Tight table sets up intriguing play-off picture
April 23, 2013
The Crusaders need Dan Carter back to restore balance to their running and kicking game © Getty Images
At the halfway stage of the Super Rugby season it is clear 11 teams will contest the six play-off positions during the remainder of the competition. Aside from the Highlanders, Melbourne Rebels, Western Force and Southern Kings, everyone else has a chance.
The result is probably the most intriguing Super Rugby competition of recent times. This has come about due to the surprise performances of the Cheetahs, Blues and Brumbies, the inconsistencies of the Crusaders, New South Wales Waratahs and Stormers, and the uncharacteristic upsets which have condensed the points from 12th to first.
Picking the winner of any of the conferences from this far out would be a surprise. So what of the New Zealand teams at the halfway stage?
Blues: Most importantly, they have been able to stay healthy. This team is young and enthusiastic but it was always going to be put under pressure if it sustained injuries. At this stage the senior players are showing great confidence and superb leadership. On the back of an improved defensive display, the Blues are showing they can win games with and without the ball. If they can continue to stay healthy, I would expect them to go very close to making the play-offs.
Chiefs: They have hit their first road bump in two seasons. They were comprehensively out-played by the Reds and failed to hang on against the Waratahs. They are showing signs of stress. They still hold a strong position on the table but they need to regain their confidence in the next couple of weeks if they are to position themselves for home-field advantage in the play-offs. Until now their defence has been extremely physical and the hallmark of their game. In the past two weeks they have struggled to contain the speed of the Reds and the physicality of the Waratahs. Hurricanes: They continue to just do enough to stay in the play-offs picture. They win the games they are supposed to win and struggle to get across the line in the big match-ups. Making the play-offs will depend on securing wins against big opposition. The key to this will be the return of Victor Vito. The sooner they get his leadership, ball-carrying and lineout ability back, the better the side will be.
Crusaders: Although they had a clinical victory over the Highlanders, without Kieran Read and Dan Carter they may struggle to be a serious threat in this competition. They have been very inconsistent this year, which is most un-Crusader-like and their inability to adapt to both referees and the nature of the game has put them under great pressure. Expect to see them vary their tactical approach to the game. Carter's return will restore the balance to their running and kicking game.
Highlanders: With the play-offs well and truly gone the only thing they can salvage now is pride. The lack of cohesion between backs and forwards has stifled their ability to realise their opportunities. With their confidence taking hits from week to week, they should now be looking to the future and the youth in the side. As much as I'm trying to stay positive, it is difficult to see what the Highlanders can take out of this season. If anything it is time now to protect the future.
There's been a lot of discussion around the attacking tactics of the New Zealand teams. There's no doubt down in Dunedin, given the skill of the outside backs and the conditions they are guaranteed to play in, their intention over the past couple of seasons has been to play with ball in hand and that is reflected in their personnel.
Others sides such as the Blues, Crusaders and Hurricanes, as much as they trust their structures, haven't been afraid to put the ball in behind the opposition when little attacking opportunities come about.
Most believe New Zealand teams like to use the ball to attack down the width whereas the South African and Australian sides are more intent on making the advantage line through the middle of the field, as well as on the edges.
But that in part has been due to the fact that conditions in New Zealand have been fine, hard and fast. As we come into the true winter months you will see a more balanced attack, using more of a kicking game, using the forwards in close contests and trying to play a more territory-based game.
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