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Brett McKay
Brett McKay | Columnist Index
One of the new breed of Australian online rugby writers, Brett McKay joins ESPNscrum.com having developed a popular presence on sports opinion site The Roar. He also tweets from @BMcSport.
Scrum Five - Super Rugby Talking Points
What we learned from Super Rugby round 19
Brett McKay
July 8, 2013

ESPNscrum reporter Brett McKay analyses five key talking points of the weekend's Super Rugby action. Plus a little something extra from the Lions Tour. Tell us your thoughts by leaving a comment at the foot of the page, and discuss the talking points with Brett on Twitter @BMcSport using the hashtag #ScrumFive.

An interesting final round awaits

The Super Rugby top six might be locked in, but the order is far from settled as we head into the final round of the regular season. There are so many possible permutations available, and I certainly won't attempt to cover them all. But just consider these scenarios for the top six teams.

The Bulls, current Super Rugby ladder leaders, and confirmed South African champions for 2013, host the suddenly red-hot Stormers now on a four-game winning streak. A win for the Bulls secures top spot and prime position into the play-offs, where they would host both their semi-, and the final, should they win through. But they could finish as low as third though with a loss and bonus-point win for the Brumbies.

The Chiefs, in second, head up the highway to Auckland to take on their neighbours, the Blues. A win will secure them a top-two finish, and all the home finals advantage, but a loss coupled with a bonus-point win to the Crusaders sees them drop to fourth and facing an elimination final instead of a week off.

The third-placed Brumbies can still finish second with a win over Western Force plus a Chiefs loss, giving them the home finals advantage, too. They can, in fact, finish first still, if both the Chiefs and Bulls lose, but can't finish any lower than third.

The fast-finishing Crusaders in fourth, can take the New Zealand conference and climb as high as second with a bonus-point win plus a Chiefs loss, but they can also finish fifth with a shock loss to the Hurricanes.

Queensland Reds, in fifth, can finish fourth and earn a home elimination final with a win over New South Wales Waratahs plus a Crusaders loss, but they drop to sixth if they lose. If results go as expected for the teams above them, finishing fifth will result in them taking on the Crusaders in Christchurch. Should they lose to the Tahs and finish sixth, though, they would "only" have to travel to Canberra and face the Brumbies in week one of the play-offs. I'll let you join those dots.

The sixth-place Cheetahs have the bye, and depending on what happens with the Reds, can rise to fifth, or stay sixth. They'll travel for the first week of the finals, either way, but they will at least have this week off in preparation.

I don't want to say 'I told you so' but ...

Only last week, I said of the Crusaders: "The real sign of just how dangerous a team these guys are is the way they so clinically disposed of the Highlanders ...", but I don't think anyone in their wildest dreams thought they would repeat the dose on the New Zealand conference-leading Chiefs, on Friday night. The real worry, for anyone drawn to face them in the next month, is that they've been working their way into "finals mode" pretty much since their win over the Brumbies in Canberra back in early May.

The writing was on the wall for the Chiefs before the game was even 20 minutes old The Chiefs came out firing, and playing an incredibly physical breakdown game, but they crossed the line of the law too often in that first quarter; Dan Carter potted four penalties in the first 18 minutes, to the Chiefs' one, and the visitors very quickly found themselves down 12-3.

The Chiefs drew back with a well-worked Asaeli Tikoirotuma try, and must have thought they were back in the game, but it was short-lived. Three Crusaders tries in six minutes - two to the incomparable Kieran Read - either side of half-time iced the game, and the fourth and fifth tries late in the game puts them on the right track to take out the NZ conference - something I mentioned last week only because it was possible, not because I thought it was realistic.

They're on a scary roll right now.

Don't leave New Zealand games early

Though I was out at Olympic Park in Sydney for the deciding third Test between Australia and the British & Irish Lions, I did find a small screen in a corner that was fixed on the Hurricanes-Highlanders game from Wellington. I scribbled some token notes and convinced myself the skill levels were about on par for a game with no possible impact on the play-offs and between two teams with not that much left to play for.

The All Blacks in residence were all very good -Gear, Slade, Smith, Smith, Smith, Barrett were standouts, as well as sounding like a legal firm - but the garden-variety Super Rugby players around them highlighted with frightening regularity the evident gaps in skill levels between the best players and the level below.

With the Highlanders well up at half-time, the bonus point secured, I allowed myself to presume the contest was over, and I would be better served enjoying the catering and checking the tape later. Wow. Big mistake. The second half rained tries, six in all, with defence put on the backburner as both sides decided the best way to counter opposition points was to just score more themselves: 93 points in 80 minutes of pretty entertaining rugby was the final result, but just don't look at the "missed tackle" column too closely.

And the lesson was learned about leaving supposedly dead contests early.

The Hurricanes and Highlanders turned on great entertainment if you don't value defence (video available only in Australia)

The Cheetahs are back. This week ...

Yes, we've kissed and made up, the Cheetahs and I. Despite them burning me so horribly when I tipped them to beat the Stormers in round 18, I can't stay mad at them now they've finally secured their maiden play-offs appearance.

Though it took them a good portion of the first half to get into the game and take the lead, the Cheetahs showed reasonable patience - which will be very useful in a fortnight's time, now - to establish a good lead at the break. I can't, for instance, think of the last time the Cheetahs kicked four penalty goals in the first half of a game.

That's not to say they didn't have opportunity for more tries, as Willie le Roux and Johan Sadie had some success in finding space down the left-hand side of the field. Actually, it should come as no surprise the Cheetahs played well again in a game in which le Roux spent a lot of time at first receiver. Just wear No.10, Willie.

And there was more of that patience as the Blues came back at them in the second half, before the Cheetahs ultimately laid on the two late tries to seal the game, and their post-season debut. The question now becomes which part of the roller-coaster ride will Cheetahs fans find themselves on in the first week of the play-offs?

Sharks nearly win in spite of themselves

The Bulls' Morne Steyn converts a penalty kick, Bulls v Sharks, Super Rugby, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, July 6, 2013
More Steyn as good as ever from the tee © Getty Images
Enlarge

I've made mention in previous editions of Scrum Five that the 2013 season for the Sharks has been a long way off expectations of the team beaten in the 2012 final by the Chiefs, but, the more I think about it, perhaps 2012 was a late-season run of overachievement, and this season is in fact a fairer indication of where they are as an organisation.

Their match against the Bulls at Loftus could even be the "poster game" for their 2013 season. They got out to an early lead, courtesy of Lwazi Mvovo's determination to get to the ball ahead of Akona Ndungane, but all too many times in the first half an unforced error would undo their good work up to that point.

And if it's not the errors or bad options, it's their discipline. Bismarck du Plessis was shown a yellow card for a dumb elbow into JJ Engelbrecht in a ruck - after the Sharks had built five phases and were working their way out of their own territory. Butch James' old habits refuse to change, with his "coat hanger" tackle on Jurgen Visser in the lead-up to Jano Vermaak's try - which would ultimately be the match-winner. James was subsequently and unsurprisingly cited and suspended for four weeks after the game, and that one moment undid what had been a pretty solid game from him at fly-half.

Yet the Sharks very nearly won the match, which would've had all sorts of implications on the Bulls' top-three standings. Fullback Riaan Viljoen had a penalty goal in the last minute after the Bulls collapsed a maul, only to push it to the right of the uprights. Whether they deserved to win the game, of course, might be a whole other argument.

Lions Tour bonus point

Lions deserving series winners, with future tours assured

Lions fullback Leigh Halfpenny celebrates his side's series triumph, Australia v British & Irish Lions, ANZ Stadium, Sydney, July 6, 2013
Leigh Halfpenny proved his value © PA Photos
Enlarge

It wasn't the result for which Australian rugby had hoped, but it was the one the British & Irish Lions needed. A series loss would've lengthened the losing drought to 20 years, and seious questions about the point or format of future Lions tours would almost certainly have been raised. Instead, Australia has given the New Zealand economy something to look forward to in 2017, such will be the interest from the motherland in wanting to see the Lions go back to back. Truly, New Zealand, you're very welcome.

Many words have already been spoken, and plenty of them in anger, about the Wallabies' performance, but we should also be very careful not to completely overlook what was a truly dominant display from the Lions when it counted in the decider.

The amount of planning and management and co-ordination that went into the Lions tour is mind-boggling, but they will also argue now that the means justifies the end result, and more importantly for both the Lions and the future of the concept, that those plans will be replicated in four years time.

So well played to the Lions, their management, and especially their phenomenal supporters. It's still been a wonderful spectacle of rugby in this country, even if the result didn't quite go the way "we" wanted.

© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
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