March 28, 2011
The Rebels celebrate their latest Super Rugby success against the Hurricanes © Getty Images
The Australian Super Rugby experience has been a little like a new car. At first it seems perfect, with its new car smell and flawless duco. Then after a couple of weeks scratches appear on the paint, gremlins move in and the inside smells anything but new. The Australian provinces, particularly the Waratahs, also looked flash at the start, but then the grim reality set in as the South African and NZ teams showed not all conferences were created equal.
All's not well under the bonnet at the provinces either. In just the past four weeks we've had news of bust ups inside the Waratahs camp, the Brumbies players (again) ousting their coach and former Wallabies great Tim Horan calling for Rocky Elsom to be relieved of Wallabies command due to his lack of match time. Whoever said rugby was boring…?
After possibly their worst performance of all time against the Cheetahs, a team who had never won outside of South Africa, the Waratahs went some way to redeeming themselves with just their second Super Rugby win in Canberra. While bad results can sometimes be inexplicable, how a team responds is often more indicative of their strength and the Waratahs answered that emphatically on Saturday. Wycliff Palu's strong return to action was a welcome sight, but what the rugby gods give in one hand they take with the other and Berrick Barnes suffered another head knock, likely forcing him out for a couple of weeks.
In contrast, the Brumbies are looking anything but clever since sacking coach Andy Friend just two matches into the season. They're yet to win since parting ways with Friend and the fans will surely hold the players accountable if the form slump cannot be arrested soon. It would have not gone unnoticed by the fans either that one of their own was the match winner for NSW on Saturday. Sitaleki Timani left Canberra last year after limited opportunities at the Brumbies and made his former side pay with the decisive try nine seconds before full time.
One team travelling relatively well, however, is the Reds. With Will Genia and Quade Cooper having overcome their indifferent early season form, the Reds now boast one of the best attacks in the competition. Back to back bonus point victories, albeit against weaker opposition in the Rebels and Cheetahs, see Ewen McKenzie's men near the top of the pile ahead of the South African leg of their tournament.
Robbie Deans will be buoyed by the recent performances of his main playmaker which helps remove any doubt as to who is number one in the Wallabies fly-half pecking order. One man who does have a contrasting opinion is 1991 world cup winning coach Bob Dwyer, who has called for James O'Connor to be installed at No.10 in time for the World Cup. While he's unlikely to unseat Cooper, it's testament to the impact O'Connor, yet to reach his 21st birthday, has made for the Force this season.
The Force are yet to scale any big heights this season and a solid outing against the Lions was followed by a hammering from the undefeated Stormers. The next three games against local opposition, the Rebels and Waratahs at home followed by the Brumbies away, will be the litmus test for Richard Graham's men. Good results in those matches may turn what appears a two horse race for the conference title into three.
The Rebels meanwhile are proving to be every tipsters nightmare with week to week 'Jekyll and Hyde' performances. After a breakthrough win against the Brumbies in Round 2, the Rebels fell to the Chiefs and Sharks before simply capitulating to the Reds . Another humbling looked on its way against the Hurricanes on Friday before a spirited comeback, led by the forwards, saw the home team recover from a 17-0 deficit to record a bonus point win. However, where the Rebels have been consistent is in the stands. Another 16,000 turned out on Friday night and made the noise of double that as they continue to provide the best atmosphere in Australian rugby, perhaps anywhere in the competition.
Off the field, another contest between players and officialdom looms with the ARU reportedly attempting to reduce player salaries by as much as 25 per cent. It is being suggested the ARU are looking at introducing a salary cap to limit player payments to ease the pressure on the game's fragile bottom line. Since returning in 2007, CEO John O'Neill has battled to rein in expenses, which included axing staff and the Australian Rugby Championship. But players' salaries represent the biggest chunk of ARU expenses, which is why a salary cap option is looking attractive.
You would be excused for thinking it is 'groundhog day' given player payments always rears its head during a World Cup year, but the timing is hardly surprising given the tournament represents a massive dip in the revenues for the ARU as inbound Tests are deferred. It's hard to see the players association (RUPA) accepting this lightly, however, and expect the negotiations to get heated and played out (again) in the public sphere. Whether the salary cuts extend to the game's senior officials is sure to be one of the first points raised by the RUPA during the 'delicate' negotiations.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup
The reopening of the openside debate, a dominant wolf-pack and a sublime performance in defeat - Monday Maul looks at the weekend's talking points
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Rugby Championship alongside the best photographs from around the domestic game