Greg Growden's Super Rugby report card
July 15, 2014
Jacques Potgieter was the best recruitment of 2014 © Getty Images
The Super Rugby regular season has come to an end with the minor premiership won in deserving fashion by the New South Wales Waratahs as they head into the finals with a home ground advantage for the first time since the competition grew to 15 sides. Joining the Waratahs in the final series is the Brumbies who host the Chiefs in a 2013 grand final rematch. But the Western Force, Melbourne Rebels and Queensland Reds were all disappointed to miss out on the final series. Greg Growden runs his rule over each Australian team's Super Rugby 2014 campaign.
It is disconcerting when even New Zealand media pundits - including former All Blacks such as Richard Loe - are predicting the Waratahs to win their first Super Rugby title this year. Is it all part of a trans-Tasman ploy? Maybe, maybe not. Nonetheless there is substance behind those who are predicting: "This is the Year of the Waratahs." The Waratahs' dramatic transformation has revolved so much around their coach, Michael Cheika, getting the squad fit. They certainly did the hard yards during the off-season. Whereas beforehand they often lost their way late in the game, the Waratahs are now a team most threatening in the final 20 minutes. As well, Cheika was behind easily the best recruitment of 2014 - luring Jacques Potgieter from the Bulls. Potgieter has enlivened the Waratahs' forward play, and how he has been used in tandem with Will Skelton has ensured the team has had the required front-foot ball for their resourceful backline to constantly do something positive. As important has been the rise in confidence in their fly-half Bernard Foley, who enjoys having Kurtley Beale perched near his shoulder. Their partnership is as important to the Waratahs as the Potgieter-Skelton tag-team. The only blemish has been the problems at lineout time, but elsewhere they have been the clear front-runners of the Australian conference. They are also playing the type of football that brings back the crowds at a crucial time when Australian rugby needs all the friends it can get.
2013 mark: C plus
Matt Toomua has transformed the Brumbies back to their attacking best © Getty Images
A touch of the old and the new enabled the Brumbies to remain a Super Rugby finals product. Considering how Jake White had such a dictatorial role when in charge of the Brumbies, it was always going to take some time for his coaching replacements - Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher - to lead them in a different direction. So early on in the season, the Brumbies continued with their territorial game - relying heavily on Jesse Mogg booting everything downfield. But gradually it changed, and by the end of the season we were witnessing more of the traditional attacking panache of a side that for many seasons was at the forefront of enlightening attacking football. The transformation had a lot to do with their chief playmaker, Matt Toomua, being given more freedom, and through that he has developed into an outstanding fly-half. Next to him is a flighty scrum-half in Nic White, who was the Brumbies' most consistent performer, especially when he opted against box-kicking. The back-row often lacked penetration, but Scott Fardy brought an edge back to their forward play, while the front-row was consistent enough to provide a solid set-piece. Nonetheless David Pocock's unavailability remained a problem all season. Pocock or George Smith would be invaluable for the Brumbies at finals time.
Mark: B plus
2013 mark: B plus
Ben McCalman was one of the Force's workhorses © Getty Images
Constructive coaching revolves around getting the most out of your resources - no matter how vast or limited. And Michael Foley certainly did that with the Force. He didn't have much to work with. Virtually all of the stars have left the Force, with the province now relying on diligent workers and journeymen. Their biggest asset is heart, and Foley focused on that - providing a restrictive game plan that made the most of the province's down-market skill base. Rely heavily on defence, especially in your own quarter, kick away the bulk of your possession, and attempt to cage your opponents close to their own line - preying on any mistakes or indiscretions. It wasn't appetising to watch, often tedious, but it had the desired effect of destabilising better opponents. So, many fell into the Force trap, prompting an unexpected late charge towards the finals. The Force relied heavily on their core performers. Their back-row was among the most functional in the competition, with both Ben McCalman and Matt Hodgson excelling; no players in the Super Rugby had a higher work rate than those two, while Alby Mathewson, when available, and Sias Ebersohn ensured the Foley game plan was adhered to precisely.
2013 mark: C
The Reds struggled without Will Genia and Quade Cooper © Getty Images
It hasn't taken long for the Reds to degenerate into a mess. The halcyon days of 2011 are long gone, and coach Richard Graham is under enormous pressure to hang onto his position. Once the strongest and most committed Australian province, Queensland are now a divided bunch, with endless whispers during the season over dissension in the ranks. Graham has failed to gain the level of respect with the players that Ewen McKenzie had with them. The absence of Quade Cooper and Will Genia for extensive periods of the season through injury did not help, but the pack's lack of focus was a key factor in the Reds losing their way. Their back-row play was well below average, and numerous forwards became near ghosts during the season. They are in desperate need of quality men up front. There was just not enough impact made by the squad's back-rowers during the season, while high-profile forwards such as James Horwill and Rob Simmons drifted in and out of form. Their backline was often impotent, and the team's handling skills disintegrated the longer the season went on. When the most loyal supporter base in the country - the Reds' former players - starts being openly vicious, complaining the team lacks spirit, it is a sure sign that something drastic has to happen to get the Reds back on track.
2013 mark: B
At least the Rebels aren't fighting each other any more on overseas trips, but the campaign was still well short of satisfying for the struggling fifth Australian franchise. It all began with considerable promise, but the longer the season continued the more obvious were their faults. The Rebels relied too heavily on their skipper, Scott Higginbotham, and there wasn't anyone who could pick up the slack when he was unavailable. There was always a sense of uncertainty hovering over this promise, especially with the Australian Rugby Union having to bankroll them after their private owner, Harold Mitchell, decided to move on. But at least to their credit they spent the latter part of the season to good use, securing some reasonable signings for 2015 - including Reds utility back Mike Harris. Bryce Hegarty was the team's most consistent performer in 2014, and he is worth pursuing with at No.10. Nonetheless they always looked two or three players short of a competitive line-up, and certainly need to do something to bolster their lacklustre attack. No wonder they've been recruiting hard.
Bryce Hegarty was the most consistent performer for 2014 © Getty Images
2013 mark: D-
NB: Greg will update his ratings for the Super Rugby finals-bound Waratahs and the Brumbies once they have played their final game of the season.
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