It's time we took the Force seriously
April 7, 2014
Ben McCalman of the Force runs the ball hard into contact © Getty Images
Super Rugby Round 8 was the one in which the Chiefs proved they can chase down any lead, the Melbourne Rebels very nearly became the second consecutive Australian team to win a thriller in Dunedin, and the Crusaders finally broke the so-called Indian Ocean hoodoo. The Blues suffered the double blow of a loss heading into a bye, and the Waratahs showed there may just be life without Israel Folau.
Here are the talking points from the weekend, as I saw them. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Highlanders-Rebels a window into trans-Tasman future
Much has been written and said recently about the virtues of a trans-Tasman competition, under an expanded Super Rugby model beyond 2016. While it's long been a wish-list item for Australian rugby fans not fond of the early morning alarm to watch games in South Africa live, ARU CEO Bill Pulver admitted last week that that very model was what the ARU lobbied for at the SANZAR table.
"Our preferred Super Rugby structure is a two-conference model, with Australia and New Zealand linked with Asia. However this option wasn't supported by our SANZAR partners or the broadcasters," Pulver told Australian sports website, The Roar.
"We were open to building a completely separate and new Australasian competition, and while New Zealand was interested, the desire to include South Africa in more regular competition is an important element for them," Pulver said.
Highlanders 33 - 30 Melbourne Rebels (Australia Only)%]
And so it was those words and ambitions that rang in my ears while watching the Highlanders-Rebels clash from Dunedin on Friday night. Because if we think about it, that game was a decent window into what we would have to get used to under a trans-Tasman or Australasian format. And I'm not sure it's a good thing.
Six tries for the match, only 34 kicks in total, 209 runs for 739 metres, 11 clean breaks and 29 defenders beaten, with 16 offloads. Less than 200 tackles made and 29 more missed. A final score of 33-30.
Now don't get me wrong, it was a bloody entertaining match, but what would regular games like that do for the long term preparations of the Wallabies, or dare I say it, the All Blacks? Games like that one on Friday night just underline why continued exposure to the physicality of the big, abrasive South African sides is something that shouldn't be given away easily.
It's just worth keeping in mind that we need to be careful what we wish for. What might be good for Super Rugby, and for television deals, might not be so good for international competitiveness in the long term.
The man without fear
On Friday night, and despite the rain, I was thrilled to watch Pat McCabe's superb game from close quarters while holding the sideline mic for ABC Grandstand radio. It's only a month since he was taken to a Perth hospital with yet another neck injury, but since then, McCabe's form has been nothing short of astonishing.
And he was a clear standout as the Brumbies halted the Blues' momentum in Canberra. Scoring a double, McCabe was a constant menace for young Blues fly-half, Simon Hickey, and he left long-time All Blacks' rival Ma'a Nonu in his wake on more than a few occasions. He's seemingly always played without fear, but his acceleration as he received the ball, and as he hit holes on Friday night was exceptional.
Brumbies 26 - 9 Blues (Australia Only)%]
But you're quickly disappointed if looking for McCabe to acknowledge his sublime current form. "Yeah, I guess it's hard to say. I think I'd give most of the credit to our forwards," McCabe said to me on full-time, after I suggested he fairly comfortably took the honours in his battle with Nonu.
Thankfully, his coach was far more generous in his praise. "He stuck to the plan. He carried at their young No.10, found him a few times, and found him early," Brumbies' Director of Rugby, Laurie Fisher said in the post-match.
"I think he's definitely in Ewen [McKenzie's] sights. He'll be quite high in the thoughts of Wallabies selectors if he continues this form." And that's pretty difficult to argue with, at the moment.
The Western Force believes. It's time we did too...About a month ago, after the impressive demolition of the Rebels, I wrote of the Force's upcoming schedule, and what they could do to earn the respect they were calling for after that one win.
"Over the next month, the Force face the Highlanders in Dunedin, the Chiefs at home, the Reds in Brisbane, and the Waratahs at home, before the rematch against the Rebels over the Easter weekend," I outlined.
Western Force 32 - 29 Reds (Australia Only)%]
"If the Force want to be taken seriously, and have the Super Rugby competition take them seriously, they'll win at least two of those games against quality opposition, and ideally one away from home too."
Well, let the record show that after winning those first three games described - two of them away, no less - this scribe is certainly taking the Force seriously. They're on a four-game winning streak, and in toppling the Reds, became one of only a few teams to win straight after the bye in 2014.
More impressively, they're playing simple rugby really effectively. Twice on Saturday night they scored tries on the back of 16 or more phases, simply by doing the hard yards, holding possession, and just taking whatever metres were available.
There wouldn't be too many backrows in the competition in better form as a unit, and this is providing the perfect platform for Alby Mathewson and Sias Ebersohn to launch flat-ball attacking raids on unsuspecting defensive lines.
Their current fifth spot in the overall rankings is well deserved, and there's no reason why they can't remain in the top half from here on. Make some room, Sea of Blue, I'm climbing aboard!
Travel drought broken
It's taken until the sixth and seventh games of Round 8, but the 'Indian Ocean curse' that has been widely referenced - which until the Crusaders beat the Lions in Johannesburg, had no team winning after crossing the Indian Ocean - has finally been broken.
You could even say with the Waratahs beating the Stormers well in Cape Town, that the momentum is with teams well away from home!
Waratahs 22 - 11 Stormers (Australia Only)%]
In reality, I suspect those wins might become the exception, rather than the norm, and those teams making the trek east or west will continue to struggle. Even the Sharks, who only lost their first game in Round 6, won't be immune when they finish their Australasian tour with tough games against the Brumbies, Crusaders, and Blues. The Brumbies themselves head west after taking on the Sharks.
Winning on the road has always been difficult in Super Rugby, but the task in 2014 has been even more difficult. For no obvious reason, the win rate at home sits at an unusually high 77.5%, and has only just dipped below 80% for the first time this season in the round just completed.
So yes, the drought has been broken, but it won't surprise me if it's quickly re-established.
The mid-table challenge from here
At the completion of Round 8, there are just three points separating the Western Force (18) in 5th place, and the Queensland Reds (15) in 11th place. Extending the spread up or down by the value of a bonus point win, also brings the NSW Waratahs (20) in 4th, and the Crusaders (13) in 12th into the calculations.
Over the next month or so, a lot of these teams will play each other, meaning there will be a lot of movement in table positions. So consider these schedules over the next four rounds:
Waratahs (20pts - 4th): Force (Away), Bulls, Blues (A), and Hurricanes;
Force (18 - 5th): Waratahs, Rebels (A), Bulls, and Cheetahs (A);
Bulls (17 - 6th): Highlanders (A), Waratahs (A), Force (A), and Cheetahs;
Lions (16 - 7th): Sharks, Stormers (A), BYE, and Chiefs (A);
Hurricanes (16 - 8th): BYE, Blues, Reds, and Waratahs (A);
Blues (16 - 9th): BYE, Hurricanes (A), Waratahs, and Reds;
Highlanders (15 - 10th): Bulls, BYE, Sharks (A), and Stormers (A);
Reds (15 - 11th): Brumbies, BYE, Hurricanes (A), and Blues (A);
Crusaders (13 - 12th): Cheetahs (A), Chiefs (A), BYE, and Brumbies.
Of this group, and on current form - which admittedly is a week-to-week proposition these days - it appears that the teams with the taxing travel schedule are more at risk of points table free-fall. The Bulls, Lions, and Highlanders particularly, have Indian Ocean treks in this time and face tough games. The Waratahs, Force, Hurricanes, and Blues have games in which they'll be eyeing off a run of wins, but given they face each other in many of those, not all plans will come through. And that's what makes this competition fascinating.
And that's not to exclude the Brumbies and Chiefs - who both sit no more than a point above this pack - from this mess, either. As you can see in these schedules, both teams will face tough opposition, and actually play each other on ANZAC Day in Canberra.
Aside from the Sharks, probably, there are no real finals certainties confirmed. But we might have a clearer idea in a month's time.
What did you think of the weekend's Super Rugby? Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland
"This team deserves to be recognised as the greatest of all time." Huw Richards looks at Gareth Edwards' final match for Wales
The two leading contenders for the best modern open-side flanker go head to head in Paris on Saturday. John Taylor assesses the tale of the tape