Australian rugby in 2017: Super Rugby growing pains don’t end well

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    The Australian Super Rugby season review concludes this week with the two sides who dominated the headlines for the worst possible reasons: the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force.

    I’ll repeat a point I made in last week’s review of the Reds, Waratahs and Brumbies: disgruntlement about the conference format was always hovering in the background, but I’ve no doubt at all that the performance of the Australian sides was a major factor in SANZAAR’s hand being forced into a competition restructure.

    In short, SANZAAR’s growing pains became too much. And too soon, it would seem.

    But, with the decisions made, and format and participants for the 2018 season now confirmed, there’s little point in revisiting those decisions here, nor the flow-on effects of the move, in which a large portion of the Western Force have now joined the Melbourne Rebels for 2018 beyond.

    There’s no doubt at all that the off-field rumours, back-room dealings, and the overall poorly-handled move to discontinue the Force in Super Rugby played a huge part in the on-field performance of both sides, however.

    RECAP: The bold predictions for 2017 – as made in the first week of February
    As mentioned last week, I was a touch wide of the mark when it came to predicting the Australian conference for 2017. I had the Queensland Reds topping the conference just ahead of the NSW Waratahs, I had the Melbourne Rebels finally delivering on their roster and possible snaring a wildcard spot, and though I had the Brumbies finishing ahead of the Western Force, it was going to be really close.

    No-one finished in their predicted position, which you all need to remember when I trot out the inevitable 2018 predictions early next year.

    Melbourne Rebels

    Man, oh man. Of all the predictions I got wrong in 2017 – and there were heaps, as you know – I reckon this is the one I was the most disappointed by. I had high hopes, or at least high-ish hopes for the Rebels, and they rewarded my optimism by running fifth in the Australian conference and dead, stinking last overall.

    “This has to be the year the Rebels take the next step,” I said back in February. “There’s now too much talent and experience sprinkled throughout this still-young squad for them to blow chances and make dumb decisions.”

    I will claim this small, moral victory: “Reece Hodge can only benefit from a full season at 12.” Hodge was the Rebels’ best by a good margin in 2017, with really only Marika Koroibete comfortably making the highlights reel.

    They started the season with five straight losses, and with two byes in there, the Rebels had just a solitary competition point going into Round 8. Their two losses before the first two byes, the Blues and Hurricanes, were by 56-18 and 71-6 scorelines. It was barely March when the phrase. ‘it’s going to be a long season for the Rebels’ was first uttered.

    And it was. Losses to Chiefs, Waratahs, and Crusaders followed, though at least the margins were narrower and totals not as high. In fairness, Hodge looked like beating the Waratahs himself before the New South Welshmen found the first of many late, late comebacks to win games. Regardless, the whispers around coach Tony McGahan’s future had begun.

    Tony McGahan Melbourne Rebels Super Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    With just the aforementioned point to their name, and with their head officially on the chopping block, the Rebels dug in and muscled up to beat the Brumbies up front in Melbourne. They led 13-12 at half time after a first half grind, and it only got tougher in the second half, triumphing 19-17 despite the Brumbies scoring three tries and the Rebels earning three yellow cards.

    From there, it was to South Africa, where the Rebels played a tryless, card-laden 9-9 draw with the Sharks in Durban. But just as you might have argued things were looking up, they were thumped 44-3 by the Kings.

    Sadly, it only got worse from there for the Rebels. A flogging at home to beaten finalists the Lions was followed by a heartbreaking derby loss to the Reds in Round 12, and the odds of McGahan remaining in the job for 2018 were lengthening by the week.

    After three more heavy losses to the Waratahs, Crusaders, and Brumbies, the announcement that everyone saw coming was made: McGahan and the Rebels had “decided to part ways” at season’s end.

    A coming together of the teams in the crosshairs saw the Force and Rebels walk out onto Perth nib Stadium as a united group, and they again came together after Force’s 31-22 win. In the final round, the Rebels managed to lead the Jaguares 19-10 at halftime, but in an illustrative end to their season, ran out of puff and lost 32-29, with the Jaguares’ own disappointing season made to look better with an unbeaten tour of Australia.

    Remarkably, the Rebels didn’t finish the season with the worst record in the competition – that belonged to the Sunwolves, who conceded 17 more tries – but the Rebels’ average of 5.3 tries scored against them per game while only scoring 1.5 tries a game themselves shows where their problems were in 2017.

    Western Force

    If the Rebels was the prediction I was most disappointed about, the Force was the one I was glad to get wrong. Though I thought the Brumbies and Force were about on par going into the 2017 season, I didn’t imagine their level would be enough to top the Australian conference, where the Force finished second, and 12th overall.

    Despite ranking them fifth of the Australian sides, I also said, “I’m really excited about the Force this year.”

    Bill Meakes Western Force Rugby Union Super 2017

    (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

    “It will all depend on how they start; if they post some early wins, the confidence will flow. The Force probably won’t play finals, but they might not finish fifth in the conference, either,” I suggested back in February.

    And they did kind of start well, losing a close one to the Waratahs and Brumbies either side of a really hard-fought win over the Reds in Perth, with recruits Chance Peni and Curtis Rona both crossing. It was the Force’s first win at home in ten games, but it also came at the cost of losing Adam Coleman to a leg injury before halftime. Things weren’t going their way, and that’s without being officially in the crosshairs yet.

    After their first bye, a 45-17 loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch was followed by a 24-15 loss to the Blues in Auckland, made to look better by a late try to Dane Haylett-Petty. A season that they needed to start well had netted just the one win going into Round 7.

    An 87-point, eleven try thriller in Perth saw the Force home against the Kings, winning 46-41. Five tries were scored between the 61st minute and Ben McCalman’s in the 74th minute to seal the win, which pushed the Force to third in the conference going into their second bye.

    The Chiefs landed in Perth after two weeks in South Africa, and with the Force now officially in the firing line following SANZAAR’s confirmation they would reduce the competition to 15 teams. One of the bigger nib Stadium crowds of the year saw the teams locked at 7-7 at halftime, with three Aaron Cruden penalties in the second half the difference between the two teams in a heavily defence-oriented game.

    That loss was followed by a 24-15 loss to the Lions at home the following week, which would’ve earned the Force a losing bonus point if not for an Elton Jantjies try after fulltime.

    A trip to Durban resulted in a bit of a thumping to the Sharks at Kings Park, but the Force then became the first Australian side to beat the Jaguares in Argentina, with tries to Alex Newsome and Isi Naisarani in the last fifteen minutes capping off a patient second half display.

    But just it felt the Force were building for a run home, they were thumped in Perth, with a 38-point second half racking up a big 55-6 win for the Highlanders.

    From there though, and with the rumour mill running hot that their days in Super Rugby were numbered, the Force finished strongly, winning three of their last four games. A comprehensive 40-26 win over the Reds in Brisbane kicked it off, with Peter Grant’s perfect 7/7 night from the tee the highlight.

    A 34-12 loss to the Hurricanes in Perth followed, but the Force finished on a high, with a well-deserved 31-22 win over the Rebels at home in the aforementioned display of unity followed by a last game to remember.

    Though they didn’t know their fortune at that stage, the Force played like they did, annihilating the Waratahs 40-11 in front of a huge final showing from the ‘Sea of Blue’. A try and 80th minute penalty goal to the retiring Matt Hodgson was only matched as a highlight by the appearance on-field at the end of the game of Andrew Forrest, an event that added yet another intriguing element to the Force’s season.

    Matt Philip Western Force Rugby Union Super 2017

    (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

    In the end, the Force finished second in the conference, which was about right for how they played relative to the three Australian sides below them. It’s often mentioned the Force finished equal to the Brumbies on top, with six wins each, though that overlooks the eight bonus point-advantage the Brumbies had; the Brumbies also finished with seven losing bonus points to one, a fair indication of the difference between the two sides.

    Ultimately, the Force learned of their fate a week after the Super Rugby Final, though this wasn’t confirmed until they lost an appeal in the first week of September. It was – and still is – a sad end to chapter that should have been so much more beneficial to Australian rugby than it was, only made more painful for the mass movement of players and coaches from the Force to the Rebels for the 2018 season.

    The priority for Rugby Australia now must be to keep the pathways and the grassroots of the game in Western Australia strong in the short term. Should Super Rugby take on a trans-Tasman focus for the next TV deal, a reboot of the Western Force will be essential.

    NEXT WEEK: the Australian rugby year in review concludes with a look back on the Wallabies.

    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 (72)

    • December 19th 2017 @ 6:29am
      Jock Cornet said | December 19th 2017 @ 6:29am | ! Report

      The only pathways for wa is to move

      • Columnist

        December 19th 2017 @ 10:21am
        Brett McKay said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:21am | ! Report

        How would you move a whole state, Jock? Do you know someone?

        • December 20th 2017 @ 12:01am
          Kavvy said | December 20th 2017 @ 12:01am | ! Report

          Pickfords, the careful movers

        • December 20th 2017 @ 10:41pm
          sheek said | December 20th 2017 @ 10:41pm | ! Report

          Ha ha Brett,

          Jack throws the bait & people keep biting. Go Jack!

      • December 19th 2017 @ 12:02pm
        Jack Russell said | December 19th 2017 @ 12:02pm | ! Report

        Secede? Make for an interesting national team.

        • December 20th 2017 @ 9:16am
          Bakkies said | December 20th 2017 @ 9:16am | ! Report

          That has been put out there as an option if the RA continue to stall the IPRC.

    • Roar Guru

      December 19th 2017 @ 7:20am
      Harry Jones said | December 19th 2017 @ 7:20am | ! Report

      Good retro; interesting look forward.

      Rebels were really lucky; the underpaid and left-out-to-dry Kings unlucky.

      • December 20th 2017 @ 9:17am
        Bakkies said | December 20th 2017 @ 9:17am | ! Report

        The Kings had more potential then the Rebels. That hiding they gave them was delightful.

    • December 19th 2017 @ 7:35am
      James P said | December 19th 2017 @ 7:35am | ! Report

      Mafi was clearly the best of the Rebels players and by a significant margin.

      • Columnist

        December 19th 2017 @ 10:16am
        Brett McKay said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:16am | ! Report

        Yeah, it takes some talent to completely forget about the Australian conference POTY, James!

        • Columnist

          December 19th 2017 @ 10:57am
          Geoff Parkes said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:57am | ! Report

          I gave you the benefit of the doubt mate, assumed you were only talking about Wallabies eligible players…. 🙂

          But yes, Mafi by a country mile.

          • Columnist

            December 19th 2017 @ 11:38am
            Brett McKay said | December 19th 2017 @ 11:38am | ! Report

            Um… yes… of course I was!!

            • December 19th 2017 @ 4:49pm
              MitchO said | December 19th 2017 @ 4:49pm | ! Report

              Brett, I thought you just discounted Mafi on general principle. He had such a good season it doesn’t really count. Disregard the best and the worst and look at everyone else.

              I thought the Rebels very unlucky with injury. The Force too for that matter. With squad talent so thin, they like the Wallabies, can’t afford a lot of injuries.

              Did Hodgo retire with a 100% career goal kicking average? If so it would be well deserved.

              • Columnist

                December 19th 2017 @ 4:53pm
                Brett McKay said | December 19th 2017 @ 4:53pm | ! Report

                Absolutely Mitch, basic analysis says you have too remove the best and worst outliers…

        • December 19th 2017 @ 8:31pm
          Cliff (Bishkek) said | December 19th 2017 @ 8:31pm | ! Report

          Hey Harry, Just a question. How does the election of the New Leader of the ANC look towards the continued fumbling, bumbling of the Bokkies? From a person who has worked in Africa, and listening to the people, I am not certain that the ANC Government (including some of the younger ANC) wants the Springboks to continue.

          A political minefield and I think not a good one to manoeuvre through by the Rugby Boards!!

          • December 19th 2017 @ 8:52pm
            cuw said | December 19th 2017 @ 8:52pm | ! Report

            bet he has bigger fish to fry than worry about one game. 🙂

            but as a known businessman , he may have a different view how to run things and handle ” transformation “.

            problem with all politicians is , they forget their base and roots once they get to the high posts ….

            all i recall of him is from the GLENCORE scandal – though he was not implicated or convicted of anything.

    • December 19th 2017 @ 7:54am
      Bob Wire said | December 19th 2017 @ 7:54am | ! Report

      Thanks to the force, rebels look good for 2018… On paper.

      • December 19th 2017 @ 5:06pm
        MitchO said | December 19th 2017 @ 5:06pm | ! Report

        Bob the players Melbourne picked up from us are not paper players. They are mostly hard physical nuts with a real ability to pressure opposition forward packs. That makes the difference.

        Faulkner (who did go of his own accord) is at the least a decent scrummaging, good super level prop. Ainsely is a tighthead with a lot of potential and decent super player now. Hardwick a young guy with a gift for tight second phase play. RHP a big angry hard grinding man. Coleman is a test class lock and hard like Simmons isn’t. Mat Philip is good in the second phase too. Has good physicality.

        Those guys all are good at competing like proper forwards with proper forwards. So paper doesn’t matter. Colby Fainga is a good player who’ll do his thing and if he doesn’t then Hardwick will do it. I don’t know how much petrol Geoff Parling has left in the tank but he’ll add something to the squad. Amanaki Mafi will have a positive impact as well.

        Mate that is a really competitive forward pack. It’ll come down to the backs. But Bill Meakes is a decent defending 12, Jono Lance is a good super level 10 who can kick goals. Hodge may play 13 and he is test class. DHP is a good super level 15 who is on the border of test class. Navalu and Korobeiti will get the ball over the line and also make their tackles and allow for some good moves with wings coming in for an infield run. Add Genia, Stirzaker and Ruru who are all good half backs.

        That is a good defensive backline with enough attacking grunt which is bolted onto a forward pack with a lineout (tall) and scrum, good second phase play and two 7s in Hardwick and Fainga who are good enough to compete against all comers. Coleman, Philip, RHP and Mafi is a very handy lineout.

        • December 19th 2017 @ 11:35pm
          Bob Wire said | December 19th 2017 @ 11:35pm | ! Report

          Excellent summary Mitch add Wessels and there is real potential

          • December 19th 2017 @ 11:48pm
            Bob Wire said | December 19th 2017 @ 11:48pm | ! Report

            It would be good to see them or any Aussie team have some success in NZ.

    • December 19th 2017 @ 8:08am
      Cynical Play said | December 19th 2017 @ 8:08am | ! Report

      Not often a journo finds a good application for the rarely used “disgruntlement”. Well done. And well done on all your engrossing articles this year…. always measured and insightful and much appreciated. Cheers Brett.

      • December 19th 2017 @ 9:23am
        concerned supporter said | December 19th 2017 @ 9:23am | ! Report

        Good Morning Brett,
        CP put it very well,
        “Not often a journo finds a good application for the rarely used “disgruntlement”. ‘
        Agree 100%.
        We had a skirmish or two during the year. nothing wrong with that.
        Met in person at Bondi Junction mall the great man, Spiro. I introduced myself, told him my nom de plume, and chatted about Rugby.Charming bloke,, great journalist and historian.
        Thanks for your articles during the year, wishing you and your family a Happy Christmas.

      • December 19th 2017 @ 10:07am
        rebel said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:07am | ! Report

        Agree about Brett’s articles, never felt the need to sensationalise anything for the sake of clicks. A credit to the Roar and his other exploits.

      • Columnist

        December 19th 2017 @ 10:17am
        Brett McKay said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:17am | ! Report

        Thanks guys, nice of you all to say. And I agree, CP, ‘disgruntlement’ doesn’t get a fair run!

        • December 19th 2017 @ 11:42am
          NickoM1960 said | December 19th 2017 @ 11:42am | ! Report

          “disgruntlement” is good I will grant you but bonus points will be paid for “gruntlement”!

          Also, always enjoy your articles, thanks and all the best.

      • December 19th 2017 @ 1:26pm
        Rhys Bosley said | December 19th 2017 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

        Disgruntlement is a interesting word for several reasons, not the least because of the burning question of whether it means that “gruntlement” is a valid term. I.e. “Brad Thorn’s Reds experienced a high degree of gruntlement when they won the Super Rugby trophy in 2018.”

        • Columnist

          December 19th 2017 @ 1:43pm
          Brett McKay said | December 19th 2017 @ 1:43pm | ! Report

          To that end, ‘disgruntled’ actually sounds like the opposite of what it should mean, doesn’t it…

          • December 19th 2017 @ 5:03pm
            Rhys Bosley said | December 19th 2017 @ 5:03pm | ! Report

            Dunno, I’m confused now.

            • Columnist

              December 19th 2017 @ 7:14pm
              Brett McKay said | December 19th 2017 @ 7:14pm | ! Report

              Let’s not mention flammable and inflammable then…

    • December 19th 2017 @ 8:11am
      Unanimous said | December 19th 2017 @ 8:11am | ! Report

      No discussion of game plans, tactics, style or methods of play. No discussion of why the seasons panned out the way they did.

      No mention of the Rebels injury toll. By no means an excuse, teams should manage these things, but having 17 players out and contracting two players mid season is surely something that should be discussed in a season review. Pretty poor review all round really.

      • December 19th 2017 @ 8:55am
        RahRah said | December 19th 2017 @ 8:55am | ! Report

        TWAS is that you?

      • December 19th 2017 @ 10:05am
        Cynical Play said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:05am | ! Report

        Hey man you need to see a Proctologist fast. You’re completely clogged up.

      • December 19th 2017 @ 10:09am
        rebel said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:09am | ! Report

        That sounds like you have an article ready to go. Give it a crack.

      • Roar Guru

        December 19th 2017 @ 10:14am
        Train Without A Station said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:14am | ! Report

        They actually contracted Harrison Goddard, High Sinclair, Will Miller, Murray Douglas, Esei and Fereti Sa’aga during the season.

        Pretty poor comment all round really.

        • December 20th 2017 @ 7:54am
          Unanimous said | December 20th 2017 @ 7:54am | ! Report

          So even more missing info from the article. You could have done a better job. Sure my comment could have been way better too, but what do you expect in 50-100 words in a couple of minutes in a comment section.

          What about Mafi. Did he get a mention?

      • Columnist

        December 19th 2017 @ 10:18am
        Brett McKay said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:18am | ! Report

        It’s unanimous then!

        Nope, it’s just one opinion… 🙄

      • Roar Rookie

        December 19th 2017 @ 10:29am
        Don said | December 19th 2017 @ 10:29am | ! Report

        Mmmmmm….

        Unanimous, thanks for your comment.

        It brought back a memory of my dad when I was a kid and he told me;
        “Son, blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours shine any brighter “

        • Columnist

          December 19th 2017 @ 1:46pm
          Brett McKay said | December 19th 2017 @ 1:46pm | ! Report

          Particularly when said “pretty poor review” already runs to more than 1500 words without mentioning every game played.

          Proof that you can never keep everyone happy all the time…

          • December 20th 2017 @ 7:58am
            Unanimous said | December 20th 2017 @ 7:58am | ! Report

            It doesn’t need to mention every game or every player, but the top 5 or so key aspects to the season I’d expect.

        • December 20th 2017 @ 8:02am
          Unanimous said | December 20th 2017 @ 8:02am | ! Report

          Good point. Sounds like a wise dad. But constructive critisism can help everyone’s candle blow brighter in the long run. My choice of words was not the best in the few minutes I had yesterday to comment, but there is something to what I said. Brett might well take it on board. He’s pretty reasonable genetally.

      • Columnist

        December 20th 2017 @ 2:30pm
        Brett McKay said | December 20th 2017 @ 2:30pm | ! Report

        Unanimous, here’s some background for you about the season reviews, since you appear to have come in after the first couple were published.

        This is the third of four reviews, running every Tuesday through December, and using a format agreed to in conjunction with the site, based on years of knowledge of what works best at the this time of year.

        The first review ran on Dec 5, and covered club rugby around the country and the NRC. LINK: http://www.theroar.com.au/2017/12/05/rugby-2017-around-club-scene-new-nrc-champion/ It ran to more than 1400 words, with around 800 on the club scene, and just over 500 on the NRC (which only concluded about a month before hand).

        The second ran on Dec 12, the first part of the Super Rugby sides, being the Reds, Waratahs, and Brumbies. LINK: http://www.theroar.com.au/2017/12/12/australian-rugby-2017-stumbling-super-rugby-powerhouses/ It ran to nearly 1900 words, with the three sides commanding around 500 words each. Note, this was more than four months after the SR Final, and five months after the Reds and ‘Tahs last played.

        This article you’ve commented on ran to more than 1700 words, with the Rebels around 600 of that, and the Force more than 800 – and that was even with very limited commentary on the off-field events.

        Next week will be the Wallabies, and it will follow the same format.

        The three reviews have netted about 250 comments, with yours the single dissenting voice. And you’re welcome to dissent all you like, this is an opinion site after all. But you might also take on board yourself that we know pretty well what works at this time of year, and detailed long-form essays – which is what they’d be, with the sort of detail you’re suggesting – for teams that haven’t played for nearly half a year isn’t it.

        As it stands, 250 comments against three articles and 5000 words in December with a lone voice of dissent shows we’ve got the format right. There is a time to wind down for the year, and clearly, this is it as far as the rugby regulars have shown.

        If you still want detailed long-form essays, then by all means, please feel free: http://www.theroar.com.au/contribute. Best of luck, and have a great Christmas…

        • December 20th 2017 @ 5:45pm
          Unanimous said | December 20th 2017 @ 5:45pm | ! Report

          Thanks for the links, and appreciate the effort into this reply. You’re right when you say I didn’t read the other reviews.

          Plenty of stuff ‘works’ that I don’t like – ABBA, Michael Jackson music, Bachelorette on TV, etc. No problem with it existing, and no problem with people saying they don’t like it with a bit of explanation why.

          Merry Christmas to you too.

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