Cheetahs best bet for SA conference
We're halfway through the round-robin stage of Super Rugby, and an opportunity to weigh up what is shaping up as a very even competition.
It’s hard to pick a winner at this stage, but there are two from each country in the top six right now which gives it a nice shape.
I’ll start with the Aussie conference, because the Brumbies and Reds have accumulated the most points, and look to be two very well coached teams who, barring some kind of meltdown, we should see in the mix come playoff time.
They played out an epic draw in Brisbane in their return match. The Aussie derbies have often failed to live up to the hype over the years but this one did not. It was a worthy top-of-the-table clash in front of a huge crowd, with plenty of good rugby, drama, and even a couple of bust-ups.
In a big game like that, someone will always end up unhappy, and this time it was Reds coach Ewen McKenzie, who had a real crack at the Brumbies afterwards. It’s getting quite spicy, the rivalry between him and Jake White, with both also possibilities for the Wallaby job somewhere down the track.
You can understand the frustration of a coach whose side has engineered three tries to one, and still not won the game, and it is true that the Brumbies were guilty of a lot of deliberate infringing, but a 16-7 penalty count and two yellow cards surely reflected that. Some refs might have been even more lenient on the Brumbies given McKenzie's rather unsubtle efforts to influence proceedings via his weekly newspaper column, and it’s not like they haven’t enjoyed some good fortune in the past.
For all the play they made, the Reds couldn’t land the killer blow, but let’s not forget they also turned down several shots at goal.
Still, they have recovered from a slow start and look a good team now they are at full strength. For my money they are a real chance at a second title as long as Will Genia and James Horwill are fit.
The Brumbies received a major boost in the lead-up to the game with the news that they’ll have George Smith for the duration of the comp, which could also be a huge boost to the Wallabies' hopes against the Lions.
They also have in Jesse Mogg a freakish talent who right now is probably the best fullback in Super Rugby, especially with Israel Dagg looking a bit out of sorts at the Crusaders.
Of the two, the Reds still have to go to South Africa, so the Brumbies have the better run-in, and I’d still fancy the Canberra outfit to top the conference, with the Reds also making the playoffs.
The Waratahs are still in the hunt after they beat the Chiefs in Sydney. They are a bit hot and cold, are the ‘Tahs – they were hot in the first 40, went cold in the second as the Chiefs finally got their act together, but produced a rattling finish to claim the win. They were helped by a foolish decision by the Chiefs to try and kick a 55-metre penalty just after they’d taken the lead with seven minutes to play, when surely they would have been better off trying to go deep and force play from a lineout.
The Waratahs have got plenty of big names, and Israel Folau is a match winner, but they also have the toughest second half of all the contending Aussie teams and they’ll need to be more consistent if they’re to make the top six.
It should also be noted that right now the Aussie teams have played an extra round, and it won’t be until early July, when they have sat out two complete rounds where only the NZ and SA teams play, that we will get a true picture on the log.
How they back up after this break, and the highs of the Lions tour, will be crucial, but right now they are performing a lot better than many thought, and they have a clear advantage in games against Kiwi sides.
Australia might have the two top teams (if points are the gauge) but the South African conference is proving extremely, almost brutally hard fought, and as I have said before, this is actually working against the prospects of a) a top-two finish for home advantage, and b) more than two teams in the playoff six.
The Sharks-Cheetahs game ended in acrimony, with Sharks players up in arms over the supposed lack of advantage leading up to the Cheetahs' intercept try, but I reckon my colleagues Hugh Bladen and Joel Stransky were bang on when they said there was little justification for their complaint.
There are some who believe that in the case of a knock-on, dropped ball, or other non-penalty offence, simply gaining possession of the ball from that mistake should be advantage enough and that the application of the law needs to change to reflect that.
As it was, the Sharks had possession after the knock-on, it had been run back near enough to the point of that error, clean possession had been won from the ensuing ruck before "advantage over" was called, and the ball went two passes before it was intercepted. End of story.
There were also complaints that Coenie Oosthuizen was offside when he hacked at the ball near his own goal-line right near the end, but this was following a tackle, not a ruck, and so there was no offside law in play.
There were similar gripes in New Zealand last week after the Crusaders had a try ruled out against the Force after a forward pass – one of the two subsequent phases was also deemed a tackle not a ruck, allowing it to come under TMO scrutiny.
In both cases it looked wrong, but on both counts the referee was technically correct.
It was another example of how the South African teams are chopping each other off at the knees, but the coming weeks feature a lot of cross-conference games and things could change quite dramatically.
Right now it is really hard to pick a conference winner, but the Cheetahs have the chance now to make a strong move over the next four weeks with games against the Kings, Hurricanes and Reds at home as well as a guaranteed eight points from byes in rounds 12 and 20.
The Bulls are back home and on top of the table, so they have to be tough to beat from here on, although they still have two to play against the Sharks and those games will be crucial. The Sharks and Stormers are on the road for the next month, and I suspect that will hold the key to their hopes.
Try as I might, I cannot pick a winner in that conference, but if pressed I might go Cheetahs, so long as they don’t get the speed wobbles as they did last year.
New Zealand is also hard to predict, although for slightly different reasons.
The Blues have profited from the Chiefs' demise and courtesy of the bye have gone to the top of the conference and second overall.
They still have their road trip to South Africa to come as well as a game in Brisbane against the Reds this weekend that I just can’t see them winning.
I always felt this would be a rebuilding year for the Blues and while they have some startling talent on the rise, I’m not sure they’re going to be able to sustain their current position. They’ll give it a good crack though and teams had better have their defence well organised when they play them.
The Chiefs will need to be a whole lot better and smarter than they were against the Reds and Waratahs if they are to have any chance of defending their title, and they still have to play the Crusaders twice, as well as the Sharks this weekend.
The Crusaders are hanging in there without looking anything like their former selves, but with Dan Carter and Kieran Read due back soon, and six of their last nine games at home I would not bet against them making the top six and possibly even coming through the pack to top the New Zealand conference.
The Hurricanes are also right in the mix, but have a tough tour ahead with two games on the Highveld, a trip to Canberra and two games against the Chiefs still to play.
There is also the very disturbing situation where All Black star Julian Savea is up on a domestic assault charge, which has caused a real shock. He is unlikely to play against the Stormers this week.
The Highlanders are a gone-burger. Even considering their bad run of injuries they have been massively disappointing.
Right now none of the New Zealand teams are producing compelling form after a promising start, with injuries starting to eat into the depth of some of the squads, but there are still four in the title race and there are plenty of twists and turns in the road ahead.
My wild, stab-in-the-dark prediction for the top six at this point: Brumbies, Crusaders and Cheetahs to top the conferences, with the Reds, Bulls and either the Sharks or Chiefs for the wild cards.