'Write the Crusaders off at your peril'
March 17, 2014
Podcast: Brett McKay and Greg Growden discuss the talking points out of Super Rugby round five
Super Rugby round five saw the New Zealand teams issue a reminder that there is indeed still life in their conference, while, in Australia, questions were emphatically answered about some teams and asked again of others. In South Africa, the Lions proved they can no longer be treated as easy-beats while the Sharks just kept on rolling on to sit five points clear atop the standings. Here are the talking points from the weekend, as I saw them.
Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Life in the New Zealand conference yet
It was a fair response from the New Zealand teams. After a week spent pulling apart all the gory details as to why their teams were struggling - and even their key players, with the New Zealand Herald raising all sorts of questions of Crusaders captain Kieran Read - their five teams finished the weekend with three wins, and the two losses by a combined total of five points.
The Chiefs remain the standout side, and their five-point lead atop the New Zealand Conference table is a fair reflection of their performances in 2014, relative to their compatriots. Putting five tries on the Stormers, notably one of the better defensive teams in Super Rugby, is no mean feat. They still don't appear to be playing at their absolute peak, but they're winning games. And that's a mark of a champion side.
The Crusaders are coming back. There, I said it. They were well-beaten in their first two rounds before stealing a win over the Stormers, but they looked to be well in control again in accounting for the Rebels in Melbourne in their first match outside New Zealand. The big improvement looks to be that they're back playing within familiar patterns, a lot of which surely has to do with their round-five side being the best balanced side they've named in 2014 and the extra sense of familiarity and combinations that brings. Write them off at your peril.
The Highlanders are the only side thus far to have taken two bonus points for losing matches by less than seven points, and so their solitary win doesn't really do them justice. They led for 67 minutes against the Chiefs, and they were only a leaner crossbar away from sneaking a draw against Western Force on Saturday.
That just leaves the Blues and Hurricanes, who have also had just the one win apiece but who showed more than enough over the weekend to know they're going to cause plenty of headaches for teams this year. The Hurricanes were back to their opportunistic best, putting 60 points on the worryingly lacklustre Cheetahs, while the Blues might be starting to rue the length of starts they're giving teams.
Just two points separates the second-placed Crusaders and the Hurricanes in fifth on the conference log. What was looking like the weakest conference - and there always has to be one - now looks the tightest; that's quite a change in the space of just one week.
Tom Taylor looked more at home in the No.12 jumper © Getty Images
More or less questions from the Brumbies-Waratahs blockbuster?
So what do we walk away with from the Brumbies-Waratahs blockbuster? Billed as a return of the proper, old-school Hume Highway grudge match, this was supposed to be the game that confirmed the Waratahs' claims for contendership while proving the Brumbies were still a good way off their 2013 standards. Instead, we got confirmation that the Waratahs are much better front-runners than they are chasers, and that the Stephen Larkham-Laurie Fisher Brumbies are going to be every bit as good as their Jake White predecessors.
The worry for the Waratahs will be the manner in which their set-piece - particularly their starting scrum - was so comprehensively demolished. The Tahs' lineout was disrupted all night, and, at its worst, the scrum was literally folded back over itself. Yes, Michael Cheika raised some decent points about the time taken to set scrums. But in reality all this post-match tangent did was distract from the real scrum conversation - the manner in which Benn Robinson, Tatafu Polota-Nau, and Paddy Ryan were dominated by Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, and Scott Sio. "The No.1, No.2, and No.3 don't often get credit but those guys, they need to be described as the difference between the two sides tonight because they were," Brumbies skipper Ben Mowen said post-match.
The Brumbies' territory-and-set-piece game - also known as finals footy - held strong, while the Waratahs' game plan was non-existent by the second half, by which time they looked well-beaten. The Tahs did get it back to within two points, but make no mistake: they were flattered by the close scoreline.
Cheika admitted frustration at not receiving some late penalties that might have snuck the Waratahs over the line, but then measured that by adding "mind you on the balance of things we probably wouldn't have deserved it." And that's quite correct of him, though that same measured response came too late to save the glass door on the GIO Stadium away team's coaches box.
The glass door to a coaches box, which was smashed reportedly by Waratahs head coach Michael Cheika © Getty Images
Any other damage?
Well, it was noticeable that Mowen did indeed cop his fair share of treatment during the match, as promised in the build-up. While saying that all the pre-game talk "matters crap" without the win, Mowen was sat after the match with at least three ice-packs applied, the beginnings of a decent shiner on one eye, and numerous marks over his face that certainly couldn't be dismissed as shaving rash. It added a tale-within-the-tale to Mowen's post-match smile.
South Africa has a new super-boot
Rookie fly-half Marnitz Boshoff is enjoying a dream debut to Super Rugby, and the Lions are having a dream re-introduction to Super Rugby because of it.
Boshoff contributed 24 points to the Lions' 39-36 win over the Blues, comprising four penalties, three conversions and two drop goals, with his only blemish being one missed penalty. But it's just another week in a remarkable season to date with the boot for Boshoff. After round five, he's the runaway leading points-scorer on 94 - 40 points clear of Cheetahs fly-half Johan Goosen.
And that one miss against the Blues was only his second from the kicking tee in five games, from which he's currently kicking at 93%, 28 from 30 attempts. He's yet to miss a conversion at all, and he has kicked 20 from 22 penalties. By comparison, the Chiefs' Aaron Cruden has had only had six shots at penalty goal in 2014 all up.
If there's one weakness in Boshoff's kicking, it looks to be with the moving ball: he's ONLY kicked six drop goals from nine shots; just a sign that he is human, after all.
Marnitz Boshoff does occasionally use his hands © Getty Images
Dear Lawmakers, I have a suggestion ...
You might remember scrum-feeds being a soapbox topic of mine over the past 12 months, and it's been nice to see that referees remain vigilant to the conniving ways of No.9s. And this is important, because the scrum should remain a true contest from the ball from both packs.
In some of my earlier posturing about the need for straight scrum feeds, I often referred to the requirement for lineout throws to remain straight, and I stand by this; both should remain fair contests.
But here's me about to make an exception.
If the defending side in a lineout chooses not to compete, they should waive the right to win a scrum feed for a crooked throw from the attacking hooker. If you're choosing to forgo the contest, it's illogical that you should benefit from opposition error.
Case in point: on Friday night, the Rebels were deep in attack when the Crusaders stayed on the ground at a lineout well inside the defensive 22, the visitors choosing instead to disrupt the subsequent expected rolling maul. But referee James Leckie blew it up, on account of the Rebels' lineout throw not being straight.
And it makes no sense. The attacking team doesn't know whether the opposition will compete or not, and so must still throw into the lineout correctly just in case they do. But by the same token, should they get away with their mild indiscretion if the lineout isn't contested? The International Rugby Board wants rugby to be entertaining, and this would be one simple tweak that would ensure the game continues to flow, especially when one team makes such a concession.
A great moment in referee humour
I had to laugh in the Chiefs-Stormers game from Hamilton on Friday night. Late in the game, and sensing an opportunity out wide after the Stormers' players all congregated in front of the posts, Aaron Cruden sent his attempt at a penalty goal well left of the posts, almost in the direction of the corner post, hoping a chaser would swoop on the ball and touch down for a try.
"Oh, no, no, no you don't," referee Craig Joubert interjected before explaining to Cruden that a reasonable shot on goal must be made once the indication of a shot at goal is given. Cruden then tried to sneakily suggest that he had shanked the kick, which made Joubert laugh.
"I've never seen you shank one that badly," came Joubert's retort.
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