Consistency now the biggest issue in Australian conference

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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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.

    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 (100)

    • April 26th 2016 @ 5:33am
      Hugo said | April 26th 2016 @ 5:33am | ! Report

      Brett, if the Wallaby team to play England in June is to come from mainly the Tahs and the Brums, could time be running out for us? On present form, do we have 15 starters who are playing like top international players should? If England were facing a June series against the ABs instead of the Wallabies, the Kiwis would slaughter them. But watching Kruis, Itoje and Billy Vunipola on the weekend, and watching our guys, it’s clear we don’t have the forwards to match them. And Marland Yarde would leave any of our established wingers, apart from Speight (who’ll probably be saved for Sevens) in the dust.

      What’s your take? Can we trust that it’ll be okay on June 11 because Cheika will skim the cream from under-performing sides?

      • Columnist

        April 26th 2016 @ 9:17am
        Brett McKay said | April 26th 2016 @ 9:17am | ! Report

        First of all, I wouldn’t be limiting the selection pool to two teams; I wouldn’t limit it at all.

        I think we have to trust that playing for your country is motivation enough, Hugo, and that without the worry of a Super Rugby campaign, that Cheika will have had significantly more time to plan and speak with and motivate the players to perform.

        Don’t forget, England have never played a three-Test series against Australia, and on the rare occasion they’ve played a three-Test series against anyone, they’re yet to win a series. So it’s far from a forgone conclusion..

        • April 26th 2016 @ 11:11am
          jameswm said | April 26th 2016 @ 11:11am | ! Report

          I was just thinking about our best performed forwards this season Brett, and I agree with you. They are spread over the teams. The backs less so though, I’d say. Right now I’d start with 3 Tahs, 2 Brums, 1 Force and the 7th Brums/Tahs/Reds. Potentially 3 Brums and 3 Tahs among the 7.

        • April 26th 2016 @ 8:15pm
          Rugby Tragic said | April 26th 2016 @ 8:15pm | ! Report

          WOW Brett, … “Don’t forget, England have never played a three-Test series against Australia, and on the rare occasion they’ve played a three-Test series against anyone, they’re yet to win a series” … I never knew that! Interesting, thanks….

          • April 27th 2016 @ 5:23am
            Homer Gain said | April 27th 2016 @ 5:23am | ! Report

            I’m guessing this from a sample of two cases, almost certainly involving three consecutive tests away in South Africa and New Zealand. Out of interest, have Australia won a three test series in such circumstances?

        • April 28th 2016 @ 11:27am
          Fox Saker said | April 28th 2016 @ 11:27am | ! Report

          Agreed Brett, and I think there will be some surprises from Cheika with players from the Reds and Force in the mix.

          Also with Rebels playing so well – though they do have some overseas players in great form like Adam Thompson who has made huge difference to their go forward ball, defense and lineout options – it is hard not to see three of four players get shot from that side either.

          I mean on current form you wouldn’t make your entire tight five from the Tahs and Brumbies but he may do so for continuity and loyalty but I think that is a bit narrow in the thinking if Cheika does, and I don’t think he will. He also has some Reds forwards to consider

          The Reds scrum and lineout are performing better than the Tahs or Brumbies on average despite their record.

          Sadly, their backs, before the coach change, sometimes have looked a bit pedestrian.

          Also, to entice Carmichael Hunt to crossover – and for goodness sake let’s not play let’s pretend as we all know how the transfer game is played – baring rubbish form he would have just about been given a golden carrot into the Wallabies squad despite the predictable PR speeches to the contrary

          And had he not been partying so hard shall we say, he would have probably been picked long before now, at the very least in the wider training squad.

          I don’t think he has been consistent enough just yet anyway, to get the jersey even though at last he is showing some form, but my bet is now the dust has settled on his white line fever he will be picked or he will return to league.

      • April 26th 2016 @ 11:09am
        jameswm said | April 26th 2016 @ 11:09am | ! Report

        If you mean backrowers Hugo, I think Pocock, Fardy, Hooper, McMahon, Timani, Gill and to a lesser extent Holloway have shown this season they would be up to the challenge. McCalman I guess, too.

        On the wing, we might be lacking speed, but that’s not all there is. Tomane has been excellent, and right now I’d lean to RHP on the other wing, as we need a winger with a boot. RHP is also strong and willing, and good under the high ball, in attack and defence.

        In the front row Moore is at almost career best form level, Sio is a brute and Holmes is an excellent scrummager and decent around the field. Toby Smith would be pushing Slipper for backup LH and TPN is tough as ever. Lock remains an issue, but Simmons is excellent in the set piece and a strong defender, Coleman is a good jumper and tough in contact, and Neville is also tough and improving.

        I don’t think we’re in as bad shape as you say. However, if you look at those forwards I have mentioned, there are 3 Tahs, 4 Brums, 3 Rebs, 2 Force and 4 Reds. The talent is spread thinly across the 5 teams, which I think makes our forwards look softer. I think when you throw them all together, things will look a lot better. All those I mentioned have shown they are willing most of the time this season. Throw together any group of them, say Sio, TPN, McMahon, Coleman, Pocock, Neville, Smith and Timani, and you have a very physical pack. All tough, go forward players, and physical defenders who will knock you backwards.

        • April 26th 2016 @ 2:13pm
          BBA said | April 26th 2016 @ 2:13pm | ! Report

          While super rugby can indicate depth it does not represent how good the top 23 players may be.

          In that sense Aus will still be able to field a strong team and there are people holding up their hands in most positions. Your scrum will be good, given the way the reds scrum has performed. You might be light in terms of locks however your backrow still looks to be class. Apart from half back the back line looks more than capable to me.

          Cheika is a good coach and motivator.

          However Aus is more exposed to injuries in key positions than other teams however it is only 23 on 23.

          • April 26th 2016 @ 3:28pm
            jameswm said | April 26th 2016 @ 3:28pm | ! Report

            True, the lack of depth does make you exposed in the case of injuries.

      • April 26th 2016 @ 8:13pm
        CUW said | April 26th 2016 @ 8:13pm | ! Report

        @ Hugo :

        the english pack is good , suddenly , only becoz Jones has chosen the guys who can play according to his script.

        the limited changes he made to the Lancaster’s squad suddenly made them the best lot in NH.

        that does not mean they are way better than Auzzy or another team.

        I for one think auzzy will take the series 2:1 , if they can get the selection balance correct.

        imo , the 677 third row will not work against england. they will have too much power at set pieces and mauls.

        also engaging in forward play too much will play into england’s hands.

        auzzy shud look at fast back play and also a territory game that NZ have mastered agaisnt the NH teams.

    • April 26th 2016 @ 6:54am
      Squirrel said | April 26th 2016 @ 6:54am | ! Report

      Cheika is a great coach who will turn a very average playing squad into a winning international team. Cheika should have the wallabies for 10 years

      • April 26th 2016 @ 12:49pm
        Harryonthcoadt said | April 26th 2016 @ 12:49pm | ! Report

        Well he will have a lot of fun with the players available for his team, won’t he?,!

    • Roar Guru

      April 26th 2016 @ 7:12am
      Train Without A Station said | April 26th 2016 @ 7:12am | ! Report

      I’m not sold on Hodge yet. He’s still rocks and diamonds.

      But with his size, pace, boot and skill, he’s the type of player you want to develop.

      • Columnist

        April 26th 2016 @ 8:12am
        Geoff Parkes said | April 26th 2016 @ 8:12am | ! Report

        Agree with that TWAS, way too soon to be talking him up. Tony McGahan obviously rates his potential and says that he has the right attitude to succeed at this level and above.

        But for all the good so far, his match in Perth was studded with some horrible errors, and even on Friday night he failed to find touch with two penalty kicks. It’s great that he’s emerged but I’d prefer to let him get through this season first and let’s see how he scrubs up next year.

        • Roar Guru

          April 26th 2016 @ 10:58am
          PeterK said | April 26th 2016 @ 10:58am | ! Report

          I mentioned elsewhere Hodge has had 2 very good games 1 against Force and 1 against the Cheetahs. He needs to perform against stronger teams before he is considered seriously.

          • Roar Guru

            April 26th 2016 @ 1:15pm
            Train Without A Station said | April 26th 2016 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

            Even in those games there were glaring errors.

            But still, what a base to develop from. 193cm and close to 100kg at 21. Pace to burn, a booming kick and versatile.

            • April 26th 2016 @ 1:24pm
              Browny said | April 26th 2016 @ 1:24pm | ! Report

              And he seems to have a real hunger for it. Puts his head down and goes hell for leather when he hits the line. Little bit of Sean McMahon crazy eyes (not quite to that extent, he looks possessed with ball in hand!)

              • Roar Guru

                April 26th 2016 @ 3:25pm
                Train Without A Station said | April 26th 2016 @ 3:25pm | ! Report

                What’s his best position though?

              • April 26th 2016 @ 8:22pm
                CUW said | April 26th 2016 @ 8:22pm | ! Report

                @ Browny :

                and that running style may be his undoing , against better defensive teams , imo.

                he looks down and runs straight – as far as i saw , he had no idea of any defenders from the sides.

                the better NZ and SA teams will have cover defenders coming from the sides. am sure u will remember how dan carter got blindsided by bdp.

                to me , it seems he trusts his speed to run to the line , no matter hell or high water. now if u look at a guy like Nonu , who is much bigger , despite being in the clear , always looks around to see if he has oncoming traffic and where the support runners are.

                Hodge needs to develop that aspect, especially as a center. else he may become like Kerevi, who almost always breaks the line but then the movement also breaks down becoz of not making correct decisions.

                to the credit of Hodge , he has been shifted around , i think from back to wing to center in the space of like 5 games. still he has acclimatized well , despite obvios mistakes.

                hopefully he does not become thought of like a Colin Slade , where coaches think he can play anywhere from 9 – 15.

      • April 26th 2016 @ 8:32am
        Daveski said | April 26th 2016 @ 8:32am | ! Report

        Yeah Hodge got a Stirling Mortlock comparison the other day but totally agree with the rocks and diamonds analogy – still there’s no doubt a whole heap of potential packed into a perfect footballers physique.

        Brett, one positive is that generally in the lesser performing Aus teams, the non-established Wallaby players whom are on Cheika’s radar are continuing to play well. I’m thinking H-Petty and Coleman at the Force, Kerevi, Hunt, Gill at the Reds. Whilst not a lesser performing team – the exception might be the Rebels halves. The Z brothers have had an injury disrupted start and haven’t been terrible but have been far from great. In fact I almost think Meehan should still be starting for them at this point.

        Apart from Hodge that teenage Melb local Tuipolotu looks all class, power and fancy feet. One to watch.

        • Columnist

          April 26th 2016 @ 9:19am
          Brett McKay said | April 26th 2016 @ 9:19am | ! Report

          Yeah, that’s a really good point Daveski, about the new players sticking their hand up. And you’re bang on about Tuipolotu for the Rebels, I’ve had my eye on him since the NRC last season.

          Also, just for clarity for Train and Allanthus above, I’ve only speaking of Hodge in selection terms for the Rebels, nothing further than that at this stage, for exactly the reasons you highlight..

          • Columnist

            April 26th 2016 @ 9:34am
            Geoff Parkes said | April 26th 2016 @ 9:34am | ! Report

            Got it, I was referring to others who seemingly latch on to any new player who shows promise and install them as Wallabies before we know what they can really do. The same people pushing Hodge now who were previously on the Godwin bandwagon.

          • Roar Guru

            April 26th 2016 @ 9:42am
            Train Without A Station said | April 26th 2016 @ 9:42am | ! Report

            To clarify I was more commenting regarding hype by others, not yourself Brett.

            • Columnist

              April 26th 2016 @ 9:47am
              Brett McKay said | April 26th 2016 @ 9:47am | ! Report

              Good good, so we’ve ‘cleared’ that up..

              On Godwin, and the news today that he’s looking for a move to shore up his Wallabies chances, I actually think him playing in any other team might actually highlight how far off the pace he is. At least if he stays with the Force, he does stand out when in decent form..

              • Roar Guru

                April 26th 2016 @ 9:51am
                Train Without A Station said | April 26th 2016 @ 9:51am | ! Report

                That’s a good point.

                Where would any interest be really I wonder? He hasn’t had any good form since 2013. He probably has the clearest run to a starting jersey at the Force.

                That being said with Toomua leaving and talk of Beale going there’s 2 starting 12 spots that open up potentially.

              • Columnist

                April 26th 2016 @ 10:07am
                Brett McKay said | April 26th 2016 @ 10:07am | ! Report

                Yeah, I was thinking the Brumbies, as a potential home.

                But even then, they’ve got Nick Jooste too, who by next year they’d be starting to want to play in SR games, meaning Lealiifano might push back out to 12. Young Jordan Jackson-Hope is a 12 they’ve got big raps on..

    • April 26th 2016 @ 7:38am
      grapeseed said | April 26th 2016 @ 7:38am | ! Report

      I would argue that the Reds have been one of the most consistent teams in the comp.

      • Roar Guru

        April 26th 2016 @ 8:07am
        Train Without A Station said | April 26th 2016 @ 8:07am | ! Report

        I’m not sure. The win over the Highlanders, draw with the Blues and close loss to the Waratahs showed their inconsistency. Sometimes they can be competitive!

    • Roar Guru

      April 26th 2016 @ 7:41am
      Machooka said | April 26th 2016 @ 7:41am | ! Report

      Morning Brett… and agree about the bit about Aussie teams being consistently inconsistent.

      And nah the Rebs are no way the best team in Aussie… they’re just the best placed Aussie team on the Super log.

      But the saddest thing here, for me, is the absence of discussion of, or about, the Force… infact they got one mention, and that was only in relation to the Tahs beating them this past w’end. Surely this is an indictment on the Force and their whole programme?

      Also the Tahs haven’t woken from a slumber… more like they just found a bit of consistent form without the inconsistent bits 🙂

      • Columnist

        April 26th 2016 @ 9:22am
        Brett McKay said | April 26th 2016 @ 9:22am | ! Report

        The Force got one more mention that the Reds, Chookman!

        Jamie Pandaram’s written a good piece in the Telegraph today about the Force, suggesting that the ARU takeover thereof should throw the kitchen sink at getting Todd Blackadder on board as coach. It’s an interesting point..

        • Roar Guru

          April 26th 2016 @ 9:26am
          Machooka said | April 26th 2016 @ 9:26am | ! Report

          Thanks for the Telegraph article tip… and I don’t talk about the REDs as they should be, by rights, ALWAYS in the discussion!

          No it’s the Force that need talking about… sadly.

        • April 26th 2016 @ 9:56am
          Old Bugger said | April 26th 2016 @ 9:56am | ! Report

          Brett

          Good honest piece about the current state of affairs. Even I must admit that it’s bewildering, to see how the AU teams are supposedly NOT functioning rather than, how they are actually functioning. Time is certainly of the essence, for the leading AU teams, to impart some form and reach the finals although I hazard to think that most players, may be trying to ensure that their own form is maintained, to convince Cheiks of their WB selection in lieu of their franchise team’s, finals pursuit. Just a thought….

          Btw, I realise Blackadder is a decent coach but whether or not he could lift the Force, out of their cellar-dweller position, remains to be seen. Let’s face it – he has been coach of a franchise in NZ that possessed some of, if not most of, the best players that area could provide; a franchise that provided a large number of key AB players over his tenure; a franchise that included a truck-load of rugby experience with players and coaches alike in the SR and ITM competitions and yet, he couldn’t take them, to the top podium in the past 8 seasons.

          Not for want of trying mind you……but, the bottom line is – he hasn’t and he has his final opportunity to do just that, this season. On a personal note I wish him luck but, on an SR franchise note, I hope he doesn’t.

          The question will be – can he take a side of virtual unknowns compared to the playing roster he coaches at the Saders and turn them into finals contenders instead of clear-dwellers, as we have seen them, these past seasons??

          • April 26th 2016 @ 2:35pm
            BBA said | April 26th 2016 @ 2:35pm | ! Report

            Regarding Blackadder I see where you are coming from but I do think it is unfair criticism.

            Yes I agree Blackadder could not take the Force to winning a superugby title, but I do not see that with any coach, unless he brings a whole lot of players with him. I think Cheika is an excellent coach but could not win with the Sunwolves either.

            At the en of the day Blackadders Crusaders have had winning records every year and put themselves in with a chance on numerous occasions, they dont have a mortgage on the title and the teams that beat them deserved it.

            having a large number of AB’s and key AB’s at that can be a disadvantage in that you have obligations to rest them and Blackadder did the right thing by the NZRU by not burning key AB’s on the altar of superugby. The difference has been that as they weren’t pushed harder (for whatever reason) they didnt get the home playoff advantage and that was the biggest thing that stopped them winning more titles under Blackadders reign. I certainly dont think anyone would have wanted to play the Crusaders at home. I might be wrong but I cant ever recall the Crusaders losing a home playoff game in their entire history, Im sure someone will correct me if that is not the case.

            Finally I think it can also be seen as disrespective to all the teams that beat the Crusaders during that period to be implying that they only won because Blackadder was no good. To me it looked like all the teams that did beat them over that time horizon (i.e. the Bulls, Reds, Warratahs and Chiefs) seemed highly motivated and played outstanding rugby.

            • April 26th 2016 @ 8:34pm
              Old Bugger said | April 26th 2016 @ 8:34pm | ! Report

              Exactly BBA – the Saders did have winning records but unfortunately, not with TB at the helm. My commentary was not a reflection of how other teams performed and whether they were more motivated or played better rugby.

              It was a commentary about TB and his ability to take the Saders all the way…..he didn’t even with the player roster he had, the experience he had as a coach and last but not least, the experience he had as a former player who had lead his team to win titles.

              He has one last opportunity this season to finally win an SR accolade. If he fails, then his legacy will be everything bar winning, the SR competition.

              You are welcome to suggesting unfair criticism but it is reality, in the end.

    • Roar Rookie

      April 26th 2016 @ 7:49am
      Oscar Redding said | April 26th 2016 @ 7:49am | ! Report

      At the moment I’m taking comfort in the fact that the Brumbies have lost to the teams that sit 1st, 2nd and 3rd on points in the comp…. unfortunately it doesn’t feel particularly comfortable, something like a futon mattress in a share house.

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