Riveting end to regular season
After a tense weekend we have our play-off picture.
Even if it didn’t run right to the wire, to have to wait until 20 minutes from end of the final game to know who was through and who they’d play, again underlines that, for whatever faults it may have, Super Rugby is an intense, intriguing, high-octane competition.
Before we look ahead to the post-season, it might be worth reflecting on the performances of the three conferences.
This is the first time South Africa have three teams in the playoffs, and the first time it’s happened under the new format. The last time one country had three teams in the playoffs was 2009 when New Zealand had three teams in but the Bulls won.
The Stormers top the table. They had the most wins (14) and conceded comfortably the fewest points with their miserly defence. They collected the fewest bonus points (2) of any team and did not get a single four- try bonus point, which proves that the more you win, the less bonus points will come into the equation. They started well, got the hard work done in the middle stages, and despite a troubling run of injuries, came home on a relatively undemanding final stretch against the Lions, Cheetahs and Rebels.
They now have a much-needed week off before a home semi, either against the Crusaders, Bulls or Sharks.
- Strengths: Defence, home advantage, defence, Bryan Habana's ability to score a big-moment try, defence.
- Question mark: Injuries.
The Bulls may not quite have looked the unstoppable force of previous years, and have looked a bit battered in recent weeks, but they got the necessary points needed either side of their defeat to the Sharks. Their tactics will catch no-one by surprise but they are very effective at what they do.
- Strengths: Big strong pack, mercurial brilliance of Francois Hougaard, kicking game.
- Question mark: Travelling all the way to play the Crusaders in Christchurch is no-one's idea of fun.
The Sharks may have got through only in sixth place, but to me they look one of the teams to beat. They have every chance of toppling the Reds in Brisbane, and quite possibly the Stormers back in Cape Town the following week.
- Strengths: Real momentum, strike power on the wings, some awesome ball carrying ability in the forwards, led by Bismark du Plessis.
- Question marks: no Frans Steyn…that’s the risk you take with late call ups, and it’s a fair rule, but they’ll have to do without his howitzer boot, a potential match winner. To win they will have to put in some serious air miles, which could catch up on them.
The others: The Cheetahs put in some worthy, and occasionally spectacular performances, but in the end lacked consistency and fell away. The Lions were a disaster. Each conference is entitled to one.
Total SA conference wins: 42. Total conference points: 247.
In summary: an intense, almost brutally competitive conference, reflective of a powerful base at provincial level. Some great new talent introduced.
Two teams through, in second and fourth, one just missing out in the final weekend, four still in the hunt going into the last three weeks and just one dud, the Blues. Not bad.
The Chiefs fell off top spot in the last week, beaten by a desperate Crusaders team well versed in winning when they really have to, and controversially pipped at the post in Wellington by the Hurricanes thanks to a TMO try that many would not have given.
They are a young team, and they will grow, but I have a suspicion they may not be quite good enough to go the distance this year. They will be home to either the Reds, Crusaders or Bulls in the semis. I would back them to beat the Reds, but not the Crusaders, who I suspect they will meet.
- Strengths: brilliant strike power in their backs, very good loose forwards.
- Question marks: Their lineout was better against the ‘Canes but their set piece has looked wobbly of late.
The Crusaders can thank an inexplicable loss to the Rebels in Melbourne and their surprise defeat to the Hurricanes, for not topping the conference and possibly even the whole log, but derby matches and the odd rogue defeat to an otherwise bum team are part of the trials and tribulations of Super Rugby.
They have never quite looked at full capacity, but I don’t think anyone will fancy playing them from here on in.
- Strengths: set piece, Carter, McCaw, Read, a heritage of doing well at the sharp end of the season.
- Question marks: Lack the midfield penetration of other years, a bit too dependent on Read for “go-forward”. His likely absence from this weekend’s clash with the Bulls is a bit of a concern for them.
Of the others: The Hurricanes did really well to be right in contention going into the last 12 hours of the league phase, with a young team after last year’s cleanout. They will go from strength to strength.
The Highlanders were again competitive before falling away towards the end. The Blues had a shocking season, which raises the question: how come the teams from the biggest city in each conference performed so poorly? There will be changes.
Total NZ conference wins: 46. Total conference points: 264.
In summary: The number of wins and conference points reflects favourably. Again New Zealand teams proved very good at pulling the rug out from under each other, but that’s not a bad sign. Also crowd numbers and TV viewing figures showed a sharp increase. Like SA, introduced some startling new talent.
I thought having a couple of relative “easy beats”: would enhance their chances of multiple representation in the playoffs. Instead they got one team through, a team that, were it not for the guaranteed top-three spot for conference winners (a clause I might add, that was introduced at Saru's insistence), would have qualified sixth, not third.
The Reds topped the conference, to the obvious delight of the Queenslanders in the Aussie commentary team, knocking the Brumbies right out of the picture when they had led the conference table for so long.
To be fair, the Queenslanders have had plenty of injuries this year, and have come right at the right time, but I think to beat the Sharks they will need to reach a new level.
- Strengths: The Suncorp Stadium factor, the world’s best halfback, a canny coach, game breakers.
- Question marks: No James Horwill, possibly no Quade Cooper. How good are they really?
Of the others: The Brumbies were way better than expected, so credit to Jake White for breaking up the old player-dominated regime, but in the end, losing at home to the Blues showed they weren’t quite good enough.
The Waratahs had injuries but were boring and clueless, the Force battled but never looked like featuring, and despite their rogue win over the Crusaders, the Rebels continue to resemble a kitset team, with star players who at times look like they don’t really care.
Total Aus conference wins: 32. Total conference points: 210.
In summary: To have three teams in the bottom five is hardly a ringing endorsement of Australia’s claim to five teams in the competition, and does raise the question as to whether it is a good thing for the game in Aus to have their talent spread out so thinly, especially when it means over-inflated bidding for the top stars while they have at the same time tended to fill out their complements with often-fading overseas players, and youngsters lured from New Zealand, South Africa and the Pacific Islands with the promise of pro contracts if they commit to being available for Australian national teams down the track.
That said, they too have uncorked some very good young players, especially the clutch of outstanding young flankers, and we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking a poor showing in Super Rugby will translate to a poor Wallaby side, because SR form rarely translates to the international stage.
PICKS FOR THE WEEKEND
I'm picking the Sharks to win in Brisbane, requiring them to dash back to Cape Town, and the Crusaders to hold off the Bulls in Christchurch and set up an all-Kiwi semi in Hamilton, thus guaranteeing an SA-NZ final…and I wouldn’t assume it is going to be in Cape Town or Hamilton either.