Australian rugby in 2017: The stumbling Super Rugby powerhouses

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    From a Super Rugby perspective, it’s fair to say the 2017 season was an underwhelming one for the five Australian sides.

    The Brumbies topped the Australian conference with just six wins from 16 games, while the Reds, Waratahs and Rebels all finished in the bottom group of six teams, and with fewer than four wins each.

    Disgruntlement about the conference format was always hovering in the background. However, I’ve no doubt at all that the performance – or, the underperformance, more specifically – of the Australian sides was a major factor in SANZAAR’s hand being forced into a competition restructure three years earlier than they wanted to, and just two seasons into their expanded 18-team competition.

    The reasons for the restructure, and the results thereof are by now well known, and won’t be revisited here.

    Nope, a two-part review of the Australian Super Rugby season on the field will be pain enough…

    RECAP: The bold predictions for 2017 – as made in the first week of February
    With cricket still being played around the country and an outgoing editor begging for Super Rugby season predictions, I relented and had a guess about the four conferences. The Lions topping Africa 2 was the only one I can really claim any accuracy for. It was February, for goodness’ sake.

    For the Australian conference, I don’t think I could’ve got it more wrong. I had the Queensland Reds revival topping the conference and just edging the NSW Waratahs, I generously had the Melbourne Rebels a chance of snaring a wildcard spot, and the Brumbies and Western Force battling it out at the bottom.

    Australia (as guessed at the time): Reds, Waratahs, Rebels, Brumbies, Force.

    Queensland Reds

    Yep, they got me good. I had them finishing atop the Australian conference, and therefore in the top four overall, but their reality was much, much lower than that: third in the conference, and 13th overall.

    At the time, I said: “Can the Reds revival come in one off-season? Quite possibly …it might actually be guys with a season now under their belt, like Andrew Ready, Lukhan Tui, and even Karmichael Hunt who have the big impacts. And if that level of player has strong season, the Reds’ revival will be complete.”

    Reds Super Rugby Karmichael Hunt

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Yeah, nah. Andrew Ready is actually the perfect illustration of the Reds in 2017; experienced enough that he should have flourished in more senior company (Moore, Smith, Higginbotham, Cooper, et al), Ready instead was so disappointing this season that he lost his place in the side, struck disciplinary trouble off the field, and was actually exiled from the main squad for a period of time.

    Meanwhile, on the field, the Reds started the season well with a hard-fought win over the Sharks, but then lost in Perth to the Force; at this point, fans would’ve taken an up-and-down season like the first fortnight was.

    They blew a big halftime lead against the Crusaders at home, and then followed it up with an Africa-South America tour that didn’t go well at all. Worse was to follow, with heavy away losses to the Hurricanes and the Brumbies. They reset somewhat with a win at home over the much-improved Kings, and by their Round 9 bye were sitting around mid-table with ten competition points from two wins, but separated by six straight losses.

    A close loss to the Waratahs at home was followed by a belting away to the Chiefs, but then the Reds beat the Rebels down in Melbourne in a thriller; a late Samu Kerevi try getting them home in what was a surprisingly entertaining Australian derby game.

    After their second bye in Round 13, the Reds season began unravelling properly; a one-point win over the Brumbies in an absolute stinker the only high point in a run home that saw losses to the Force, Blues, and Highlanders.

    Their ‘old heads’ did what they could to lead the way – 37-year-old George Smith won the Reds’ Player of the Year by a considerable margin – but the playing group behind them were largely disappointing. Nick Frisby lost his spot in the side, Cooper was up-and-down, Kane Douglas and Kerevi inconsistent, and even Hunt had games easily forgotten.

    And as tends to happen, it all played out off the field, with playing group rumblings resulting in the axing of coach Nick Stiles, who frankly deserved more from the players in his first full season in charge.

    2018 will reveal just how good a coach and mentor of young men Brad Thorn is, and he’s started with the huge call to banish Frisby and Cooper from the squad; their services no longer required. With Smith’s return in doubt, and Stephen Moore’s retirement brought forward, it seems the Reds’ revival is still some time away.

    NSW Waratahs

    With the squad the Waratahs had in 2017, it’s still puzzling to me how they managed to play so poorly this season. I had the ‘Tahs pushing the Reds for the Australian conference, and on paper, it just seemed obvious.

    At the time, I even said: “The ‘Tahs have added in some key positions, and on the whole, look to be starting 2017 in a better place than this time last year… I don’t think Waratahs fans will be disappointed this season.”

    Waratahs Super Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/Craig Golding)

    Oh, but they were disappointed. In fact, I think even non-Waratahs fans were disappointed, even if they didn’t let onto the fact, for all their sniggering at NSW misfortune. But the point remains; a side with as much experience as they had, as much Test experience as they had even before some of their young bucks debuted in 2017, the Waratahs finishing fourth in the conference and 16th overall was disappointing to the extreme.

    “The NSW Waratahs ground their way to victory,” was how the Sydney Morning Herald described their narrow win over the Force in Round 1, and that would prove to be their method in 2017. They headed to South Africa thereafter, and despite ‘training very well’ as Michael Hooper now-famously uttered, they returned with no points.

    A 16-point loss to the Brumbies at home followed in Round 4, and something similar looked likely in Melbourne in Round 5, only for the Waratahs to score 26 unanswered second half points, including a David Horwitz try with 38 seconds left on the clock, to beat the Rebels 32-25. Losses to the Crusaders and Hurricanes saw the Waratahs go into their Round 8 bye with two wins and five losses, and only the Rebels and Sunwolves below them.

    The Waratahs scored after the final siren against the Kings in Round 9, but that wasn’t enough to prevent the first use of the word “crisis” or the phrase “most embarrassing defeat in club history” in the wash-up of their 26-24 loss to the Southern Kings. Darryl Gibson got a first glimpse at the crosshairs that he somehow survived in 2017, but will most certainly find himself in without any immediate improvement in 2018.

    Four second-half Bernard Foley penalties saw the Waratahs home, in what was described as a spiteful clash with the Reds in Brisbane, but continuing their roller-coaster existence, the ‘Tahs lost 40-33 to the Blues in Sydney after trailing 26-0 at halftime. The second bye followed, but at three-and-seven, their season was quickly disappearing.

    Bernard Foley in full flight

    (photo: Ashleigh Knight)

    Faced with the daunting task of winning their last five games to make the playoffs, the Waratahs started their run home well enough, with a 50-23 win over the Rebels. But that would be it for their win column in 2017.

    Consecutive losses to the Highlanders and Chiefs in New Zealand, the Jaguares in Sydney, and the Force in Perth in what may be their last ever Super Rugby match, saw the Waratahs plummet back to fourth in Australia and third-last on the competition table.

    In any other season, this would have been cause for deep scrutiny and attention, yet the Waratahs’ woeful year was largely forgotten in the mess that became of the end of the Super Rugby season. Some very lucky players and coaches need to start the 2018 season a hell of a lot better than they finished 2017.


    So yes, technically I got it well wrong about the Brumbies – well, about everyone, if we’re honest – but let me say this in my defence: the Brumbies’ six-and-nine season was about what I thought they’d finish with. What I didn’t envisage was that six wins and 34 points would be enough to top the Australian conference. And by some margin.

    Back in February, I wrote: “I think the Brumbies will struggle this year… I can’t see the Brumbies dominating the breakdown any time soon [without David Pocock].”

    Like many, I just wasn’t sure how they could compete regularly without Pocock, Stephen Moore, Matt Toomua, and Christian Lealiifano; even less so when the lost Argentinean scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli the week I wrote my bold Super Rugby predictions for 2017. But six wins and seven losing bonus points – the most in the competition by a good margin – shows they were in the mix all season.

    Losses to the Crusaders in Christchurch and Sharks in Canberra seemed to confirm the first instincts, with the loss to the Sharks confounded by a missed drop goal to break a deadlock, only for Curwin Bosch to turn on the magic after the siren to produce the match-winning try for the visitors.

    Twin wins over the Force and Waratahs delivered the first wins of the season, with the Brumbies showing an ability to graft pretty well for a side lacking experience relative to other Australian sides. They then led the Highlanders for 72 minutes in Round 5, before shelling another game late in the piece, and went into their first bye atop the conference courtesy of the three losing bonus points.

    Scott Fardy Brumbies Rugby Union Super Rugby 2017

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    A big bonus point win over the Reds in Canberra seemed to confirm that the Brumbies were a better side than most imagined at that stage, but they then fell into a bit of a slump, losing to the Rebels in Melbourne, the Hurricanes in Napier, and then twin losses at home to Blues and Lions either side of the second bye; both of them games they really should have won. Remarkably – worryingly, from an Australian perspective – the Brumbies still held the conference lead by the end of Round 12.

    With just six points separating the Brumbies from the Reds, Waratahs, and Force, a strong run home was needed to take the conference title and claim what was already likely to be the only Australian place in the playoffs.

    An unbeaten hemisphere lap saw the Brumbies take wins over the Kings in Port Elizabeth and with a bonus point over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, and a 32-3 smashing of the now-helpless Rebels secured their third Australian conference title in the last five seasons.

    Final round losses to the Reds and Chiefs killed their momentum for the finals, where the Brumbies were beaten soundly by the Hurricanes, 35-16, in Canberra in front of a disappointing crowd of fewer than ten thousand people.

    In some respects, it was the perfect illustration of the Australian Super Rugby campaign: disappointing in the end, and watched by fewer and fewer every week.

    NEXT WEEK: the Australian Super Rugby year in review concludes with the Melbourne Rebels and Western Force.

    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 (53)

    • December 12th 2017 @ 6:35am
      Jock Cornet said | December 12th 2017 @ 6:35am | ! Report

      2018 will be the same as 2017. We are not producing quality players. The rebels have paid overs and must have breached the salary cap and will again be fighting for the spoon with the reds. You guys , journalists just don’t get it. Tahs or brumbies will fight out .

      • Columnist

        December 12th 2017 @ 8:38am
        Brett McKay said | December 12th 2017 @ 8:38am | ! Report

        You’ll excuse me if I don’t heed the lessons of your evident genius, Jock…

        Jock Cornet said | February 7th 2017 @ 10:03am | Edit comment | ! Report

        Reds will spoon it. Tahs will win the Oz conference in a canter.

        • December 12th 2017 @ 10:43am
          Gormon Kinchley said | December 12th 2017 @ 10:43am | ! Report

          Ha, nothing like evidence to burn a guy. Nice work,

        • December 12th 2017 @ 2:30pm
          Kibuib said | December 12th 2017 @ 2:30pm | ! Report

          Well played Brett, there is some quality talent coming through the ranks in Aus. The NRC games were a good watch and anyone who took the time to watch it will know that something is bubbling down under…couldn’t help myself there.

        • December 12th 2017 @ 4:37pm
          Stephen Creagh said | December 12th 2017 @ 4:37pm | ! Report

          I hear crickets……and was that a tumbleweed?

        • Roar Rookie

          December 13th 2017 @ 10:16am
          ChrisG said | December 13th 2017 @ 10:16am | ! Report

          Gold ?

        • December 19th 2017 @ 8:13pm
          Fionn said | December 19th 2017 @ 8:13pm | ! Report

          Great, Brett, great!

      • December 12th 2017 @ 10:20am
        Josh29 said | December 12th 2017 @ 10:20am | ! Report

        Disagree, 2017 has produced a number of fine young players who will be better next year. See Ulese, Rodda, Tui, Thor, Rob Valetini, Naisarini etc.

        With the talent being concentrated in only four teams as well, the teams will no doubt be a lot stronger.

    • December 12th 2017 @ 6:58am
      Luke Ringland said | December 12th 2017 @ 6:58am | ! Report

      The signs looked ominous for the Tahs last year when they had to start the season without Bernard Foley. If memory serves, he didn’t play until they got back from SA?

      Momentum and confidence is clearly important in rugby at the team level as much as for individuals, and this is perhaps not discussed as much as it should.

      My concern about Kiwi coaches in Australia has always been about the emotional side of getting the boys up for the job in the hard moments. This could be dismissed as trite nonsense in the era of professionalism, and certainly there are plenty of foreign coaches doing great things, cough cough Eddie Jones, to name a particularly prescient example.

      But I would look to the Robbie Deans era as an example of what I’m talking about. His prowess as a coach will perhaps forever be underrated, because his charges so often folded meekly in the big games against New Zealand. On one level, this is unfair. New Zealand were just awesome in this period. But does the way in which we fronted in those big games have anything to do with him being a New Zealander? No one can know for sure, but I think it does.

      I believe that Daryl Gibson is a great coach, but does he know how to get the Tahs up? Is he relying on players to do this too much? One would think that is a team effort between captain, coach and senior players. And one can’t help but questions Hooper’s ability in this regard. But surely the coach is critical.

      But, all else being equal, I do think that Foley was a crictical absence on the early part of the season, and we will see what the Tahs, and Gibson, are really capable of if all of Hooper, Beale, Foley and Folau start the season fit and firing.

      • December 12th 2017 @ 7:19am
        Dave_S said | December 12th 2017 @ 7:19am | ! Report

        Luke I’m a little confused at your point regarding the Kiwi-ness of coaches being a problem in Aus.

        Given the apparent gulf in skills levels between us and them, if anything we need more Kiwi coaches.

        Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine 2 more culturally similar nations than Aus and NZ, certainly we “speak the same language” literally and metaphorically, no excuse unless the players are constantly misunderstanding the word “six” …

        • December 12th 2017 @ 10:35am
          Luke Ringland said | December 12th 2017 @ 10:35am | ! Report

          I do think we do need more Kiwi coaches, and certainly Kiwi systems, but on the rugby on the rugby field broadly I wouldn’t say we’re as culturally similar as you might think. A retort to that of course would be the Polynesian and Fijian player base in Australia, which certainly is something Kiwi coaches have experience with.

          But yeah, I don’t exactly have an empirical evidence base to my contention that Kiwi coaches may find it harder to get their Aussie troops “up” for the big moments. I really only have my experience playing under a couple of Kiwi coaches at a very low level of rugby, and just my reading of the way the pro level coaches talk about the game, and talk to the players. It’s a vibe thing. Call that baloney if you will :-).

          • December 12th 2017 @ 10:59am
            Bahaha said | December 12th 2017 @ 10:59am | ! Report


            • December 19th 2017 @ 7:42pm
              armchair sportsfan said | December 19th 2017 @ 7:42pm | ! Report

              The Irish don’t seem to struggle with a kiwi coach….

      • Roar Guru

        December 12th 2017 @ 7:47am
        PeterK said | December 12th 2017 @ 7:47am | ! Report

        Gibosn is a poor coach and nothing to do with getting the team up for big moments.

        He is very poor at recruitment and talent identification.

        He is poor at selection.

        He is poor at game day tactics.

        He didn’t have the tahs in good enough condition either. Nor did he improve their skills.

        • December 12th 2017 @ 9:22am
          Ozinsa said | December 12th 2017 @ 9:22am | ! Report

          Peter, I’ve never been fond of how you push your opinion as fact but I agree with the detail you’ve provided here.

    • December 12th 2017 @ 7:27am
      Internal Fixation said | December 12th 2017 @ 7:27am | ! Report

      “Consecutive losses to the Highlanders and Chiefs in New Zealand, the Jaguares in Sydney, and the Force in Perth in what may (hopefully) be their last ever Super Rugby match”

      Hi Brett,

      No sure what the (hopefully) means here?

      Is it a typo because it sounds like a celebration of the death of the force otherwise!

      Otherwise a thoroughly depressing read.

      Thanks none the less

      • Columnist

        December 12th 2017 @ 7:53am
        Brett McKay said | December 12th 2017 @ 7:53am | ! Report

        Oh no, that’s not what I meant at all IF!!

        What I was wanting to say was that hopefully they’d be back! I’ve fixed it now, thanks for pointing it out…

        • December 12th 2017 @ 9:00am
          Internal Fixation said | December 12th 2017 @ 9:00am | ! Report

          Thought as much!

          From memory the Force has a reasonable record overall against the Tahs

          • Columnist

            December 12th 2017 @ 9:58am
            Brett McKay said | December 12th 2017 @ 9:58am | ! Report

            Yep, four wins from the last six games..

    • December 12th 2017 @ 7:27am
      Dave_S said | December 12th 2017 @ 7:27am | ! Report

      Morning Brett, to paraphrase I think it’s Tolstoy, sucessful teams are all alike, but every dud team is a dud in its own way.

      Maybe there’s no connecting factor in the Aus teams’ lack of success last year, even if there is a coincidence of factors like lesser skills? Sometimes it’s just (or largely) dud luck.

      I’ll be bold and predict substantial improvements from the Aus conference in 2018 (or at least, relative to the others).

      But I am concerned at the Reds ability to score tries through the backs, now (enough said on that … are we up to 1000 posts?)

      • Roar Guru

        December 12th 2017 @ 7:48am
        PeterK said | December 12th 2017 @ 7:48am | ! Report

        Rebels and Brumbies will improve due to improved rosters.

        Tahs will finish close to the bottom again.

      • Columnist

        December 12th 2017 @ 8:40am
        Brett McKay said | December 12th 2017 @ 8:40am | ! Report

        Yeah, that’s a reasonably thought Dave, maybe last year was just the perfect storm of dud luck?

        In that regard, I’m with you – I hope there is substantial improvements across the board in 2018!

      • Roar Rookie

        December 12th 2017 @ 9:07am
        Paul D said | December 12th 2017 @ 9:07am | ! Report

        As much pressure as there will be on Hamish Stewart to perform with Coopers axing, I think there will be even more on whoever takes the reigns at the Rebels (Hodge, Lance, someone else?).

        Everything will be laid out for them on a silver platter with a great pack of forwards, Australia’s best 9 and weapons aplenty in the backs. If the Attack stutters, I think this is the place which will be the source of a lot of the problems.

        • Roar Rookie

          December 12th 2017 @ 9:43am
          Dave_S said | December 12th 2017 @ 9:43am | ! Report

          I get what you’re saying Paul, but I’s reckon the rest of the Reds’ squad would pick Lance or Hodge over Stewart every day of the week and twice on Sundays.

        • December 12th 2017 @ 3:39pm
          soapit said | December 12th 2017 @ 3:39pm | ! Report

          i think most players would jump at the chance to have that as their main kind of pressure

    • Roar Guru

      December 12th 2017 @ 8:05am
      Sam Taulelei said | December 12th 2017 @ 8:05am | ! Report

      Thanks Brett

      Your optimism at the start of the season for the Reds was shared by many.

      Nobody would have expected nor predicted a winless season against NZ teams.

      Next year there will be an underperforming coach under pressure, an inexperienced rookie coach at this level, an underrated assistant coach taking the next step up and a coach that exceeded all expectations with a new team.

      With four teams competing next year lets hope results sway more in their favour.

      • December 12th 2017 @ 8:16am
        taylorman said | December 12th 2017 @ 8:16am | ! Report

        Very true Sam, I didnt rate them as the Reds in general have been ‘majorly’ overated and underperformed in previous seasons, even though their team sheet looked quite good.

        So this year needs a very cautious approach with regards to their success. Regardless of who they have they dont yet have a winning culture and that is an absolute must to succeed in Super rugby, and fortunately I think that is Thorns greatest strength, and therefore his challenge.

        Under performing players can definitely expect to feel it, either at training or worse, in their pay packets. Thorn hasnt had to be as responsible for the performance of others as much as he will next year so if they don’t ‘succeed’ he and the side will feel it, big time.

      • Columnist

        December 12th 2017 @ 12:01pm
        Brett McKay said | December 12th 2017 @ 12:01pm | ! Report

        “Next year there will be an underperforming coach under pressure, an inexperienced rookie coach at this level, an underrated assistant coach taking the next step up and a coach that exceeded all expectations with a new team…”

        Geez, Sam, when you put it like that

        There just has to be improvement in 2018 from all four teams and all four coaches, it’s that simple. We can’t have another season like 2017…

        • Roar Guru

          December 12th 2017 @ 12:09pm
          John R said | December 12th 2017 @ 12:09pm | ! Report

          Hey Brett, what do you reckon would be a tipping point for D Gibson’s tenure at the Tahs?

          i.e. what would it take for them to pull the pin mid season on him?

          • Columnist

            December 12th 2017 @ 12:14pm
            Brett McKay said | December 12th 2017 @ 12:14pm | ! Report

            Well, put it this way John, I wouldn’t want to be in Gibson’s shoes if he’s sitting at his desk two months in with another two-and-five start to the season. At least he can’t lose to the Kings again!

            • Roar Guru

              December 12th 2017 @ 12:23pm
              John R said | December 12th 2017 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

              True! Silver linings to be had there.

              Hope springs eternal, so let’s see how they go.

    • Roar Guru

      December 12th 2017 @ 10:15am
      Machooka said | December 12th 2017 @ 10:15am | ! Report

      Thanks Brett… and as they say ‘hindsight is 20/20’!?!

      I, like you, had made similar predictions prior to the SR comp about the success of Aussie teams going forward… and in the end talk about getting dacked eh.

      To say the REDs were a disappointment would be an understatement… likewise my Tahs. Wtf??

      And apart from ya Brums, I’ve gotta say it was the worst SR comp for Aussies teams… ever!

      • Columnist

        December 12th 2017 @ 12:02pm
        Brett McKay said | December 12th 2017 @ 12:02pm | ! Report

        You probably don’t have to exclude the Brumbies in saying that, Chooko. They lost games they were in positions to win and couldn’t for whatever reason…

        • Roar Guru

          December 12th 2017 @ 1:05pm
          Machooka said | December 12th 2017 @ 1:05pm | ! Report

          Yeah you’re right Brett… ya Brums were crap too! 🙂

          • December 12th 2017 @ 2:01pm
            Rugby Tragic said | December 12th 2017 @ 2:01pm | ! Report

            and by our standards .. so too were the Blues! ..:) Oops we were talking about Aussie SR sides!

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