What we learned from Super Rugby round 12
May 6, 2013
Welcome to the first edition of 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.
Runners at fly-half don't necessarily guarantee a running game
Kurtley Beale returned in fantastic form with Melbourne Rebels © Getty Images
There's been a lot of conjecture and speculation in recent week as to who Robbie Deans will favour as Wallabies fly-half for the three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions. The successful return by Kurtley Beale on Friday night, coupled with the assurance from his Melbourne Rebels coach, Damian Hill, that Beale will start next weekend, only adds to the complexity of the situation. Theoretically at least, it would seem there are five contenders: Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano from the Brumbies; James O'Connor and almost certainly now Beale from the Rebels; and only the brave and possibly naive would truly discount Quade Cooper from Queensland Reds.
The cases of O'Connor and Beale, particularly, are interesting. Both have had mixed success at fly-half for the Wallabies in recent years, and both have rotated in and out of the No. 10 jersey at Super Rugby level, too. Opinion on what their best or even preferred position is remains clouded; for every judge to tell you they're both natural 10s, you'll have a small crowd in the background suggesting that both should stay in the back three, or that O'Connor is a better 12.
O'Connor's game has been improving in recent weeks at fly-half for the Rebels, and there can be no understating the playmaking impact Beale had on Friday night. But is either player the No.10 answer for the Wallabies?
Well no, in my humble opinion, they're not. While both showed their electrifying and naturally instinctive running games against the Chiefs, they also highlighted why it would be folly to shackle them with the main playmaking duties against the Lions. Australia has some quality options available in Cooper and Toomua, and to a lesser extent Lealiifano, so why weaken the running strengths of Beale and O'Connor?
Moreover, O'Connor and Beale are also proving that a natural runner at fly-half doesn't really equate to running rugby from the Rebels. Rather, what we're seeing is an attacking platform, if you can call it that, entirely reliant on the second-phase or broken-play vision of the young stars. There's no real evidence of set backline plays; more a case of the Rebels' outside men following O'Connor and Beale's off-the-cuff lead in the hope it finds space.
It might look exciting, and it could work quite well against some teams at Super Rugby level, but you have to question its likely effectiveness against Test opposition, never mind the best defensive players of the Home Unions. At Test level, the attacking platform needs to come through smart rugby, not touch football.
The Sharks are a shadow of their 2012 selves
The Highlanders are back and the Sharks are gone (video available only in Australia)
At the risk of going all "I told you so" in my first edition of Scrum Five, I did indeed suggest in the Super Rugby round 12 preview that the Highlanders were overdue, and tipped them to win by three. There's no need to thank me, I can almost guarantee it won't happen again.
On that front, there was perhaps no better team for the Highlanders to be playing at such a desperate point in their season than last year's beaten finalists, the Sharks. The team from Durban are a sad shadow of the outfit that stormed through the 2012 play-off series all the way to the final, and they now head to Brisbane on the back of four straight losses for the less-than-easy task of facing a Reds team looking to avenge a draw in Perth the week before.
The Sharks have certainly been hampered by injuries, and there's no doubt that Bismarck du Plessis, especially, can't come back quickly enough, but that doesn't hide the fact that the players on the field are cruelling themselves with simple errors and poor option-taking. Sharks fans calling for John Plumtree's head via social media are quickly forgetting he took the side to Super Rugby and Currie Cup finals less than 12 months ago, too.
Are Australian teams overplaying the rolling maul, and is that even possible?
Western Force and Queensland Reds produced a tight battle (video available only in Australia)
It seems like a strange question, given the sudden re-emergence of the maul as a weapon in Australian rugby. The Force and Reds used the maul at will on Saturday night, and the Reds have certainly shown a preference for the rolling maul off the back of an attacking lineout inside the opposition 22 this season. The Brumbies have done similar things, and even New South Wales Waratahs and the Rebels are now showing interest in keeping the ball up and trucking it forward en masse.
It is, of course, great to see the maul alive and well in Australia again, and the flow-on effect is that Australian teams are also getting better at defending, sacking, and halting momentum of an opposition maul heading their way. The Reds, particularly on Saturday night, had great success at getting through the middle of the Force's maul legally, stopping the ball coming out, and winning the scrum feed. This will certainly come in handy when the Lions arrive.
I do wonder if we're starting to see an over-reliance on the maul, though. Are Australian teams becoming so unimaginative with lineout ball inside the red zone now that the default play now is to throw to four, gather the troops, and rumble it forward? What about the Coopers, and Lealiifanos, and Ashley-Coopers out wide who are in pretty handy form this season?
If the maul were bringing with it a wave of tries, you might understand the reliance; but as the Reds have found twice in recent weeks, camping in the opposition 22 can leave you unfulfilled if there's predictability about the methods. It might just be time to go wide again.
The South African conference roller-coaster continues
The Bulls looked good in dismantling the Hurricanes (video available only in Australia)
The Sharks were the best team in the Republic at the end of round nine, and six points separated them and the Stormers in fourth place on the conference table. At the end of round 11, the Cheetahs were on top but only four points separated the top four teams. With round 12 now behind us, the Bulls are back on top by virtue of their bonus-point win over the Hurricanes in Pretoria. Frustrating losses - maybe season-defining losses - for the Sharks and Stormers mean the spread across the top four teams now is out to eight points, but South Africa remains the most closely fought conference in Super Rugby.
Debate about which conference is or isn't the weakest will continue for as long as the format remains in play, but the fact remains that the unpredictable nature of teams mean teams from anywhere on the table can take points from those above them. This is precisely what is playing out in South Africa currently, and it could result in a first finals appearance for the Cheetahs. It might make tipping difficult, but it does make for an exciting competition.
The Waratahs smashed Southern Kings (video available only in Australia)
Reports of the Crusaders' demise have been grossly exaggerated
The Crusaders ended the Brumbies' undefeated home run (video available only in Australia)
Super Rugby was given a timely reminder in Canberra on Sunday afternoon: champion teams are always lurking close by.
The Crusaders have been there or thereabouts for most of the season, but hadn't yet put together that one display that says, 'yeah, we're still here'. The three tries-to-two defeat of the ladder-topping Brumbies - the Canberra side's first loss at home in 2013 - has fired the Crusaders back within reach of the top six while at the same time creating a gap on the chasing pack.
Dan Carter was pulling the strings again as if he'd never been away, as the Crusaders built their momentum into the game to firstly catch, overtake, and then leave the Brumbies in their wake. Neither team were keen on playing the game in their own half, yet the Crusaders reminded all that they're still among the very best counter-attacking teams in the competition.
The benching of Israel Dagg had the desired effect, as it had on the fullback's All Blacks team-mate Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith a few weeks ago. The New Zealand fullback had a major impact in his 23 minutes on the field, including sparking and scoring the match-sealing try, one of the year's best that started back on the Crusaders' own line.
The Brumbies were given a harsh dose of reality, and they now have the bye week to think about the simple mistakes in their game that so often undid any good work in the lead-up. The true test of the Brumbies might not be how they performed in this match, but how they perform in their next match, against the Waratahs in Sydney on May 18.
As for the Crusaders, well they're most certainly back; if they were ever gone at all.
Discuss the Scrum Five Super Rugby talking points by leaving a comment below. Also discuss the action with Brett on Twitter at @BMcSport and include the hashtag #ScrumFive.
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