What we learned from Super Rugby round 13
May 13, 2013
Welcome to Scrum Five, in which ESPNscrum reporter Brett McKay analyses five key talking points of the weekend's Super Rugby action.
Discuss the talking points and tell us your thoughts on the matches by leaving a comment at the foot of the page; also discuss the action with Brett on Twitter at @BMcSport and include the hashtag #ScrumFive.
What do we make of the Cheetahs?
We didn't see the Hurricanes win in Bloemfontein coming? (video available only in Australia)%]
The side from Bloemfontein started Super Rugby round 13 in the final wildcard position, courtesy of bye points earned the previous week. They'd won seven of their previous eight games prior to their bye, and should've carried enormous momentum and finals-bound motivation into their Friday night clash with the Hurricanes.
So what happened?
Simply put, they lost their composure against a team who played more efficiently and more effectively the physical game the Cheetahs tried to implement. The Cheetahs came out on top in most of the key stats for the match, bar one: territory. Missing less tackles, winning more rucks, and conceding fewer linebreaks amount to very little if you can't get out of your own half, and that was the tale of the Cheetahs.
No doubt this point will be noted by future opposition, too. The Cheetahs are yet to beat any team inside the top six, but will play Queensland Reds, the Bulls (again) and the Blues before the play-offs - as well as derbies against Southern Kings and the Stormers; the Cheetahs can expect only torrid tussles from here on. They will need to take up the challenges of the top teams, and overcome them, if their initial play-offs appearance is to take that step from possibility to reality.
... and what of the Waratahs?
The Waratahs improved again in beating the Stormers (video available only in Australia)%]
An impressive win over the Stormers in Sydney on Saturday night, and especially the patience with which they pulled off the win, might just have New South Wales Waratahs supporters wondering "what if?" out loud this week.
And it's perhaps not entirely out of the equation that the Waratahs couldn't sneak into one of the last wildcard spots over the closing rounds. To finish out the season, the Tahs face the Brumbies at Homebush this weekend and then Melbourne Rebels, the Crusaders and Western Force on the road before the June recess. On the resumption, they'll host the Reds in the final round of the competition.
Since the inception of the conference system, 10 wins and 57-58 points has been the cut-off for sixth place. The Brumbies missed out last year with 10 wins and 58 points.
To get there, the Waratahs need to win four of their final five games to get to 10 wins and find bonus points to push their final tally higher. Five wins would be ideal. On Saturday night's form, they can and should go into the four derby games thinking they can win. But the effects of the pre-Lions camp and any possible injuries during the series against the British & Irish Lions will undoubtedly be a major influence on their chances.
Essentially, they must beat the competition-leading Brumbies this weekend to keep their chances alive. They're certainly playing well enough to beat the two-time champions, and they might even have the momentum. But a loss might kill off the dream before it begins, as well. The Hume Highway rivalry just took on greater meaning.
Are the Stormers and Sharks done for 2013?
The Reds put the Sharks to the sword in the first half (video available only in Australia)%]
If 10 wins is going to be the cut-off again in 2013, the Stormers and Sharks could well be done for the season - with the task ahead of them now looming rather large. Certainly, Sharks coach John Plumtree thinks this is the case, after he offered a succinct "I think we're dead now" in the aftermath of his team's loss to the Reds on Friday night - their fifth straight.
Curiously though, the Sharks are better placed than the Stormers to reach 10 wins, given they have five already. They finish out the regular season with games against the Force in Perth, the Bulls at home, the bye, and then, after the June break, the Blues at home, Bulls away, and Kings at home. They'd need to win all of those games, but strange things can and do happen at this time of year.
The Stormers finish with the Rebels (a), Reds (h), Kings (h) before the break, and the Cheetahs (h), Kings (a), and Bulls (h) after the June internationals. They, too, need to win all six games to finish on 10 wins. And it's hard to see how they might do that with a distinct lack of attack in their game currently.
For both teams, missing the play-offs will be a major fall from grace; the Stormers finished top of the log in 2012, and the Sharks were the beaten finalists. Perhaps that just proves how close Super Rugby really is.
Round 13 was a good one for ...
The Blues had a tough contest in Auckland (video available only in Australia)%]
The teams with the bye. The Brumbies and the Bulls both held their table first and third table positions, while the Crusaders jumped the Cheetahs into the final wildcard spot. The Bulls even opened a gap in the South African conference, pulling a further three points clear of the Cheetahs.
Within the top six, the Reds, Chiefs, and Blues all had tough contests, while the Cheetahs' loss to the Hurricanes dropped them back to seventh.
Big games loom for all three sides this week, with the Brumbies heading up the highway to take on the Waratahs, the Bulls hosting the once-again hapless Highlanders, and the Crusaders hosting the Blues in another classic tale in the age-old Canterbury-Auckland rivalry.
For the Brumbies and Crusaders, at least, the bye might've come at a very convenient point in the season, coming, as it did, immediately before crucial matches with arch-rivals ...
Defence is the platform to build from
The Force were undone primarily by Aaron Cruden's kicking (video available only in Australia)%]
And on this front, I'll be watching the Western Force with interest in 2014.
I've been guilty of crystal-balling the Force in the past, and, more often than not, I've been disappointed by the end result. This time things feel different. This time there could be something brewing.
In successive weeks, the Force have pushed the Reds and the Chiefs with displays that belie the 34-point thrashing from the Brumbies that preceded them. To say the Force heeded the lessons from that day in Canberra is an understatement, and now their quality backrow is leading a defensive set-up worthy of a top-six team.
Chris Alcock has been more than useful in replacing the departed David Pocock, and he in turn is bringing out the best in newly crowned Force record games holder Matt Hodgson. Hugh McMeniman was excellent before injury struck, and his decision to stay suggests that my thoughts might be on the money.
Fly-half remains an area requiring attention, and perhaps the current options - Sias Eborsohn and Sam Norton-Knight - are a case of making do until the proper choice emerges. And that proper choice might be Kyle Godwin, in which case the Force should be commended for not just dropping him into the hot seat straight away, or even when the more experienced men have been up and down in the No. 10 jersey.
And on that point, the mark of Michael Foley's ability to build a team will be more apparent in 2014. I'll bet he's loving being able to coach well away from the spotlight that followed him in Sydney, too.
The results haven't come through in 2013, but you can see the team is playing for themselves and each other, and they all believe in what's been put in place for them in Perth. Some canny recruitment - Rob Horne's name keeps popping up - might be the spark that finally ignites the fire in the west.
The Kings and the Highlanders rounded out the weekend (video available only in Australia)
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand