There’s no mucking around. It’s Quarter Finals time, and we’re straight into it. Here’s the talking points for the first week of the playoffs.
6pm kick off. On a Friday night. Come on, seriously…
Tonight’s first Quarter Final kick-off time in Canberra is ridiculous.
It doesn’t help the local crowd, it’s far from brilliant for TV – except for the New Zealand viewers, to be fair – and it’s come to be because of some well-intended but flawed thinking, and the sheer pigheadedness of a stadium ground staff.
With the Canberra Raiders playing three grades at home on the Saturday, the Brumbies’ preference was to host their home final on Sunday afternoon, for which there is precedent: they played the Cheetahs in an Elimination Final on a Sunday in 2013.
It would also have given them an extra day of preparation, for sure, while the family – and crowd – friendly prospect of a home final on a sunny afternoon in a Canberra winter as opposed to Friday night, was an additional and major attraction.
But a Sunday match was knocked on the head by SANZAAR for travel concerns; primarily around concerns teams would have to head to South Africa for a Semi Final on the Monday. The New Zealand teams were said to be dead against this, while the Brumbies weren’t fussed; again, they did the same thing in 2013. And beat the Bulls in Pretoria.
And while the ‘looking after players’ argument is laudable, whoever needs to travel to South Africa won’t know this until Sunday morning now anyway. With airline sponsorships in place, it means that even if the arrangements can be made (or pre-bookings confirmed) as quickly as possible, some degree travel on Monday is almost certain.
Equally, the Friday night timeslot would’ve been preferred from a broadcast point of view, too. You can easily imagine Fox Sports in Australia putting forward one preferred time, and one only: 7:45pm Friday night.
With Friday locked in for all of the above reasons, then the real fun began.
Canberra Stadium staff would have to be turning the ground around from rugby markings and signage to rugby league mode for a 10:30am kick-off on the Saturday. Again, this has happened this year; the Brumbies played the Waratahs on a Friday night in early March, and the Raiders hosted Penrith in three grades the next day.
So suddenly the argument became meteorological. ‘There might be a frost, we won’t be able to mark the lines and paint the logos,’ the stadium argued. A frost in Canberra in winter is highly likely; that can’t be argued. But why would the ground staff be waiting until the morning to start the painting?
We know the clean-up starts immediately after games are completed. Last Saturday night as we wrapped up the ABC Grandstand broadcast, Stephen Larkham and I had to complete our interview while walking off the ground, after we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by blokes with hoses erasing on-ground signage.
Surely the line-marking and signage could similarly happen that night before the frost arrives? Which probably won’t happen now anyway, because weather forecasts are for a 99% chance of rain at 6pm.
But either way, how much difference would an hour and forty minutes have really made?
That’s the biggest question for me: is the extra time provided for the stadium crew really worth the much larger inconvenience caused?
Brumbies cannot afford to chase
If the Highlanders get out to an early lead tonight at Canberra Stadium, that would be just about the worst-case scenario for the Brumbies.
Their set piece has been their strength this season, and if they can force the game into a forwards battle, then they’ll be well equipped to prevail on a wet night. But if the game gets away from how they like to play, then the Brumbies will be in trouble.
Here’s a post-match quote from a team who beat the Brumbies:
“The type of team the Brumbies are, if they get a lead, they can really strangle the game. We thought that if we could get points on the board and they had to chase the game, that it could work in our favour as they try to play a game that they probably don’t like to play as much.
“I thought we defended very well. We just didn’t give them a lot of opportunity. They’re a team who like to get a lot of territory and put you under pressure, but we got out of exits zones really well.
“I felt like we were always able to take the initiative.”
Notice that they got out to a lead, and dug in hard once defending; a plan that’s often used against the Brumbies this season.
And it’s been used regularly this season because that quote above is from Conrad Smith after the Hurricanes beat the Brumbies in last season’s semi-final. When it comes to beating the Brumbies, nothing’s changed in twelve months.
The Highlanders know this, because they did exactly the same thing in wet weather in Invercargill back in Round 10.
Hurricanes well placed to avenge 2015
I’ve said this week that I like the Highlanders from here for the title, but if the Hurricanes end up turning around last year’s loss – and especially if they beat the Highlanders in the Final – then I’d pretty happy for Chris Boyd and his team. (And a certain Wellington-based Roarer, obviously.)
Ahead of last season’s semi-final in the New Zealand Capital, I was lucky enough to sit down with Boyd in the sunshine at the Cake Tin. It was really enjoyable chat about rugby, and yes, we previewed the game, and Boyd said all the right things while I had the recorder out, but we just sat there talking rugby for about 20 minutes.
And I say all this because as the season has gone on, and the ‘Canes solidified their place in the top eight, before blasting to the top of the table, the way the players have spoken about how Boyd moved them on from last season’s losses, reminded me of everything Boyd said to me that day in the sun last year.
It’s clear that the team were stung by last season’s loss, but now if feels like they really want this year’s title as much as for their coach as themselves. It’s the reward they feel Chris Boyd deserves.
And emotion can be a really tough thing for opposing teams to overcome. The Sharks come into the Finals with the worst record of the eight teams, and at the time of writing had less than four per cent of The Crowd’s vote for this game. It’s fair to say they’re up against it in Wellington.
I expect the Hurricanes to win well, but not necessarily because they’re playing really good rugby. It will be because they’re playing really good rugby for each other, and for their coach.
The South-African job
What’s going to be the outcome from the two matches in South Africa: two local wins? Two New Zealand wins? One each?
I didn’t really want to group the Ellis Park and Newlands games together, but there’s a lot of similarities: two well-performed home teams, probably underrated to different degrees outside their own support base, up against two Kiwi sides who at some point in the last month have been tipped to win the comp, but who now find themselves under the pump just to make the Semis.
The Crusaders seem vulnerable to me, with the loss at home last week, the virus afflicting some members of the squad, and now the whole travel-and-play-at-altitude thing that’s suddenly upon them. And that’s a week after wondering if they were the best-equipped team to win in the Republic. The Lions will be fresh, and their captain courageous, Warren Whitely is back on deck.
The Chiefs, despite having a staggeringly high share of the Crowd tip at the time of writing (nearly 80 per cent), look equally shaky after the way they couldn’t really hit back on the scoreboard last week in Dunedin. Points are going to be hard to come by in Cape Town, and that means goal-kicking will be massive.
Only three teams have conceded more successful penalty goals than the Chiefs and one of those teams, funnily enough, is the Stormers.
The Stormers in 2016 have kicked their penalties 80 per cent of the time. The Chiefs have kicked only 71 per cent of their penalties as a team, and have attempted about only two-thirds as many as the Stormers. Furthermore, no team has conceded fewer tries in 2016 than the Stormers. Both measures could be telling.
To me, this game is far closer to a 50-50 prospect than the current voting indicates.
The curly Kiwi question
It started last Sunday, and has carried through the week. “Four New Zealand teams in the Semis,” the bold predictions began.
And it is certainly true; it could quite plausibly be an all-Kiwi affair in the Semis next weekend.
But it could also be a no-Kiwi affair, couldn’t it?
The Brumbies could just click on the night; the Sharks could avenge their narrow New Zealand tour defeats from earlier in the season, and the travel to Johannesburg and Cape Town could yet prove too much for the Crusaders and Chiefs.
So here it is. You Kiwis have good reason to be confident, but how many of you have considered the worst case scenario?
What if no New Zealand teams get through?
I’ll leave that with you. Enjoy the Quarter Finals weekend.