While the Crusaders and Hurricanes might be running away with the competition at the moment, the battles for the other finals spots are really hotting up and over the coming weeks teams are going to be desperate to find that form and momentum that gets them into business end of the season.
This weekend saw some wins that in weeks to come could be regarded as turning points for some teams and their seasons.
Only time will tell of course but there were a number of gutsy performances that caught the eye and some slip-ups that could prove costly.
Given that, there’s lots to talk about…
Could the Reds be turning a corner?
The Reds have struggled this season to put together back to back wins and despite showing periods of impressive rugby, their youthful team has also been shown up for being inexperienced and lacking a cutting edge.
Against the Sharks on Friday there were signs though that the Reds could put together a series of winning performances over the coming weeks and that has a lot to do with their forwards and their defence.
In the second half especially the Sharks dominated possession and territory but the Reds didn’t panic and kept the Sharks scoreless until the very last minute by which time the game was won.
Samu Kerevi put in his usual great performance – that guy has to be one of the most consistently good players of the season so far – and the rest of the team did their part in a gritty victory on the road that will do a lot for their confidence.
Young players like Bryce Hegarty and Tate McDermott both had good games and the pack in general was able to go head to head with a usually imposing Sharks pack.
The Reds have a bye next week which will provide great opportunity to rest after their road trip and then a game at home against the Sunwolves that will be tough but they should win.
They’ve then got games against the Rebels and Tahs. Neither of those are going to be easy but if the Reds can pick up a victory from one of them then that’ll be four wins from six games and they could find themselves climbing the ladder.
They must maintain this same level of composure though and not fall into their old habits of making errors at key times.
Lions roar with their pack leaders back
Speaking of turning a corner, the Lions put in a much better performance against the Chiefs and picked up a good away win.
The Lions have been disappointing for a lot of the season but this weekend two of their key players were back together – their skipper Warren Whiteley and Kwagga Smith.
The Lions have really missed the impact that Whiteley and Smith bring to their set-piece and loose play, and it was great to see Whiteley take the field and put in such a good game against the Chiefs.
Of course the Chiefs were missing a number of key players but a win in New Zealand is not to be sniffed at.
Unfortunately the Lions have to go to Christchurch next week and you’d assume they will lose there but then they head home for a few games so, like the Reds, they could put together a decent string of points over the coming weeks that sees them climb the South African Conference – a conference that is so tight that only four points separates top from bottom.
Elton Jantjies has shown that on his day he can be an exciting player that can dominate a game but he, like many No.10s, relies upon his forwards giving him a solid platform to base their game off and with Whiteley and Smith back in the Lions side this platform could be there week after week.
Life without Folau has its upsides apparently
With the turmoil that the Tahs have been through over the past couple of weeks and with their major attacking weapon missing, no one would have been surprised if the Rebels had run away with the game against the men from NSW this weekend.
In the first half it looked like exactly this script was going to play out – the Tahs were held up by Hooper and Beale but otherwise looked very poor and without any real ideas.
But in the second half the Tahs adjusted to their new reality and found a way to get themselves back into the game. They took advantage of some sloppy play from the Rebels for sure and the Melbourne side seemed to find ways to lose the game and send their coach’s blood pressure to an unhealthy level, but the Tahs fought back really well.
As the Folau situation has evolved over the past few days there have been several players from the Tahs camp who have shared how difficult things have got and how they are glad action is being taken.
Nick Phipps, Michael Hooper and Bernard Foley have all made statements that have shown how the camp are being impacted but to pick up a win this weekend against the conference leaders was a great way to respond.
Now let’s be clear – the Tahs have shown this season that they can switch from playing fantastic rugby to amateur rugby in literally minutes and so this win isn’t a prediction of what’s to come. But it will have done the group a lot of good to pick up the win in the current environment.
This win also adds fuel to the topic of what happens if Israel Folau is not found guilty of a breach of his contract but the panel in the next week or so.
Both teammates and coach from club and country have spoken out against him and the idea of Izzy returning to the Tahs is fast becoming untenable.
The rest of his team showed this week in both the press and on the field that not only might they not be comfortable with him returning, but they don’t need him either.
Rebels continue to refuse to dominate
The Melbourne Rebels have the squad to go far this season without a doubt. They’ve got a very talented backline and just enough up front to allow them to make the semis and maybe even the big dance itself.
But they continue to frustrate their fans with the way in which they throw away winnable games. Against the Lions a few weeks ago the Melbourne team should have won but gave the game away and against the Tahs this weekend a similar thing happened – a game that the Rebels should have won, that was there for the taking, was given away to an opposition who couldn’t believe their luck.
The Rebels still have the top spot in the Australian conference for now but they’ve got to go to the Hurricanes in two weeks time after a bye where it’s going to be hard to pick up points.
They need to sharpen up and bring a real hard edge to their team. Currently they are full of talent but they need to be full of grit and be a team that are truly hard to beat.
They gave away 12 penalties and 18 turnovers against the Tahs and that was in a game where they dominated the first half. Those numbers are not the numbers of a championship side and they need to change.
Hodge puts his hand up for the Wallabies fullback jersey
Despite the Rebels losing in Sydney, Reece Hodge did himself a world of good in the race for the No.15 Wallabies jersey.
Even if Folau stays in Australian rugby and Michael Cheika walks back his comments, there’s a case to be made that Folau’s positional and defensive weaknesses mean he’s best on the wing.
There are a number of names in the hat for full back and Kurtley Beale certainly didn’t do his chances any harm with his performance this weekend but the Rebels have a number of exciting options – one could even argue that in the interest of having combinations who play together at club level, replicated at international level, that the Rebels back three could just be asked to change jerseys please.
Hodge though brings some interesting qualities to the debate ahead of others like Beale or Dane Haylett-Petty. He’s not the most creative player but he runs hard with ball in hand, picks good lines and just seems to do the right things at the right times.
Hodge also has an absolute cannon of a kicking boot and that is not to be underestimated. At international level the ability to exit your own 22 and the ability to keep the scoreboard ticking over with penalties are even more crucial than at club level. Hodge’s boot helps a lot with both of those aspects.
Brumbies road trip is turning into something to remember
The men from Canberra are on the road at the moment over in South Africa and are tearing up the theory that it’s hard to win overseas in Super Rugby.
They beat the Lions last week and this week they managed to steal a two point win over the Stormers with a really passionate display.
They really shouldn’t have won – the Stormers had all the ball (over 65 per cent) and all the territory (over 70 per cent!) and yet the travelling Brumbies scored three tries to the home sides’ one and their defensive effort was fantastic – 195 tackles made and a tackle success rate of almost 90%.
The Brumbies travel to Argentina for the final game of their overseas tour and you can definitely see them beating the Jags and getting a clean sweep on the road.
They are also just five points off of first place in the Australian conference and are arguably the team in the best form right now in that conference.
Things are beginning to click for the Brumbies and they could definitely make a run at the finals from this point.
Who has disappointed this season?
We’re over halfway through the season now and while there have been many ups and downs for a whole host of teams, there have been some that have really failed to live up to expectations.
There are two names that stand out in many people’s minds and interestingly they both come from the New Zealand conference.
The Highlanders and the Chiefs started the season with high expectations and lists full of talent that promised to deliver on the field.
Both however have really struggled to turn potential into reality with the Chiefs especially looking like a bit of a mess at times.
Obviously in a World Cup year the level of scrutiny is higher than usual as so many of us like to forecast what club performance now means for Japan later this year. And yes there are still eight rounds to go and plenty of points up for grabs.
But who do you feel has really disappointed this season so far?