Any finalist could win a wide open Super Rugby tournament

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    The Crusaders' Robbie Fruean (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

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    Round 11 revealed that there is very little separating Super Rugby’s winning sides from its losing sides. With this in mind, any team that makes the final has a good shot at winning the tournament.

    There is no side this year like the Crusaders in their pomp, or even the Brumbies and Bulls in their championship years, that stands head and shoulders above the pack.

    The Chiefs got their bonus point win over the Lions, for instance, but the match was hardly the sort of walk-over you’d expect from the top side playing the second-bottom side.

    There are no undefeated sides. The Bulls have the leading points differential of +105, followed by the Chiefs (+92), the Stormers (+66), the Brumbies (+53), the Crusaders (+51) and the Highlanders (+13). The other nine are negative.

    The bottom New Zealand side, the Blues, have one win this season, as have the bottom South African side, the Lions. The Blues’ win, though, was at Pretoria, when they defeated the top South African side, the Bulls.

    The general tightness of most of the matches was on show over the weekend, which encourages me to make the statement that this is the closest Super Rugby tournament we have had.

    The latest round also suggested that the local conference winners are likely to be the Brumbies (Australia), the Chiefs (New Zealand) and Bulls or Stormers (South Africa).

    In no particular order, the other three spots could go to any number of sides: the Crusaders, the Highlanders, or a remote possibility the Hurricanes from the New Zealand conference; then whichever of the Bulls and Stormers does not go top, along with the remote possibility of the Sharks in the South African conference.

    It is hard to see how a second Australian side can make the final six. This is a pity because the Reds showed at Christchurch on Sunday that they are capable of defeating any of the top sides. But it is likely they won’t get a shot in the finals.

    They and the Waratahs (26) are nine points behind the Brumbies on 35.

    For the record the top eight teams are the Chiefs (44), the Bulls (42), the Stormers (41), the Crusaders (37), the Brumbies (35), the Highlanders (34), the Sharks (31) and the Hurricanes (30).

    The Brumbies, who are fifth on the table, have a bye next weekend. This means they will get an automatic four points to go 39 .

    The Waratahs play the Bulls at Allianz Stadium on Friday night. If the Waratahs play with the lack of venom and smarts they showed against the Brumbies, you’d have to think the Bulls will win this match. Against this is the fact that the Waratahs are a strong home stadium side.

    Moreover, South African sides, even the Bulls, drop more games than they win on their overseas tours of Australia and New Zealand.

    However, the week after they play the Bulls the Waratahs go on their tour of South Africa and play the Stormers at Cape Town, then the Cheetahs at Bloemfontein.

    Even the most ardent Waratahs supporter would admit that even one win from these two games might be too much of an ask for a side that has played well below expectations this season.

    I know, I know, there have been injuries. But some of the players moved in to cover for the injured players, Bernard Foley, Tom Kingston (but not at centre) and Dave Dennis, have been the few stand-outs in a lacklustre squad.

    The problem is that the coaching and selection this year have been poor. It has taken the coach until the season is more than halfway over, for instance, to discover that Dean Mumm is not a second rower of quality.

    It was disheartening, to say the least, to see the way the Waratahs tried to play ball-in-hand rugby against the Brumbies, for the first time this season, without a clue on how to do this.

    Devoted readers of The Roar will know that last week David Campese opined about the lack of passing and kicking skills of the Waratahs. The Waratahs proved this gloomy summation correct against the Brumbies.

    For the first time this season Berrick Barnes took the ball to the line, holding it in both hands. He looked to slip inside balls or cut-out passes to runners aiming up at the gaps.

    Unfortunately, as Rod Kafer pointed out frequently in his commentary, there were no runners doing this for him to pass to.

    Instead we had old faithful Tom Carter plodding into tackles and slowing down the flow of the Waratahs attacks. So for all the ball-in-hand play, the Waratahs were unable to score even one try against the Brumbies.

    The Brumbies, on the other hand, played like a team that knew the game plan and had the skills and the determination to carry out the plan. The ball was smashed over the advantage line by an aggressive and quick-thinking pack of forwards.

    Then it was moved to the backs who ran, again as Kafer noted, with their shoulders square to the tacklers and on lines that put the defensive line of the defenders under continual stress.

    And like all good winning sides, they scored vital points before and after half time. This domination of the championship period of matches is the sign of a potential championship side.

    The critical question mark over the Brumbies is how crucial was the direct, hard, clever running and dead-eyed goal-kicking of Christian Lealiifano?

    There is no doubt that Lealiifano was destined for the Wallaby number 10 jumper this season. Even when Quade Cooper came back, I’d slot him (if Lealiifano was available) on to the wing to play the Shane Williams game and let the Brumbies playmaker run the show for the Wallabies. This might happen on the Wallabies European tour.

    But how cruel that after time was up, Lealiifano damaged his ankle and will be out for a long while. Can the Brumbies win without him? They have a bye and then play the Hurricanes at Wellington, and the week after this a defining match for the Australian Conference, the Reds at Canberra. This last match will be a defining contest for both these Australian sides.

    Even though the Waratahs and the Reds have the same number of points, the Waratahs are dead in the water in my view as far as winning the Australian conference is concerned.

    But the Reds, as they showed against the Crusaders, still have the macho in them to win more matches and possibly overtake the Brumbies, if that side cannot cope with the loss of Lealiifano.

    Like the Brumbies, the Reds kept their line intact. This is a great achievement against the Crusaders. Someone will know the statistics but there must be very few matches the Crusaders have played at home where they haven’t scored a try.

    As Justin Marshall pointed out in his commentary (and as an aside, how great it is that he and Tim Horan show respect for visiting teams in their commentary), a side that defends staunchly is a side with great spirit. And great spirit can take a team to victories that might ordinarily be beyond them. The Reds showed this at Christchurch.

    There was a period, for instance, when the Crusaders forced a series of 5m scrums near the Reds try line. Throughout the match, the Reds scrum had been under pressure and had conceded penalties. But in this goal-line stand they held for two scrums and then turned the third, won the feed, and held steady in the next scrum to clear to their 22.

    For the second time in two weeks, the Reds playing away from home have embarrassed a New Zealand side into playing very poorly.

    I can’t finish off this discussion without making the point that the sooner the local referee system is chopped the better. The penalty count from Bryce Lawrence (a New Zealander) was 17-7 against the Reds. Even the commentators from Christchurch couldn’t explain several of the decisions.

    A similar penalty count, 18-7, was awarded by the South African referee Stuart Berry, in his first Super Rugby match, in the Cheetahs-Force match at Bloemfontein. The acting Force coach Phil Blake took the unusual approach of being openly critical of the referee: “At the end of the day you would like the players to decide the result.”

    There was one incident that clearly riled the normally taciturn David Pocock. Just before half-time the Force went from one side of the field to the other to score a splendid try in the far corner.

    The ‘try’ would have given the Force a scorecard, depending on the conversion, of 11-9 or 13-9. Right after half-time the Force scored a try under the posts. This would have taken the score out to 18-9 or 20-9.

    The final result was Cheetahs 17, Force 13.

    And that Force ‘try’? The assistant referee claimed that Force prop Salesi Ma’afu illegally affected play in the lead-up. Ma’afu wrapped his arms around a Cheetahs player on the ground at the breakdown to prevent him from playing the ball.

    The ball was well away from the two players and Justin Chadwick’s match report noted that “In reality the incident had little effect on Samu Wara’s ability to break through the Cheetahs defence moments later.”

    To be fair, the referee did ask if play was affected by the incident. He was assured that it was. But I think he should have asked specifically what happened, and when told the details he should have over-ruled his assistant referee.

    No one is accusing referees or assistant referees of cheating. But the referees particularly should not be put into the situation where accusations of this sort can even be made. SANZAR has got to realise that justice must not just be done but be seen to be done in these matters. Perceptions can too easily be seen as the reality.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (82)

    • May 7th 2012 @ 6:48am
      Muleta said | May 7th 2012 @ 6:48am | ! Report

      I’ve often wondered if the Australian teams are at a disadvantage due to there being hardly any Australian referees in the super comp. thus there are no refs who referee a style of rugby they are use to? That is referees from other countries tend to be more stringent on some rulings as opposed to others, then players from these countries who grow up playing to these styles are more aware of what laws tend to be focused upon? Just a thought, it could explain the incredible discrepancies in penalties. Or maybe Australian teams are just worse at cheating or have poor discipline… (dean mumm). That said none of these are particularly excusable.

      Comment left via The Roar’s iPhone app. Download The Roar’s iPhone App in the App Store here.

    • May 7th 2012 @ 7:02am
      Moaman said | May 7th 2012 @ 7:02am | ! Report

      If all those words that were devoted to …complaints about refereeing decisions were instead diverted to agitation for a complete overhaul/simplification of the rules by the IRB-particularly those pertaining to the troublesome breakdown area–there may be some point to it.
      Spiro-I am intrigued by your comment ” Moreover, South African sides, even the Bulls, drop more games than they win on their overseas tours of Australia and New Zealand. ” Do you believe that somehow this current Bulls side will be affected by historical results? The fact that the Lions lost in Auckland in,say,2007,somehow gives the ‘Tahs an edge?? Spooky.

      I agree that this is a very tight competition and hard to predict a winner(despite LAS’s excellent forecast of last week) or even which country will have 3 teams in the Finals.

      • May 7th 2012 @ 7:45am
        Ash said | May 7th 2012 @ 7:45am | ! Report

        The Referee and his assistants were blatantly one sided in yesterday’s game and gave the Reds no chance at winning.

        • May 7th 2012 @ 8:17am
          Riccardo said | May 7th 2012 @ 8:17am | ! Report

          Wrong Ash,

          It was the Reds who gave themselves no chance of winning.

          Frankly, the Crusaders weren’t far behind them in that regard.

          • May 7th 2012 @ 8:47am
            Ash said | May 7th 2012 @ 8:47am | ! Report

            Sorry. I consider them blatant cheats.

            • May 7th 2012 @ 11:10am
              stillmatic1 said | May 7th 2012 @ 11:10am | ! Report

              you believe everything kearns tells you, ash? didnt happen to see gill go off his feet much. what about higgs hitting the rucks from the side? dont worry bro, the truth obviously hurts, so you take it out on others.

              • May 7th 2012 @ 12:58pm
                Ash said | May 7th 2012 @ 12:58pm | ! Report

                Your dreaming. They are crooked and will be allowed to get away with it as long as the referees are controlled by their “own” internationally and within sanza.

      • Columnist

        May 7th 2012 @ 9:14am
        Brett McKay said | May 7th 2012 @ 9:14am | ! Report

        Moa, I looked into this briefly for another article recently, and discovered that the Bulls record in Australia and New Zealand over the history of Super Rugby, is a jot over one win in every five games, which was way lower than I expected. In the early days, when the Bulls were a bit average, obviously they would’ve dropped a lot of games (their first win outside the Republic was in 2003), but I would have expected their average to have been boosted by their championship years. And perhaps it has, but it must have been pretty low to still only be just over 20%..

        Source: – since 1998, Bulls have played 61 games in Aus and NZ for 13 wins, 1 draw, and 47 losses…

        (Northern Transvaal 96-97 played 9 in Aus/NZ for one win)

        • May 7th 2012 @ 10:40am
          Moaman said | May 7th 2012 @ 10:40am | ! Report

          Brett–thanks for that wider info.I wasn’t disputing the historical facts,merely the contention that history somehow affects the present deeds of a team that could be comprised of completely different personnel eg.I knew that the african sides had struggled away-particularly in NZ but I wasn’t aware just how badly the Bulls had gone.Maybe there is a monkey on their backs?

          • Columnist

            May 7th 2012 @ 12:13pm
            Brett McKay said | May 7th 2012 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

            Moa, there nearly must be a monkey of sorts for the Bulls, it seems – even just going back to 2009, their second Championship year, their record s 6 wins from 14 games, up to and including the Rebels last weekend..

      • May 7th 2012 @ 10:13am
        steve.h said | May 7th 2012 @ 10:13am | ! Report

        Plus if look at the South African touring sides this year – Sharks won 2 from 4, Stromers won 3 from 4 and the Cheetahs 2 from 4. I don’t looking at previous years means anything, the South African sides are touring really well this year and the Bulls being one of the top sides should ,in theory, tour well. However who knows until the games are played. One last comment, when the Forces try was disallowed I clearly heard the assistant ref say that the Force Prop slapped the Cheetahs (even though there was no footage available) player in the face. Does foul play not warrant the cancellation of the try, as the incident happened before the try was scored (Not to clued up on the finer points of the laws)?

      • Roar Guru

        May 7th 2012 @ 10:46am
        LeftArmSpinner said | May 7th 2012 @ 10:46am | ! Report

        Thanks Mosman. Last weeks results almost matched my predictions, except that the sharks won and the rebels got two bonus points.

      • May 7th 2012 @ 3:32pm
        Wal the Hooker said | May 7th 2012 @ 3:32pm | ! Report

        MM I posted this Lordy’s article… Pure gold from Sir Colin Meads, particularly re Modern Rules…

    • May 7th 2012 @ 7:19am
      Joshy said | May 7th 2012 @ 7:19am | ! Report

      No spiro, don’t try and twist things. He didn’t just “wrap” the Cheetahs player and tie him up. He was choking him and slapping him. Had the ref seen it, it would have been a straight penalty – he didn’t but the touch judge did.

      Oh and South African sides are winning away easily these days. I actually expect wins from them away.

      • May 7th 2012 @ 8:56am
        Justin said | May 7th 2012 @ 8:56am | ! Report

        Slapping? Either way it had no effect on the try being scored. Not sure SA sides are winning easily away. They are getting some wins but none particularly easy… the Bulls only just beat the Rebels for crying out loud!

        • May 7th 2012 @ 10:19am
          steve.h said | May 7th 2012 @ 10:19am | ! Report

          Slapping is foul play which warrants a penalty, it happened before the act of scoring the try so surely play should be called back to the point of infringement.

        • May 7th 2012 @ 8:10pm
          Lippy said | May 7th 2012 @ 8:10pm | ! Report

          Cry out loud as much as you like Justin the Bulls still won and that’s all that matters.

          • May 7th 2012 @ 8:24pm
            Justin said | May 7th 2012 @ 8:24pm | ! Report

            Clearly you missed the point Lippy. Josh said SA sides are winning easily on the road. I merely showed an example, one of many, that says they dont.

            I certainly wasn’t crying about anything. I was at the game, was wrapt with the Rebels and shocked with how close they came to winning.

            So put your grad on your pillow bro because you’ve clearly had a long day over there ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Roar Guru

      May 7th 2012 @ 8:28am
      sixo_clock said | May 7th 2012 @ 8:28am | ! Report

      Really it all boils down to how well they play Rugby and play the ref. Am I alone it not having too much trouble with Bryce’s effort? It probably helps that I am not a member of the ‘Tahs but I thought he was consistent though a bit trigger-happy. Each penalty had some basis in fact and interpretation with the advantage of angles and replays are not available to the whistle-blower. If the ref wants clean positive rucks then that’s what you give him. You don’t bore in even if the opportunity presents itself, simple stuff really.

      But perception is the modern reality and that fact has to be addressed. Unfortunately fans are not stakeholders in Super Rugby. They have to do the sums and if a cost can be cut then guess what.

      Maybe they could consider offering the refs a six month stint based in another country, help find them accommodation, a job through the week etc and thus avoid the travel costs, also the jet lag.

      • May 7th 2012 @ 8:58am
        mikeylives said | May 7th 2012 @ 8:58am | ! Report

        “Each penalty had some basis in fact ”

        Unfortunately there is considerable interpretation associated with most laws in rugby. Penalties not given are important too.

        Bryce was poor, but it helped his cause that the Reds did not totally dominate and lose. It was a close game.

      • Roar Pro

        May 7th 2012 @ 9:21am
        Grimmace said | May 7th 2012 @ 9:21am | ! Report

        everyone wants clean rucks, but the tacklee has to have a chance to do something with the ball. The Ione penalty yesterday was far too triger happy, he’d only just hit the ground

        • May 7th 2012 @ 9:29am
          Justin said | May 7th 2012 @ 9:29am | ! Report

          Yeah exactly he had smashed through the advantage line and got pinged for a squeeze ball which he did straight away. We see that all the time let go…

    • Roar Guru

      May 7th 2012 @ 8:42am
      B-Rock said | May 7th 2012 @ 8:42am | ! Report

      I think the points differentials highlight this comp is more one sided than it is even, with a lower level of quality across the board.

      The top five teams – Bulls +105, Chiefs +92, Stormers +66, Brumbies +53, Crusaders +51, playing much better and more consistently than the rest. As you say – there are no stand out teams, so the comp is open but there are no games where as a neutral fan you say I have to watch this game (like Saders/Reds last year)

      There are more poor teams than usual IMO (or am I just influenced by the poor play of the Tahs?) – Rebels, Force, Tahs, Blues, Lions are all just making up numbers this year. The Blues and Tahs are new additions here while the Rebels remain here having signed the strike weapons of the Tahs and Force.

      There is a number of very average teams for one reason or another – Reds, Highlanders, Hurricanes, Cheetahs, Sharks – some of these are in the hunt for the finals when if not for the lower standard of play, they normally would not be.

      This so called parity across the competition is a big negative for me – way more average/poor quality games, no outstanding teams, and only 5 good teams for 6 finals spots.

      • May 7th 2012 @ 8:58am
        Justin said | May 7th 2012 @ 8:58am | ! Report

        Is it really any different to most comps though? There are only ever a handful of excellent sides. Look at the AFL and NRL… thats sport I’m afraid.

        • Roar Guru

          May 7th 2012 @ 11:25am
          B-Rock said | May 7th 2012 @ 11:25am | ! Report

          Are there any excellent sides this year? I dont think so – more of the good sides are now average or poor, overall quality is down.

      • May 7th 2012 @ 10:41am
        nickoldschool said | May 7th 2012 @ 10:41am | ! Report

        Hmmm, I dont see the Reds, Highlanders, Hurricanes, Cheetahs and Sharks as ‘very average teams. They can beat any of the top 5 teams on their day (Reds weren’t too far from doing so yesterday were they?).

        They have not been as consistent as the top 5 you mention but some of them are peaking imo (Reds, Sharks). Sharks probably have the best draw of all: they will stay in the Republic till the end of the comp’ playing only 2 away games in Jo’burg and Bloemfontein.I see them in the top 6.

        • Roar Guru

          May 7th 2012 @ 10:52am
          LeftArmSpinner said | May 7th 2012 @ 10:52am | ! Report

          And don’t forget the impressive cheetahs who are on the rise and able to trade tries with the best of them

          • May 7th 2012 @ 11:01am
            Red Kev said | May 7th 2012 @ 11:01am | ! Report

            The Cheetahs without Goosen will be very interesting to watch, much like the Brumbies without Leiliifano – can they still play as well?

            • May 7th 2012 @ 1:22pm
              AndrewCT said | May 7th 2012 @ 1:22pm | ! Report

              They started to reinvent themselves mid-way through last year and recorded some impressive wins (Crusaders and Waratahs). Sias Erbersohn played very well at 10, but being in a younger kid’s shadow for the starting jersey this year seems to have affected him quite a bit

        • Roar Guru

          May 7th 2012 @ 11:29am
          B-Rock said | May 7th 2012 @ 11:29am | ! Report

          Average teams can still beat good teams on their day – no doubt about that – but that doesnt make them good. Consistency is important and none of those teams have it – Highlanders are the only ones which are borderline (on the good side)

          The point Im trying to make is that the quality of this yrs teams is on average below that of previous yrs – with fewer exceptional teams and more underperforming teams

      • Roar Guru

        May 7th 2012 @ 10:51am
        LeftArmSpinner said | May 7th 2012 @ 10:51am | ! Report

        The points difference is after 11 rounds and for most teams, 10 games, so with the +100, that is one 10 points per game or a try and an penalty goal. Nothing.

        • May 7th 2012 @ 11:21am
          nickoldschool said | May 7th 2012 @ 11:21am | ! Report

          Yep LAS, plus the +105 the Bulls have is solely due to the 60points hammering of the Reds a few weeks ago. take that out of the equation and the ‘mighty’ bulls points difference is suddenly very similar to the one of the ‘very average teams”

          • Roar Guru

            May 7th 2012 @ 11:34am
            B-Rock said | May 7th 2012 @ 11:34am | ! Report

            LAS – a 5-7 point differential is significant if it is maintained over a season – games are won at the margin. I would argue an average point differential of >10 would be the mark of a dominant team, certainly not “nothing”

            Nick – Bulls total is definitely inflated by the Reds game (one of the teams you dont think are average by the way) and are prob not the best team in the comp, but are clearly in the top group

          • May 8th 2012 @ 12:36am
            Loftus said | May 8th 2012 @ 12:36am | ! Report

            That was a below average comment. The other teams also play against the Reds. Surely they can also score 60 points against the Reds if it was so easy for the ‘mighty’ Bulls. Hey? Surely you can do better that that comment?

            • May 8th 2012 @ 7:30am
              Ben S said | May 8th 2012 @ 7:30am | ! Report

              But not every side has played the Reds at altitude when they’re down to their 4th choice fly-half.

            • May 8th 2012 @ 9:02am
              nickoldschool said | May 8th 2012 @ 9:02am | ! Report

              mate, sorry if it sounds like i was bagging the Bulls, it’s not the case at all. just think there isnt a huge gap between the top 5 (including the Bulls) mentioned earlier and teams like the Reds, Highlanders, Sharks etc.

              Reds hammering was just ‘an accident’ imo, can happen to anyone. Full credit to the Bulls though, they are having a pretty decent season(again, i dont literally mean that, i mean very good) for a team that has lost 2/3 of their pack.

    • May 7th 2012 @ 9:38am
      Chris said | May 7th 2012 @ 9:38am | ! Report

      “Against this is the fact that the Waratahs are a strong home stadium side.”

      Yeah? Only the Force, Lions and Blues have a worse home win % than the Tahs this season.

      Bulls are the superior team in every facet of the game. Tahs don’t have a prayer.

      No matter how they play the Bulls they are stuffed. If they try to run it from their own half then they will inevitably concede penalties that Steyne will nail. But they can’t really kick it either because you are never going to win against the Bulls at 10 man rugby.

      • May 7th 2012 @ 10:43am
        mikeylives said | May 7th 2012 @ 10:43am | ! Report

        I’m actually tipping the Tahs this week. Bulls have lost their talisman 7 and combative forward efforts are stifling them.

        • Roar Guru

          May 7th 2012 @ 10:54am
          LeftArmSpinner said | May 7th 2012 @ 10:54am | ! Report

          Mikeylives just as hope springs eternal. Have a look at the Brumbies game.

          • May 7th 2012 @ 12:02pm
            Elisha Pearce said | May 7th 2012 @ 12:02pm | ! Report

            The Bulls have lost a great player in Potgeiter and their pack was stifled by the Rebels – but only on defence.
            In attack their forward pack was really rolling, hammering with support players right behind the ball carrier, it was great to watch.
            A main problem the Bulls have is missed tackles. The Rebels were able to convert those into points. Will the Waratahs be able to do that? I personally think the Rebels forwards are better at offloading and clearing the ruck quickly. Also, Beale and Kingi seem much better than Tahs backs at breaking the line and setting others up to take the ball further.

            I think the key might be in that area.

      • May 7th 2012 @ 11:30am
        jeznez said | May 7th 2012 @ 11:30am | ! Report

        Chris, the Tah scrum is stronger so that is one facet of play the NSW men are superior in.

        Biggest challenge for the Tahs is to manage their bench a bit better so they don’t go missing for twenty minutes of the match and to not push the last pass. Their forwards made some great breaks during the Brumbies game but they all broke down, Foley was complaining about patience weeks ago after the Chiefs game – I think the bigger issue is composure.

        I’d say the Bulls should be favourites but they aren’t stronger in every single facet and the Tahs definitely have a chance.

        • May 7th 2012 @ 7:39pm
          Minz said | May 7th 2012 @ 7:39pm | ! Report

          Must say, I love the idea of an Australian team’s scrum being stronger than a South African team’s! Hope you’re right.
          – ex-hooker

          • May 8th 2012 @ 12:03am
            jeznez said | May 8th 2012 @ 12:03am | ! Report

            INjury could play a part yet with TPN under a concussion cloud, if he pulls through then I’m confident in that space.

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