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Opinion

Super Rugby Pacific: The first month report card

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Expert
28th March, 2022
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Yes, yes, I know we’ve been going for a couple of weeks longer than a month, but there’s a method in play here.

Firstly, some teams have only played a month’s worth of rugby! Secondly, the way COVID impacted teams during the pre-season, the first couple of rounds were almost like trial games. It’s only been the last few weeks we’ve seen teams showing more like the way they want to play.

Thirdly, this is a resurrection of an old column format. For years I handed down the early season report card, initially after a month which then became six weeks, until COVID hit the world and I just haven’t done this the last few seasons. Don’t really know why, but I will rectify that today.

And I’ll adopt the same format from the last few times I ran this, too: three broad categories based on where teams are now compared to my gut feelings about them in pre-season.

So, some teams are going as I expected to them to, some are going much better than I expected, and some are much worse. It’s certainly not scientific, but these things rarely are.

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On par
I wouldn’t have been alone in thinking the Reds and Crusaders would be strong in 2022, after both sides won their corresponding AU and Aotearoa finals last year, and it’s certainly no surprise that that have indeed been strong across the first six weeks of 2022.

Second and third on the table respectively, and with one loss each, it already feels like it will take a monumental change of fortunes for either of them to miss the finals, and probably even the semis.

Before the season started, I thought the Fijian Drua might win in their first month and then revised that to six weeks, but I needn’t have.

Fijian Drua

Vinaya Habosi of Fijian Drua. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

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They’ve been excellent, haven’t they, and a couple of losing bonus points along the way point to how well they’ve competed in their debut season. Their challenge was always going to be the grind of the season and how well they contend with the weekly routine of train-travel-play-recover-train. Maybe that’s what brought them undone last week against the Rebels, but they’ll win again soon enough, I’m quite sure.

Once their lineout starts working, and once they can start playing home games in Fiji, they’ll go to new levels.

The Western Force and Blues are an interesting pairing here. Seventh and sixth in the standings currently, and both desperate to prove that last year – a trans-Tasman title for the Blues, and a maiden finals appearance for the Force – weren’t just one-offs.

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And so both teams have shown plenty of good stuff, and both teams have shown plenty of pretty ordinary stuff too. Both have scored 15 tries and their for-and-against are pretty similar, too. And yes, I know the Blues have played two fewer games. Interestingly, the Force have the most bonus points in the comp to date.

But they’re about where I thought they would be. Whether they stay there, or move up or down from there, from here on is entirely up to them.

The Hurricanes complete this group, and they’re on par because I wasn’t convinced of them coming into 2022 and I remain unconvinced about them now. And to clarify, I’d have put them here in this same group last week, too; finishing as curiously as they did to lose in Golden Point to Moana Pasifika hasn’t changed anything in my thinking.

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Overachieving
Moana Pasifika is the easy inclusion here, because they are well ahead of where I thought they’d be after their first month or so in the competition.

They’ve only played three games, and that can’t have been easy – preparing for and not being able to play games, and now in a schedule that has them playing six games in 19 days or something like that.

Lotu Inisi of Moana Pasifika celebrates after scoring a try during the Super Rugby pre season trial match between Moana Pasifika and the Chiefs at Mt Smart Stadium on February 04, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The promising sides were there against the Crusaders, it was hard going against the Chiefs, but it clicked against the Hurricanes when it needed to and especially when it mattered.

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I don’t know how many more games they’ll win this season, but it feels to me like they’ve ticked so many first year boxes already.

The Waratahs have certainly overachieved to this point, sitting fourth overall with a three-and-three record and a decent points differential. They scored just 31 tries in 13 games last year and they’re already halfway there in six games.

Yes, returning experience has helped, but a lot of the younger players have clicked this year too; the Ben Donaldsons, the Angus Bells, the Jack Grants, the Will Harrises. Alex Newsome is playing well. Harry Johnson-Holmes is playing well. I knew they’d be better in 2022, but I didn’t have them in this kind of form after six weeks. It’s great to see.

Like the Reds and the Crusaders, the Brumbies were always going to be strong in 2022, but to be undefeated after six rounds is a dream start for any team.

Importantly, they’ve won games that maybe they shouldn’t have, and they’ve won games on the back of hard work. They’ve scored six more tries than the next best, and the weekend just gone was the first time they’d conceded more than five tries in a game. They definitely fit in this category.

And my last overachievers are the Chiefs, and they’re in this section because I didn’t really have high hopes for them. Probably even feared the worst.

But they started strongly and have just kept going. They beat the Crusaders in Christchurch! For reasons I still don’t fully understand, they just seem to forget about the aura of the red and black in the Garden City, and often walk away with the points.

I didn’t think they’d start among the top three NZ teams, but they have, and look set to stay there for a while yet.

Underachieving
Two sections covered and all fingers and thumbs have counted a team. Rebels and Highlanders fans know what’s coming, and it’s always disappointing to think about teams in this fashion.

But I wanted to believe the Rebels would be better, and they just haven’t been. They’ve been mostly disappointing, in fact. The win over the Drua was very good, but they need to come back after their bye and win consistently now.

Reece Hodge of the Rebels

(Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Yes, injuries have played a role in the teams they’ve had to field, but the sight of a coach publicly challenging his senior players to deliver more on the field was damning of both their individual performances and the Rebels’ preparations to date. Reece Hodge has had three negative play yellow cards in four games!

The winless Highlanders sit at the foot of the Super Rugby Pacific table currently, and just like you would have for the Rebels and Moana Pasifika winning on the same weekend, you’d have been able to write your own odds on the Highlanders sitting dead last after six weeks.

I don’t know what’s not clicking at the moment, but I know the expectations of last year’s trans-Tasman Finalists would’ve been significantly higher than they’ve shown so far. They desperately need to win, but I’m not sure where and when that happens at the moment.

All teams need to finish seasons well, but both the Rebels and Highlanders first need to lift their games so that they can get to a position where they can finish the season well.

We’ll see how it all goes from here.

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