Super Rugby welcomes the play-offs
July 14, 2014
Brett McKay and Andy Withers discuss the final Super Rugby round of 2014 and when does bravery become stupid in the face of serious injury?
Finally, we've got there. After 19 rounds of some of the most ridiculously unpredictable rugby in the 19-year history of Super Rugby, and where two-thirds of the competition was still in finals calculations until only a fortnight ago, we've finally narrowed the field down to the best six teams in southern hemisphere provincial rugby for 2014
Here are the Super Rugby talking points from the final round of the regular season. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Chiefs and Brumbies have regained momentum
Brumbies 47-25 Force (video available in Australia only)%]
And while he thought he'd be playing the Highlanders this week, courtesy of the Blues beating the Chiefs in Auckland last Friday, his point remains: should the Brumbies make this season's decider, they'll be significantly fresher than when they arrived in Hamilton to face the Chiefs last season - after they had covered upwards of 30,000km in the previous three weeks.
And as recently as a fortnight ago, the Brumbies and Chiefs facing off in a play-off seemed a highly unlikely scenario. While the Brumbies were hanging onto sixth spot by a fingernail, the Chiefs' loss to the Highlanders, and the Blues' big win over Western Force, had everyone thinking the Chiefs were long odds to qualify at all. It's taken a big lift in form from both sides to secure a wildcard spot each, so there is a nice synergy in them meeting in the first week.
The 2013 grand final was a game either team could have won, 50 minutes in, until ultimately the Brumbies' travel fatigue finally caught up with them. Then the return clash in Canberra, in round 11 this season, showed the first signs that the Chief's title defence might not go quite as well as they had hoped.
Blues 8-11 Chiefs (video available in Australia only)%]
Both teams come into the match having claimed their opponent's scalp in the past year, and now with some impressive pre-final momentum. There's no better time for another face-off for last season's finalists.
Can the Highlanders repeat the Miracle of Durban?
Just as the Brumbies and the Chiefs faced off in round 11, so too did the Highlanders meet their qualifying final opponents. They did better than just meet them; they became the first team to beat the Sharks at Kings Park in Durban this season, ending the South African team's eight-game winning streak stretching back to June last year.
The Highlander's defeat of the Sharks - arguably their best win of the season - came in the middle of a red-hot run of form, and it was notable for the way they backed up their three-try first half with a patient second-half display. With a player in the sin bin, which allowed the Sharks to get back within six points, the Highlanders held their composure, conceded no further points, and sealed the deal with a fourth try 10 minutes from time.
No other side has put four tries on the Sharks at Kings Park in 2014, nor has any other side kept them tryless; it was only the second time the Sharks had conceded a four-try bonus point at home in the past four seasons. So the Highlanders certainly know it can be done. Whether they've got another performance like that in them this season remains to be seen, and much of their hope rest on the availability of Ben Smith. Given their finals survival is almost dependant on it, even an 80% healthy Ben Smith is better than none at all.
Crusaders + Read = good to go
We've written in this column, and spoken on the Scrum5 podcast a little bit of late of the fact that the Crusaders were still getting the job done and winning games without playing brilliant rugby.
They've been without several of their big names for varying periods this season. There's still no McCaw, but Dan Carter and Kieran Read have been eased back into the side in recent weeks. And Saturday's clinical deconstruction of the Highlanders might be the first signs that normal programming has returned.
Crusaders 34-8 Highlanders (video available in Australia only)%]
Certainly, Carter resuming the kicking duties brought back that air of assuredness that one of the best goal kickers in either rugby code is always going to bring. And that's not a slight on Colin Slade, who is a very good kicker in his own right. But the point remains that Slade from the tee is not Carter from the tee, and Slade has been a having a rough time of it lately. Regardless, Slade without the kicking, and with one more week alongside Carter, looked a lot more relaxed in his play-making, and the Crusaders certainly benefitted from the return of his running game.
But Read's return is the big talking point. Suddenly the Crusaders' set-piece and their lineout especially looks rock solid, simply by the removal of much of the pressure on Sam Whitelock as the focal point. With Read a genuine target, too, defending the Crusaders' lineout drive becomes a whole different prospect, as the Highlanders discovered. Indeed, they couldn't defend it at all; even though the Crusaders threw to the back repeatedly for the same driving play, the Highlanders just couldn't and didn't contest - instead preferring to stay on the ground - and the red-and-black machine scored three of their four tries from the lineout drive.
Read's presence also adds another element to the link game for the Crusaders, too, and, again, it was Slade and the outside men who benefitted the most.
Essentially, while I wondered about the Crusaders in the finals, the return of Read has erased all concerns. If you didn't believe the seven-time champions were a decent chance before, believe it now.
Waratahs' lineout: the chink in the minor premiers' armour?
Did the Waratahs give the more tactical kick-minded teams in the top six a glimpse of potential weakness in Brisbane on Saturday night?
The Tahs' lineout won just four of nine throws in the first 40 minutes; Reds skipper James Horwill had pinched three, and another two were adjudged not straight. In the second half, things improved somewhat, with the Waratahs winning four from six.
Reds 3-34 Waratahs (video available in Australia only)%]
Queensland got a sniff of lineout ball early, and went after it all night. A concern about Tatafu Polota-Nau's lineout throwing has always persisted, but, to be fair, his throwing has been from the top shelf since Stephen Moore went down in the opening minutes of the France series.
Certainly the likes of the Sharks, Brumbies, and Crusaders, who each have a sound kicking game and / or a very good defensive lineout, will have noticed with interest the Reds' success in this area. The Brumbies and Crusaders, especially, could quite conceivably face the Waratahs along the way in the finals.
Kicking for the corners and attacking five-metre lineouts might not win new fans, but it can and does win knockout rugby. Watch this space, I suspect.
"Collapsed face" - when risk of major injury is simply far too much
Western Force scrum-half Ian Prior was "not the most handsome No. 9 running around" by half-time in Canberra on Friday night, according to his coach Michael Foley.
Prior, who broke his nose the previous week against Queensland Reds in Perth, broke his cheekbone in three places, a result of an accidental Matt Toomua knee only five or so minutes into the match. But he didn't go off until half-time, and in fact made several more tackles in the period he played on. And he played on with the knowledge from the Force doctor that another knock to the same area could have led to a "collapsed face", a gruesome thought however you tackle it. Prior is currently stuck in Canberra, awaiting medical clearance to fly to Brisbane for surgery, and is staying with former housemate, Brumbies fullback Jesse Mogg.
It was certainly a courageous decision to play on, no question. But was it overly smart? A fractured cheekbone was always going to keep Prior out of the finals, should the Force have made it that far, so surely this was a case when the player should have been taken from the field for his own good. It's not like they didn't have Alby Mathewson on the bench, and the risk of a collapsed face surely outweighs qualifying for the finals.
Obviously, that's an easy comment to make in hindsight, and the extent of Prior's injury wasn't fully acknowledged until the post-match. But you do wonder sometimes, particularly with so much more care having been taken with possible concussion these days, whether any head injury should to be handled the same way. Even though Prior was fully coherent and aware of the risks, should he really have been able to make the call to play on?
It seems like another case of players sometimes needing to be saved from themselves.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
He teed up Obolensky's try, fought in Burma and played cricket for Warwickshire - we Rewind to look at the story of Peter Cranmer
With the World Cup just a year away, Tom Hamilton picks out five matches to ensure you have tickets for
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