Not that long ago – only five weeks ago, in fact – the Melbourne Rebels had opened a seven-point lead over their next-closest challenger for the Australian conference, the NSW Waratahs.
The gap had come courtesy of their dominant 42-15 bonus-point win over the Sunwolves and the ‘Tahs loss to the Blues, and it gave them an immediate opportunity to create a proper stranglehold on the conference title over the following weeks.
For in Round 9, they were to host the Stormers, who to that point had managed just five tries in three games on tour; racking up lacklustre losses to the Reds, Blues, and Hurricanes.
And what’s more, with the Waratahs having Round 9 off – which became problematic for reasons which have since generated hundreds of thousands of words and opinions – the Stormers with one foot on the plane home to Cape Town presented a massive opportunity for the Rebels.
A win would put them 11 points clear in the conference; another dominant and certainly not-out-of-the question bonus point win could have put the Rebels three wins clear by the halfway point of the season.
Super Rugby was already throwing up the closest, weirdest set of results in recent memory, so the prospect of going three wins clear in a conference was huge.
But they slipped up. And have continued to slip up ever since.
The Rebels’ 41-24 loss to the Stormers started the rot. They dropped a game they should have won comfortably over the Waratahs in Sydney, copped a Beauden Barrett touch-up in Wellington, beat the Reds last week, and then lost at home to the Bulls 32-17 on Friday night.
From that three-win lead they could have held at Round 9, the Rebels have managed just one win and one losing bonus point in six weeks.
In that same time while they’ve faltered and watched their conference lead evaporate, the chasing pack have closed in.
The Queensland Reds trail the Rebels by a bonus point win currently, and drew a losing BP out of the loss to the Rebels last weekend. They’ve won two games, giving them a net gain of five competition points over the Rebels in the same timeframe the Victorians have stumbled.
The Waratahs trail the Rebels by just two points now, and even with the bye the same weekend the Rebels lost to the Stormers, have made a similar five-point net gain courtesy of two wins and two losing bonus points. And the Waratahs’ last four games aren’t going to be quite as challenging as the Rebels’.
The Brumbies have been the big winners in this six-week window. Going into Round 9, the Brumbies’ season was stumbling on 11 points with just two wins, and they trailed the Rebels by 12 points at the time.
Since then, the Brumbies have won four from five, including beating the Stormers in Cape Town a week after they won in Melbourne. They also took a losing BP away from the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, and now lead the Australian conference by a point, having added 18 competition points – a net gain of 13 over the Rebels from Round 9.
The Rebels biggest issue now is not their discipline – thankfully. What has become their Achilles heel in recent losses has been a lack of go-forward from the pack, as well as some set piece issues that are inviting teams to take them on.
Neither the Waratahs, Stormers, or Bulls particularly play a lot of rugby per se, but they do generally defend well and they do have decent set pieces even without having the biggest or most intimidating pack of forwards.
The Rebels fall into this category too, but they’ve undergone so much change in the pack over the last six weeks that they’re playing like there’s next to no combination within. And because of this, they haven’t been able to lay the platform for Will Genia and Quade Cooper and their potent midfield to play the flat game in the face of opposition defences, which served them so well over the first half of the season.
The Rebels’ situation is made worse by their run home over the last month to the Super Rugby playoffs.
Starting this weekend, the Rebels have the Sunwolves in Tokyo, the Waratahs at home, the Crusaders in Christchurch, and the Chiefs back in Melbourne. If they’re good enough, they could win three of those four, but their current challenge will be to overcome these current forward issues and prove they are good enough.
The Brumbies, on the other hand, have four very winnable games in the form of the Bulls at home this Friday, then the Sunwolves in Tokyo, the Waratahs in Sydney, and the Reds back in Canberra. Even if you give the Waratahs a reasonable benefit of the doubt in that match, three wins could still be enough to maintain the Australian conference lead.
The Waratahs have the Jaguares in Sydney this weekend, then the Rebels in Melbourne, the Brumbies, and finish with the Highlanders in Dunedin. There’s no doubt they would fancy their chances in all four games, but would probably need bonus points to help bridge gaps with other results.
Queensland, for what it’s worth, would need to win all four of the remaining games: the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday, the Jaguares the following week, and then the Blues at home and Brumbies in Canberra to finish.
The Rebels don’t necessarily have the trickiest run home, but their current form adds an extra element of difficulty that really has opened the door for their Australian counterparts.
The question is, can they re-discover their early season form and claim the conference title they were widely assumed to have one hand on already, little over a month ago?