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The 2016 Super Rugby finals system is designed for an African winner

Hallelujah, Israel Folau is back where he belongs (AAP Image/David Moir)
Expert
29th May, 2016
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5977 Reads

‘Folau! Folau! Israel Folau!’ What a match he played to ignite the NSW Waratahs to a resounding, emphatic, vibrant (pick your enthusiastic adjective) 45-25 victory over the Chiefs at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.

You could hear the roar of the 18,175 crowd all over the eastern suburbs of Sydney as the Waratahs, inspired by Folau’s dynamic running, ran rampant against a willing but out-Folaued Chiefs side.

Before the match, coach Daryl Gibson admitted that the Waratahs had played a too restricted game against the Crusaders the week before in the rain and cold of Christchurch. He promised a more expansive, more traditional Waratahs game based on running the ball, skills and big defence for the must-win contest against the Chiefs.

And the Waratahs delivered on this as the score line testifies.

As an aside, I note that if the Wallabies play a similar fast-paced, muscular game against England they will run the visitors off their feet. And as a further aside, I further note that playing this way, ball in hand, running hard at and around the defence, is the traditional Waratahs and Wallabies game.

This is the game that has provided both teams with their greatest triumphs. And more triumphs to come, hopefully.

One statistic provides the clue to the dedication shown by the Waratahs to run the ball. They kicked only 11 times. The Chiefs kicked 13 times.

It was brilliant, ball-in-hand attacking play (from both sides), rather than weak defence, that saw the Waratahs score six tries and the Chiefs four tries.

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The match statistics provide the clues to the excellence of the Waratahs performance. Waratahs 19 offloads, 17 Chiefs. Waratahs runs 130, Chiefs 103. Run metres Waratahs 689, Chiefs 357. Waratahs rucks 77, Chiefs 54. Waratahs line breaks 16, Chiefs 10. Waratahs tackles 86, Chiefs 100.

To put these statistics into a perspective we have to remember that the Chiefs have won nine matches this season, out of 12. They went into the match as the leading team on the points table in the tournament. Only the very, very impressive Lions (419 points) have scored more points than the Chiefs (403) so far in the tournament.

That important victory by the Waratahs was on the Friday night of a good weekend for the two top Australian sides.

On a bitterly cold Saturday night at Canberra the Brumbies completed the double, in a sense, by clinically scoring eight tries against an enthusiastic but rather woeful, toothless Sunwolves side that played in contradiction to their name.

There has been a lot of talk of Tevita Kuridrani making way in the centres in the Wallabies starting XV against England for, say, a Samu Kerevi/Israel Folau combination.

What Michael Cheika should really be thinking about after the strong performances by the Brumbies and the Waratahs is a Tevita Kuridrani/Israel Folau combination.

I raised this possibility on The Roar a few weeks ago. Cheika has been quoted as not ruling out the possibility. He should go for it.

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What coaches should be looking for is points of difference their teams can bring to the big matches. The Kuridrani/Folau centre pairing would give the Wallabies a fast and powerful combination that was so successful with Tim Horan/Dan Herbert/Stirling Mortlock combinations. This sort of power centre combination is something the Wallabies lacked in the 2015 and 2011 Rugby World Cup tournaments.

I watched Kuridrani carefully during the Brumbies versus Sunwolves match. Admittedly, he played at outside centee but he has the good hands and quick passing skills that an inside centre need. He plays with square shoulders to the defensive line. This means he straightens up the attack.

When he tucks the ball under his arm and charges at the defensive line he invariably carries several defenders clinging on to him as he takes the hard yards.

Israel Folau is a perfect foil for this muscular, no frills Kuridrani approach. He has a wide range of skills and the physical presence to intimidate opponents with his athleticism, speed and power.

He is terrific in the air, for instance. The Waratahs kicked off short against the Chiefs. Folau won the ball in the air and was taken out while doing so. Bernard Foley kicked the goal. The Waratahs were on the board in the opening minute of the game. What a start!

Then minutes later Folau came out of the line and intercepted a pass on the Waratahs try line and raced away to score an unlikely try. He demonstrated in this instance his great hands. He never seems to drop a pass.

His time on the intercept was what the South African commentators would call ‘sublime.’ If the pass had gone to a Chiefs attacker, a try would certainly have been scored. Commentators call this sort of Folau intervention a ’14-point try’, seven points recorded and seven points saved. It also pushed the Waratahs to an unlikely ten point lead when the Chiefs were all over them with their attacks and their field position.

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Incidentally, there has been comment that Folau was almost run down by Damian McKenzie. True but ‘almost’ is the key word here. McKenzie is lightning fast, something that has caught the eye of the All Blacks selectors, and he couldn’t run down the long striding Folau.

After half-time, the Chiefs came back with a try after ten phases of play. Game on! But Folau virtually ended that possibility with a sensational curving run through a befuddled defensive line before, after a couple more phases the Waratahs put Andrew Kellaway in for a try.

Then seconds later Nick Phipps made a scorching break from a ruck inside his own half. The Waratahs attack flashed forward with brilliant and quick passing before a final transfer from Phipps put Michael Hooper in for his second try. The Foley conversion took the score out to an unbeatable Waratahs 31-18 lead.

The race between the Brumbies and the Waratahs for top team in the Australian Conference is virtually tied. The Brumbies lead on 34 and eight wins. The Waratahs are also on 34 but with seven wins. The Brumbies have gained only two bonus points. The Waratahs have six bonus points and will be mad at themselves at scoring six tries and not getting a bonus point against the Chiefs (four tries).

The finals system is in my opinion biased in favour of the African Group. As Dave Rennie, the Chiefs coach, pointed out after the match at Sydney: ‘There’s going to be four quarter-finals and two of them are going to be in Africa.”

He suggested that this system was not fair to the New Zealand and Australian teams. “Considering the South Africans have six teams and half of those quarter-finals are going to be there … I guess they put a lot of money into it, so that’s the way it is… If you don’t win your conference, you’re travelling.’

For the Brumbies and Waratahs it is even more dire than this. The team that doesn’t win the Australian Conference is not going to make the finals.

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The finals table right now reads: (1) Crusaders 45 points: (2) Lions 42 points: (3) Stormers 36 points: (4) Brumbies 34 points: (5) Chiefs 42 points: (6) Hurricanes 40 points: (7) Highlanders 38 points: (8) Sharks 35 points.

The African Group has two designated home quarter-finalists and one designated wild card team. This means that the three leading South African teams will be in the finals.

The Australasian Group which combines the Australian Conference and the New Zealand Conference has two quarter-finalists, as well. These designated finalists are the winners of their particular conference. But the conferences are not guaranteed another wild card finalist, as one of the South African conferences will have.

As it stands, only one Australian team will make the finals. That team will be the winner of the Australian Conference.

The three guaranteed home ground advantage places for the African Group leaves only three wild card places for the Australasian Group. These places can come from either conference. It is hard to see how the Australian team that does not win the Australian Conference can get more points than the three potential New Zealand wild card teams.

The Highlanders, for instance, are on 38 points, four points ahead of either the Brumbies and the Waratahs. The Highlanders play the Kings away, Jaquares away and the Chiefs at home. There are at least two wins, including bonus points in this draw.

The Hurricanes, on 40, points play the Blues at home, the Waratahs at home, Crusaders away. You would presume that there are four or more points in this draw for the Hurricanes. It may be that the game against the Waratahs at home is a crucial one for both teams.

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The Chiefs on 42 points, eight points ahead of the Brumbies and the Waratahs play the Crusaders in Fiji, Reds away and Highlanders away. You would think that there are four points in this draw, at least, for the Chiefs.

The problem for the Waratahs and the Brumbies is that the designated wild card for an African Group team, along with two guaranteed home finals, has congested the contest for the seventh and eighth positions on the finals table.

I have a simple and fair solution to all this which I detailed in The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday.

The South African Group and the Australian and New Zealand conferences should have a guaranteed home finals place. This is a requirement that was forced through by John O’Neill to ensure that each country in SANZAR had a home final. This makes sense from a commercial and fairness point of view.

The fourth home finalist should be the team with the most number of points at the end of the round robin.

The four other finalists should be the teams with the most number of points at the end of the round robin.

This Zavos System, as I modestly call it, has three designated (in terms of geography) finalists and five wild card teams.

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The fairness here lies in its simplicity. You get the points, you get into the finals. It rewards a conference that produces the leading teams with two home finals and allows a fairer distribution of finals places for all the teams and conferences.

With three rounds to go the Zavos System finals teams are: (1) Crusaders 45 points: (2) Lions 42 points + 135 points differential: (3) Chiefs 42 points + 105 points differential: (4) Brumbies 34 points: (5) Hurricanes 40 points: (6) Highlanders 38 points: (7) Stormers 36 points: (8) Sharks 35 points.

All the teams currently on the finals list are actually on this list. But the difference, and it is a crucial difference in terms of fairness, is that the leading conference, the New Zealand Conference, has two home finals.

The Stormers are in the finals, under this Zavos system, but they do not have a home final.

Moreover, the Waratahs and Bulls (32 points) are still in the hunt for a finals place.

The current system that Dave Rennie criticises correctly on grounds of fairness was brought in by the new chief executive of SANZAAR, Andy Marinos, a South African who played for the Stormers and who lives and works out of Durban.

Even at the beginning of the tournament, New Zealand rugby writers looked at the schedule and the finals system and insisted it favoured the African Group.

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It is clear, even now, while the tournament is still in progress that these fears have been proven to be correct.

Andy Marinos needs to respond to Dave Rennie’s criticisms and foreshadow a new, fairer system that embraces the principles I have proposed.

If he does not do this, then just this once let us have some decisiveness in the interests of the Australian Super Rugby teams from the ARU.

I am not holding my breath for an organisation that seems to be obsessed about everything except rugby matters but Bill Pulver gladden our hearts, this one time, and come out with a fighting statement from the ARU that the current system must go.

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