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Nine rounds of the Super Rugby season are done for 2016, meaning that even with the June International window approaching, we’re just over halfway through the competition.
And if there’s one thing that has become clear over this weekend just gone and the last few weeks before that, it’s that it is looking increasingly unlikely that two Australian teams will feature in the expanded eight-team finals series.
One team is assured, obviously, by virtue of the conference system, and right at this point in time, we can be very thankful for it. The Melbourne Rebels are now the leading Australian team and sit fourth among the conference leaders, but have the eighth-best record overall.
Are the Rebels the best team in Australia currently?
It’s easily debatable, though the same can and should also be asked of the Brumbies, and now the Waratahs, whose season has had a sudden injection of life thanks to the Brumbies’ loss to the Crusaders on Sunday. And such is the debate around the leading Australian team currently, that the ‘who’s best?’ question is probably more rhetorical than anything.
Beyond working out who is or isn’t the best Australian team, there’s a whole other debate around whether or not the leading Australian team is actually a genuine title contender. After nine rounds of decent form interspersed with some fairly ordinary performances, I think that question is significantly easier to answer. It’s an emphatic ‘no’ right at this point in time.
And the simple reason why the answer is so emphatic is that only way to adequately describe the overall Australian performances in 2016 is to say that they’ve been consistently inconsistent.
It’s not quite rocks or diamonds for the Rebels, Brumbies and Waratahs, but their respective best and worst performances do have an unhealthy distance between them. And in this environment, no genuine title contender can afford that. The three other conference leaders don’t have that about them currently, and you can throw the Brumbies’ latest conquerors, the Crusaders in that pot, too.
Until the Australian trio can eradicate the inconsistency from their game, they don’t deserve to be spoken of in the same terms as the teams who are seriously lighting the competition up as we now commence the downhill run to the playoffs.
The Rebels’ ascendancy to the top of the conference is not entirely undeserved, but their lofty table position is somewhat flattering in that they’ve not beaten any of the top ten teams. They’ve only played three of them, for one thing, with the narrowest of the three defeats their 20-point loss to the Bulls at Loftus in Round 2.
The Highlanders touched them up by 24 in Round 5, and the Hurricanes by 25 in Melbourne in Round 8, a game that many agreed at the time was a game both teams had to win in order to justify the growing discussion around them. The Rebels have followed that with a very good win on Friday night against the Cheetahs, but the Hurricanes followed up by very-nearly toppling the competition favourites, the Chiefs. If the Rebels and Hurricanes were on an even footing ten or so days ago, there’s a growing gulf between them now.
There was a lot to like about the Rebels win on Friday not, though, and Tony McGahan is reaching a situation where he faces some tough calls at the selection table. Does Mitch Inman come straight back into the side when fit again, for instance? Is Reece Hodge’s form so irresistible that you just write his name on the team sheet first and worry about what jersey he wears later?
The next two weeks will give us a much better indication of where the Rebels really sit, away to the Blues this weekend coming, and then an Australian conference showdown with the Brumbies in Melbourne the following weekend. Win both those games, and attitudes about the Rebels may be forced into change.
The Brumbies find themselves in a real pickle. Since they won their first three games of the season reasonably handsomely, they’re gone loss-win-loss-bye-win-loss. The two most recent losses have been new record losing margins at Canberra Stadium.
The players are saying and Stephen Larkham is saying all the right things publically, that the ongoing ‘Bold and the Brumbies’ soap opera is not having any effect on the team whatsoever. They have to say that.
Behind closed doors, I hope Larkham and Stephen Moore have had or soon get the chance to sit CEO Michael Jones and chairman Robert Kennedy down and tell them exactly what the team thinks of this debacle, and how their collective carrying on like dickheads is damaging the club.
I hope they tell them in so uncertain terms that the paint peels off the wall; knowing the two of them somewhat, that probably won’t happen. But Jones and Kennedy need to be told, and I hope it happens.
Even if the players don’t read the paper, they’re on social media. Even if they don’t know what’s going on, they know what’s on. Scott Fardy is on the board; Moore was until the start of last season. Even if the players individually are not at that same level of understanding of the situation, they would know this: the Brumbies as a club is in the middle of a ridiculous crisis of their own making.
The team might be isolated from the actual issues at hand, but everything that’s going on is there all around them. Even if by osmosis, the whole fiasco has to have some degree of effect.
But that’s not to give the Brumbies an excuse, because they were disappointing on Sunday and all questions being asked of them currently are deserved. They couldn’t rely on the set piece as a platform against the Crusaders, and for one of the better defensive teams in the competition, they missed far too many tackles. They knew the Crusaders would come at them with a big offload game, yet at times their defence seemed flat. They knew the Crusaders wouldn’t commit numbers to the ruck, yet they still tried to beat defenders one on one.
I still maintain that 2016 is the Brumbies best and last opportunity to win a Super Rugby title for the next five years, probably, but right now, that prospect looks a long way off.
Are the Waratahs waking for their slumber? I don’t know about that. I’m not really sure whether their win over the Force told us more about the Tahs, or the Force. The Waratahs made 17 clean breaks, yet still conceded 15 turnovers. In fact, if you didn’t look at the scoreline and just saw the stats, you might be excused for concluding the teams were pretty equal.
Yet because of the Brumbies’ loss, the Waratahs’ season is certainly not over as might have been thought last week. With a game in hand over both the Rebels and the Brumbies, the Waratahs are definitely within reach of the Australian conference again. With only five points between them and the Rebels, the only table they need to focus on now is the Australian one.
Their attack looks to be in good shape; they are certainly creating the chances. But their breakdown presence needs work and will need to improve to challenge any of the ten teams above them on the table.
The next five weeks will define their season: away to the Stormers, before returning home to play the Cheetahs and Bulls, followed by the Crusaders away and the Chiefs back in Sydney, all before the June break. They probably need to win all five games, truly, to be properly seen as contenders again. And any more than two losses would almost certainly be curtains. They’ll need to be better than six and six going into June.
But the biggest issue for the Tahs is exactly the same issue as with the Rebels and Brumbies. They’re all only OK when they should be much better, and they’re all disappointing when they really need to be much better.
The time is rapidly running out for the Australian sides. There can be no more ‘in’ prefix when talking about their consistency. Inconsistent teams don’t win games, never mind titles.