On aeroplane wings and a prayer
Say what you want about Super Rugby’s new format, but warts and all – and for the second year running - it has given us a gripping finale to its regular season.
Last year it was the addition of two extra playoff spots that added the needed spice to the last match of the league phase between the Bulls and the Sharks. This year it was the Reds edging out the Brumbies for conference honours that had fans reaching for their calculators and the remaining teams scrambling for bonus points (or, perhaps, regrettably scoring them).
For now the bulk of the permutation fixation is gone. We know who will play who in the first round of the fancily named Finals Series (yes, there are two Ss in the middle), and we know who will do the hosting in the round after that.
The only thing all of us have left to do this week is the rather risky business of predicting which of the four teams in action this weekend will go through to the semifinals. And, perhaps, what will happen thereafter.
And if that is what you’ve been doing, you’ve come to the right place, haven’t you?
Like the professional fans we are here at the SuperWrap desk, we decided to have a look at the playoff records of the six teams still in contention. There must surely be some trends to have emerged from the 16 previous editions of this competition that could help us help you in this regard.
And the good news is that there was. There are definitely some historical trends in Super Rugby playoffs that will come to the fore once more this year. The bad news is that none of those trends are good news to us.
But decide for yourself. Here are the playoff records of this year’s top six:
Stormers: Played five, won one (0/2 away)
Chiefs: Played three, won one (0/2 away)
Reds: Played five, won two (0/1 away)
Crusaders: Played 24, won 19 (2/7 away)
Bulls: Played nine, won six (1/4 away)
Sharks: Played ten, won three (1/7 away)
The first thing that springs to mind when reading that list is that the top two teams are probably pretty relieved that they’re sitting out this first round of knockout action. They’ve shown us this year that they know how to collect log points throughout a season, but quite evidently they’ve done so before. The real question for both of them is: what now?
The second thing that catches the eye is this: if upsets are your thing, then you couldn’t have asked for a better bottom half. The only teams on our list to have ever won playoff matches away from home are, as luck would have it, the three qualifiers that are likely to travel the most between now and the final.
In fact, if you have some money lying around, things are pretty clear-cut. The Reds will beat the Chiefs in Hamilton in two weeks' time, while the Crusaders will do exactly what they did last year and beat the Stormers at Newlands. Neatly, as only in a statistician’s world, we’ll have a repeat of last year’s final.
Except for this. If historical team stats had anything to do with it, the Reds had no business winning the title last year, did they? In fact, this time last year they’d never won a single playoff game!
Same goes for the Bulls. Before the miracle of ’07, they’ve only known knockout misery. How come they’ve never lost a playoff game since then?
Well, here’s the thing: team stats are tied to teams, and teams tend to change. New personnel, new ways of thinking, new circumstances. Team stats count for nothing.
The trend that does count is this: it is almost impossible to win a playoff away from home. That has nothing to do with who is playing for you and what it is you’re thinking about. It has everything to do with travelling across more time zones than you’ll ever have the energy to count and then, without proper preparation, take on a team that has been performing better than you all season.
From the four away wins listed above one was in the same country, one was in the same year the game turned professional, one was a one-point miracle in Canberra and the other -- well, the other one was the Stormers inexplicably losing yet another a home playoff.
Once again it looks all done and dusted. And it probably is.
Except for this: there is another way of looking at these stats.
The one time the Sharks did manage an away playoff win, it was against Queensland in Brisbane. Surely that’s an omen?
Also, the Bulls and the Crusaders have met in four playoff matches previously, and three times it was the South Africans that came out on top. It has to count for something?
Yes, we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, but like you, we refuse to believe there’ll be nothing worth watching this weekend.
The Bulls and the Sharks will know that the stats aren’t backing them this weekend. But hopefully they will also know that all of us will be. And that nothing in this world is set in stone.
Here, for the last time this year, are our teams of the week.
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 18:
15. Israel Dagg (Crusaders) 14. JP Pietersen (Sharks) 13. Conrad Smith (Hurricanes) 12. Sonny Bill Williams (Chiefs) 11. Julian Savea (Hurricanes) 10. Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes) 9. Francois Hougaard (Bulls) 8. Ryan Kankowski (Sharks) 7. Matt Todd (Crusaders) 6. Siya Kolisi (Stormers) 5. Juandre Kruger (Bulls) 4. Liaki Moli (Blues) 3. Ben Taumeifuna (Chiefs) 2. Dane Coles (Hurricanes) 1. JC Janse van Rensburg (Lions).
Bok Barometer for week 18:
15. Pat Lambie (Sharks) 14. JP Pietersen (Sharks) 13. Juan de Jongh (Stormers) 12. Francois Steyn (Sharks) 11. Bjorn Basson (Bulls) 10. Peter Grant (Stormers) 9. Francois Hougaard (Bulls) 8. Ryan Kankowski (Sharks) 7. Jacques Potgieter (Bulls) 6. Siya Kolisi (Stormers) 5. Juandre Kruger (Bulls) 4. De Kock Steenkamp (Stormers) 3. Jacobie Adriaanse (Lions) 2. Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks) 1. JC Janse van Rensburg (Lions).
Match of the week:
This week’s match of the week came from Brisbane where the Reds managed to score more than the required four tries to beat the Waratahs 32-16 and snatch the Australian conference from Jake White’s fast-fading Brumbies.
The final score seems to indicate one-way traffic, but for much of the match the Waratahs did everything in their power to stop their arch-enemies from gaining more last-minute glory.
When things did open up in the second half, the Reds showed that they still have the firepower that took them to their first title last year. But everybody knew that. The reason this is our match of the week, however, is the fact that this is the most entertaining Aussie derby we can remember seeing.
We can only hope it is the first of many.
Here are the highlights:
Please note that video footage is for the website only and is rights restricted and therefore only available in regions that fall within SuperSport’s broadcast footprint.
This video is not available in your region
Try of the week:
This week’s try of the week goes to Juan de Jongh for his five-pointer in the 57th minute against the Rebels at Newlands.
The centre hasn’t seen the ball too often this season, so when he did get his hands on it on Saturday, he made sure he made the most of it.
He was forced to wrestle his way out of one tackle, but then he spotted the defence drifting wide, and he stepped inside all of them to score under the uprights. It is something we hope to see a lot more of in the Stormers’ next two matches.
Here it is:
This video is not available in your region
Chirps of the week:
- Stephen Moore and Drew Mitchell, who both played in their 100th Super Rugby (SR) match this past weekend.
- Peter Grant, who passed the 800-point mark in his SR career.
- Nathan Sharpe, who played his 162nd and final SR game this weekend, setting a record that will take some beating.
First up is Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper, who was dispatched for a one-week ban after a dangerous tackle on Berrick Barnes.
One cocky tweeter was gushing in self confidence, telling Cooper “you wouldn’t run down my channel if I was playing.”
Cooper replied with ease: “Of course I wouldn’t play – you’re 12 years old.”
Amidst a swamped twitter feed of gushy goodbyes we also saw this beaut from the ever-irreverent Dewald Potgieter: “It's that time again when all the Bulls players are at the airport and tweeting about it.. So this is me... tweeting... about it.”
Finally, and quite apt for today, we had one from the still-active spoof account of former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers: “Wynand Olivier said he will give 67 passes for Mandela Day.”
Unfortunately he couldn’t tell us if that was for a season or for his whole career.
Here is this week's look at what players got up to on Twitter:
|Bok pivot Morne Steyn welcomed his son into the world this week, and little Jovan is sure to get a pair of rugby boots soon. Congrats to the Steyns on their addition.
|Speaking of pregnant, Bulls and Bok lock Juandre Kruger showed us his pregnant housefriend this week, his dog Zara…we can see Juandre is giving her all the TLC she needs.
|Boys dressing up – Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam asked fans who looked better in their outfit. We’ll take the fifth on this one.
|Airports are such a part of travel nowadays that teams are used to them. Not the Bulls management, though. Vlok Cilliers and Pieter Rossouw would much rather be elsewhere, it seems.
Lam to the slaughter
Blues coach Pat Lam, a nice guy by all accounts, has finally been given the bullet and fired from his job in Auckland, with Sir John Kirwan taking over.
While Lam was emotional on departure, he couldn’t help using a few military analogies to explain his departure.
"It's always a battle and if I look at it in terms of being in the trenches and war, I sort of feel in my time here I've been out in the front line.
I've been out in the front line and taken shots left, right and centre and I sort of feel that this year in particular it's been the biggest war ever," he said.
"I didn't mind being out in the front and through all my time out there I protected this franchise, I protected the people in it, I protected the team, I protected the players. But it appears I've taken the final hit.
Even though this was the same guy who cried wolf on racism when the team started to come under fire, we wish him well at his next job. We doubt it will be in Auckland or surrounds any time soon.
When did the Boks become liked?
We couldn’t help but laugh when an Australian rugby blog held a poll on who was the world’s punchiest player.
The rule was simple, pick which player you feel deserves a punch more than any other and we’re happy to say it wasn’t a South African on the list.
The honour went to England winger Chris Ashton, who isn’t a very popular man in the southern hemisphere it seems.
A close second was England hooker Dylan Hartley, who escaped a citing in the recent test series against the Boks, with the Waratahs self-confident centre Tom Carter taking third.
Ali Williams, Jimmy Cowan and Danny Cipriati followed, with our first South African being Butch James in seventh spot.
Other notables were Sonny Bill Williams (10th), Quade Cooper (11th) and Frans Steyn (15th), although we’re not sure why Frans is targeted.
Bismarck du Plessis, a man who riles opposition on the field, was 16th.