decision has practically been made for them.

          • May 2nd 2017 @ 8:34am
            Zero Gain said | May 2nd 2017 @ 8:34am | ! Report

            Sheek’s model is so obviously the best model and the one that will have the best long term result for Australian rugby.
            It is clearly what the fans want and more importantly what the many potential fans want. Ignore the Kiwis who say otherwise because they do not have Australian rugby in their hearts or its best interests in mind. That is no criticism, just a statement of a relevant fact.
            How would Kiwis like it if Australians had a big influence on how the game progressed in NZ?

            • May 2nd 2017 @ 9:29am
              Kane said | May 2nd 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

              But will not playing good teams often hurt quality as well?

              Think back to the Stormers last year, they topped their pool without having to play the kiwi sides, then when they finally did play them they were spanked hosting a playoff.

            • May 2nd 2017 @ 9:58am
              Cynical Play said | May 2nd 2017 @ 9:58am | ! Report

              Every weekend hundreds of thousands of fans go to the grounds to watch AFL. Far fewer watch the few representative matches (ie all-stars games or the Irish vs Oz “international Rules’). Same with soccer – they flood into the grounds for LOCAL DERBIES and occasional internationals. Its tribal. History is showing us that fans have less interest in opposition teams that are unfamiliar (ie the Kings, Cheetahs, Sunwolves..etc) or when away games are played in the middle of the bloody night.

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 10:17am
                Darwin Stubbie said | May 2nd 2017 @ 10:17am | ! Report

                Its all nice in theory but has rugby in Aust got that mass number of followers? (The NRC viewership suggests not) and you only need to go over into the blue side of this tab and read the comments on the recent article about the NRC to see how near impossible the task is – until the numerous state and club factions can come together in any kind of meaningful way then this national competition utopia is nothing other than a dream

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 12:05pm
                hog said | May 2nd 2017 @ 12:05pm | ! Report

                As opposed to the current state of Utopia were in.

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 10:23am
                Browny said | May 2nd 2017 @ 10:23am | ! Report

                Tribalism is a big thing. Not just who you support but also the clubs you hate… Colingwood, Port Adelaide, Hawthorn, Sydney… whoever it is. The clubs you often like or feel some affinity towards (outside of your own team) are often teams that are on the way up but have been on the lower end of the ladder for a long time so haven’t really done much to upset you personally for some time. That’s part of why the Bulldogs were so well received by the public last year, and it was a decent chunk of the whole ‘fairytail’ premiership hoorah.

                I’d go as far to say that’s a big reason for the Storm’s success in Melbourne; they’re a successful team which draws supporters (even those who aren’t necessarily league fans) and there’s a real ‘us versus them’ mentality, amplified by the fact that it’s seen as Melbourne taking it to to heartland… sort of a “we’re having a shot at Sydney/Brisbane/NSW/QLD at their own game” mentality. It’s really hard to establish that mindset with super rugby on account of the limited home games, away games that are only on foxtel and often at unwatchable hours, and played against teams who have no identity to the outsider. The Australian teams aren’t too bad in that sense, at least they have their location in the name! Pretty easy to work out where the Queensland Reds or Melbourne Rebels are from, it gets a lot tougher with some of the Kiwi and particularly (for Australians) South African sides who are often only referred to by a single word… Stormers, Sharks, Bulls… the fact that the average punter has to google them to find out where they’re actually from really doesn’t help with establishing the sort of tribalism that could be accomplished in this competition.

                I’ll add that the old Victoria vs Allstars games were pretty much a novelty and the international rules shouldn’t really count because it’s not the same sport. In both occasionans many of the best players don’t want to be involved – why risk an injury for something as meaningless as that. We hardly hear a whisper about the Int Rules when it comes around these days. But some radio jockey in Perth starts a rumour about Nat Fyfe moving clubs next season and every single media outlet jumps on it. For what it’s worth, Cooper Cronk leaving Storm got massive coverage too, it was all over the news that week. He’s a bit of a favourite son down here.

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 12:14pm
                Darwin Stubbie said | May 2nd 2017 @ 12:14pm | ! Report

                Clearly you’re not in a utopia now … but if the collective drives the essential revenue now and evidence points to flying solo is a pipe dream – where is the logical reasoning that is needed to try and bridge the gap … just saying this is what should happen and lets suck it up and see isnt really a sound basis upon which to progress

              • May 3rd 2017 @ 12:47am
                GDP... said | May 3rd 2017 @ 12:47am | ! Report

                Spot on……ever since the Sunwolves….and Argies came onboard… I really have lost interest in the Rugby……used to love it… Its lost its spark !!!!!!!!!

              • Roar Guru

                May 3rd 2017 @ 7:16pm
                Timbo (L) said | May 3rd 2017 @ 7:16pm | ! Report

                Browny, if we could plug that tribalism into the NRC it could work.

                But a handy cam on a tripod at a regional ground doesn’t have the production quality of a stadium game, nor having the fans flock to the ground.

                Don’t get me wrong, I go to every Local NRC game, I love it, and I think taking the show on the road is great for grass roots but it does hinder the creation of a supporter base.

            • May 2nd 2017 @ 10:44am
              ClarkeG said | May 2nd 2017 @ 10:44am | ! Report

              You really do need to get over that misguided relevant fact .

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 10:52am
                Cynical Play said | May 2nd 2017 @ 10:52am | ! Report

                Enlighten me Einstein..

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 2:04pm
                ClarkeG said | May 2nd 2017 @ 2:04pm | ! Report

                Einstein I am most certainly not.

                You can call me Clarke any time Cynical.

                “Ignore the Kiwis who say otherwise because they do not have Australian rugby in their hearts or its best interests in mind. That is no criticism, just a statement of a relevant fact.”…is what Zero said.

                My view is that his statement is misguided because in my experience this is not the case although he says it is a fact.

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 2:40pm
                Cynical Play said | May 2nd 2017 @ 2:40pm | ! Report

                I misconstrued the comment as toward me. I apologise.

              • May 4th 2017 @ 9:59am
                ClarkeG said | May 4th 2017 @ 9:59am | ! Report

                All good.

            • Roar Rookie

              May 2nd 2017 @ 3:04pm
              Kirky said | May 2nd 2017 @ 3:04pm | ! Report

              Zero! That would never ever happen, why would New Zealand take any notice of anything rugby from Australia? ~ The Aussies’ could never have any influence on anything New Zealand rugby, they’ve never had anything to influence New Zealand with! Jeez’!

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 3:14pm
                Old Bugger said | May 2nd 2017 @ 3:14pm | ! Report

                Perhaps, he just wanted to feel relevant….and that is, no criticism??

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 3:20pm
                Quin said | May 2nd 2017 @ 3:20pm | ! Report

                Did you see the article in Stuff, Kirky?
                Andrew hore the ex NZRU manager who know works for the Tahs wants to include the Australian teams in the NPC.
                It is unlikely to ever happen.

                Last time I checked 43 % were against, 26% said yes but at a huge financial contribution and 31 said yes.

              • May 2nd 2017 @ 3:50pm
                Akari said | May 2nd 2017 @ 3:50pm | ! Report

                Andrew Hore is a genius and I hope he pulls it off. Rugby on this side of the ditch needs help, Kirky, and I hope something can be organised in due course, Quin.

              • May 3rd 2017 @ 5:46am
                Ruka said | May 3rd 2017 @ 5:46am | ! Report

                It’s not going to happen, you are absolutely dreaming if you think Australia will ever get a team in the NPC. The article also goes on to state that.

            • May 2nd 2017 @ 9:05pm
              soapit said | May 2nd 2017 @ 9:05pm | ! Report

              having two tiers of comp with only some teams invited to the higher tier would likely end with the teams entrenched in their classes . who’s gonna want to sign for a team that hasnt made the top tier comp in 5 years (including the assumed higher money that would go with it).

              its not a good idea for long term sustainability.

      • May 2nd 2017 @ 6:41pm
        ajg said | May 2nd 2017 @ 6:41pm | ! Report

        my sentiments exactly; feeling really glum and embarrassed as an aussie rugby supporter tbh

    • Roar Guru

      May 2nd 2017 @ 7:08am
      Who Needs Melon said | May 2nd 2017 @ 7:08am | ! Report

      • May 2nd 2017 @ 9:49am
        Pinetree said | May 2nd 2017 @ 9:49am | ! Report

        HAha, one of my favorite all time Python Skits! Classic Melon, although maybe a tad harsh.

    • May 2nd 2017 @ 7:18am
      Jock Cornet said | May 2nd 2017 @ 7:18am | ! Report

      Who cares bring on the internationals. A team will get to the playoffs and lose by 40. If you can’t beat one NZ side and struggle with the jaguars you should forfeit the finals

      • May 2nd 2017 @ 7:51am
        Fionn said | May 2nd 2017 @ 7:51am | ! Report

        Didn’t you say yesterday that the Waratahs would “walk into the semis” :P?

        As it happens, I agree with you Jock. Whoever tops the Aussie conference isn’t beating the Kiwis team they will have to play in the quarters.

    • May 2nd 2017 @ 7:37am
      Jock Cornet said | May 2nd 2017 @ 7:37am | ! Report

      If the players don’t care why should the spectators.

    • May 2nd 2017 @ 7:46am
      Brizvegas said | May 2nd 2017 @ 7:46am | ! Report

      Super Rugby allows a team to qualify due to the conference system. The different standard between the conferences compromises the integrity of the competition. Local derbies apparently enjoyed by local fans but doesn’t seem to put more bums on seats. Would love to see the tv viewing numbers for the Reds v Tahs match.
      One of the elephants in the room is the impact the decision or nondecision by thr ARU on which team goes is probably affecting the players in these teams to the extent they play each game as though it were their last. And those teams who are not affected are going through the motions (like they have just eaten a bad curry so to speak)

      At least the Wallabies can assemble early for their tough midyear internationals

    • May 2nd 2017 @ 7:59am
      Fionn said | May 2nd 2017 @ 7:59am | ! Report

      I’d really like to see the Force or, of course, the Brumbies top the conference. The Force have the worst injury list (along with the Rebels) and are playing with more heart and passion than any other Australian team.

      I just can’t wait for the Larkham era to be over. I won’t say it has been a failure, as he made the semis in 2015, quarters 2016 and might top the conference this year, but I don’t think he achieved as much as he should have with the team list he had in 2015-16.

      • May 2nd 2017 @ 8:24am
        Browny said | May 2nd 2017 @ 8:24am | ! Report

        The Force have certainly been impressive on that front, Fionn. Regardless of what happens, I just hope that next year Wessels is still coaching and the Force players are still here, be in in WA or elsewhere. In the horrible event that the Force are removed, it’d probably do the other teams some good to get a few players with real heart in their squad to show the others how it’s done. As for Wessels, it’d be great to see what he could do with a squad that had less injuries and a few more top line stars, be it in WA with Rebels top ups or taking the reins of another franchise with a good smattering of his Force boys to bring some passion to his new club. Considering our dearth of coaches right now it would be a crying shame to lose him.

        • May 2nd 2017 @ 8:31am
          Fionn said | May 2nd 2017 @ 8:31am | ! Report

          I agree. But if the worst should happen to the Force then I would love for him to come over to the Brumbies.

          • May 2nd 2017 @ 10:40am
            RebelRanger said | May 2nd 2017 @ 10:40am | ! Report

            No, please. If the Force are to go it would be best for Australian rugby for the Rebels to get a good coach. We’ve got an okay squad but the gameplay is terrible. Can’t name a single player that’s improved whilst being down here which is an alarm for inept coaching.

            • Roar Pro

              May 2nd 2017 @ 12:04pm
              Crazy Horse said | May 2nd 2017 @ 12:04pm | ! Report

              The master plan is to destroy the Force and pillage the corpse for the Tahs and NSW clubs.

            • May 3rd 2017 @ 12:14am
              AndyS said | May 3rd 2017 @ 12:14am | ! Report

              Really RR, after the last year or so you still think “Australian Rugby” wants a strong coach for the Rebels, or good players, or have them threaten the status quo in any way? What do you think their next idea will be if somehow reducing to four doesn’t suddenly have them challenging for finals…?

      • Roar Rookie

        May 2nd 2017 @ 3:34pm
        Kirky said | May 2nd 2017 @ 3:34pm | ! Report

        Fionn! Onya’ mate I think exactly the same, the Force are playing the best style of rugby hands down and as you say they are putting their hearts and souls into every game they play and if they weren’t hampered by a shocking injury list which takes out the majority of their best players they would be right up the top of the Aussie Conference.

        They have played darned good rugby but because they haven’t got access to the players that matter through injury they just lack the power that they need, but they play 80 minutes full on.

        They aren’t a bunch of ”show ponies” but strive to the utmost with what they have, and they should be applauded for that, well done to them!

        I agree wholeheartedly on your opinion of Steve Larkham as a Coach, and to be brutally honest, in my opinion, (for what it’s worth}, he is not and never has been a good Coach and the odd part about it is nobody from the Brumbies complains about his Coaching ability, he’s never been from what I’ve seen, a top Coach and his record shows it, and next Season he goes to the Wallabies in some form or other, the mind boggles.

        Stevie Larkham was a very, very, good player, everyone who saw him play can attest to that, but the ability to play top rugby does not always translate to the making of a good Coach and unfortunately it has so happened on a few occasions even recently that, brilliant rugby players who’ve made the jump to Coaching have ended up pretty much down the road to nowhere!

        • May 2nd 2017 @ 3:55pm
          Akari said | May 2nd 2017 @ 3:55pm | ! Report

          A lot of us did so last year, Kirky, and we have moved on now that Stevie has done some good things with the team given the limitations of the squad in comparison to the one from last season.

          Stevie is also moving on and may the new coach lead us to the championship or close to next year.

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