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SPIRO: A Super Rugby round of some brilliant upsets

Israel Folau ran riot for the Waratahs. (Source: AJF Photography)
Expert
23rd February, 2014
239
5831 Reads

We can always rely on Vince Lombardi for a pithy and insightful sports comment.

His mantra (in American usage) that “the best defense is a great offense” is relevant to the second round of the 2014 Super Rugby tournament, for there were several brilliant upsets that occurred because the underdog side had an attacking rather than a defensive mindset.

Take the Brumbies v Reds match, for example.

The Brumbies started favourites to win. They had the home ground advantage; the residue of last season’s master coaching from Jake White; and the record between the two teams that had seen the Reds win only 18 percent of the contests against each other.

The Reds, with a smaller pack, tried to score tries and produced one sensational effort. But, more importantly, they were looking to score points.

The Brumbies, on the other hand, played incessantly for field position and then tried to smash their way to the try line. Their game plan had all the subtlety of a desperate round-arm swing by an outwitted and outsmarted opponent.

The difference in attitudes was summed up by the different approaches to play taken by the No. 10s.

Quade Cooper was invariably probing and intelligent with his passing and kicking. His distribution posed problems for the defence that occasionally was not able to cope.

Aidan Toua’s try, with his blistering speed and swerving matching that of Ben Barba at his best, was pure rugby genius from Cooper, who set up the speedster with a sensational pass.

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The Brumbies have Jesse Mogg who is supposed to be one of the fastest runners going around in Super Rugby. Matt Toomua, the Brumbies playmaker, never tried to create opportunities for Mogg or the other speedsters the way Cooper did.

Toomua did his best impression of a Bulls No. 10 with his tendency to kick away most of the ball he got from broken play.

During the week I had lunch with a couple of rugby heavyweights and when the discussion got around to Cooper, I told them I agreed with Ewen McKenzie’s determination to use Cooper as the lightning rod for his Wallabies.

I know, I know. But things change.

Cooper seems to have put the silly bugger behaviour of a couple of years ago behind him (let’s hope!). He appears to be more of a team player than he was in the past.

He does appear to have lost the blistering pace that saw him carve out so many astonishing break-outs. Against that, there is more of a poise about his play than in the past.

He has retained his uncanny ability to get away passes that open up gaps for his runners. And it was this feature of his play, and his increasing willingness to make some tackles (a welcome by-product of his boxing adventures, perhaps?), that made him the leader of the Reds – and an inspirational one at times, around the field.

While Cooper had the licence and the skills to open up the game for his Reds runners, Toomua was given a game plan that had him, metaphorically, handcuffed and with his feet in concrete.

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Even when the Brumbies were chasing the game at its end, Toomua kicked the ball for territory whenever he got it in his own half. This licence to de-skill proved to be fatal, in the end, for the Brumbies. At least it was on Saturday night.

Last year the Brumbies game plan – playing for territory and forcing mistakes leading to tries and penalties from putting pressure on opponents defending their try line – worked because the Brumbies kicked their penalties and took their chances when they were offered.

They were coached in every detail of the game plan and went about their business like a machine that had been programmed to perfection.

But on Saturday night, the virtual opposite to what happened last year applied.

To begin with, the crucial matter of the goal-kicker seemed to be a lucky shot sort of proposition. Mogg was given the kicking duties and looked to be totally confounded with what to do with most of his shots.

Nic White was also used from time to time, but there did not seem to be much method in who was going to take the shot and when.

Before this derby match, there was a lot of media talk about it being a shootout between the two candidates for the Wallabies No. 10 jersey.

On this evidence, Cooper is a certainty (and deservedly so) to be the Wallabies playmaker.

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We saw nothing of the best of Toomua’s game, which is to be direct and hard in his running and direct and hard in his tackling.

I must say it was a disappointing first effort as head coach from Stephen Larkham. All he offered to the Brumbies supporters was a Brumbies side that played in a Jake White-lite manner.

On the other hand, Richard Graham – a coach that I have often criticised when he was with the Western Force – presented a Reds side that played with a lot of tenacity.

This was especially so towards the end of the match when James Horwill almost single-handedly repelled a Brumbies driving maul that threatened, at the time, to take the game away from the visitors.

Last year the Brumbies would have converted this driving maul into points.

The way the White’s Sharks demolished the Hurricanes scrum from time to time, and then smashed forward with the South African-type of single file driving maul, provided yet another example of how his attention to detail lifts the teams he coaches from the ordinary to something special.

The Sharks were once again excellent in polishing off the Hurricanes. The visitors, down only 10-6 at half-time, did show enough on occasion to indicate that they could be a difficult side in a month’s time.

The Sharks had the advantage of having played a Super Rugby match already, something also enjoyed by the Lions who provided an upset over the Stormers in Johannesburg in front of a crowd of nearly 40,000 at Ellis Park.

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We need to factor in, I guess, the advantage that playing a Super Rugby match gave to the Sharks and the Lions before writing off the Stormers and the Hurricanes. These two teams play each other at Newlands next round and this will give a better indication of where these teams are at.

The Lions’ victory was secured with the unerring boot of Marnitz Boshoff (like last weekend against the Cheetahs). Boshoff kicked 29 points, including two very long-range drop goals – one of them had the trajectory of a shot duck, but still went over.

This is traditional veldt rugby, making use of the high altitude that helps the flight of the ball. But the Lions also revealed a terrific scrum and some direct, hard-running from backs and forwards.

They are not a team that relies almost exclusively, as the Bulls do, on box kicks and up-and-unders. They do try to attack with the ball in hand.

The restricted Bulls game allowed the Cheetahs to record their first ever win over the Bulls to continue the upsets in the round, which started with a fabulous match between the Crusaders and the Chiefs. For the Chiefs, like the Lions, try to score tries with running rugby.

The Chiefs had only 32 percent of possession and probably less, in percentage terms, of field position. Admittedly, too, the Crusaders missed numerous penalty shots which would have given them a comfortable lead at half-time.

But the Chiefs were resilient in defence and just sensational at times with their attack. There is no doubt that when Dan Carter gives up his All Blacks jersey that Aaron Cruden is going to quickly establish himself as a more than worthy successor to The Master.

The Chiefs look to be the outstanding New Zealand side in the 2014 Super Rugby tournament, although these are early days and the Crusaders generally start slowly and build up during the season.

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It is still early days, I know, but the Blues looked to be a team of headless chooks – the old Blues blues. John Kirwan has so far been unable to give them a pattern of play that is coherent and matches the talent in the forwards and backs he has at his disposal.

On the other hand, the Highlanders went a long way to establishing their new enclosed stadium as the new ‘House of Pain.’

The Highlanders’ match-up against the Chiefs on Saturday will be a defining event, I would guess, for both sides. Unfortunately for the Highlanders it will be played at Hamilton, the heartland of Chiefs rugby and culture.

This bring us, finally, to the Waratahs.

But first, a strong criticism of SANZAR for allowing the Western Force to wear jerseys that were a slightly different tone of blue to that of the Waratahs. The result was that the Waratahs, especially, quite often passed to the wrong player.

I suspect that the Force were playing the old Scotland trick of confusing better opponents by wearing a jersey of similar colours. Whatever the case, SANZAR should never have allowed what happened and the Force should be on a warning about this nonsensical gamesmanship happening again.

All the previous Waratahs-Force matches in Sydney have been decided by five point margins or less. There were a couple of periods in the match when it looked that something similar was going to happen again.

I do not doubt that if the Waratahs were playing to their ‘win ugly’ method that this would have been the result once again. But from the outset, the Waratahs ran the ball with vigour and purpose and scored a try within 72 seconds of the kick-off.

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The Waratahs lost their way slightly in the second half when they took a tap kick and stupidly kicked the ball to the Force. A few plays later the Force scored a try!

There are many aspects of the Waratahs’ play that need working on, especially the defence around the ruck. But when you score seven tries against a gritty opponent, you have to believe that happier days are in store again for the side.

The ‘win ugly’ method was really a ‘lose ugly’ method. The Waratahs and the other winners over the weekend were right to make good attack (and occasionally great attack) the priority of their game in line with old Vince Lombardi’s attacking doctrine.

If you score lots of points, you are less likely to lose games.