A changing of the guard
April 25, 2011
Quade Cooper went airborne after scoring his side's try against the Waratahs © Getty Images
Seven years. Seven long and painful years. Seven years of barbs from those well-heeled types south of the border. That's what the good folk from the sunshine state had to endure before finally tasting revenge. And boy did it taste good when it finally arrived.
Not since May 2004 have the Reds had the better of their rivals from New South Wales, so no wonder Quade Cooper was head over heels with delight. The Reds now have what should be an unassailable 11-point lead at the top of the Australian Super Rugby conference. Such is their form that the Waratahs can only hope for a wild card semi-final berth, but that too now looks difficult after another characteristically torrid and costly derby.
The dressing rooms would have resembled a scene from MASH after Drew Mitchell, Wycliff Palu, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Ben Daley were all taken off injured. Even referee Steve Walsh's calf succumbed to the battle, with Ian Smith taking the whistle for the second-half.
Mitchell's horrible ankle injury is the most serious and threatens to blunt the Wallabies' Rugby World Cup attack. While he has not always been a favourite of Robbie Deans, Mitchell's ability to find the line is undeniable. His record of nearly a try every two games (27 from 55 Tests) is unequalled in the current Australian set up and only Chris Latham (40 in 78 games) boasts a better ratio in recent years.
While the focus has been on the Reds and Waratahs duopoly, plenty has been happening at the other three provinces. For many, the Rebels have over achieved in the first half of the their maiden season. Wins over the Brumbies and Force and a memorable come from behind victory over the Hurricanes have given their impressive fanbase something to cheer.
It is defence is where coach Rod Macqueen's problems lie. They have conceded 20 points or more in nine games, in six they gave away more than 30. With 322 points against them after 10 rounds, they are simply the worst defensive team in the competition. One obvious frailty is Danny Cipriani's tendency to rush out of the defensive line only to be beaten on the outside, leaving an overlap. This was exploited mercilessly by the Blues on Friday and any other team watching the replay will no doubt be planning to send more and more traffic the Englishman's way in the coming weeks.
The Rebels may be destined for a low finish, but they've been far more successful off-field with the securing of Waratahs fullback Kurtley Beale from next season. The rumours have also swirled around James O'Connor considering a switch to rugby's new frontier. If the Rebels could pull off a Beale-O'Connor double act it would be the biggest coup since the Force prised Matt Giteau from the Brumbies in 2007. Macqueen would then have the difficult (but pleasant) choice of where to play the starlets in his backline.
While O'Connor's move is still speculation, Force coach Richard Graham did little to douse the flames with his nervous response to the media that he was 'confident' of keeping O'Connor in the west. The body language was far from what Force fans would have hoped for in the battle to keep one of the world's best talents.
The 20-year-old has been one of the stars of the tournament in a team that deserves to be higher than the table suggests. While they were impressive in downing the Bulls on Saturday, there have also been times in other matches where they have been in a position to win only to lack the experience, execution or both. How their season may have been different if they were on the right side of one point games against the Reds and Rebels, and Stephen Brett had missed his last minute penalty for the Blues in a match where even the Aucklanders acknowledged they were second best.
The Brumbies would have enjoyed the weekend bye in a season that continues to slide after the sacking of coach Andy Friend after two games. They're yet to beat any of the four other Australian provinces and judging by their performance in their last outing against the Force in Canberra, they may find themselves 0-8 against local rivals come June.
Unfortunately it will only get more difficult for the Brumbies as they have already had both of their byes for the season and have the South African leg of their tournament yet to come. That's not to mention matches against final-aspirants the Stormers, Waratahs and Reds. But if Super Rugby has taught us one lesson, it's that anything can happen in the remaining matches. There's still plenty of rugby to be played.
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