Points to ponder
So we go into the last week of the round robin, and with eight teams in contention and only two guaranteed a play-off berth, Super Rugby has proven again to be compelling and intensely competitive.
I’m sure rugby fans will be making their own calculations, but in as few words as possible :
- The Chiefs are guaranteed a home semi, but need a bonus-point win against the Hurricanes to guarantee top spot.
- If they don’t manage that, the Stormers can pass them. If the Chiefs get a four-pointer then the Stormers will need a four-try bonus-point win to claim top spot and home advantage.
- If the Chiefs and Stormers end up level, the Stormers get top spot because they’ve won more games.
- The Stormers are guaranteed top spot in the SA conference, but could still be pipped by the Brumbies for a place in the top two.
- The Brumbies need only one point to secure the Aussie conference.
- A win against the Force guarantees the Crusaders a home first round or “qualifying” play-off.
- The Bulls and Sharks need five pointers to guarantee a wild card. Anything less will leave one of them vulnerable to the Reds who have the advantage of one more victory than the others.
A few other points to note:
- Even without the much debated system of giving conference leaders the automatic top three spots, the Brumbies would now be third on “merit”, in addition to because they head the Aussie conference. I still think we should do away with automatic top-three spots for the conference winners, something, I might add, that was introduced at Saru’s insistence.
- If we had no bonus points at all, the top order would be: Stormers 60, Chiefs 56, Brumbies, Crusaders and Reds 58, Bulls, Sharks and Hurricanes 44 (Sharks and ‘Canes behind Bulls on points diff).
- If there weren’t bonus points for losing teams, it would be Chiefs 61, Stormers 60, Brumbies 53, Crusaders and Hurricanes 52, Reds 51, Sharks 50, Bulls 49.
Do we need bonus points? I like them for the four tries as it encourages positive play, but should we reward teams that lose?
If last weekend's games are anything to go by, then decision-making under pressure is going to be a big factor in the outcome of this year's competition.
Last weekend, both the Chiefs and Highlanders were denied precious competition points in the dying minutes by players making rash decisions.
In Hamilton, Sonny Bill Williams went on his own with players outside him, and the Chiefs lost the chance to snatch a draw. An act of selfishness, or do you praise the guy for backing himself to have a go and take responsibility for trying to win the game? I’m a fan of American basketball, and in that sport it’s always the big guns – Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James etc – who take the ball for the crucial shots, shoulder the burden of trying to win the game for their team because that’s their job.
Not in this case. SBW should have passed.
So should have Jamie Mackintosh when he got isolated near the line as the Highlanders looked for the win that would have kept them alive and probably buried the Reds
Having said that, I thought Jonathan Kaplan was very quick to blow the whistle and penalise Mackintosh for holding on, when the Reds players were clearly not supporting their own body weight. A cop-out call, in my opinion.
In fact the refereeing generally last weekend was not good enough.
The Blues-Force match was going to be hard enough to watch without an out-of-his-depth referee reducing the scrum contest to a tedious farce. Australian Andrew Lees's experience at top level has mainly been in sevens, and it showed. Three-man scrums might have made for a better spectacle.
Sanzar has a problem here. Guys like Kaplan and Mark Lawrence are in the twilight of their careers (despite what I said above, Kaplan is still good and was the world's best for a several years) and following a spate of retirements, both New Zealand and Australia have had to introduce a number of new guys, of which former Chiefs flyhalf Glen Jackson is clearly the best, but the others are of mixed quality.
It doesn’t help anyone that Aussie refs have nothing between club and Super Rugby in which to develop their game.
Other more established refs have their detractors, and have fallen out of favour. I’m told by someone who would know that Bryce Lawrence is unlikely to be on the Super Rugby panel next year.
So there is a real problem of quality and depth, reflected in the panel for the Rugby Championship, which is dominated by Northern Hemisphere refs. The only SH whistleblowers are “quasi Aussie” Steve Walsh, Craig Joubert, and Jaco Peyper.
Jaco has emerged, in my opinion, as probably the best referee in this year's Super Rugby competition, although his scrum “engage” calls do tend to sound like a very loud sneeze.
Finally, as you will have read, Sonny Bill Williams is moving on and won’t play in this year's Rugby Championship. He is going to Japan for an astonishing amount of money and then back to the NRL rugby league competition, honouring a commitment he apparently made about three years ago, before coming to New Zealand. He is also being given time to box professionally, with a fight tipped for South Africa later this year.
The door is being left open for him to return to rugby in time for the next World Cup, in a manner similar to Brad Thorn who went to and fro before becoming a rugby legend. I for one certainly hope SBW does come back, because he has the ability to light the game up.
It is disappointing from a rugby perspective, because he was becoming a spectacularly good player, and by going back to a sport that is played in a very few countries, he is turning his back on superstardom in a truly international game.
As well as a freakishly good player, I have found him a humble, polite guy to deal with, and certainly not the arrogant prima donna he is painted as by people who have never had anything to do with him.
I got the feeling that he is leaving with some regrets, having really blossomed at the Chiefs under the coaching of Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith, and he certainly hinted at a return in a couple of years' time.
It’s worth remembering that SBW only played a limited role in New Zealand's World Cup win, and Ma’a Nonu is better than most number 12s, but it is a loss for the game of rugby in general, and New Zealand in particular.