Australian rugby is in dire straits and there is serious doubt whether the game can survive in its current form.
Well that escalated quickly! What started as a vague news story of a new virus in a far city land has now become a shut down of sports competition and leagues around the world not to mention the truly serious stuff.
With SANZAAR officially calling a pause to the Super Rugby competition there is a lot of uncertainty about what the next few weeks have in store for all concerned. But before the shutdown, there was time for one more weekend of clashes and there were some beauties.
So while we all start to try and figure out how to cope without live sport to talk about, let’s see how long we can make the debate about this week’s talking points…..
This was always going to be a tough season for the Japanese franchise. As each round ticks by, their existence in Super Rugby gets one step closer to ending and, with the pausing of the season, there’s a chance that they might have played their last game in the competition already.
While they continue to be seen as the easy win by many in the competition it is really important to note that they have not stopped fighting in every single game and that there are sides with better players and secure futures who are struggling just as much as they are.
The Sunwolves have only won one game this season. Poor, right? Well, sure but that’s also the same number of wins as the Highlanders, Waratahs, Lions and Bulls. There are a fair few Super Rugby titles among those other names and yet they are having similar seasons in terms of wins and losses.
If you dig into the stats, the picture is the same. The doomed team are about tenth when it comes to categories such as tries scored, clean breaks made, metres carried, lineouts won and they’re fourth in terms of offloads.
When you then add in the fact that they are drawing some really impressive crowd figures then you can appreciate how much respect the Sunwolves deserve from all of us this season.
Against the Crusaders this weekend, they lost just like everyone assumed they would. But bear this in mind – after 35 minutes they were drawing 7-7 with the reigning champions and with just 24 minutes to go they were trailing by only 21 points to 14.
There are plenty of coaches in Super Rugby who would bite your arm off if you offered them this scoreline against the men from Christchurch.
The competition will be worse off once the Sunwolves have left.
There have been signs of improvement from many of the Australian Super Rugby sides this season. An impressive win from the Rebels in New Zealand, the Brumbies flying high in second place on the overall ladder and the Reds have scored more tries than any other team in the competition.
However, when you look at the ladder at this point of midseason pause, the story is not quite so rosy. The Brumbies, as mentioned, are one point off of first place overall but then there is a long, long drop until you find the next Aussie side. The Rebels and Reds are ninth and tenth respectively and then the Waratahs are doing a great job of propping up almost the entire competition down in 14th place.
When the Western Force were removed from the competition, there were excited commitments made from Rugby Australia about how the new increased concentration of talent in the four remaining sides would see a new era of success in the competition. Since 2017, this new era has not so much emerged as hidden nervously in the shadows.
While there has been much written about how the Reds have continued to deliver effort and not results, they are arguably the next cab off the rank who could join the Brumbies as a real threat for the grand final and title. They have an appealing combination of youth and experience and seem to have a stronger club identity and culture than their cousins down in Melbourne who have never lived up to expectations.
So the question is; can the Australian sides really become a threat in the competition over the coming seasons or are we looking at a period where they struggle to challenge for the finals season after season?
Arguably the game of the weekend was the New Zealand derby where the Hurricanes earned a hard-fought win after the final siren thanks to Jordie “Dead Eye” Barrett’s boot. Not only was the match exciting, but there was a fascinating subplot playing out as two of the main contenders for the All Blacks no.15 jersey went head-to-head.
Jordie Barrett has had a number of chances to nail the fullback spot for the international side but, as Steve Hansen committed to the two playmaker approach, it was his brother Beauden who locked down the starting spot. This was a lot to do with Beauden’s incredible talent but also a little to do with the fact that Jordie had often done as many things to frustrate or disappoint fans as he had to delight them at international level.
Damian McKenzie was out for so much of last season with injury and so fans have been loving seeing him getting back into form in 2020. Warren Gatland has been playing him back at fullback after McKenzie dabbled at flyhalf previously and it’s great to see D-Mac back where he belongs.
Whilst Jordie got the last laugh this weekend with his match-winning goal, honours were about even in the game between the two contenders.
But the challenge for Ian Foster is that it’s not just these two that he’s got to fit into his plans. He’s then got Beauden as already mentioned and the new challenger, David Havili who has been having a great season before needing emergency surgery last week.
The underlying question will partly come down to whether Foster continues the 2019 All Blacks’ strategy of playing both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett in his run-on side. If he does, the question is will any of the competing three make the bench and if so then McKenzie does bring a scary threat for the final 25 minutes of games. If Foster instead opts for just one of the playmakers then all bets are off and the decision is more complicated.
Who would you give the starting fullback position too?
In their dominant win over the Bulls, the Reds did what they did best this season – score tries and offload anything that moved!
One of the keys behind their unanswered streak of 41 points against the South Africans at Suncorp was that they kept the ball in the second half (they had over 79 per cent possession) and they kept it away from the Bulls with offload after offload after offload – 23 in the whole game.
To put that last stat in perspective, the Brumbies have successfully offloaded 34 times in total in seven rounds. The Reds did 23 in one game!
But are those offloads actually a good thing? It’s a fair question to ask and when you consider that the Reds lead the competition in tries scored, clean breaks and metres carried the argument can be made that the Reds offload game is key to their success, if they achieve any this season.
Harry Wilson and James O’Connor are crucial to the success of the Reds game plan in many ways and one of them is how they use the offload to get other players the ball in space and keep initial half breaks alive.
Having spoken quite critically of the Reds this season, I have to admit I’m beginning to come around to their way of playing. They are not the finished article by any means and they need to start beating teams in the top part of the table but you have to admit – their games are great to watch!
Who knows what the next few weeks have in store, but right now the team sitting on top of the pile is the Sharks, and they deserve every bit of this success.
This weekend they overcame local rivals, the Stormers, in a brutal encounter and had to deal with their own bad luck along the way. They were on the wrong end of one of the worst refereeing decisions of the season when Johan du Toit was given a yellow card instead of a red seconds into the game for tackling Louis Schreuder in the air.
Schreuder never returned to the match and the Sharks struggled to find their rhythm after this early disruption to their team.
But they found a way to overcome the tough Stormers and, with the win, took the competition’s number one spot. They did it using the three characteristics that have set them apart from others this season – an effective defence, a good kicking game and a brutal running game.
Time after time this season the Sharks have been able to gain crucial extra metres thanks to their powerful runners and their speedsters outside. This has meant that with every carry, they are gaining that little bit extra bit of ground compared to their opponents and those extra little bits add up across a game. Opponents are finding it harder and harder to defend against them and with their serious pace weapons they are proving very hard to cope with.
Now we hope there’s plenty of rugby still left in this season but, whatever happens, the Sharks have earned the number one spot on the ladder. They’ve beaten the Stormers and Jaguares in the past two rounds and that came off the back of an overseas tour where they won three from four.
If the season does end now, would you give them the title?
At the time of writing there is little certainty about what lies ahead for the competition. SANZAAR say that they had no choice other than putting the season on hold once the New Zealand Government had put in place their 14-day isolation rules for anyone entering the country and with Australia following suit, Super Rugby does have the challenge of trying to operate in line with five different national approaches to dealing with the virus.
Assuming that the break is for a handful of weeks and there is still technically time left in the season to play more rugby then what could be done? Is there a way to create a meaningful schedule for the final few weeks that allows the best teams to battle it out for the title, even if that title does come with an *?
Beyond this season’s bragging rights, there are sadly some bigger, scarier issues that now face the sport and clubs. Many clubs have fairly light war chests and live pretty much hand to mouth. Do they have the ability to survive without the revenue that five weeks of games would generate? What about the people and businesses that support the clubs – can they survive?
Will Governments be asked to get involved with emergency funding? Should they provide any of this funding? What will happen next season if clubs are left in an even worse financial position and unable to offer compelling contracts that stack up against the potentially brighter lights of Europe and Japan?
There have been many calling for fundamental change to the Super Rugby competition. SANZAAR’s hand might well be forced, not by broadcast deals or on-field performance, but by a pandemic.