With just one round left of the regular Trans-Tasman season there are still four teams fighting hard for a spot in the grand final.
Unfortunately none of those teams are from the Australian side of the competition but there have been signs over the past couple of weekends that have shown the gap between the comps aren’t quite as vast as perhaps many had feared.
The weekend threw up some really good battles with the Force continuing to surprise people, Mac Grealy impressing and Bryn Gatland somehow holding onto Marika Koroibete as he ran over him like a monster truck rolling over a speed bump.
So let’s dig into the talking points from the weekend and see what we can find other than more pain for the Australian sides and their fans.
How many penalties equal a yellow card in today’s economy?
One of the things that fans, players and coaches say they want is consistency from the referees and one of the areas of the game where there seems to be a broad range of interpretations is how many penalties a defending team can concede in the red zone before one or more of their players heads to the naughty step.
Of course not all penalties are created equal but for the standard offsides type of penalty, there really seems to be no consistency about how many times a defending side can infringe before they get the warning from the ref and then a yellow card.
What’s also strange is that many times, after the first yellow, a second yellow doesn’t come straight away at the next penalty – it’s as if some refs reset the clock and start counting up again from zero.
One idea that was discussed this weekend by some fans was the idea of copying basketball where teams have a set number of fouls they can commit before one of their team is sent to the bench. It’s always the same and the teams always know where they stand against that number. Let’s face it – it’s a better idea than the captain’s challenge!
Why don’t Aussie teams try drop kicks?
One of the consistent issues that has dogged Australian teams this season has been the inability to convert possession into points, especially when they get into the opposition 22.
So given that, why have we not seen some fly halves trying the forgotten art of the drop goal? It might not be the tactic that’s going to win you the game, especially with the worryingly big margins that we’ve been seeing in the Trans-Tasman this season.
But would you prefer to come away from the 22 with another failed try scoring attempt or three points that caught the opposition by surprise and might make them think twice next time when they are deciding how to defend against your attack?
We all love seeing plenty of tries being scored but the strategy of just trying to score at least one more try than you concede is not working out for the Aussie sides.
There are only four ways to score points in rugby – a try, a conversion (which depends on the try coming first), a penalty goal and a drop goal. So why take 25 per cent of the options off the table?
Waratahs are driving their fans crazy
With the NSW side rapidly approaching their least successful season in their history, their fans deserve a hug or something.
In their loss to the Highlanders, there were some signs of real progress and hope as they ran in some good tries and with just moments to go until halftime they’d fought hard to be just three points behind the men from Dunedin.
But in just five minutes the Tahs had gifted the opposition two crucial scores, the gap was up to 17 points and the Tahs were done.
What’s so frustrating is that those two heart breaking tries were just before and just after halftime and were the result of terrible execution from the Tahs. The first saw Jack Maddocks make an absolutely terrible defensive read as he shot out of the line, missed player and ball and gave an easy walk in try for the Highlanders.
The second of these heartbreakers came just minutes into the second half after the Tahs had overthrown at their own lineout deep inside their own 22.
The Tahs are finding it hard enough to compete this season and they simply cannot afford to gift the opposition try after try after try in these ways. Yes, no players are joining for next season but unless they are recruiting the starting line-up from the Crusaders all in one go, the NSW men will still need to do the basics right to, well you know, actually win a game in a season!
While we’re on it, there’s been a lot of talk about how this terrible season for the Tahs is down to the fact that so many caps walked out of the club over the past couple of years. Of course losing that level of knowledge would impact any club but let’s be clear – the Tahs weren’t exactly crushing it before the exodus of experience. In the six seasons since 2016, they’ve played finals rugby once.
Australian lineouts rarely work out
This weekend saw some really bad performances in the lineout from the Australian sides. Of the 82 lineouts where an Australian side had the throw, 15 of them were lost. That’s one in five – when it’s their throw! Fans thought the Reds’ lineout was bad when they lost four of their own throws, until the Brumbies said ‘hold my beer’ and lost five of theirs against the Hurricanes.
Unfortunately these lost lineouts were all too often in important parts of the field and saw an Australian side scrambling to defend their own line or saying goodbye to a scoring opportunity.
As we fast approach the international season, the Wallabies are going to have to make sure their lineout is top notch as the French have some big forwards who will be looking to knock the Aussies around and some dynamite backs who you cannot afford to give any extra ball to at any point.
There has been discussion about how the New Zealand packs are so much more aware about when and how to compete at the ruck than their Australian opponents and while the breakdown is obviously important, it’s essential that sides get their set piece in order as quickly as possible.
Is the gap closing?
Having slammed the Australian sides, there have been elements to get excited about over the past couple of weeks. The Reds and the Brumbies have both picked up wins and the Force have continued to run teams close, including an impressive outing against the Crusaders this past weekend.
Yes, we’re still looking at a very one-sided competition ladder but the losing margins are getting slimmer – in some cases (thanks Tahs!) – and the Aussie sides are finding ways to cause the New Zealanders some troubles.
Hmmmm, the losing margins are getting slimmer – not sure that’s quite the positive that it’s meant to be but you get the point.
Yes, there isn’t the depth in the Australian club sides, but there is some good competition in key positions that should give Wallabies fans reason to get excited about the international season ahead.