What we learned from Super Rugby round 20
July 15, 2013
ESPNscrum reporter Brett McKay analyses five key talking points of the weekend's Super Rugby action. 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.
Top six drama right to the end
The drama went down to the Stormers-Bulls match (video available only in Australia)%]
Stormers 30 - 13 Bulls Sharks 58 - 13 Southern Kings Force 21 - 15 Brumbies Blues 16 - 26 Chiefs Melbourne Rebels 38 - 37 Highlanders Crusaders 25 - 17 Hurricanes
Back at the end of May, I knocked up a simple spreadsheet to keep track of teams in contention, their respective runs home, projected and actual finishing points, bonus points guesses, and so on. Ultimately, the top three and the three wildcards remained unchanged, largely, from creation of the spreadsheet some eight weeks ago right through to the completion of the regular season.
I won't go into great detail about my predictions. I had the Bulls finishing third and the Reds finishing sixth. My points and bonus points predictions were bang on for some teams, a bit off for others. Either way, the point in telling you all this is that we have known the top six teams for two months, effectively, yet the final finishing order of those teams was not confirmed until the end of the final game of the final round of the season. Five of the seven games played in round 20 had finals implications.
There would be little argument that this week just gone would've been the busiest of the season for the various logistics people from the six teams and from SANZAR themselves. Confirmation of that would come in the form of the SANZAR email sent to media people and outlets detailing the finals series. It arrived in my inbox at 5:15am on Sunday, two-and-a-half hours after the Stormers had beaten the Bulls.
And what of all those final round permutations I listed in Scrum Five last week?
The Bulls could've finished first, but dropped to second. The Chiefs could've dropped to fourth, but held on to win the New Zealand Conference and top the ladder. The Brumbies could've finished first, but stayed third. The Crusaders could've snuck into second, but stayed fourth. The Reds could've finished fourth or sixth, but remained fifth. The Cheetahs had the bye and were sweating on the Reds result, but their position didn't change. For all the different scenarios, and all the drama to the very end, the final placings were essentially under our noses the whole time.
Who's carrying the momentum into the play-offs?
This is a difficult point to judge after the final-round performances of the teams continuing into the Super Rugby finals series. Both the Bulls and Brumbies suffered losses they wouldn't be proud of, but the results and performances in hindsight were possibly always on the cards. In my predictions chart, the Stormers were one game I thought the Bulls would drop. And the correlation between the Brumbies' final-round meltdown in 2012 and their lacklustre performance against Western Force was being highlighted on social media well before half-time in Perth.
The Crusaders had an off-night, too, against a willing Hurricanes side that might just have provided the ideal finals preparation. The Reds should be thinking the same of New South Wales Waratahs, who, but for a shanked Berrick Barnes drop goal off his wrong foot, might have delivered the same fate to Queensland as the Force handed the Brumbies.
All the playoff sides will bring degrees of momentum into the knockout stages; they didn't finish in the top six through luck or via a lottery win. For mine, I'm still wary of the Chiefs and Crusaders, who have been the form teams of the past month. While this Australian-based scribe would love dearly to see Australian success, I have a sneaking suspicion the 2013 champions will come from the likely Chiefs-Crusaders semi-final.
Sam Whitelock and the Crusaders look ready to peak in the finals © Getty Images
The form teams we won't see
If rugby were played over just one period of 40 minutes, instead of two, the Highlanders would be competition certainties. In the past two rounds, they were involved in games producing 93 and 75 points, respectively. While there's now two instances of defence becoming optional in the second half of a game, their first-half performances have been quite sensational. Against the Hurricanes, they led 32-13 at half-time and had the four-try bonus point locked away. Against the Rebels on Friday night, they repeated the feat to lead 31-7 at the break. Remember, too, the led the Blues 29-0 after 33 minutes in round 17. It's been a roller-coaster season for the Highlanders, but they've remained one of the best broken-field attacking teams in the competition. Let's just hope they can address their second-half defence for 2014.
The Stormers, on the other hand, and despite a horrible injury toll, finished the season with five wins on the trot, and they were very impressive yet again to take down the Bulls at Newlands on Saturday. As was the case in 2012, the Stormers finished the 2013 season with the best defensive record in the competition and again with the fewest tries let in - by some margin over the next best side.
Bryan Habana bade farewell to Super Rugby as the Stormers bade farewell to 2013 © Getty Images
If you wanted proof why the broken Super Rugby season is bad ...
You only had to look at the two Australian derby games. After a five-week break because of the British & Irish Lions Tour, and with only one-off tour games played in between, the players not involved with the Tests looked rusty while the various Wallabies around the teams looked more than a touch lethargic.
The Waratahs-Reds in Sydney on Saturday night was a throwback to the dour Australian Super Rugby derbies of 2012, when neither team quite seemed to know how to take the upper hand. Indeed, the lead changed hands five times throughout the match, though things might have been different had Queensland's two disallowed tries been awarded.
The Waratahs didn't have the best night, either, with both halves well below the form that led to their names being mentioned as possible Wallabies squad contenders before the break. The Reds will quickly put this game behind them and move their focus onto beating the Crusaders in Christchurch, something they've not done since 1999.
The Brumbies were a long way off their best as well, and Jake White pondered in the post-match if they just have final-round jitters regardless of the opponent. All told, the Brumbies made 17 handling errors, conceded 26 turnovers, and missed 17 tackles. Yet somehow, their set-piece remained unblemished, operating at 100% for the night. That's probably the reason they didn't lose by more.
Ben Mowen's post-match comment - "a lot can happen in a week, and it's going to have to" - could not be more on the money.
... but on the other hand
Teams not in contention for the play-offs could - and did - get out there and just play. The Rebels, Sharks, Highlanders, and Stormers all had no troubles, though most of those teams had already been back for three rounds. Western Force called their win over the Brumbies "one of its most complete performances of the season" in the official match report, and that would be pretty difficult to argue with.
Interestingly, all five of those teams were farewelling players in varying quantities, so the motivation of those teams to send mates out on a winning note should never have been - yet in some cases might have been - underestimated.
It will be interesting to see how much traction the International Rugby Players' Association's thoughts on a global season receive in the coming months. Under their plan, the June Internationals will be played a month later, with Super Rugby completed without interruption. The Lions Tour complicated things this year, but the international recess has never really fit comfortably. The players' plan is worth consideration.
Saturday, July 20
Sunday, July 21
Week 2 - July 26/27:
(2) Bulls v Highest-ranked winner from Week 1
Week 3 - August 3:
Super Rugby Table:
Super Rugby Conferences Tables:
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