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Opinion

Super Rugby on hold: Early-season report card

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16th March, 2020
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I’m not going to lie. When I sat down to write this column, I will openly admit that I really didn’t know what I was going to write about. Or what I could write about.

But some solid procrastination led to a mammoth update of my master super-nerd spreadsheet for the current season, and with it a memory.

The report card! It was a great idea suggested by Roarer Billy Boy a few weeks ago, and now it’s come through in what was most definitely an hour of need.

Of course, that’s not to make light of what very clearly is a global health crisis. To borrow the old Boom Crash Opera line, “these here are crazy times”. And as soon as New Zealand closed their borders before the Highlanders could arrive home from Argentina, SANZAAR really only had one option.

So thus, the Super Rugby competition in on hold for the moment, and we await to see what – if any – rugby can be salvaged in the coming weeks and months. And with no rugby on the radar just yet, now is as good a time as any to look back on what we’ve seen this season.

With seven rounds played, most teams have now played at least six games (the Jaguares and Highlanders have played five), and that gives us a pretty solid sample to know where teams are at, being just over a third of the way through the season.

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I’m going to resurrect an old format for the report card: rather than going by conference or table position, I’m broadly grouping teams into three pretty self-explanatory categories.

On par
This is the obvious point to start, and within this obvious starting point, the Crusaders are the even more obvious first entry.

Mitchell Drummond runs the ball

(AAP Image/Chris Symes)

In short, they’re flying. Five wins from six games, the second best points differential in the competition, and so much depth that they’ve already used 33 players through the first seven rounds of 2020. But we all knew they’d be in a good spot this year, so there’s really no surprise.

The Jaguares and Rebels sit in this bracket too, sitting respectively eighth and ninth on the unofficial all-in standings with three wins from six games. Both have shown glimpses of brilliance, but both have had moments in games where I’ve been left shaking my head at the stupidity of a play, or a decision made. If there wasn’t a massive question mark over the competition going forward, I’d conclude that they’ll be there or thereabouts.

The final entry is the Bulls, and they’re as easy an entry as the Crusaders. I set a low bar for the Bulls this year, losing the likes of Handre Pollard, Duane Vermeulen and RG Snyman after the World Cup, and they’re nearly at the point of achieving that benchmark. When their entire attack revolves around Rosko Speckman making a break out of nothing and Warrick Gelant finishing it off if needed, it’s hard to see how they consistently threaten sides.

Overachieving
I’ll break these guys down by conference, and Blues fans will not for a minute be surprised to see me lumping my favourite ball-in-hand smurfs in this category. I’m going to throw the Chiefs in here too, and it’s for the same reason: the off-season recruitment looked really promising on either side of the Bombays, but promising recruitment doesn’t always breed results (does it, Blues fans…?)

But both sides have serious momentum, and both sides are playing really good rugby. And the Blues have done it without Beauden Barrett, which makes it even more impressive.

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Beauden Barrett poses during a Blues portraits session

(Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

With yet another summer of Western Province upheaval at Newlands, I didn’t have high hopes for the Stormers, and with the post-RWC turnover and not a single du Preez in sight, I didn’t many for the Sharks, either.

The Stormers have still got a few issues winning away from Cape Town, but they’ve rapidly come together as a well connected unit that has much better combinations than it probably should. The Sharks are ranked the best team in the competition, and coming off the back of a month-long tour of New Zealand and Australia with three wins from four games had really set their season up well.

And for the same post-RWC turnover reasons, I certainly didn’t expect the Brumbies to be running in the top three and with a ten-point lead in the Australian conference. Similarly, and though they’ve been building for 18 months probably, the Reds are already showing signs that there’s a seriously good team looming under those maroon jerseys. Three losing bonus points only adds to this.

But both have shown real intent in attack, a willingness to roll up the sleeves at the breakdown, and it’s all coming from a solid set-piece platform. Interestingly, neither are completely happy with their performances yet. Both sides believe they’re yet to play an 80-minute game, and that’s a healthy level of introspection.

The disappointments
Oh, how they’ve disappointed.

I didn’t expect much from a Sunwolves squad thrown together barely days before Round 1 in the case of some players, but even then, it’s been a shame just how poorly they’ve played this season. Their points differential is already -191 after just six games, as they play exactly like a team with no future, and now, with no home, either.

Garth April Sunwolves

(Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

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The Lions haven’t been much better, frankly, and they’ve had a full off-season to prepare for 2020. But like the Bulls, they’ve been gutted since the RWC and just have no semblance of shape in attack, starch in defence, and stability at set piece. It’s almost ironic that the Bulls and Lions have now both gone into self-isolation on return to the Republic. Not having to play could actually be a blessing.

The Highlanders lost a lot of experience too, but I had thought there was a decent skeleton of a team left, plenty of guys who had played at a reasonable level, and had even played a reasonable amount together. Sadly, it just hasn’t worked out this season and they’ve dropped to the bottom of the New Zealand conference now by some margin.

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And that just leaves the Waratahs. Everything I wrote about the Tahs last week remains, except that now a couple of those same senior players who have gone missing all to often in games are now injured as well, so they won’t even be able to contribute on the training track for the foreseeable future, either.

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I don’t know how a team can be so competitive for the first 40 minutes and then just open up and capitulate after halftime. The Waratahs have conceded 98 points in the last two games, and 64 of them have come after halftime, unanswered.

The real worry for the Waratahs is that regardless of the state of the competition, it’s hard to know what they should attempt to fix first.

And maybe that’s the biggest disappointment of all.