Things are back into full swing in the world of Super Rugby and the finals are just around the corner.
In these final two weeks it’s all about building momentum, nailing down the best finishing spot that you can and avoiding injury. Unless of course you already know you’re going to be watching the finals from the couch!
So with these very different levels of expectation and ambition, what have been the main talking points from Round 18 of Super Rugby?
No finals? No problem!
It would be very easy to assume that the teams right at the bottom of the table would be putting up little defence in these final few rounds. Obviously though no one has turned the Reds or the Bulls that they have nothing to play for.
Both were able to knock over teams this weekend who are currently in qualifying positions on the ladder and did so with a combination of grit and class.
In a competition that is so often abused for being so one-sided and dominated by Kiwi sides, it was fantastic to see teams from Australia and South Africa racking up good wins over more highly rated opponents.
For teams like the Reds and Bulls, it’s wins like these that can really help them set the right tone for the off season and beyond.
You don’t have to be crazy to be a Brumbies fan, but it helps
In the past few weeks the Brumbies have finally given their faithful fans something to cheer about in 2018.
After a really disappointing season they’ve put in some much-improved performances in the last four rounds including a great win over the Hurricanes and this weekend they pushed the Chiefs very, very close.
While fans’ spirits might have been improved by this effort, there must be a voice at the back of their minds screaming “Where the hell has this been all year?!”
Against the Chiefs we saw the Brumbies at their best and worst. Some great passages of play, some forward dominance and some good scores… and at the same time over 18 errors in 40 minutes of rugby and poor execution when it really counts.
For the sake of the mental health of their own fans, the Brumbies have got to get rid of this terrible inconsistency next year and put in the performances week in week out that we know they are capable of and it can’t all rely upon David Pocock!
How much would you pay/beg for Ben Smith to join your team!
If you didn’t watch the Crusaders v Highlanders game this week then take a moment have a look. You’ll see the usual pattern of the men in red and black putting in another relentless performance and another win, but amongst that you’ll also see yet another fantastic game from Ben Smith.
Not only did he score a lovely try but he was everywhere and never ever stopped giving his utmost for his team.
His incredible value to any team was highlighted when he chased down Manasa Mataele who for all money looked like he was about to score yet another try after a great break away.
To be clear – the game was over and the Highlanders were dead and buried. Ben Smith’s effort to chase down the Crusader speedster was going to have absolutely no impact on this game or arguably the season at all.
Yet that thought didn’t even seem to cross his mind and he pulled off a fantastic covering tackle and prevented his side from losing by more than they were going to anyway.
His rugby skills are well known and while he might never be a current day Christian Cullen, Ben Smith’s value to the Highlanders goes so far beyond his rugby ability and he would be an asset that any team would love to have.
Can anyone really figure out how to beat the Crusaders?
It’s not a new discussion but given the fact that we’re about to enter the finals it’s worth asking – does anyone know how to beat these guys from Christchurch?
Of course they’re not perfect and of course they are beatable but more often than not they put in 60 minutes of very good rugby week in week out.
Against the Highlanders on Friday they made their fair share of errors – 10 handling errors, 10 penalties conceded and missed over 29 per cent of their tackles – but despite that they squeezed a Highlanders side filled with talent like a boa constrictor and took their opportunities fantastically well.
If you search through articles about the Crusaders you will most likely find the words relentless and ruthless used in good number and that’s for a good reason. So how do you beat them? Has anyone found that blueprint to unlock their defence and restrict their points machine?
Tahs attack will scare many while their defence will not
Scoring over 70 points in a Super Rugby game should not be ignored. Yes it was against the Sunwolves but even then there are plenty of good sides who have not got anywhere near that number of tries against the Japanese this season.
But that’s hardly a talking point. What is arguably worth discussing though is the errors they still make even when they are dominating an opponent.
Almost 25 per cent of tackles missed and two line outs lost is not good enough against the worst side in the competition. Against the quality sides in Super Rugby those sort of stats will be associated with a loss.
If they can tighten up in these key areas then they could be a threat in late July as they have some great talent who can unlock any side, but they’ve got to close the barn door!
No coffee for the Rebels – coffee is for closers
The Rebels have had their best season ever in so many ways and there’s lots to be positive about for the Melbourne side.
However, if they want to make that next step up then they really need to win games like the one against the Reds this weekend.
Much of their play was good but 12 handling errors and 16 penalties given away was always going to make things very difficult for themselves.
They have got to own those key moments in the game. As an example – against the Reds there were 23 minutes to go, it was a one-point game and the Rebels have a one-man advantage for another eight minutes to exploit.
They were close to the Reds line and had a huge opportunity to score, take the lead and make their sprint for the finish line.
However poor execution and a good hit from Higginbotham meant the chance went missing in action and the Rebels momentum was snuffed out. That’s got to change.
TMOs – are you in or out? Make your minds up!
One of the most frustrating aspects of the officiating this season has been the role of the TMOs and the inconsistency in the way it’s delivered.
In some games we get a TMO who provides his view once the referee has asked for it. In other games though we get TMOs who are acting like Jiminy Cricket whispering advice in the referee’s ear whether he’s asked for it or not.
As always rugby fans just want consistency but this weekend we, yet again, didn’t get that.
Come the finals the competition can’t have this lack of clarity otherwise some of these decisions or lack of decisions are going to decide some of the most important games of the season and that is not a good look for the sport.