When the punter becomes the punted
Pity the poor bookmaker that has to earn a living giving odds on the out-of-sorts bunch that will compete in Super Rugby’s playoffs this year.
It’s so bad that the only bet a pro would feel safe shaking on is that no one who followed the tournament only from the June break onwards would have predicted our six-strong collection of conference qualifier and wildcard riff-raff.
Let’s start with the top-of-the-log Chiefs. They looked everything but in charge as they let in five soft tries while bending over for a 28-point hiding in Christchurch less than two weeks ago.
Same goes for our second-placed team the Bulls, whose half-hearted stampede at Newlands this last Saturday was mostly, well, after the fact and in the direction of their own goal-posts.
Neither of them had it as bad as the third-placed Brumbies, though. Jake White’s men finished off their on-field playoff preparations by contributing well over a tenth of the spent Force’s season try-count in an 80-minute display of sheer ineptness.
And we may just as well make that 160 minutes. The preceding match in Sydney against the Waratahs was just as bad, and the Reds had nothing good to take with them from that two-point win over their arch-enemies. It’s only the fact that the 'Tahs missed 80% of their kicks at goal that stopped the Reds from also ending the regular season with another L behind their names.
Fortunately for the Crusaders they scored off the final move of the match to give their scoreline against the lowly Hurricanes at least some respectability, and fortunately for the Cheetahs they had a bye. If it wasn’t for that we can’t imagine it would have been too tough to find some snide remarks to throw in their direction as well.
Not that we’d want to. We take no pleasure in reporting that expectations are quite low ahead of this year’s fancily named Super Rugby Finals Series. Nor do we find any delight in having to ask the obvious question: if the best teams on current form aren’t playing in these playoffs, should we even have them?
At least we find some solace in the fact that we can answer that question with an honest yes. Our six contenders may not be the best on current form, but that alone doesn’t count for much. Log points gained back in February count exactly the same as those gained last week, and if these six had the most points overall, there’ll be a good reason for that.
Also remember this: none of our qualifiers asked for their best players to be broken by the rigours of international rugby so close to this season-deciding business end. They couldn’t guard their form, no matter how much they wanted to.
Forcing a month-long break for tests all but guaranteed that the tournament’s best teams will reassemble bruised and battered, or at best, rusty. What a shame that it also had to be done almost on the eve of the tournament’s most important three weeks.
Nevertheless, we pity those aforementioned bookies. But we also have real sympathy for those teams that got no medals as they watched their collective form do a commendable synchronised two-and-a-half back somersault with a twist.
Most of all we’re sorry for anyone willing to put anything more than their reputation on the line when predicting what will happen between now and the final’s final whistle.
As we’ve established, the form book is out of the window. The problem is that our back-up rule of thumb wasn’t far behind.
Home-ground advantage? Not much of a help for us this time round, we’re afraid.
The Brumbies won’t be counting on it too much on Sunday when they host a Cheetahs team that hasn’t lost a single match on Australian soil this year. And while the Crusaders will fancy their chances at home against the Reds, they’ll do exactly the same next week if asked to do the short hop across the Cook Strait to face the same Chiefs they handed that 43-15 drubbing to recently.
Even Pretoria’s famed Fortress is fallible this year, despite some impressive stats trying to shore up its walls. The Bulls, for example, have never lost a playoff or final that they’ve hosted (not even the ones they hosted away from Loftus). They’ve also not lost a home game in well over a year.
The Bulls, however, have also never gone into a playoff series with a team that differs so dramatically from the one that got them there.
Stats - no matter how impressive - can’t scrum on your behalf, and it can’t call your lineouts. A fanatical home crowd won’t secure you the ball you need to win a match, and neither will a long flight across the Indian Ocean. The Bulls – or whatever is left of them – will have to find a way to do that for themselves.
Then again, haven’t they done exactly that kind of thing so often before? Isn’t it set in stone that you never write off the boys in blue before any playoff series? We don’t know.
In fact, is there anything we can predict with any amount of certainty? Well, maybe there is.
We know – even if only because Murray Walker drilled it in our heads so often – that if anything can happen, it probably will. If no one is the outright favourite, then everyone has a fighter’s chance.
If the team you support is still in the competition, it’s time to dust off the pom-poms and the vocal cords. They have a real shot at this, and will need all the help they can get.
And if you woke up on Sunday morning to find that you’ve become a neutral overnight, that is still no reason to tune out. All our contenders showed at some stage during the year that they a capable of playing some scintillating rugby. This tooth-and-nail extravaganza is quite likely to turn spectacular at some point.
Just don’t bet your house on it.
On that note, let’s move on to our weekly team selections for the last time this year.
Note: our weekly teams are selected on the past weekend's action only, so overall season form is not a factor. Players in teams with a bye are then obviously not considered.
Super XV for week 19:
15 Ben Smith (Highlanders), 14 Tom Marshall (Crusaders), 13 Rene Ranger (Blues), 12 Bundee Aki (Chiefs), 11 Bryan Habana (Stormers), 10 Dan Carter (Crusaders), 9 Andrew Ellis (Crusaders), 8 Kieran Reid (Crusaders), 7 Tanerau Latimer (Chiefs), 6 Brad Shields (Hurricanes), 5 Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), 4 Eben Etzebeth (Stormers), 3 Ben Tameifuna (Chiefs), 2 Saia Fainga’a (Reds), 1 Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks).
Bok Barometer for week 19:
15 Odwa Ndungane (Sharks), 14 JP Pietersen (Sharks), 13 Jean de Villiers (Stormers), 12 Juan de Jongh (Stormers), 11 Bryan Habana (Stormers), 10 Gary van Aswegen (Stormers), 9 Charl McLeod (Sharks), 8 Jacques Engelbrecht (Kings), 7 Jean Deysel (Sharks), 6 Deon Fourie (Stormers), 5 David Bulbring (Kings), 4 Eben Etzebeth (Stormers), 3 Jannie du Plessis (Sharks), 2 Scarra Ntubeni (Stormers), 1 Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks).
Match of the week:
We can’t be alone in rating the Stormers’ performance last Saturday as their most inspired effort since Dunedin last year.
We also can’t be alone in being mystified by how well they’ve hidden that kind of ambition all year long.
Nevertheless, for that clinical dismantling of what used to be a Bulls machine, they take our award for match of the week.
Here are the highlights:
Please note that video footage is rights restricted, and therefore only available in regions that fall within SuperSport’s broadcast footprint.
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Try of the week:
The Newlands match also saw Bok legend Bryan Habana bid local rugby adieu. He couldn’t have done it in any better way than scoring this beaut against his former team:
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Quote of the week:
- The Cheetahs, who will play in Super Rugby’s playoffs for the first time.
- Bryan Habana, who broke the South African Super Rugby record when he dotted down for the 56th time (37 Bulls, 19 Stormers) on Saturday.
“Sanzar have warned coaches that taking unnecessary pot-shots at referees could land them in hot water.” – News 24
There was a collective sigh of relief when we read that here at the Wrap desk. Fortunately we’ve only ever taken pot-shots when necessary.
Here is this week's look at what players got up to on Twitter:
|Quade Cooper made a discovery this week - he found this in Digby Ioane's bathroom. What he was doing there we don't want to know.
|Gio Aplon uploaded a montage of all the folks he'll miss next season - several of his teammates who are leaving for greener (back) pastures.
|What do rugby players do when there is no more rugby - they go to Mozambique it seems - as this hoard of Sharks players set off for this week.
|Pierre Spies made his way onto a telethon to raise money for rhinos on Jacaranda FM this week - that's him on the right. We're not to sure who the bloke in the middle is, but the left is one of our favourites - Barney Simon
AC loses cool
The only thing worse than a bad loser is a bad winner, and it’s a real pity that Stormers coach Allister Coetzee did such a sterling job reminding us of that this week.
With his team having just won one of the very few decent matches they played all year, Coetzee was quick to shift blame for all the failures that preceded Saturday’s result.
"I must say that, and I am not shy to say that, two games we were unlucky and poor decisions made by the referees that actually cost us a position in the playoffs," he moaned.
Didn’t you lose seven games, Allister? And wasn’t it the complete lack of ambition with ball in hand that lead to that? That’s not bad luck, it’s a bad gameplan.
A second story popped up this week about Coetzee, this time complaining about next year's schedule and the fact that the Stormers have to face the Chiefs, Crusaders, Reds and Brumbies on tour.
We do have some sympathy with our coaches when it comes to this. The schedule will never be fair when SA teams have to tour for four weeks and Australian and New Zealand sides two.
However, it was pointed out to us that the Bulls faced the Blues, Crusaders, Reds and Brumbies this year, and they never uttered a sound about it.
Also, we’re still waiting for Coetzee to thank Sanzar for having home advantage against what he clearly regard as easier opposition.
As for the Bulls, we note that this was their third consecutive loss in their pink jersey to the Stormers and their fifth in eight outings overall.
We have also noticed that they're not trying in vain to convince people it is a Fuscia jersey anymore either.
Perhaps now that they've made their money on supporters kit, they’ll consider canning the pink kit for good. We're sure Bulls fans will agree.
Polly didn’t have a cracker
Finally, kudos to referee Chris Pollock. The man has his flaws, but we have to give him credit for owning up and admitting he hadn’t had a good few weeks.
Rather than hide behind the veil of secrecy refs love to use when their calls hit the fan, Pollock fronted up, and took his punishment.
It made us almost feel sorry for him, and it underlined the fact that referees need to be more transparent and more open. We hope for his honesty he is rewarded rather than punished.