Heavyweights steeled for tough run of fixtures
April 28, 2014
Super Rugby round 11 was the one in which even the conference leaders found the going tough. In a rough round for tipsters, the Sharks and Chiefs both found themselves that much closer to the chasing pack by Saturday morning, while the Hurricanes, Blues and Highlanders won to prove there's plenty of life left in mid-table teams. 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.
Tough at the top
Sharks 14-34 Highlanders (Australia only)%]
It was always going to be that one of the three conference leaders would drop a game in this round, given the Brumbies and Chiefs were facing off in the replay of last year's decider. But what odds would you have found that the Sharks - the runaway South African conference leaders - would also find themselves on the wrong end of a thumping?
Just as it felt like the Sharks were starting to run away with things, they lost their last home game before their Australian and New Zealand tour. And knowing they had only one match at home at Kings Park in their last seven, this was a game the Sharks really couldn't afford to drop.
Their four-week tour pits them against Melbourne Rebels, the Brumbies, the Crusaders and the Blues, and where even only a week ago we might have been thinking three wins was possible, the manner with which the Highlanders completely outplayed the Sharks suddenly makes this a very tough tour indeed. With the Bulls playing four of their final six games at home, and with five of those six games against teams in the bottom five, perhaps the Sharks' grip on the South African conference isn't so assured after all.
Brumbies 41-23 Chiefs (Australia only)%]
The Brumbies' bonus-point win over the Chiefs maintains their place atop the Australian conference as they enter the toughest part of their season. After heading to Christchurch to play the Crusaders this Saturday afternoon, they host the Sharks for Jake White's much anticipated return to Canberra before setting off for South Africa to play the Cheetahs and Bulls. They'll be aiming for four wins, of course, but even three in the next month will be a mighty achievement.
The Chiefs, now relieved of top spot in the New Zealand conference, have their South African tour out of the way, and now won't leave New Zealand again for the rest of the regular season. They face the Lions at home and the Blues in their historic first match in New Plymouth before their second bye, but they finish the season with five matches against teams in finals contention. Getting back to the top of the conference might not be so easy.
New Zealand, you have a new leader
Hurricanes 35-21 Reds (Australia only)%]
The Hurricanes were simply superb in their five-tries-to-two demolition of Queensland Reds in Wellington, which vaulted them to the top of the New Zealand conference. And in all honesty, I think the 14-point margin flattered the Reds. Queensland led at half-time, yet you always felt like the Hurricanes were in charge.
The Reds' plan of targeting Beauden Barrett amounted to nothing, with the Hurricanes proving - as if it were ever in doubt - that they're far more than a one-man team. And with a back three including Julian Savea, Andre Taylor and Cory Jane, why would you be a one-man team?
The Reds' own game then just didn't hold up in the second half. The Hurricanes had a bit over half the possession, and enjoyed 64% of second-half territory, yet it felt like much more than that. Indeed, the Hurricanes did actually have 96% of possession as they added 12 points in the first 15 minutes of the second half.
The Reds lost three lineouts on their own throw, and missed the best part of 40 tackles for the game; against a team like the Hurricanes, you just can't give away that sort of free ride.
While the Hurricanes are playing like a relaxed team, you can't say the same about the Reds. Watching the two teams play, you wouldn't have known it was the team dominating that is already on the hunt for a new coach next season. But it's fair to say the rumbling has started as to whether the Reds will be, too.
New Zealand conference gets even more ridiculous
Just six competition points separate the best and the worst sides in the New Zealand conference. And to call the Blues "the worst" is ridiculously harsh, having not just beaten, but completely outplayed New South Wales Waratahs, who were sitting in fourth place on the Super Rugby standings going into this round.
The five New Zealand teams currently occupy third, fifth, seventh, eighth and ninth positions on the table, and there is now at least one derby game each round until the end of the season. This means the teams can only take more points off each other, making things even tighter in the conference. And almost impossible for tipsters.
Who will be top of the conference at season's end? Better folk than I might have an opinion. The run home shows how tough things will be:
Hurricanes (26pts, 5 wins): Waratahs (Away), Rebels (A), Highlanders, Chiefs, Blues (A), Crusaders, Chiefs (A), bye.
Chiefs (25pts, 4 wins): Lions, Blues (New Plymouth), bye, Hurricanes (A), Waratahs (New Plymouth), Highlanders (A), Hurricanes, Blues (A).
Highlanders (24pts, 5 wins): Stormers (A), Lions, Hurricanes (A), Crusaders, Reds (A), Chiefs, Waratahs (A), Crusaders (A).
Crusaders (22pts, 5 wins): Brumbies, Reds (A), Sharks, Highlanders (A), Force, Hurricanes (A), Blues, Highlanders.
Blues (20pts, 4 wins): Reds, Chiefs (A), bye, Sharks (North Harbour), Hurricanes, Force (A), Crusaders (A), Chiefs.
Questions for the Waratahs?
Blues 21-13 Waratahs (Australia only)%]
If the definition of madness is to continue doing things exactly the same way but hoping for different results, could we be in for some shuffling from the Waratahs over the next few weeks as they battle to stay in touch with a top-two position they still maintain is their goal?
Currently sixth on 24 points, the Waratahs are one of four teams with five wins, from their nine games played so far. Over the history of the conference format, 10 wins has been the cut-off for the top six; and in some years 10 wins still didn't guarantee a spot.
To get to 10 wins, the Waratahs must win at least five of their final seven games, which includes three away from their Sydney Football Stadium home plus one more derby game at Homebush. On current standings, four of those seven games are against teams placed lower on the table.
But given that 10 wins may not be enough, the Tahs will also need more bonus points. And this might be where some shuffling is needed because the tries have somewhat dried up in recent times. The Waratahs started the season with a bang, scoring 11 tries in their first two games, and their tally stood at 17 after round six. But they've since managed only five more tries in five games.
The common train of thought seems to be that Kurtley Beale needs a run at fly-half, and that the twin-playmakers game isn't working. But that twin-playmakers game also netted those 17 tries to round six, which would seem to point to other problems.
Certainly, their scrum isn't the power it once was. Benn Robinson still appears to be struggling with the new engagements, and Sekope Kepu was hooked in the 28th minute on Friday in Auckland, having been on the end of a Tony Woodcock masterclass. Around the field, too, there's many a question as to whether the Waratahs forwards are providing enough of a platform.
Whatever the problem, Michael Cheika has to try something. As Henry Ford said: "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."
And what of the Reds?
Frankly, I think they're done. Using 10 wins as the required mark to play finals football again, the Reds - currently with three wins - must win every game before the end of the season.
Reds coach Richard Graham said over the weekend: "We've got to continue to believe that we're a bloody good side capable of turning this around and gathering some momentum and posting a number of consecutive wins together." But that statement doesn't recognise how many of that "bloody good side" are a long way off their best form.
The back-row has really missed Liam Gill, and pilfering the ball has become a rare event, while the backline attack appears impotent at best and clueless at worst. They're completely dependent on Quade Cooper to spark something, and when he has an off night, as he did in Wellington on Saturday, that's them done for in the attacking stakes. And now, Will Genia is in some doubt to play the Blues on Friday night, after rolling his right ankle badly against the Hurricanes.
Graham is said to be feeling the heat, but it's only going to intensify if he can't spark his "bloody good side" out of their current funk.
Discuss the Scrum5 talking points via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
As Scotland decides its future, Scrum Sevens looks at a group of players who transcended rugby both for country and the British & Irish Lions
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup