Wildcard race far from sorted, near the Super Rugby halfway mark

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Though the weekend’s results were better for tipsters – and me, specifically – Round 8 also proved that the competition among the mid-table teams is only going to get hotter as the season goes on.

    Whereas in recent seasons there was a fairly apparent gap between teams in the top half and the bottom half of the table and not a lot of overlap, the up-and-down nature of mid-tier teams in 2018 highlights how competitive things have become.

    The Super Rugby season runs for 19 rounds, officially, though Round 1 was solely to allow the South African conference to start early, while Round 16 immediately after the June International window is for the Australian and New Zealand conferences only. Effectively, the season is 18 rounds, before three weeks of playoffs.

    And that means that with Round 9 to come this weekend, we are rapidly approaching the mid-point of the season already, despite it being just the second week of April. Yes, it’s true the draw has its vagaries in 2018, as Geoff Parkes so expertly pointed out yesterday, and it’s also true that we’re now beginning to enter the trans-Tasman element of the season.

    But we have already seen enough cross-conference rugby to know that teams in the middle of the table are going to be battling it out and taking points off each other for the remainder of the season.

    If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed the updated conference table posts I’ve put out most weeks, which tie into an overall table for the purposes of tracking the wildcards – the next five best teams that will qualify for the playoffs behind the three conference leaders.

    These tables are pretty much self-generated; I keep tally of results (and try-scorers, and goal-kickers, and cards) and because I love a good spreadsheet, those results fuel my updated combined table.

    It turns out that I’d sent these updated tables around every weekend except the Easter weekend, which was Round 7. And that week-to-week history of the tables has allowed me to plot the table movements over the past rounds. It’s created an interesting illustration of each conference, and indeed, the battle for the wildcard spots.

    (A quick caveat here: I’ve not included the South African-only Round 1 in this exercise, nor have I gone back and tried to work out where each team was placed in Round 7. It’s a reasonable sample size to see movements.)

    In New Zealand, the Crusaders are yet to have a bye and have been pretty consistently on top of the conference, only strengthened by wins in Johannesburg and Buenos Aires. Similarly, the Blues have disappointingly battled to take the next step so many of us thought they might in 2018. In between, the Hurricanes, Chiefs, and Highlanders are all over the place.

    Australia has been reasonably clear. The Melbourne Rebels have led from the outset, while the Sunwolves have been propping up the table since Round 3. The Waratahs have been ahead of the Brumbies since that same time, though the Queensland Reds jumped above them both for three weeks.

    Similarly South Africa; The Lions have enjoyed a healthy gap on top of the conference, with their current gap nearly three full wins better than the Sharks in second place. The Sharks and Stormers has been swapping places regularly, while the Bulls have quickly dropped down toward the frustrating and untippable Jaguares.

    When you ram the conferences together, the mid-table battle becomes more pronounced. Lines which had simple rises falls within the conference environment suddenly take more violent upward and downward turns. Teams are swapping position all over the place, and the real impact of a loss becomes much more apparent.

    Note, the for the purposes of the highlighting the mid-table battle for the wildcard places, I’ve left the three conference leaders out, though you’ll note both the highlanders and Hurricanes had brief stops at third place over all. Similarly, I’ve left the consistently ordinary Sunwolves, and consistently inconsistent Blues and Jaguares out too.

    Three things stand out to me immediately, though you’ll likely have different observations again: the Chiefs are tracking nicely nearing the mid-point, having started a bit slowly; the dramatic decline of the Bulls, and the rapid rise and fall of the Reds.

    There’s two distinct groups within this middle pack of nine teams I’ve highlighted here. The Hurricanes (23 points), Chiefs (21) and Waratahs (19) are separated by just one win in the first three wildcard places. It’s worth making mention of the Crusaders and Rebels here, too; both conference leaders are currently only one point ahead of the Hurricanes and Waratahs, respectively. Clearly, the conference lead is a long way from sorted in New Zealand and Australia at the very least.

    Behind the Waratahs, the Highlanders and Brumbies are the first of three teams on 14 points, though both have one more win and games or a game in hand over the Sharks in ninth overall. The Reds and Stormers follow these three teams, both on 13 points and also from three wins.

    Chris Feauai-Sautia

    (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

    The Bulls sit a further four points back in 12th overall – and they are admittedly only a point ahead of the Jaguares, and two above the Blues, who I omitted. But you tell me, can honestly see either of those sides challenging for a wildcard spot?

    I can’t, and I suspect a few more of the teams I have included will drop out in the coming rounds anyway.

    Until then, though, there’s plenty of positional changes to get ready for, and there’s four of the six Round 9 teams that will have a direct impact on this mid-table group of nine teams.

    The Hurricanes and Chiefs will take points off each other in Wellington. The Highlanders and Brumbies will do the same in Dunedin. And ditto, the Waratahs and Reds at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and the Sharks and Bulls in Durban.

    It doesn’t take much to find fault with Super Rugby; we all know that. But it doesn’t take much to find exciting contests in any given round, either. That’s still worth enjoying, I reckon.

    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 (57)

    • April 10th 2018 @ 5:31am
      Carlos The Argie said | April 10th 2018 @ 5:31am | ! Report

      I insist. Stop focusing on the structure and organization and focus on some great rugby games here and there. And if you are too lazy to watch them over the weekend (or too busy to do so), wait for Geoff’s summary and then select the games to enjoy.

      Rugby politics is too consuming and doesn’t generate tries or tackles. Only animosity.

      Just enjoy the many amazing plays.

      Thanks Brett, I will hear you comment the game later today.

    • Roar Guru

      April 10th 2018 @ 5:40am
      Kia Kaha said | April 10th 2018 @ 5:40am | ! Report

      Nice one, Brett.

      Those who can drive the ball a long way in golf usually do well but those whose short play is immaculate often catch up quite quickly.

      We’re more or less in the middle of the fairway and some balls are lying pretty and well positioned to the pin. Others are lying quite a way back and in the rough.

      But those in the middle can easily make up ground with a good approach just as it can all go to custard for them with a hook or slice.

      They’re the ones generating all the variance in betting. That’s where the heat lies. Who said middle

      • Columnist

        April 10th 2018 @ 1:19pm
        Brett McKay said | April 10th 2018 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

        I like the golf analogy Kia, because the graph lines above neatly mirror my general approach to a green. Rarely straight, and often with violent left or right detours!!

        • Roar Guru

          April 10th 2018 @ 3:20pm
          Kia Kaha said | April 10th 2018 @ 3:20pm | ! Report

          Haha it’s a frustrating sport, Brett. But you only need spank one good ball, hole a monster putt or do an impeccable approach and you can come away feeling that it was all worth it. A bit like Super rugby really.

          (By the way “who said middle of the road was the safe option?” Should read the last line of my post.)

          • April 10th 2018 @ 5:45pm
            cuw said | April 10th 2018 @ 5:45pm | ! Report

            Golf and cricket are fast becoming alike – especially the tee offs – with the advent of T20. 🙂

    • April 10th 2018 @ 5:44am
      Sherry said | April 10th 2018 @ 5:44am | ! Report

      Thanks for all the work, Brett. Your final graph looks like a map of the London Underground. The Bulls, Jags and Blues appear to be out of it. The other four Kiwi sides, and the Lions, are just too good for us Aussies. Wait till next year.

    • Roar Guru

      April 10th 2018 @ 6:16am
      Harry Jones said | April 10th 2018 @ 6:16am | ! Report

      To assist everyone even farther, I will add this:

      TRUE STANDINGS (log points per game):

      HUR 3.833
      CHI 3.500
      CRU 3.428

      REB 3.333
      WAR 3.166
      LIO 3.125

      HIG 2.800
      BRU 2.333
      RED 2.166

      SHA 2.000
      STO 1.625
      BUL 1.500

      BLU 1.166
      JAG 1.142
      SUN 0.333

      But, the Lions and Chiefs have played the easiest and second easiest schedules thus far, followed by the Waratahs and Brumbies, and then the Reds and Rebels.

      So, we might expect to see a stronger second half from some of the teams who have played the STRONGEST schedules: the Bulls, Jaguares, Crusaders, Highlanders, and Sharks.

      • Roar Guru

        April 10th 2018 @ 9:20am
        Ralph said | April 10th 2018 @ 9:20am | ! Report

        Nice work Harry, adds a good view.

      • April 10th 2018 @ 10:38am
        Reverse Wheel said | April 10th 2018 @ 10:38am | ! Report

        Strength of schedule can be a little misleading earlier in the season. A good team’s sos will seem weaker because they contributed a loss to most of their opponents, whereas the opposite applies for a weak team.

        • Roar Guru

          April 10th 2018 @ 8:33pm
          Harry Jones said | April 10th 2018 @ 8:33pm | ! Report

          I know
          I kind of factored that in

      • April 10th 2018 @ 11:22am
        Pinetree said | April 10th 2018 @ 11:22am | ! Report

        Thanks Harry, those stats are an easy quick glance look at the teams, and where they are at for the games they have played. Yes, the Aus sides have the hardest back end of the season overall, and a mixed bag for SA and NZ on the strength of the teams they have faced so far.

        Keep us updated on this stat analysis as the weeks go by!

      • Columnist

        April 10th 2018 @ 1:20pm
        Brett McKay said | April 10th 2018 @ 1:20pm | ! Report

        That’s a good representation, Hairy man, thanks for getting the abacus out for us…

      • April 10th 2018 @ 3:37pm
        cuw said | April 10th 2018 @ 3:37pm | ! Report

        Harry Jones

        ” the Bulls, Jaguares, Crusaders, Highlanders, and Sharks”

        i am not sure the Jags can be a real challenge to the other teams. irrespective of easy or hard games.

        im also not sure about the quality of Highlanders – they seem to be error prone and losing winnable matches.

        also i think the Bulls and Sharks can surprise a few – if they can win or lose from strong positions will depend on mindset.

        Crusaders – well they will be there as always 🙂

        • April 10th 2018 @ 6:38pm
          Andy said | April 10th 2018 @ 6:38pm | ! Report

          You mean the Highlanders who lost to the chiefs and hurricanes, plenty of very good teams will do that this year, and plenty of good teams will go down to the Highlanders

        • Columnist

          April 10th 2018 @ 7:35pm
          Brett McKay said | April 10th 2018 @ 7:35pm | ! Report

          The Jaguares have literally beaten two of the current top six Cuw. How much more of a “real challenge” do they have to be? They’ll be the very definition of ‘nuisance value’ in 2018, especially in Buenos Aires…

          • Roar Guru

            April 10th 2018 @ 8:46pm
            Harry Jones said | April 10th 2018 @ 8:46pm | ! Report

            Yes

            As some of the teams start their tour of places like Dunedin, Christchurch, Durban, Cape Town, and BA, there will be quick realignment

            Won’t help the cellar dwellers

            But the middle will rearrange

          • April 11th 2018 @ 1:23am
            Carlos The Argie said | April 11th 2018 @ 1:23am | ! Report

            Brett,

            The issue of te Jaguares is that you will never know if they will show up to play or not. Some days they appear wonderful and others they appear as mediocre as can be. You have guys like Creevy who miss line-outs or Lavanini making dunderhead plays or you have Matera playing like Captain Marvel. Or maybe Matera refusing to kick to posts and giving up points.

            I can’t even describe accurately the Jaguares. Utterly frustrating.

            Why can’t they fix the simple fundamentals, like, tackling and discipline? It is more than not getting YCs. If they do, they can give teams trouble.

            Same thing with the Blues. Look at Akira Ioane. I have not seen a more frustrating kiwi player in a long time. Against the Chiefs he was more interested in bluster and handbags than in playing good rugby. Don’t pick a fight with Brodie, not a good idea.

            I am just waiting for the heavyweight handbags fight of the tournament: Akira in this corner and Lavanini in that corner.

            • Roar Guru

              April 11th 2018 @ 3:01am
              Harry Jones said | April 11th 2018 @ 3:01am | ! Report

              Akira has been the clearly best ballcarrier in traffic this season. Phenomenal how many tackles he’s broken. 30% of his carries have included a tackle bust.

              • Roar Guru

                April 11th 2018 @ 3:02am
                Harry Jones said | April 11th 2018 @ 3:02am | ! Report

                Jean Luc du Preez is the only other heavy ball carrier who comes close (busting about 25% of tackles on him).

              • April 11th 2018 @ 3:05am
                Carlos The Argie said | April 11th 2018 @ 3:05am | ! Report

                Harry, that is precisely the point with Akira. He has phenomenal potential and some of his runs are incredible. But his mind meanders into silly stuff. This is why I said frustrating.

                Du Preez has been amazing too!

              • Roar Guru

                April 11th 2018 @ 3:14am
                Harry Jones said | April 11th 2018 @ 3:14am | ! Report

                Agree on Akira needing to focus, Carlos.

                Could be an AB if he does. Comes in and out on defence.

    • April 10th 2018 @ 7:32am
      Jamie said | April 10th 2018 @ 7:32am | ! Report

      Great article as always brett. Time to get you on fox sports?

      I’m not going to bring up the other “issue” making headlines at the moment however this is the kind of stuff I want to read by rugby journos, not that other stuff which seems to be all over the rugby news. Club rugby in NSW kicked off over the weekend barely any articles by fox.

      I have thoroughly enjoyed the rugby this year Across all conferences. This comp has legs in IMO and hopefully it will keep to produce the goods over the next few weeks.

      Ps: tips chiefs, Sunwolves and brumbies, there is an upset somewhere in those games but I’m tipping all 3.

      • Columnist

        April 10th 2018 @ 8:20am
        Geoff Parkes said | April 10th 2018 @ 8:20am | ! Report

        Fox Sports? Brett should be working for SANZAAR.

        • April 10th 2018 @ 8:36am
          Daveski said | April 10th 2018 @ 8:36am | ! Report

          Let’s swap you for Clyne at RA and Brett for Marinos at SANZAAR. Definite upgrades at both organizations….

        • April 10th 2018 @ 9:02am
          Jamie said | April 10th 2018 @ 9:02am | ! Report

          Now that you mention it…

        • Columnist

          April 10th 2018 @ 1:21pm
          Brett McKay said | April 10th 2018 @ 1:21pm | ! Report

          Not sure I need that kind of stress in my life! Though at least my golf game would get some serious attention…

    • Roar Guru

      April 10th 2018 @ 7:52am
      Sam Taulelei said | April 10th 2018 @ 7:52am | ! Report

      Timely article Brett.

      “But we have already seen enough cross-conference rugby to know that teams in the middle of the table are going to be battling it out and taking points off each other for the remainder of the season.”

      Not just mid-table teams but also conference leaders will be taking points off each other and with pending road trips ahead for the Rebels and Lions their flatline could be recording some falls.

      • April 10th 2018 @ 8:40am
        Ed said | April 10th 2018 @ 8:40am | ! Report

        Agree Sam.
        The upcoming road trip for the Rebels could possibly show what improvements Wessels has made at the team. He would like to remove one statistic for the Rebels – they have been winless in the 13 matches in the Republic.

      • Columnist

        April 10th 2018 @ 1:22pm
        Brett McKay said | April 10th 2018 @ 1:22pm | ! Report

        That’s certainly true, Sam. Though even already, I do wonder if any of the South African teams can really make up a 13-point gap to the Lions…

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