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Call it generosity, call it collusion, call it outright Super-Rugby-tipping-panel-fixing if you must. Whatever it was and whatever you want to call it, it decided a winner for 2018.
And that winner is the king of the Monday Wrap, the man with four TVs permanently locked on rugby from around the globe twenty-four-seven, the man who stepped out from behind the Allanthus tag, acclaimed author and voice of reason, Geoff Parkes.
So, to wrap up the competitive element of the tipping panel for 2018 – something Harry did months ago, mind you – here are the final standings for the season.
THE FINAL: Digger, Geoff, Brett, and The Crowd 1; Harry and Nobes 0.
OVERALL: Geoff 88, Nobes 87, The Crowd 82, Digger 81, Brett 80, Harry 72.
But the panel has one more week in us, and I was really pleased that guys all jumped at the chance to wrap up the Super Rugby season as they saw it.
For the first time this season, there was no format, no template, and no real word limit (though I didn’t tell them that; we’ve all seen the length of some of their comments). I simply asked Geoff, Nobes, Digger and Harry to conclude the tipping panel and Super Rugby for the season however they saw fit.
Highlights and lowlights? Fine. Serious or not-so-serious awards? Great idea. Loves and hates? I’m all for it. 2019 Predictions? If they’re bold enough.
With my sincere thanks to the guys for the input over the last six months, I present the 2018 Super Rugby season that was…
Thanks to Brett, fellow panellists and readers for a fun time. Look forward to doing it all again next year!
The Good: Not only did the best team win, they did it in a manner that honoured all that is great about rugby – hard work, teammates playing for each other, committed defence, set piece proficiency, desire to stay in support of the ball carrier, skills execution at pace, just to name a few. Hayden Parker’s kicking.
The Bad: Officialdom may have lost its way a little with respect to TMO involvement and cards, but the overreaction was childish and out of proportion. Scott Higginbotham started the year aiming a shoulder at the head of a pinned opponent and finished the year still believing he was a victim of a ‘soft’ red card culture that is killing rugby. Please…
The Ugly: Lopeti Timani’s end of season mug shot. That a personality like Amanaki Mafi, who provided so many high moments, could leave Super Rugby and the Rebels on such a low note almost beggars belief.
The Promising: The Jaguares finally showing that they want to belong in Super Rugby. Damian Willemse. Solomon Alaimalo. Taniela Tupou – he’s only just scratched the surface so far.
The Downright Weird: Drew Mitchell conducting a half-time interview at Allianz Stadium wearing one black glove. Had he dropped the other one? Or used it to wipe up Kearnsy’s dribble? Or was this a 1968 Mexico Olympics style ‘Black Power’ protest? Or is it just a Sydney fashion thing the rest of us haven’t caught up with yet?
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The new 15-team version of Super Rugby turned out to be more entertaining and competitive than the two previous versions, despite the fact that it culminated with the same champion and runner-up. The matches were less predictable in their results and that’s good for the competition.
The outstanding and not-so-much of this season, in my opinion:
Best attack: Lions
Worst attack: Stormers
Best defence: Crusaders
Worst defence: Sunwolves
Best scrum: Chiefs
Worst scrum: Jaguares
Best line: Lions
Worst kine: Blues
Best conduct: Lions (one yellow)
Worst behaviour: Reds, Rebels, Crusaders (ten yellows)
Team with the best balance: Crusaders
Team with the worst balance: Blues
Team that improved the most: Jaguares, Rebels.
Team that worsened the most: Stormers.
Team that failed to deliver: Blues, Sharks.
Most effective player in attack: Ben Lam, Ngani Laumape
Most effective player in defence: Franco Mostert, Matt Todd
Most undisciplined player: Duncan Paia’aua, most yellow cards (3)
Players with more minutes on the field for better or for worse: E. Jantijes, Franco Mostert
Rookie that I liked the most: Aphiwe Dyanti
Most destabilising player: D. McKenzie, Israel Folau
MVP: Richie Mo’unga
Best coach: Scott Robertson (also coach of my TotY, below).
My Super Rugby Team of the Year: Israel Folau (WAR) Ben Lam (HUR), Ryan Crotty (CRU), Ngani Laumape (HUR), Emiliano Bofelli (JAG), Richie Mo’unga (CRU), TJ Perenara (HUR), A. Mafi (REB), Matt Todd (CRU), P. Matera (JAG), F. Mostert (LIO), Sam Whitelock (CRU), Beast Mtawarira (SHA), Malcolm Marx (LIO), Sekope Kepu (WAR)
Bench: A. Creevy (JAG), Dan Lienert Brown (HIG), Steven Kitshoff (STO), Brodie Retallick (CHI), Siya Kolisi (STO), Bryn Hall (CRU), Reece Hodge (REB), Ben Smith (HIG),
The selection is based on what was done by the players in 2018 and not because of their trajectory.
Another season done in what again feels like a flash, and with the best side taking out the title.
The Crusaders were certainly a highlight; again setting the standard for other franchises to follow, along with the play of Richie Mo’unga, my personal player of the tournament along with Malcolm Marx.
While we did see more of the same in terms of the top sides, there was some pleasing shuffling going on with the Waratahs and Jaguares forcing their way into the mix, and the standard on the field was quality viewing across the board.
Unfortunately, injury robbed me of viewing a number of exciting prospects in action this year, notably Asafo Aumua, Damian Willemse and Alex Fidow, but plenty more made me want to tune in each week. Tongan Thor certainly one, but Tom Banks and Aphiwe Dyanti were two players I just wanted to see get the ball.
Of all the more established players, the stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb award outside the obvious contenders was Reiko Ioane; shuffled around the Blues backline, yet still able to impose himself on matches for an underwhelming Blues side. I hate to think what some of the scorelines may have been if he had been unavailable.
A ‘giggle’ highlight for me was Lima Sopoaga accidently referring to Rod Kafer as ‘Kearnsy’ – oh, the indignity!
If there was a disappointment from the season, it was the fan reaction at times to perceived ‘soft’ cards, and I can be as guilty as the next person in the heat of the moment. I get it, when I played ‘toughness’ was certainly valued and expected, but more slack should be given while attempts are made to get this right.
Player safety should be paramount and front of mind, given the knowledge that we now have today. Issues such as concussion are the greatest threat to this game and its continued health and needs to be taken more seriously by all stakeholders.
Super Rugby 2018 was a brutal travelling carnival of speed, youth, athleticism, and truth.
The best and deepest and happiest team won it all, coaching quality and philosophical continuity and management mattered most when looking at the final four, but for a variety of reasons, the fans just did not seem to care enough to go see it in person.
The top teams treated three points as if they carried the plague; “have a red-hot go” is the Super Rugby ethos. There were only two made ‘droppies’ all season (and only five attempts).
Yet, the northern hemisphere has 100,000 rabid fans for the big club finals and we are struggling to hit 30,000 in the playoffs; all because of geography, lost superstars, and quaint amateurism still ruling the day.
But the real shocker was my poor quality as a prognosticator. My tipping was Eltonesque. I had rounds that looked like a Mafi family reunion. Dr P ‘rhuled’ me, ‘gelanted’ me, and made me want to ‘kwagga’ up my bunny chow.
Still, the actual quality of play went up, with notable tactical innovations on defence especially, and young stars popping up all over the place.
My team of the season (not over-valuing the playoffs, unduly):
The tackle-busting, impossible-to-ignore, Ginga Ninja Steven Kitshoff paired with tighthead nightmare Taniela Tupou in the front row; both about 500 metres run, over 50 tackles broken, and perfect posture at scrum time. The hooker is obvious: Malcolm Marx fixed his lineout throwing and continued to destroy opponent’s rucks (24 turnovers won, which is only two less than the Brumbies as a team) and busted 30 attempted tackles.
In the second row, Scott Barrett and RG Snyman are unlucky, but I’ll pick the hardest working locks: Brodie Retallick and Franco Mostert, who never seemed to take a breath. My flanks are demonic defenders: Pablo Matera and Matt Todd (Kwagga Smith and Jean-Luc du Preez probably unlucky). No 8 was between the impossible-to-tackle Akira Ioane and the guy you don’t want to have a beer with: Amanaki Mafi. Mafi, because 1,782 metres by a forward is like 5,000 metres for a fullback.
At the base, yappity-yapper TJP because he was just a bit more well-rounded than Smith, Weber, and Genia. Richie Mo’unga is the pivot. The midfield would be a bit slow, but big and mean: Ngani Laumape, the wrecking ball (over Michael Little, of the Sunwolves) and Jack Goodhue (over Rob Thompson).
The wings: Reiko Ioane (just pipping Emiliano Boffelli) and Taqele Naiyaravoro (over George Bridge), and at the back, Tom ‘Drunken Horse Run Through Fences’ Banks (a Solomonesque choice).
2018 SUPER RUGBY XV: Kitshoff, Marx, Tupou, Retallick, Mostert, Matera, Todd, Mafi, TJP, Mo’unga, Ioane, Laumape, Goodhue, Naiyaravoro, Banks.
I would be unfair not to point out that Raymond Rhule made huge strides in his tackling technique, and surrendered his ‘missed tackle’ crown to Elton Jantjies (45 misses), who perfected a style of ‘slipping’ and skidding that always made his misses look unfortunate. A shout out to Kurtley Beale who tied Jantjies in 240 fewer minutes, which is phenomenal.
The 2018 Super Rugby season proved two things to me. Actually, ‘proved’ probably isn’t the right word, because they’ve both been true for a good while. ‘Confirmed’ fits in better, for sure.
The first was that like plenty of other sports – g’day to any NRL fans popping over to the rugby tab for a look – you really don’t have to dig too deeply or try too hard to find fault with the competition.
The conference system, the weighting of the draw to more intra-conference derbies, the perception of softer and harder draws because of who teams played and where, the standard of refereeing, the consistency of refereeing, the subconscious and apparently even the conscious bias of referees and TMOs, the appointment and non-appointment of neutral referees… it was all there, if you wanted to pile on.
Equally though, if you were prepared to wade through all of the above, there was some wonderful rugby played by teams who on their day could beat pretty much anyone (with the obvious exception of the Crusaders, who only lost to the Hurricanes and Highlanders, back at the end of summer).
There were amazing tries scored by exceptional athletes who’ve been punishing themselves since November just to find an edge over their opponents. There was incredible defence on display, steadfastly presenting a fifteen-man wall (or sometimes 14, and occasionally 13 men; see two pars above) determined to let no-one pass. The set piece proved to be as crucial as it ever was, and if your team didn’t have a seventy-five percent goal-kicker – at least – then your side probably struggled.
The common element in all the points above is that Super Rugby remains frustratingly under-promoted as a competition.
It features the best players from most of the best rugby nations in the world. It should be the second-easiest rugby tournament in the world to market. It’s not. And SANZAAR as a collective body, and the four member unions individually, need to have a bloody good look at themselves.
That the quality of rugby on the field remains as good as it is, despite a seemingly co-ordinated drive to promote self-interest and instead self-wound, would have to be one of the great marvels of modern professional sport.
And that continues to annoy the hell out of me.
Fortunately, I’ve had these four blokes in all the corners of the Super Rugby world to share an ongoing six-month conversation with every week. My sincere thanks to them, and to you out there in The Crowd, for making this panel so easy to put together and fun to be part of each Thursday.
Oh, and to all of you out there in The Crowd: best of luck with your tipping in 2019…