The third week of Super Rugby has confirmed what plenty had already suspected: that teams won’t have to be that far off their best to get a touch-up from pretty much any opponent and in any given week.
The Brumbies and Reds discovered this, as did the Highlanders, Lions, Sharks, and rather spectacularly, the Chiefs, in becoming the Sunwolves’ first victim outside of Asia.
The Blues lost a third straight game, to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, but they’ll hardly be the last side to do that in 2019. And anyway, I’m not entirely sure we can simply say the Blues were only slightly off their best.
As the tables currently stand, only two teams – the Crusaders and Rebels – remain unbeaten. And at the other end of the scale, only three teams – the Blues, Reds, and Chiefs – are yet to win a game in 2019.
That’s ten other teams with either one loss or one win to their name; there’s only one win on the unofficial overall tables between the Bulls in fourth to the Sunwolves in 12th.
The Reds and Brumbies’ losses highlighted the quality of their performances the week before, while simultaneously reminding them of the depth of extremes still evident in their respective games.
Their post-match comments were a dead give-away of what went wrong.
“There’s some learnings for us tonight. That’s the second time in a couple of weeks that lead has been put on us, but we haven’t fallen to pieces,” Reds coach Brad Thorn said.
“There were lots of positives but having that time with the footy is a big one. Sometimes when we got opportunities with the ball, we turned it over. If you can have time with that football, things can happen.”
Brumbies captain Christian Lealiifano spoke of similar issues: “Things can change really quickly in this competition and coming away against a really good Hurricanes side, those kinds of things happen,” he told Sky Sport in New Zealand on Friday night.
“It’s about regrouping, sticking tight and we’ll go back and work hard again. They put us under pressure firstly and then some crucial mistakes we made. We weren’t able to recover from that.
“We were still trying our best, trying to get back into the footy game but credit to the Hurricanes, they’re a really good side, they put us under pressure and converted their pressure into points.”
In both cases, the Brumbies and Reds were certainly guilty of turning over too much ball, but this was further compounded by an inability to find front-foot ball themselves.
Too often, when they did manage to hold onto the ball – the Reds went past seven phases five times but the Brumbies didn’t once – they were trying to build a platform from a static base; slow ball from the ruck and/or to stationary runners.
Even in the face of bog-standard defence coming forward, never mind the rush defence so widely employed these days, this is a sure-fire way to lose ground.
And this is going to be the challenge to the Australian sides in 2019. We already know there has been improvement within the Rebels, Brumbies, and Reds; that’s been well evident over the first three rounds. Even the Waratahs will look better than they’ve shown in two matches thus far.
(The Sunwolves are arguably the most improved side in Super Rugby, and in the Australian conference! Ha!)
But in all cases, their best has come with quick ball, and to ball-carriers making ground and presenting the ball back for a quick recycle, thus providing quick ball again.
The teams that can consistently produce this from nowhere will be the teams that stand out; they will be the teams that string together wins, not the up-and-down existence so much of the competition is currently showing.
This has long been an issue in Australia but, of course, it’s hardly isolated to the Australian sides this season.
The Hurricanes looked pedestrian against the Crusaders, but so much sharper a week later against the Brumbies. The Sharks have the best for-and-against in the competition, yet couldn’t make ground against the Stormers of all teams, and on their home turf in Durban to boot.
The Chiefs are still capable of doing eye-watering things on a rugby field, but until they can start providing a proper platform from which to attack, the ‘Damien McKenzie looked slow’ commentary will continue.
The Crusaders and Rebels are unbeaten for good reason, but only the Crusaders have the ability to consistently work their way back into the contest and find the front-foot ball when it previously wasn’t there for them.
The Rebels’ gritty win on Friday night was on the back of some outstanding defence, but they still turned over the ball too often to allow the Highlanders a late charge for the win.
The sooner the Aussie sides – and all sides currently battling with inconsistency – can master this ability to work themselves back into games and build the ball-carrying foundations, the sooner we’ll know if this corner we’re getting a really good glimpse at has been turned.
And that can only add to a competition that already feels more open than it’s been in years.