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Opinion

The Wrap: Super Rugby splits into two

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8th March, 2020
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No, you haven’t woken to the news that South African rugby has absconded to the United Kingdom. Not just yet, anyway.

And if there was to be a straw poll of players who are still left in the Republic, perhaps they might vote to stay in SANZAAR anyway, now that renowned crooked scrummager and horse impressionist, Joe Marler, has added bag snatching to his repertoire.

Here’s the thing, Joe. If that was meant as a tactic, you’re a grub. If it was just for a laugh, best you stick to the horsie routine.

Just six rounds into the season (five for some teams), the Super Rugby ladder has already split in half, and the “us” and “them” makes for very interesting reading.

Actually, it’s not quite an even split. There are nine teams in the top tier, with 13 points or more, competing for eight playoff places. That leaves six in the also-ran category, with eight points or fewer, with only one of them – the Reds – any prospect of clawing their way into the top group.

It’s remarkably early to be in such a situation, and there are usual caveats around sides not all having played the same number of games, and some sides having had their road trips and others not.

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Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the sides in the bottom half can already safely focus on their rebuilding programs without worrying themselves about the playoffs.

As well as defining the ladder, Round 6 also featured some innovative strategies that backfired badly.

The Reds travelling to Christchurch without a goalkicker was one. The Hurricanes deciding that the best way to beat the Blues was to play with 12 men, another. And the Waratahs’ insistence on not committing any numbers to compete at the attacking breakdown was up there with Mercedes Benz launching in China under the brand name “Bensi”, which just happens to translate as “rush to your death”.

The year following a World Cup is typically one of rebuilding or resetting for most franchises. What the sides in the bottom half of the ladder have in common is that their performances correlate to the degree to which their teams (and in some cases, coaching staff) are new to Super Rugby.

Sustained success achieved through underlying culture and effective systems across the organisation takes a long time to build. The Crusaders’ greatest achievement is not the number of titles won or finals made, but the manner in which their way of being is so solidly entrenched. Even when they are subject to the same turnover of personnel as other franchises, they are still able to perform to a consistently high level.

Crusaders players celebrate

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Success of course breeds success, and it is true to say that the Crusaders have an advantage when it comes to recruitment – simply because more players want to experience their environment. To be clear, that’s not an unfair advantage, it’s one they have earned themselves.

At the Lions, Johan Ackermann took a low-performing team, and over a period of five years built something entirely new: a side that played exhilarating attacking rugby, which in his final two seasons at the helm, and the one following his departure, was the losing grand finalist.

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Smooth transition might have been expected through firstly Swys de Bruin and now Ivan van Rooyen (both part of Ackermann’s coaching staff), but the fact that the Lions have fallen off a cliff so quickly speaks to two important factors.

One is that the player drain in South Africa has been so pronounced, that there are simply too many new, inexperienced players to sustain prior levels of performance. It is not just inexperience. Some will simply not be good enough for Super Rugby, but the problem is, which players they are needs to be found out the hard way.

The other obvious factor is that building a solid cultural and organisational base that can withstand player turnover following a World Cup, or an earthquake that leaves their home city in ruins, or that promotes young players in a way that enhances their development rather than throws them to the wolves, and which establishes a way of playing that becomes second nature to the squad, is far more difficult than what fans appreciate.

Why Rebels coach Dave Wessels was able to reflect after his side’s 37-17 win over the Lions about some of the things his side didn’t do so well (set-piece consistency, kick-off receipt, discipline), yet still take satisfaction from a 20-point win, was because his team is more mature and self-assured than the Lions now are, and also by comparison to what his own side was last year and the year before that.

Head Coach Dave Wessels of the Rebels looks on

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The Rebels’ win in Dunedin was founded on defensive line-speed and intensity, and the same qualities were in evidence against the Lions. This week however represented a step forward in attack, five tries coming as a result of some high-quality ball movement.

The Rebels also got good impact from their bench. Flanker Rob Leota, in what was a pivotal play, dived into harm’s way, laying his body on the line to save a messy loose-ball situation on his goal-line at a crucial point in the second half.

Again, to illustrate how fine the margins are at this level, the Rebels’ place in the top half of the split ladder was determined only by a late bonus-point try to Andrew Kellaway via a generous ruling on his put down. On another day, under another set of officials, the Rebels may have found themselves on 12 points, not 13.

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Also on 13 points, but having played one match fewer, are the Hurricanes. Theirs was a disjointed performance against the Blues, and even though a physical arm-wrestle type of match suits TJ Perenara down to the ground, some of his troops lacked the discipline to see the battle out to the finish.

TJ Perenara passes

(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

If Vaea Fifita has any aspirations to regain his All Blacks jersey he will surely know that all of his good – the galloping run and release to Ben Lam in the opening – is worthless if it is to be followed by a tackle so poorly conceived that it left his side down another man, and killed off what was brewing as a potentially brave win against the odds.

In what was the Blues’ first win in a New Zealand derby match since 2013, by 24-15, it was nice to see Akira Ioane get his body position nice and low and score a tough, driving try in the first half. With their South African tour already banked, they are in a good position to consolidate their position in the top half of the ladder.

It was the Sharks, home in Durban after a month on the road, who impressively won their top-of-the-table clash against the Jaguares, by 33-19. They have what all of the best South African teams have always possessed – tough, uncompromising forwards, and lightning speed on the outside break – and are playing with great confidence.

The other South African match disappointingly saw SANZAAR asleep at the wheel yet again over a playing kit clash. The similarity between the Bulls’ and Highlanders’ kits was such that it rendered the match almost unwatchable, at least until half time, when someone managed to rustle up a spare set of different coloured jerseys for the Bulls.

It really shouldn’t be so hard to get these things right.

After being blown away by the Brumbies, the Chiefs righted their ship by running away to an easy 51-14 win against the Waratahs. When they get things right, they remain one of the best teams in the competition to watch – the sharp decision-making and skill from Brad Weber, Aaron Cruden and Shaun Stevenson to create Weber’s second try out of almost nothing was simply brilliant.

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After a slow start, the grafting second quarter from the Waratahs – where they managed to take a 14-13 lead into half time – was quite impressive. Things went south very quickly after the break however.

Waratahs players react after a Super Rugby loss

(Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

They weren’t helped by the Fox Sports commentary team hex kicking in. Phil Kearns called referee Angus Gardner “dumb”, and earlier they had crossed to assistant coach Matt Cockbain just as the Chiefs crossed for a try. Trying their luck instead with Chris Whittaker, instead of explaining what the half-time message was, Whittaker was left to describe Weber running through a huge hole on the edge of the ruck to start the second-half slaughter.

Inexplicably, against a team who can become frustrated when they don’t get fast ball, the Waratahs’ intensity at the breakdown fell right away. The lack of urgency from Harry Johnson-Holmes and Ryan McCauley to plug the post straight after a break and allow Weber to stroll through untouched was disappointing.

Three times the Waratahs were blown off their own ruck ball. On the third occasion, with Lalakai Foketi tackled on the ground, only Michael Hooper and flyhalf Will Harrison stood over him, with halfback Mitch Short in attendance, waiting in vain for the ball.

The Chiefs’ pack easily won the counter ruck and sent Solomon Alaimalo away on the run-in for the try. The replay is informative: apart from Hooper, neither at the breakdown or in the try-scoring play that follows, not a single Waratahs forward appears in the frame. Not one.

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The team that is hardest to categorise at this point of the season is the Reds. They currently sit on eight points, with only one win from six matches, although a collection of bonus points when compared to say the Rebels is nearly as good as an extra win for them.

Their 24-20 loss to the Crusaders was a tale of what could have been. Number eight Harry Wilson put in a barnstorming shift, as did Taniela Tupou, again playing long minutes. And it was very encouraging to see Lukhan Salakaia-Loto play with a physical presence that has been missing.

On the downside, the Reds’ lineout remains a surprising weak link, and whoever determined that Jock Campbell is an elite goal-kicker – despite obvious evidence to the contrary – must surely now realise their folly.

With five matches to come against the Waratahs (twice), Rebels (twice), and the Sunwolves, plus the Bulls at home, it is still possible for the Reds to pull themselves up into the top echelon. But they won’t be afforded any more slip-ups.

Meanwhile, debate continues to rage about the merits or otherwise of Brad Thorn as Reds coach, which will no doubt continue for as long as he doesn’t deliver a title. I’m happy to stay out of that for now, other than to say that entering a Super Rugby match without a goal-kicker borders on suicidal – and that’s a failing that must be sheeted down to the head coach.

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Brad Thorn

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

As disappointing as Joe Marler’s escapade was, the biggest fail of the weekend was Eddie Jones’ gross overreaction after England’s match against Wales; a match where there was much to admire about the way his side put Wales away far more decisively than the final scoreline of 33-30 suggests.

Jones derided referee Ben O’Keeffe’s decision to issue a red card to Manu Tuilagi for an attempted flying tackle on Wales’ George North. But with World Rugby recently releasing data that seems to correlate law changes around tackle height with fewer incidences of concussion, and most people in the game understanding that subtle change is occurring because it is both necessary and good for the game, Jones totally misses the point.

This incident has nothing to do with the game going soft. Referring to Tuilagi, Jones asked a reporter: “How else are you supposed to tackle him?” If he’d had any pluck, the reporter should have answered: “By wrapping his arms around North as he tackles him lawfully.”

North is a player who has a history of suffering multiple concussions. Tuilagi, an immensely powerful man, launched himself into the contact area like a missile, at high speed, with his arm tucked, leading with his shoulder. Sir Clive Woodward, speaking on a panel after the match, was still white with shock, incredulous at the prospect of what would have happened if Tuilagi’s shoulder had made contact, flush, with North’s head.

It missed, only by millimetres, but O’Keeffe was absolutely right to dismiss Tuilagi on his intent and execution.

Whatever penalty Marler cops for his stupidity, I’d be giving Jones double. Prominent figures in the game have an important responsibility – not to churlishly slam referees for doing their job, but to promote rugby as a hard but fair and safe game to play.