Sadly it’s been one of those weekends where far too much of the rugby headlines have been about matters off the field rather than on it, but that shouldn’t leave you thinking that the matches from Round 12 were forgettable.
There were some great games and some really tense finishes that have led to plenty of things to talk about…
Is this the way to beat the Crusaders?
The Crusaders managed to salvage a draw on Friday in the final moments against the Sharks and they really were very lucky to do so. There were two aspects of the game that will have been frustrating for the Crusaders and their coaches.
Firstly they were unusually not able to convert possession and territory into points. With over 70 per cent on both statistics you’d expect a side of the quality of the red and black to be racking up an insurmountable number of points but instead they scored just 14 points in 80 minutes of rugby at home.
They still had some very good players on the pitch but clearly they missed their general – Richie Mo’unga. It’s no surprise that a team would miss Mo’unga but this could highlight just how crucial he is to the Crusaders.
The second area that will frustrate the Crusaders and be noticed by others is the high penalty count from the home side – 13 in total and 7 of those were turned into points by the Sharks.
The Crusaders’ scrum in particular was penalised a fair amount and while they Kieran Read has commented that he felt that the Sharks were deliberately trying to draw the penalty, it’s hardly surprising that teams are looking for any way possible to down the men from Christchurch. As they say – don’t hate the player, hate the game.
So have the Sharks given the rest of the competition some indicators for how you can trouble the Crusaders – somehow take Mo’unga out of the game and play games with them in the scrum?
This might be stretching things a bit but with the Crusaders being so dominant, you’ve got to stretch at some point.
Sevu Reece should just focus on running with the ball
The Crusaders winger is an exciting talent and there’s a better than decent change he could be involved in the All Blacks World Cup squad. But for all his pace and ball running ability, that man cannot kick.
Twice on Friday against the Sharks he put boot to ball and it didn’t go well. One in particular was an incredible shank that reminded me more of me on a golf course then a professional rugby player.
In today’s game it’s not enough for wingers to have speed and footwork – they do really need to be able to chip and chase as well and Reece needs to add those skills to his armoury if he’s going to be a truly dangerous weapon for the All Blacks.
Sharks could be a threat as long as they never play at home again
The Sharks really did deserve more than a draw on Friday against the competition leaders. They had a pretty basic game plan but it worked and they put in a very brave defensive effort for 80 minutes.
They had a tackle success rate of almost 90 per cent and that’s across over 180 tackles against the best side in the comp – that’s impressive.
The weird thing is that this Sharks side has performed far better in away games than at home. Of their five away games this season they’ve only lost two, while at home they’ve played six and lost four of them.
In a very tight South African conference – just six points between top and bottom – those dropped points at home could well be the difference between Finals rugby and a lot of spare time in a few weeks.
The good news for Sharks’ fans is that their team is away at the Chiefs next week and could well go unbeaten on this tour and then they end their season with two more away games.
If this pattern continues there are a lot of points they can pick up in these games. But it really would be better if they could learn to win at home – otherwise what’s the point in getting a home quarter-final?
Could your club benefit from Hayden Parker?
With the sad reality that the Sunwolves are heading into the sunset, teams around the Super Rugby competition should be thinking long and hard about the talent available that is going to flood the market. In particular they should be looking at the Sunwolves No.10 – Hayden Parker.
The Sunwolves have been so much better this year and that is down in many parts to the way in which Parker has guided his team, unleashed their attacking weapons and kicked the team out of trouble and ahead on the scoreboard.
His kicking ability has become stuff of legends this year with just two shots at goal missed from his 40 attempts. Just think about that for a second – just two misses in 12 rounds of rugby.
Meanwhile you’ve got players like Bernard Foley and Quade Cooper – arguably fighting it out for the Wallabies fly half shirt – who have both missed crucial, sitters for their teams in the past couple of weeks.
But Parker is much more than a new version of Jonny Wilkinson. His deft touches and confidence with ball in hand have been a joy to watch this season and he’s made many defensive back lines look foolish as he’s put his outside backs into space time and again.
So could your club benefit from some of this? Blues – are you listening? Reds – fancy some experience in this crucial position?
Rebels? More like turnstiles
Speaking of Quade Cooper and his Rebels – what on earth were they up to on Saturday against the Hurricanes? In the opening quarter of the game the Canes ran in three tries just like they did against the Chiefs the week before. But the way in which they scored them was just so so worrying for the Rebels and their Finals hopes.
Two of the three highlighted that whatever the Rebels had done during their bye week, it certainly didn’t include work on their defensive organisation.
The Canes were slick for sure but they weren’t making the ball disappear and reappear or anything supernatural – they ran good dummy lines and the ball carrier chose the right pass. But the Rebels made it so much easier for them with the ways in which they got their alignment wrong.
Time after time the centres especially were almost holding hands as they went to tackle a dummy runner while the Canes would run round into the massive gaps that were being left.
If they weren’t leaving gaps, they were missing tackles as demonstrated perfectly when Ngani Laumape ran through defender after defender after defender.
At one point it looked like he was deliberately seeking out Rebels players just to show off his pace and power and not a single Rebel could stop him.
The men from Melbourne missed over 30 per cent of their attempted tackles and against one of the most dynamic back lines in world rugby that is always going to leave you in trouble.
Considering that there has recently been talk about just using the whole Rebels back like as the foundation for the Wallabies backline, this is somewhat concerning.
The Rebels have now lost their past three games and their fast start to the season is a distant memory. Defence in rugby they say is a big indicator of the culture of the team – if that’s the case then the Rebels are in big trouble.
We need a fixed exchange rate on penalties to yellows
This topic has been spoken about before but as we get closer to the knockout stages of the competition it’s getting more and more important – how many penalties equals one yellow card?
In their two games, the Crusaders and Hurricanes racked up 13 and 12 penalties but no cards at all. This is even stranger when you consider that the ref in the Canes game told Beauden Barrett twice that the next penalty would lead to a card.
I can only assume that this ref is not a parent because every parent knows that if you are going to threaten your kid with a punishment if they try and eat glue/hit their sister/go through Daddy’s browsing history one more time, then you have to follow through and punish the little one. If you don’t you’re just setting yourself up to be walked all over.
Meanwhile in the Reds and Sunwolves game, Angus Gardner was card trigger happy with yellows and reds being pulled out of pockets like he was a magician pulling out flowers at a kids birthday party.
There seems to be far too much subjectivity when it comes to penalties becoming yellow cards and that could be stopped.
So what do people think about some sort of default system where if you commit X penalties within Y minutes or inside the 22 in quick succession then you will be carded? Make it objective and make it consistent and see what happens.
The question is not can the Wallabies win without Folau – it’s so much worse than that
While it’s important to focus on the beautiful game on the pitch and not the gossip column debates about matters off the pitch, it’s important to consider the impact of the current Folau vs Rugby Australia battle on Australian rugby.
Forget whether what Folau said was right or wrong or whether he has the right to say it or not without repercussion.
Just focus on the rugby and think about this – if the whole thing drags on and on with initial decisions, appeals, court time et cetera, this is all time when the Wallabies players and coaches are having to deal with a huge distraction to their World Cup preparations.
Learning to play without a player who had previously been a key part of their attacking strategy is one thing. But trying to do that while also then being asked for comments in interview after interview has the potential to cause real issues in the squad.
Now Michael Cheika has shown before that he can create a very effective siege mentality within his team and so maybe the drama is going to help him with this.
But sieges cannot last forever and if Cheika isn’t careful, this current situation could have his team heading back home very early from the World Cup.
Meanwhile in London – Will Skelton is taking names
So while the Waratahs struggle up front to compete with the bully boy Bulls, the former NSW lock Will Skelton is highlighting some of the issues that Australian rugby has that go well beyond social media habits.
On Saturday Skelton starred for his side Saracens as they demolished the number one team in the English Premiership – Exeter.
If you haven’t seen pictures of the new Skelton then you may well not recognise him. He’s still massive but massive in a lean and mean way and this was demonstrated when he destroyed one of the Exeter players as he crashed through the defence.
The poor guy was almost left in pieces but what’s even more impressive is that after crushing his opponent, he then had the awareness to look for support, give the off load and allow his teammate to run in under the posts to score.
And this isn’t a one off – last week he scored a try from 40m against Wasps and has been playing a bigger and bigger part in Saracens impressive season.
Now what would the Tahs and Wallabies give for a genuine powerhouse in the second row right? For all the criticisms of Northern Hemisphere club rugby, it’s hard to argue with how Saracens have helped Skelton evolve his game and turn him into a genuinely dangerous player.
Which sides are better now than they were last season?
There are a few more talking points that we could spend time discussing ranging from how impressive the Brumbies set piece is to how the Jaguares keep on winning to how slow Aussie teams are starting at the moment.
But instead of rambling on about all of those let’s end on a question for you… which sides are better now than they were last season?
The reason behind the question is that we’re in a World Cup year and players should be peaking for the big dance.
While considering this I did think about whether the Wallabies have shown any signs of improvement in the past 3.5 years since the World Cup final in England.
If teams and players aren’t improving, then that’s worrying for them and their club.
So who do you think is really coming on leaps and bounds?