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Brett McKay
Brett McKay | Columnist Index
One of the new breed of Australian online rugby writers, Brett McKay joins ESPNscrum.com having developed a popular presence on sports opinion site The Roar. He also tweets from @BMcSport.
Scrum5
Super Rugby returns with a bang
Brett McKay
June 30, 2014
Scrum5: Super Rugby returns as unpredictable as ever, which can only mean good things

Super Rugby has picked up where it left off before the June Internationals recess, with surprise results and tipsters shedding tears well before the round was done. Or maybe that was just me. A second conference was decided, too, with Western Force's loss to the Blues handing New South Wales Waratahs the Australian conference title for season 2014. The New Zealand conference remains as open as it ever was, with all five sides now with a chance of making the play-offs.

Here are the talking points from the weekend return of Super Rugby. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

Is this the year for the Highlanders?

Highlanders fans must have spent Friday night just staring at the Super Rugby table and basking in the glory that had seen their team knock off the reigning champions to assume top spot in the New Zealand conference. The Highlanders haven't played finals football since 2002, and the real glory days of the "House of Pain" at Carisbrook, since when they haven't finished higher than seventh, in 2003, or higher than eighth under the conference format; but now they're fourth on the ladder with a real chance of finals footy.

Highlanders 29-25 Chiefs (video available in Australia only)
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Last season was going to be the year. Indeed, I have a vague recollection of tipping them to top the New Zealand conference, with names like Nonu, Thorn, Woodcock, Slade, Gear, Hore, and a couple of Smiths on their list. They finished 14th overall, with just three wins, 12 points behind the fourth-placed Hurricanes in the conference. "Disappointing" didn't even begin to sum up their season.

Now, though, the Highlanders are playing the very type of rugby they was assumed capable of last season. In accounting for the Chiefs on Friday night, Patrick Osborne and Ben Smith scored tries both worth of The Whiteboard analysis in their own right.

Their run home now sees them facing two away games: the Waratahs in Sydney next Sunday, and the Crusaders in Christchurch in the final round; and the final round will quite likely decide the battle for the NZ conference title.

This could indeed be the year, but so ridiculous has been season 2014 they could also miss out completely.

Oh, what could've been for the Reds

After a frustrating season, Reds fans must've been tearing what little hair they had left out as they watched their team's clinical demolition of the Melbourne Rebels. And here are three observations that probably just add to that season-long frustration.

Firstly, if James Horwill has played a better game this season, I've not seen it. Our stats hounds had him topping most columns for forwards involved in the match: seven runs for 32 metres, four passes and an offload, six lineout takes, and just three misses in 17 tackles attempts. Horwill led the go-forward for the Reds all night, and more importantly, it was obvious his team went with him.

Rebels 20-36 Reds (video available in Australia only)
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Secondly, I reckon it was Ben Tapuai's best game in maybe even longer than just this year. More than a few Reds followers have wondered why Richard Graham has persisted with Anthony Fainga'a at No.12 this season, and surely after Tapuai excelled after moving in one spot when Fainga'a went off injured the time has come to leave him in the position in which he's so often excelled,

Finally, and perhaps more worryingly, the sight of the departing Rod Davies streaking down the sidelines in space, and Mike Harris having a strong game at fullback, must've really tested the patience, with both players among a host to have already announced their Ballymore departures. Harris and Dom Shipperley - who suffered a horrible ankle injury in the opening minutes - are both heading to the Rebels next season.

But seeing what their team was capable of, after a season of stuttering and stalling, must've been the hardest to take for Reds fans. Imagine if they hadn't so many injuries this season.

Beauden Barrett: superb talent with poor timing

The Wellington masterclass against the Crusaders highlighted just how good this kid is already, never mind how good he might become. I suggested in the build-up last week that Barrett would really need to step up and guide the Hurricanes around with Conrad Smith ruled out, and even that it would represent a major responsibility for a player not long turned 23.

Hurricanes 16-9 Crusaders (video available in Australia only)
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I needn't have worried.

Barrett has been guiding the Canes around well all year, in all honesty, and this would be "just another game" in that regard; he controlled the pace and the tempo of the game with aplomb, and ensured his team remained on top throughout the contest.

All Blacks coach Steve Hanson said last week that he probably would had a look at Barrett starting at No.10 in the third Test against England, rather than coming off the bench as he has done throughout his Test career to date, had Smith not missed the match in Hamilton. Once Smith was ruled out, the decision to stick with the experience of Aaron Cruden was made.

Cruden, of course, had a brilliant game. And now, just as Barrett well and truly outplays Colin Slade, one Dan Carter makes his return to Super Rugby.

So if there's one thing to fault Barrett about, it's probably his timing. Just when he earns a chance to start a Test, his provincial skipper breaks down. And then his peer has a blinder while in the background one of the best players to ever wear the jersey is staking his return. So, yeah, Barrett's timing could be better. Or, to be more accurate, maybe his parents timing could've been better 24 years ago ...

Waratahs claim Australian conference as Brumbies woes continue

So the second Super Rugby conference title was confirmed on Saturday night, with the Waratahs guaranteed top spot in the Australian conference after the Sharks had wrapped up the South African conference before the June break.

Waratahs 39-8 Brumbies (video available in Australia only)
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Though the scoreboard shows a comprehensive five-tries-to-one 39-8 win over the injury-riddled Brumbies, the Waratahs won't be entirely satisfied about some aspects of their game. They certainly rain away with it in the end, but leading 14-5 at half-time, they seemed to have taken a good while to get into the game, and Michael Cheika suggested at the break they were guilty of being a bit soft in the contest.

They certainly finished strongly, but both Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau were largely quiet for the first 50-60 minutes of the game. That said, once they were more involved, the Waratahs profited nicely from the way they were able to create space for the ball and for support runners.

The Waratahs earlier did very well to target the Brumbies' lineout. That was always going to happen, with prop Ruaidhri Murphy starting at hooker; but once his first three lineout throws were pulled up for not being straight, the Tahs happily kicked the ball out - more than in any other game this year, I'm sure - and attacked the Brumbies throw.

The ominous sign for opposition teams is knowing how much the Waratahs can improve from this performance. Dave Dennis' season is over, rupturing the ACL in his left knee just before half-time, but essentially they have everyone on deck.

For the Brumbies, already without 11 players heading into this game, and losing Wallabies centre Tevita Kuridrani to a failed concussion test in the 10th minute of the game, their attention turns to the make-or-break final-round clash with Western Force in Canberra, which could decide which of the two plays finals football in 2014.

Blues break the Away drought as Force go back to bad old habits

See, this is what annoys me about this season. Just then you accept that certain teams just don't win on the road, and other teams have been really strong at home all year and so to tip against them would just be madness, along come the Blues to break a 13-game away-win drought.

Force 14-40 Blues (video available in Australia only)
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The Blues' comprehensive win, 40-14 and six-tries-to-two in Perth, has breathed new life into a season in which all hope had previously thought to be lost. With the Chiefs losing to the Highlanders, along with the Force losing, the Force, Blues, and Chiefs are all now locked on 36 points - just one win behind the Brumbies in sixth place on the Super Rugby ladder.

It was a crucial win in that context, then, for the Blues. They face the Crusaders in Christchurch this Saturday, and then the Chiefs in Auckland in the final round - another game that shapes as a decider for both sides. Already it looks as though the Blues or the Chiefs will qualify, but not both.

And if it was a crucial win for the Blues, it was a momentum-halting loss for the Force. Though they had a number of players returning from injury, they were well beaten in the breakdown contest they've relished this year - and they fired few shots in attack.

The Force host the resurgent Reds in Perth this Saturday, and then face the Brumbies in the aforementioned final-round decider. They need to do better in those final two games if they are to make the finals.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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