Report Card: “should be applying themselves better than they are”

Brett McKay Columnist

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    ACT Brumbies' Christian Lealiifano (centre) celerabtes with teammate Stephen Moore (right) during the match between the ACT Brumbies and the NSW Waratahs in Canberra. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

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    It’s time. Six weeks into the Super Rugby season, and we’ve been able to get a good enough look at all teams to start passing judgement.

    There’s no scientific measurement applied here, nor is there any particular scale of grading. Fans of NCIS will know what I mean when I say this all comes down to my ‘gut’.

    Report cards of our schooldays were largely subjective, and this one will be too. But I think they were also too specific. I mean, really, what’s the difference between a B and B+?

    I only need three categories.

    The ‘Disappointments’
    The Highlanders head this list for me.

    They had a pretty handy team in 2012, and they recruited well for this season, but are just failing to deliver on the park.

    With the names assembled, and with what is essentially an All Black-laden backline, they really should be applying themselves better than they are.

    It’s true that the Highlanders have had backrow issues in the past, but I didn’t expect them to miss Adam Thompson as much as they are. I genuinely thought they’d push for a top six berth in 2013, but I just can’t see how they’ll get there now.

    The Waratahs fall into this category too.

    Perhaps with a new coach bringing a whole new attitude, and saying all the right things, I obviously bought into the hype. And maybe that makes such a judgement harsh, particularly since they’ve looked a lot better in the last few outings.

    I will concede that I like the new-found intent, though, and there’s no doubt that something is building for Waratahs fans.

    But for me, there’s still major questions around the 9-10 combination, and I’m really puzzled how the recruitment of Nick Phipps in 2014 is going to solve this.

    Their breakdown presence has also been disappointing, and I just think that a team with so much evident talent should be executing the basic skills better than they are.

    There’s no rational reason why I expected more of the Rebels in 2013, but I did, and they’ve disappointed me.

    They still have a very limited attack – James O’Connor has to play flyhalf if Kurtley Beale isn’t going to (or isn’t available to) – and it’s just hard to see how or where their points are going to come from.

    Despite having some of the best young locks in the country, the consistent fade-out of the forwards on the hour is a worrying trend.

    Already looks like a long season ahead for the Melbourne men.

    The ‘As Expecteds’

    This is going to be the biggest grouping, as there are a lot of teams that I knew would go well, or would struggle, and they’ve largely followed through on that.

    There probably won’t be many surprises here.

    The Southern Kings and Western Force, and even the Hurricanes, were all never going to feature at the pointy end of the season, and were probably going to be pushing it uphill to even finish in the top ten.

    They’ve showed me nothing to change my mind on this and thus they are tracking as I expected them to.

    At the other end of the scale, the Chiefs, Crusaders, Stormers, and Sharks, are all building into the likely contenders they were always going to be, even if all of them have started off somewhat slowly.

    The Chiefs have that clinical edge to them again. I really like the way Aaron Cruden is underplaying his hand at the moment, and Gareth Anscombe is going beautifully at fullback. The return of Richard Kahui can only be good, too.

    The Crusaders look to have dropped the needle straight back into that very typical Crusaders track. I do have a slight question mark over the Crusaders’ front row, but that’s about it.

    Truth be told, had I put this report card together two weeks ago, the Sharks and Stormers might have found themselves in disappointment territory.

    Neither looked particularly good in the first month, and indeed, the Sharks were disappointing against the Brumbies by their own admission.

    The Stormers once again shape as one of the better defensive sides in the comp, and their physicality at the collision improves every week.

    And if I may allow myself a small ‘I told you so’ moment, Elton Jantjies is indeed providing the extra spark in attack I thought he might.

    The Reds are the final team playing to par, for mine, and there’s no question they look a better team with James Horwill at the helm.

    I don’t think there’s any coincidence they’ve improved the more Will Genia has played, and against the Bulls on Saturday night, you could see ominous signs of the Genia-Quade Cooper combination returning.

    The Reds’ pack has had a strong start to the season, and Liam Gill and Eddie Quirk might be the form Australian loosies over the first six weeks.

    Once they can work out their best backline – and it might be what played the Bulls – the Reds will certainly be up there.

    I’ll be interested to see what impact Ewen McKenzie’s announcement has on his young squad.

    The ‘Over-achievers’
    A few weeks ago, I thought the Cheetahs were again looking like the Richmond of Super Rugby, that is, the perennial good-on-paper-not-quite-on-the-field team, destined to miss the playoffs yet again.

    Three wins on tour, the last one without their spearhead, Johan Goosen, rockets them into this category. It’ll be interesting to see if they can maintain this form on return to Bloemfontein.

    Sarel Pretorius is showing all the form that drove the Waratahs to sign him last year, and Willie ‘Spiders’ Le Roux might just be the best try-sniffer-outerer in the comp.

    It’s impossible to be bored watching them play.

    The Blues embarked on a similar rebuilding phase as the Waratahs under a new coach, but have done it more effectively and much more entertainingly. I can’t imagine too many of us expected them to sit in a wildcard spot after six weeks.

    It’ll be interesting to see if this bubble bursts, and I mean properly, not just imploding losses like in Sydney. But the Blues look a completely different prospect under the gaze of the two knights up in the coaches box.

    The Bulls, despite the loss to the Reds on Saturday night, have been playing rather well in 2013.

    Much like last season, they can still play to that well-worn Bulls game plan despite a large turnover of personnel since their glory days in the old Super 14.

    I really didn’t expect the Bulls to lead the South African conference this year at all, and this has been a major factor in their classification here, and why I still trail Spiro as the leading ‘Expert’ in The Roar tipping.

    Apart from upsetting my tipping, I really can’t fault their start to the season.

    Finally, I’m listing the Brumbies as over-achievers as well, simply because even as a fan I didn’t expect them to start as well as they have.

    There’s no doubt the loss in Cape Town will lead to renewed focus at the breakdown and the collision, and the Brumbies will need to recapture their gain line effectiveness with some tough games coming up.

    The Reds are coming at them, but the Brumbies remain the Australian conference benchmark in just about every facet of the game.

    Their attack asks all the right questions, the set piece is solid and capable of winning opposition ball in the air or on the shove, and their breakdown presence is being led by a presumed-to-be-finished openside who’s turned the clock back to when dreadlocks were cool.

    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 (90)

    • Roar Guru

      March 26th 2013 @ 5:04am
      biltongbek said | March 26th 2013 @ 5:04am | ! Report

      i pretty much agree with you Brett, although I think the Blues are going to disappoint come end of season.

      • Columnist

        March 26th 2013 @ 9:55am
        Brett McKay said | March 26th 2013 @ 9:55am | ! Report

        Bitong, I wrote of a lot of this while the Blues were playing, funnily enough, and it was a close-run thing for them to stay where I put them.

        I think you might be right, and that’s what I mean by “It’ll be interesting to see if this bubble bursts, and I mean properly…” The next month (Cheifs away, Highlanders, Hurricanes, bye, Reds away) probably makes or breaks their season..

        • Roar Guru

          March 26th 2013 @ 10:20am
          biltongbek said | March 26th 2013 @ 10:20am | ! Report

          Brett, I think JK is making a difference, but the team is inconsistent. i just don’t believe you can take them from where they were last year to top 6 beaters all of a sudden.

          Yes they beat the Crusaders, but to perform consistently doesn’t look on the cards imo.

          • March 26th 2013 @ 11:54am
            Riccardo said | March 26th 2013 @ 11:54am | ! Report

            Agreed mate, though it hurts me to admit it.

            The reality Biltong, is that they need to go through the peaks and troughs and gain the experience that will see them competitive at the sharp end of the competition.

            Last weekend against the Tahs is a case in point. The blues had that game in the bag but youthful complacency saw them make schoolboy errors in the face of a rejuvenated attack. Those lazy offsides in the second half by tiring forwards, in particular, are unacceptable at this level.

            I remain encouraged though and expect some surprises as the season progresses.

            • Roar Guru

              March 26th 2013 @ 1:24pm
              Jiggles said | March 26th 2013 @ 1:24pm | ! Report

              They’ll be better for it though. It’s unrealistic to expect a team that inexperienced to be shooting for the top 6 this year.

          • Columnist

            March 26th 2013 @ 2:16pm
            Brett McKay said | March 26th 2013 @ 2:16pm | ! Report

            “i just don’t believe you can take them from where they were last year to top 6 beaters all of a sudden”

            Precisely, Biltong, and that’s why I’ve listed them as overachieving..

    • March 26th 2013 @ 5:07am
      Billy Bob said | March 26th 2013 @ 5:07am | ! Report

      Are dreadlocks cool?

      • Roar Guru

        March 26th 2013 @ 5:14am
        biltongbek said | March 26th 2013 @ 5:14am | ! Report

        Depends who is wearing it, but yeah.

        The Ndungane brothers look cool with dreadlocks.

      • Columnist

        March 26th 2013 @ 9:47am
        Brett McKay said | March 26th 2013 @ 9:47am | ! Report

        They were cool, Billy Bob, when George Smith had them. Saia Fainga’a, not so much…

        • March 26th 2013 @ 11:10am
          rl said | March 26th 2013 @ 11:10am | ! Report

          harsh… but fair.

      • March 26th 2013 @ 6:39pm
        Councillor said | March 26th 2013 @ 6:39pm | ! Report

        Also Ma’a Nonu and Tana Umaga

    • March 26th 2013 @ 5:16am
      ScrumJunkie said | March 26th 2013 @ 5:16am | ! Report

      The Brumbies are unfortunately playing exactly as expected, good enough to beat most oppostion, not good enough to beat a top 6 team, like the stormers for example.

      Brumbies will probably miss the finals by a bonus point. If they make it, they’ll get knocked out first game. Especially because that 7 will be back in Japan.

      • Roar Guru

        March 26th 2013 @ 6:30am
        Who Needs Melon said | March 26th 2013 @ 6:30am | ! Report

        I said earlier in the season that the Brumbies would be tested at some point and I think this might be it. They actually played pretty well last weekend and their next three games are ones that (on paper) you’d think they ‘should’ win: Bulls, Kings, Highlanders I think.

        But the Bulls could easily imitate their SA brethren and hand the Brumbies their 2nd defeat in a row and the the doubt would have really crept in. I’m not sure about the Kings but the Highlanders in NZ might easily take advantage of a mentally wounded Brumby team and then we’ve gone from high flyers to a serious case of the death wobbles.

        Now I WANT the Brumbies to prove I’m NOT Nostradamus. Now is the time we see what they are REALLY made of and if they learned anything from last year – not in terms of rugby skills but their mental strength. Come on Brumbies!!!

        • Roar Guru

          March 26th 2013 @ 6:38am
          biltongbek said | March 26th 2013 @ 6:38am | ! Report

          The Kings has a lot of heart but no little else, the Brumbies must aim for. A four try bonus oiint win against them

          Against the Bulls the question is which team has lost the most confidence.

          • March 26th 2013 @ 8:16am
            Who Needs Melon said | March 26th 2013 @ 8:16am | ! Report

            Has any South African male EVER lost confidence? I thought that was genetically impossible. 🙂

            • Roar Guru

              March 26th 2013 @ 8:40am
              biltongbek said | March 26th 2013 @ 8:40am | ! Report

              Hahaha, some have false bravado mate. We may have fear, as long as we don’t show it.

              You are taught from a young age to OWN your fear, then once you own it, you can overcome it.

              Well, that is what I have heard. 😉

      • March 26th 2013 @ 6:37am
        apelu said | March 26th 2013 @ 6:37am | ! Report

        Where does the Shark sit in your ranking? And did you see what the Brumbies did to them the week before? Yes, they were outplayed by the Stormers, but had Kimlin’s pass gone to Rathbone, and not intercepted, they still could have won the game. They will win their third title this year, the best Aussie team in Super Rugby. The Reds have won only ONE title, and everyone else, zero!

        • March 26th 2013 @ 8:54am
          formeropenside said | March 26th 2013 @ 8:54am | ! Report

          well, at least the Reds did it with players they largely developed themself from schoolboys onward, and did not have to resort to poaching from elsewhere

          • Columnist

            March 26th 2013 @ 9:51am
            Brett McKay said | March 26th 2013 @ 9:51am | ! Report

            FOS, for crying out loud, think of all the Queenslanders that wouldn’t be playing Super Rugby if not for the Brumbies and Force and Rebels.

            (And good work on the development of Qld schoolboys Mike Harris, and the Fainga’as, by the way. It goes both ways…)

        • March 26th 2013 @ 11:13am
          rl said | March 26th 2013 @ 11:13am | ! Report

          I admit to having a soft spot for Pete Kimlin (I mean, he was born a red-head, so he’s up against it from the outset), but between ill-advised grubber kicks and intercepted wide passes, the man is a danger!!

      • March 26th 2013 @ 6:38am
        LloydSix said | March 26th 2013 @ 6:38am | ! Report

        They beat last years runner-ups the weekend before…

        • Roar Guru

          March 26th 2013 @ 6:40am
          biltongbek said | March 26th 2013 @ 6:40am | ! Report

          If you are going to measure either the Sharks or Brumbie’s season on that performance you are going to be disappointed. The Brumbies played superb rugby against a team that didn’t pitch up.

          • March 26th 2013 @ 7:12am
            Justin2 said | March 26th 2013 @ 7:12am | ! Report

            Maybe but they still won it, couldn’t we say that about many teams each week though?

            To be within a sniff of the stormer at new lands with 5 to go would suggest they are the real deal.

            • Roar Guru

              March 26th 2013 @ 7:20am
              biltongbek said | March 26th 2013 @ 7:20am | ! Report

              Oh, I am not saying they aren’t the real deal, I am merely suggesting measuring their performance against the Sharks is not the best.

      • Roar Guru

        March 26th 2013 @ 9:01am
        Rob na Champassak said | March 26th 2013 @ 9:01am | ! Report

        ‘…and so he spoke, that Lord of Castamere…’

        The Brumbies have already beaten the Reds and the Sharks. If you argue that the Brumbies are going to miss out on a finals spot, then what you’re saying is that the Reds are going to top the Aussie conference.

        In which case they are a top-six side. And they have been beaten by the Brumbies…

        Perhaps what you meant to say is that the Brumbies won’t beat any *more* top six sides. A bold declaration indeed, but am I wrong to think you won’t be betting any money on that statement? 😉

        • March 27th 2013 @ 6:55am
          ScrumJunkie said | March 27th 2013 @ 6:55am | ! Report

          I rarely bet against the Brumbies, I like to win money. The Reds may well be a top 6 side, but they arn’t playing like one at the moment, largely due to missing key players.

          I can’t wait to see the return matchup, hopefully both teams at full strength. That game could decide which aussie team makes the finals. Hopefully both teams finish top 6.

          The worry for me is that this game was played at finals intensity, you can bet the Stormers felt the pressure after what happend to the Sharks last weekend, and they stood up. The Brumbies cracked. I hope they learn from it.

      • Columnist

        March 26th 2013 @ 9:57am
        Brett McKay said | March 26th 2013 @ 9:57am | ! Report

        Junkie, the flaws of your argument have been pointed out already, but just out of interest’s sake, what’s unfortunate about playing as expected?

        • March 27th 2013 @ 6:17am
          ScrumJunkie said | March 27th 2013 @ 6:17am | ! Report

          All I meant was that I expected the Brumbies to be beaten in the tough matches, and win the easy ones. But I was hoping they’d do the same job on the Stormers as they did on the Sharks.

          They didn’t. It was unfortunate. Would have been fortunate if Kimlin didn’t throw a stupid pass. Those little moments can be the difference between winning a title, and being also rans.

          Hopefully losing a game they could have won this early, does them good for later in the season. Then I’ll be looking back at this game and talking about how fortunate they were to lose it.

      • March 26th 2013 @ 8:37pm
        DMac said | March 26th 2013 @ 8:37pm | ! Report

        I think you’ve jumped off the bandwagon a little too quickly. One close loss away against a strong team doesn’t suddenly render then unable to beat a top 6 team, that’s just crazy talk.

    • March 26th 2013 @ 5:18am
      Hightackle said | March 26th 2013 @ 5:18am | ! Report

      Bob Marley was cool.

    • March 26th 2013 @ 5:34am
      mania said | March 26th 2013 @ 5:34am | ! Report

      i agree bout the saders front row. crockett showed again that he struggles vs the bigger smarter props

      • Columnist

        March 26th 2013 @ 9:58am
        Brett McKay said | March 26th 2013 @ 9:58am | ! Report

        Mania, I still can’t believe they didn’t put up more of a fight to keep Ben Franks…

        • March 26th 2013 @ 10:05am
          mania said | March 26th 2013 @ 10:05am | ! Report

          yeah but i’m glad canes got him. i reckon bens undervalued due to owen being the starting prop. shame cos ben’s got a lot to offer and is having a blinder at the moment with out any lessening of his scrummaging. awesome for the canes as our young props need a role model like ben to show them how to physically and (more importantly) mentally prep for a game.
          crockett is passable, in that he scrummages really well against the lite weights but any front row that are smarter he struggles with. i especially dont like the way crockett gets sucked in when the prop is boring in. instead of pushing thru him and popping his opposite crockett tries to counter it and usually ends up collasping.

          • Columnist

            March 26th 2013 @ 12:46pm
            Brett McKay said | March 26th 2013 @ 12:46pm | ! Report

            Am I right, Mania, in thinking the move was partly fuelled by the expected move to 8-man benches, and that Ben Franks wanted to spend more time playing one side rather than both?

    • Roar Guru

      March 26th 2013 @ 7:29am
      Turnover said | March 26th 2013 @ 7:29am | ! Report

      I can see the Hurricanes sneaking a few more wins than expected this year. They have a forward pack that can better than compete, not just in the back row, and they have a bench. Jack Lam is on his way back as well.

      • March 26th 2013 @ 7:35am
        mania said | March 26th 2013 @ 7:35am | ! Report

        and ardie savea should be back this week. canes have real depth in the loosies

        • Roar Guru

          March 26th 2013 @ 7:58am
          Turnover said | March 26th 2013 @ 7:58am | ! Report

          Yeah they both played for Hurricanes A last week.

          So I don’t think they should be written off, especially since the Crusaders could drop their next to in SA.

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