After a week during which too much of the rugby world was on the front pages instead of the back pages, it has been great to have an exciting weekend of Super Rugby to focus on.
It was a topsy-turvy weekend, with only two home wins from the six games played and both the Canes and Crusaders unable to get a win. So without mentioning Instagram posts at all, let’s get stuck into the main talking points from the weekend.
The best of South Africa
The South African conference is really exciting! Having been criticised over the past few years for being uncompetitive and flat, 2019 has seen a real evolution in the conference. As of the end of this round four of the top eight sides on the Super Rugby ladder are from the South Africa conference and three are from the top five.
This weekend there were some impressive performances from South African teams, including the Jaguares’ fantastic win against the Hurricanes in Wellington, the Bulls beating the Rebels by 15 points in Melbourne and the bottom-placed team in South Africa, the Stormers, earning a brave draw against the mighty Crusaders.
There have also been some great individual performances from South Africa conference teams this weekend, including a powerful display of leadership from Siya Kolisi – not only did he score a good try but he also stamped his authority on his team at the end of the game, insisting that his team take the three points on offer and draw the game instead of following the many voices in his team that were barking in his ear to go for the lineout.
There’s a lot to like about the South African conference right now – well, except for…
And the worst of South Africa
Unfortunately all that glitters is not gold, and in the past few weeks, while South African conference sides have been impressing, South Africa’s referees have been coming under a lot of fire.
Last week saw an infamous performance by Egon Seconds, and this week it feels like the pattern is continuing. It’s not surprising that referees come under fire from the fans of the losing team, but the data is getting hard to ignore. The Lions, for example, have been on the beneficial side of the most incredible penalty count in recent home games. When the Lions played the Highlanders, Waratahs and Rebels there were South African referees in charge of the whistle and the penalty count was 43-6 in favour of the Lions.
Does that sound realistic to you? When the Lions played the Crusaders in Round 11 they conceded 11 penalties compared to the Crusaders’ ten. In Round 10 they conceded six penalties against the Chiefs and then seven against the Brumbies in Canberra in Round 9. So are we expected to believe that they average two penalties a game at home but somehow become less disciplined overseas and average more than seven penalties per game?
To be fair it’s not just the referees who are attracting the wrong sort of attention. The television match officials have got themselves in the crosshairs of fans as well. Last week the Lions scored a try from an obvious forward pass but neither the ref nor the TMO even hinted at the idea of just glancing at it on replay. This weekend, however, when the Crusaders scored a crucial try against the Stormers, the TMO was on the radio saying that he’d seen an obvious forward pass. Replays showed that it could well have been forward, but plenty of similar passes have been let go as people understand the ball can travel forwards thanks to momentum.
This isn’t meant to be a referee rant, but it’s quite concerning these patterns are occurring in South Africa with South African officials.
If you can’t convert your conversions, you’re in trouble
The importance of having an accurate kicker in your team has long been appreciated, but fans were reminded of just how important it is this weekend in a couple of games.
The Reds outscored the Tahs by six tries to four in Brisbane and at times looked like they were going to get a very sweet victory over their rivals. But in the end the Tahs walked away with the win and the Reds didn’t even pick up a losing bonus point.
How is that possible when you score six tries? Well, unfortunately only one of those tries was converted. While Bryce Hegarty had a great game in many areas, scoring two of the six tries himself, he missed five conversions and left ten points out there on the field.
The Highlanders too suffered a similar fate. They scored the same number of tries (five) as the Lions in their Johannesburg clash, but whereas Elton Jantjies was a sharpshooter with his conversions, the Kiwi side missed three conversions and walked away without a losing bonus point. That one bonus point would mean that right now they would be sitting in joint sixth place on the competition ladder instead of in a three-way tie for eighth place with the Tahs just behind them.
In the final few rounds, in such a tight competition, every single point is going to matter and kickers must be nailing well over 75 per cent of their attempts at goal. Tries are hard enough to score in the first place – leaving them without the two-point cherry on top time after time is just not good enough.
When is the Queensland Reds rebuild going to be over?
Speaking of the Reds, questions need to be asked about how they are travelling. For much of the game against the Tahs the Queenslanders looked like they had far more energy and desire than their NSW rivals. But yet again simple errors and some poor discipline allowed the opposition back into the game and the Reds lost another game that they really could have won.
Now there’s always lots of talk about how Brad Thorn is building his side from scratch and really investing in youth – seven of the starting eight players for the Reds pack on Saturday come from the team’s under-20 side.
But how much longer is this building going to take? In 2020 the club will lose some of its best talent and experience as Samu Kerevi and Scott Higginbotham are leaving for overseas opportunities. Are the baby Reds ready to cope with that loss?
If the Reds fail to make the finals this year, questions will start to be asked about when the side can expect to be back at the top. If there aren’t some good answers, you wonder if Thorn will be given another year to turn ‘rebuilding’ into ‘built’.
Bet RA thought that Folau was the only thing on their agenda this week
You wouldn’t be blamed for assuming that Raelene Castle’s to-do list for next week was pretty much all Israel Folau-focused. However, there’s going to be a few new line items in there thanks to Tolu Latu’s behaviour before the weekend.
For those who haven’t read about Latu’s incident, he was allegedly found slumped behind the wheel of his car at 4:30am on Thursday by the cops and later charged with drink-driving. But wait, there’s more. The Wallabies hooker apparently decided to keep this all to himself and didn’t tell the Tahs or Rugby Australia, who found out on Saturday.
There are still legal processes to go through to find out exactly what happened and what the punishment might be, but it doesn’t look good when another high-profile player is accused of behaviour that goes against the code of conduct of their employer. Both the Waratahs and Rugby Australia will be very disappointed in Latu and will be angry that the spotlight on the whole sport has been further intensified at a time when it was pretty brutally bright already.
Being found drunk after a big night out is one thing. Being found drunk behind the wheel of a car is something that all involved will be very upset about.
Returning heroes and leaving talent
Amongst all the goings-on of the weekend there was a fantastic story that should have all rugby fans smiling. Sam Cane returned to play for the Chiefs after over seven months of recovery from his broken neck. It was so good to see him back in action and, worryingly for many of the teams who still have to play the Chiefs, he looked in great shape.
Unfortunately the return of one great player cannot mask that the Super Rugby competition is going to lose some exciting talent before next year’s season kicks off. In recent days and weeks there have been some more stories of Super Rugby players heading overseas after the 2019 World Cup. The list is extensive and there is some of the best talent in the competition heading away from it in only a few months.
Of course it makes sense that after a World Cup those players who are nearing the end of their careers and believe they won’t play in another World Cup will look to have new experiences and make as much income as possible in their final seasons. But that still means the Super Rugby competition is losing some of its best players who are real drawcards for fans and other players alike.
For the good of the competition as a whole Super Rugby must do everything it can to keep all the top talent, younger and older, in the southern hemisphere. We’ve already seen the likes of Scott Fardy and Will Skelton achieve great success in Europe and choose to stay away from Australian clubs and potential Wallabies selection.
With more players from all nations heading north for lucrative contracts, Super Rugby’s vision to create and maintain the best possible rugby product is going to get harder and harder.