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Super Rugby mid-term report

We’re about halfway through the round robin, so a mid-term report might be in order.

South African conference.

Early signs were good as the Sharks and Lions roared out of the blocks, the Blues, Hurricanes and Reds left town without a single win between them and The Bulls rebounded strongly from two early defeats.

Things have flattened out a little since then. Injuries have kicked in. The Cheetahs, Stormers and Bulls have battled on the road, and, as my colleague Gavin Rich has suggested, there has been an issue with fitness, with New Zealand teams in particular able to come from well behind to either snatch draws or run away with wins in the final quarter.

The Sharks have set the pace from day one, with just that solitary defeat in Pretoria. They have played to their strengths, making effective use of their powerful forward pack, and their defence has been unyielding, conceding just eight tries. So far they haven’t suffered too much for their injury losses but can’t afford to add any more big names to the list.

They have a very tough schedule from here on, with only two more home games and a challenging road trip, but they have such a good buffer that I can’t see them not winning the South African conference, and grabbing a home semifinal.

The Bulls looked set to score a valuable away win in Dunedin before losing their way and getting over-run by the Highlanders. They showed how good they could be early on, but once the Highlanders defused the lineout drive and forced the Bulls to change their game, the errors started to come. Again, fitness seemed to be an issue. And that perhaps summed up where they are right now. They are terribly hard to beat when they are able to boss the game, and they have a good schedule once back in South Africa, but the key will be limiting the damage between now and then.

The Lions started superbly. They looked adventurous and robust, and Marnitz Boshoff was kicking the house down, but then just when they had great momentum going, the bye came, and they have been a bit wobbly against strong opposition since.

They get a chance to get back on track this week at Newlands but then, ridiculously, have their second bye within four weeks of the first, ahead of a hellishly difficult looking run of games in May, including four games in Australasia and a return clash with the Bulls.

The Cheetahs have achieved something truly remarkable. Not only have they scored the most points so far, they have also conceded the most…by a mile. They’ve conceded 14 more tries than the Highlanders, and close to a hundred more points than the Reds, who are the second-worst teams in those categories. It makes their games well worth watching because they are almost guaranteed to be a point a minute. To make a run at the playoffs they will need to tighten up big time on defence without stymying their attack, and I’m not sure if that is possible.

The Stormers have probably been written off by a lot of even their own fans, given that they are 13 points out of the playoff race. They do play six of their last nine games at Newlands, so a run at the wildcard is not out of the question, but, given their form so far, it is hard to be optimistic. One player shouldn’t make the world of difference, but losing Eben Etzebeth was a colossal blow before the season has even started, while not for the first time in recent years they simply aren’t getting the ball over the white line enough.

AUSTRALIAN CONFERENCE In the Aussie conference, credit is due for the much improved showing. Imports have helped to shore up their overall strength but there are no easy pickings this year.

The Brumbies have managed to retain the Jake White-imposed structures while adding a bit of Stephen Larkham flair, which has made for some excellent results so far. They have played one more game than those around them and they still have to play the Crusaders in Christchurch and tour South Africa, but they look a solid prospect for a playoff, possibly top 2.

Just an aside : They might have had to do without their excellent hooker Stephen Moore for a week or two but for an unbelievable let off by both the referees and the citing people after their game against the Reds. Do we take it that you are now allowed to punch someone, but only if they are holding your jersey?

The Force have been quite sensational, and have, in Nick Cummins, a guy that at times looks like a 1970s tennis player who just slept the night in a bus stop, but one who has been the standout personality and one of the standout players of this tournament.

Other than Cummins and the excellent Matt Hodgson, it’s imports like Mathewson, Ebersohn and Hayward who have starred, but they do seem driven to prove wrong those who rubbished their very existence in this competition.

Whether they can sustain their current form is the big question, but even if they don’t make the playoffs they’ve already made their mark.

The Waratahs did what they have so often done, and came flying out of the blocks. They’ve hit a few bumps more recently and there are some doubts over what role Israel Folau is going to play in the near future, but if he’s around, then they will surely make the top 6. The other interesting space to watch is that occupied by their coach, and it is quite possible that seismologists have been asked to keep watch on Michael Cheika.

The Reds have struggled to impact on the competition as much as in recent years, suffering rare back-to-back home defeats. However, with 16 points and their South African tour behind them, they are most certainly not out of the race. Something seems to be missing though, and it could be Ewen McKenzie.

The Rebels are captained by one of the more admirable characters in Scott Higginbotham, who sometimes tries to do it all himself. There was decided panic in the ranks when they had the chance to beat the Chiefs last weekend. They are young, have a good coach, enough talent in the ranks to cause a bit of trouble here and there, but they aren’t going to make it.

NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE Finally to New Zealand where things have certainly strengthened after the traditional slow start, but a crucial fortnight lies ahead.

The Chiefs have been accumulating points through a succession of great escapes, and some resolute digging themselves out of holes. It’s been courageous stuff, especially with injuries testing their depth, and they do have a knack of winning when it counts, as demonstrated last year.

You’d be foolish to write off a team with the best coaching unit in the competition, and the experience of winning the last two titles to call on, but right now they’re not playing well enough to be champions a third straight year and, with the Crusaders and Brumbies to play in the next fortnight, their season could be nearing a fork in the road.

The Highlanders showed resolve and courage to get out of a jam against the Bulls. They have done well to get on the pace, but face a devilishly tough second half with a trip to South Africa and a final stretch that reads : Hurricanes (a), Crusaders (h), Reds (a), Chiefs (h), Waratahs (a) and Crusaders(a). That might be a bit too tough for them, but they’ll give it a good crack.

The Crusaders, after their usual slow start, would appear to be back in business after two wins in South Africa, but now enter a stretch that pits them against the Chiefs, Brumbies, Reds and Sharks. They have an excellent defence but were struggling to unlock doors until Nemani Nadolo came along and started kicking them in.

The next four weeks will be crucial, and, if they can emerge with wins from three or four of those games then they will certainly be in strong contention, especially with Richie McCaw and Dan Carter to come back.

The Blues are hard to read they’re so erratic, but because of the tight competition they are just three points out of the playoff picture, and with two of the teams ahead of them on the log, the Bulls and Lions, having played one more game, they are still in it. They certainly have the talent to get among it, and their injury list is clearing nicely, but can they find the consistency?

Which leaves the Hurricanes . Coach Mark Hammett has announced he’ll quit at the end of the season, ending a stint in which he has gained the respect of his players but not those ‘Canes followers who have treated him quite unreasonably. I suspect the players will want to finish strongly for his sake, which means they’ll probably make life difficult for other teams but not be quite good enough to make the cut. Six of their last nine games are at home, which could be a factor, but they’ll need to beat the Blues this weekend to springboard into the second half with optimism.

So having got all that out, I’ll stick with the Sharks to win in South Africa, the Brumbies in Australia and the Chiefs just to hang on in New Zealand, with the Crusaders and Waratahs to grab two wildcards and a mad scramble between the Force, Bulls and Blues for the third.

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