There’s something that feels a bit different about this season of Super Rugby. Maybe it’s the hangover from the World Cup, the loss of so much well known talent or the early season kick off.
Stories about low attendance numbers, Rugby Australia broadcast right negotiations and South Africa considering a move north have created a taste of uncertainty and fears that the competition is in real trouble.
What was needed was a weekend of entertaining rugby, and we’ve definitely had that. It might not actually solve all the underlying problems, but it makes us feel good and have some positive stories to tell with fellow fans.
So what are those stories from this weekend of Super Rugby? Let’s talk about a few of them.
Will the new Wallabies flyhalf please stand up
Over the past four years the Wallabies have really struggled in the flyhalf position. Bernard Foley was never able to repeat his 2015 World Cup form and no-one else was given a chance or stood up and grabbed the role for themselves.
There’s been plenty of chat already this season about the wealth of new talent that has been starting out their Super Rugby careers. There’s also been some returning players of note who are wanting to deliver on their reputations.
Two names that have started to stand out this season and who both had good games this weekend are potential contenders for the Wallabies flyhalf role come July time: James O’Connor and Noah Lolesio.
James O’Connor has been working his way back into the swing of things in Queensland and has been getting better and better each week so far this season. He’s been leading the backline well at No. 10 and was especially good against the Sunwolves. Of course they are never going to be the toughest test, but he did everything that was needed and did it well.
Noah Lolesio played an excellent game over in Hamilton against the Chiefs. He had a bit of a tough week last round but shrugged it off and was one of the best Brumbies players in a very good Brumbies performance. His distribution, especially his short passing, put his teammates in little gaps over and over and his fast footwork caused the Chiefs defence problems a number of times.
Many have been assuming that Matt Toomua has first dibs on the Wallabies flyhalf role but there are some genuine competitors to the Rebels player and it’s worth remembering Toomua is playing behind a pack that is struggling to get the upper hand on their opponents.
Changing of the guard in South African conference
In the opening games of the season it looked like the success the Jaguares earnt in 2019 would be continued in 2020. Their fortress in Buenos Aires was a terrible place to have to play rugby for opposition teams and they had power both up front and in their backs.
But the Stormers have been going about their business and impressing many. It wasn’t until Round 3 that they conceded their first point, and even when they were losing to local rivals, the Lions, late in the game they found a way to get the win.
So this weekend when the Jags and the Stormers met there were some bragging rights up for grabs, and the South African side have deservedly got those for now. The game itself wasn’t a great spectacle, but the Stormers held the high-scoring Jags to just seven points and in doing so remain unbeaten, unlike every other side in the competition, and have the No. 1 spot on the competition ladder all to themselves.
They say that championship sides base their success on their set pieces and defence. Well, the Stormers have been impressive in both these areas so far, even being able to cope with injuries that keep Springboks Siya Kolisi and Bongi Mbonambi out of the side.
The Stormers still have to go overseas, but they’ve only got to leave South African shores once between now and Round 13. They could easily rack up a serious amount of points in that period and be very hard for anyone to chase down.
Rebel split personality
In previous seasons the Rebels have managed some fast starts, picking up impressive wins before fading in quite dramatic and annoying fashion.
This year it appears they thought they’d break this pattern and just be poor from the very outset of the season. In doing so they have attracted a huge amount of criticism, with plenty of people suggesting that the Rebels should be going the way of the Sunwolves. They’ve won only one game this season, and that was against the Waratahs, who are in even more horrendous form, and against the Sharks this week they looked poor. Even when the men from South Africa were down to 13 men the Rebels struggled.
But what’s strange is that when you look at the stats behind the score lines you see that there are a lot of things the Rebels are doing right.
They’re fourth-highest in number of defenders beaten; fifth-highest in number of offloads, carrier and clean breaks; and sixth-highest in terms of number of tries.
But then you look at these two stats and the issues are clear: they’re 14th in number of tackles won and second in number of points conceded.
So the problems are clear and the solution is obvious: they just need to defend better. However, as so many pundits, players and fans have said before, defence is all about mindset, and yet again the Rebels seem to have an issue with mindset and culture. The club doesn’t have that history or identity like the Tahs, Reds and Brumbies and they’ve always felt like a bit of a piecemeal club full of good people but without that definitive Rebels culture or Rebels way of playing.
They need to sort this out and sort it out quickly, otherwise it’s going to be another long season of averageness for the men from Melbourne.
Brumbies break Hamilton hoodoo
This was arguably the game of the weekend. It was a belter. The Brumbies hadn’t won in New Zealand for about six years and had shown just the week before that they are still vulnerable even when their trademark rolling maul gets their hooker a hat-trick of tries.
But the Brumbies played a truly fantastic half of rugby against the Chiefs from which the home team could never recover. In doing so the Canberra team made a very big statement to the rest of the competition.
It’s worth noting that the Brumbies had gone through a tough week, with illness issues hitting the squad and both Tom Wright and Folau Fainga’a missing due to injury, yet they still looked comfortable as they dominated the in-form Chiefs in their own backyard.
We’ve already spoken in this article about the good game that young back Noah Lolesio had, and there were several other Brumbies, like Tom Banks and Pete Samu, who had very good games. The pace and accuracy with which the team played in the first half was scary and the resilience they showed in the second half when they lost a bit of discipline and the Chiefs came back hard was impressive.
They’ve got some important games coming up over the next few rounds, including against a couple more New Zealand sides, but they should not fear anyone. So the question is: what or who is stopping the Brumbies from making the grand final in 2020?
All Blacks fullback conundrums
Last week we discussed how great it was that Damian McKenzie was back and playing well for the Chiefs. He’s one of those players who can light up a match. Every time he gets his hands on the ball you hold your breath just a little bit. But while he might be back and playing well, people shouldn’t assume that the discussions about the Kiwi fullback spot all come down to Beauden or Jordie Barrett or McKenzie. You have to include David Havili.
Havili has been in great form for the Crusaders so far this season in both attack and defence, but perhaps most excitingly he’s really stepped up in terms of leading the team. He’s still a young guy – just 25 years of age – but he’s stepped into the gap that was left when the Crusaders lost names like Kieran Read and Ryan Crotty in the off-season.
He’s leading the competition in terms of number of defenders beaten and offloads and is top five for carries, metres carried and points scored.
If he continues this form throughout the season, there are going to be some very tricky decisions being made within the All Blacks selection meetings.