There were fewer games this weekend, with three teams having the bye, but still so much to enjoy and talk about.
This season there are two almost contradictory narratives developing. Most teams can beat most teams, but there is a distinct gap already opening up between the top eight and bottom seven.
Super Rugby feels much more competitive this season than in recent years, with the Australian conference really stepping up and picking up wins against their New Zealand rivals, while three of the South African conference are taking names all over the place. And yet the same old names are still up the top of the ladder and racking up win after win.
With these juxtapositions bouncing around our minds, let’s get stuck into the talking points from this weekend.
Where did all these Australian fly halves come from?
Last week we discussed how James O’Connor and Noah Lolesio had put their hands up to lay claim to the Wallabies No. 10 jersey. This week JOC didn’t really help his case much and Lolesio had the week off. But into this vacuum stepped arguably the front runner and a new bolter to complicate things.
Matt Toomua put in a mature performance against the Highlanders and helped guide his team to a memorable win down in Dunedin, while young gun Will Harrison really caught up the eye as the Waratahs picked up their first win of the season over the Lions. Harrison has had a tough opening few games to his 2020 season, but to be fair to him there aren’t many fly halves around the world who would be able to impress when their forwards are being dominated and the weather is against them. With front foot ball in dry conditions, Harrison was given a chance to show fans what he can do at this level, and he took it.
Now Toomua is most people’s front runner for the Wallabies starting spot, but we could be looking at an exciting season of Harrison versus Lolesio for the understudy spot, and with the Tahs player demonstrating against the Lions that he loves the physical battle as much as he does the chance to attack, the Brumbies flyhalf will have a fight on his hands.
Reds still rebuilding
And rebuilding and rebuilding. After picking up their first win of the season last week against the Sunwolves with a rampant display there were many who were excited about this week’s chance to back up and take on the travelling Sharks.
At half-time fans and pundits were wondering if the rebuilding of the past two seasons could be considered complete and if we were about to see what the Reds could do. Unfortunately the Queenslanders then did what they’ve done so many times before: lose! They weren’t terrible in the second half but they yet again weren’t good enough and had too many key players who were sloppy when it mattered.
The Sharks are a good side and have had a great tour, but they didn’t do anything special, and what was clear was that the Reds aren’t able to cope with fast, physical sides. The South Africans’ rush defence never gave the Reds backs time or space, and they just weren’t able to either compete up front or deal with the pressure in the backs.
How much longer can fans and the Queensland executives tolerate yet another brave performance that ended in a losing bonus point? Yes, they’ve lost some important talent, but they’ve also got some really good players both up front and in the backs. Thorn is under growing levels of pressure, and in this season he really needs to show that the team is a consistent threat. Otherwise there could be more change in Brisbane.
Rebels defence steps up
Last week we highlighted that the Rebels were, perhaps surprisingly, performing really well in the attacking stats categories and that it was the defensive side of things that was letting them down.
This week they put in a fantastic performance to pick up a very rare win in New Zealand, and it was based all on their defence. They scored four tries, but don’t be misled – two of those were intercepts by winger Andrew Kellaway as the Rebels defence pushed up fast and as one line to pick off mistakes and strangle any Highlander ball runners.
What was also exciting for Rebels fans was that when the Highlanders fought their way back into the game the Melbourne team stood up and managed to cope, including by stealing five lineouts and surviving with only 33 per cent possession in the second half.
They still conceded 12 penalties, turned the ball over 15 times and missed almost 20 per cent of their tackles so it’s too early to say that the Rebels are a scary force. But this could well have been a turning point for them, and if they are able to build on this historic club win, there is still time for them to challenge for a finals spot.
March is going to be big in South Africa
So often the subject of derision, the South African conference has become the one to watch in 2020, and March is going to be awesome!
The Jaguares were always going to be a serious threat this season, and they picked up a great win on the weekend over the struggling Bulls. But they are not having things all their own way this season, as both the Stormers and Sharks are giving South African rugby fans yet more to shout about after Japan.
The Sharks have won three games out of four on their road trip, picking up wins in both Australia and New Zealand. The Stormers continue to impress despite the surprise loss this weekend and are topping the conference.
Over the next three rounds these teams will all come together: Sharks vs Jags next week, Sharks vs Stormers in Round 7 and then Jags vs Stormers in Round 8. With just two points currently separating these three teams, it will be exciting to see if any of them can start April with a decent advantage to take into the rest of the season.
While there is plenty of chat about the impact of South African administrators and the concerning performances of some of their referees on the pitch, it shouldn’t distract from the compelling three-way battle that is developing in this conference.
There’s no place like home – well, not anymore
The challenge of winning on the road is a common topic for discussion in the world of all sport, let alone Super Rugby. Winning overseas has always been tough for travelling sides for all the obvious reasons and many sides have based successful seasons on ensuring that their home ground is an absolute fortress.
But this season has seen an interesting pattern emerging with the away sides picking up more and more wins. Here are the stats so far in 2020:
Round 1: one away win from seven games (14 per cent)
Round 2: three away wins from seven games (43 per cent)
Round 3: four away wins from seven games (57 per cent)
Round 4: three away wins from six games (50 per cent)
Round 5: four away wins from six games (67 per cent)
Yes, sometimes these away wins are achieved by a team still from the same country as the opponents they beat. However, in the past two rounds all of the seven away wins were picked up by overseas teams.
So why is this happening, and is it a genuine trend or just a curious blip that helps fire some decent arguments over a few beers?