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ESPN SCRUM / ESPNscrum Columnist
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.
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Brett McKay and Mark Cashman discuss the talking points out of Super Rugby round six

If Super Rugby round five saw the New Zealand teams leaves their mark, then round six saw the Australian Conference have its say with three wins from a possible four - New South Wales Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels obviously couldn't both win - and with plenty of suggestion that Queensland Reds were more than a touch unlucky in Johannesburg. And I'll have a little bit to say on that matter, too.

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.

The rise of the Australian conference?

For the second week in a row, Western Force made a fleeting appearance in the wildcard spots on the overall Super Rugby standings. The Waratahs and Brumbies again traded places within the top six. And the Reds, for all but two minutes, were set to join them. For the first time since the inception of the conference system, Australia could've had four teams in the top six with the completion properly underway (that is, not the first week or a staggered start to the season). With only Melbourne Rebels causing issue for Australian rugby fans, it's a nice feeling to know there are four teams now genuinely capable of competing at the required standard.

And it possibly couldn't be any more timely; with talks ongoing around the format of Super Rugby beyond 2015, it's only a matter of time before those talks move from the rugby types to the television broadcasters and, more importantly, the cheque-signers from the television broadcasters.

A strong conference around the time of the broadcast rights discussions can only mean increased interest and, by flow-on, increased revenue for the Australian market. This is good news for SANZAR, but it's especially good news for the Australian Rugby Union, whose perilous financial state is well known.

Further, a strong Super Rugby showing can only help to spread the message around the proposed National Rugby Championship, which now looks all set to begin in August this year. And knowing the championship is going to be chockful of well-performed Super Rugby talent has to be a shot in the arm for tournament promoters.

Western Force are on a roll © Getty Images
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Please, Western Force, let this be the year

They're a hardy lot in Perth. Cautious of east-coast types writing about their team - and particularly of east-coast types questioning their team - they've become equally adept at taking the good on the field with the sometimes very bad. And so, it's those hardy fans in the "Sea of Blue" of whom I'm thinking of as I write this. Without a doubt, they're the most passionately protective supporters of their team in my Twitter following, even if some of them flip from cautiously pessimistic to parochially optimistic in an instant. And I say that in the nicest possible way, gang.

So they've now seen their team win three on the trot for the first time since March 30, 2007. They're getting behind their team at nib Stadium in great numbers; a crowd of less than 10,000 for Matt Hodgson's milestone 100th game, against the Rebels a fortnight ago, swelled to more than 16,000 for the next outing, against the Chiefs on Saturday night. And can't they make some noise!

After the bye this coming round, they face the Reds in Brisbane, and the Waratahs at home, before the re-match against the Rebels over the Easter weekend in Melbourne. I've said previously that the Force must win at least two of those games, and ideally one away from home, too, if they want to be taken seriously - and have the Super Rugby competition take them seriously. On current form, there's no reason why they couldn't win all three; indeed, that should be their goal. There may not be a better time to play the Reds and Waratahs than immediately after both teams return from South Africa, and the motivation to take down the Rebels on their own patch should be obvious.

So let this be the year, Force. Your hardy lot over there in Perth want to believe their faith is not misguided, and 2014 shapes as the year to repay that faith. And a strong Western Force can only be good for Australian rugby, too.

Stuart Berry blows for full time in a game where his decision to award a try to the Lions was deeply contested and ultimately ruled to be incorrect, Lions v Blues, Super Rugby, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, March 15, 2014
Stuart Berry was not alone in mastering the Reds' demise © Getty Images
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The other side of ref-bashing

After Reds fans felt they got the rough end of the pineapple from referee Lourens van der Merwe against the Sharks in Durban in round five, it wasn't going to take much for them to suggest the fix was on again this week. And sure enough, Stuart Berry found fault with the Reds to the tune of a 16-4 penalty count. Much of the hang-wringing in Johannesburg was around the set-piece, where it seemed the Reds couldn't do anything right; but also Berry's officiating around the tackle and ruck area.

On the last point, this is where I believe some focus needs to go back on the Reds players. At or around the time Lionel Mapoe scored his try in 65th minute, to thrust the Lions back in the game, Berry is heard giving Reds skipper James Horwill a warning of further action for infringements around the ruck area. Five minutes later, reserve hooker James Hanson is yellow-carded for not releasing the tackled player. As Berry hands out the card, he tells Horwill, "We spoke about it back there. It [needed] a clear release, and you've gone for [the ball] a second time. I've given you the opportunity to conform, and he's [Hanson] chosen not to."

With 10 minutes to go, in a four-point match and with the home side on the charge, that should have been the hint that the Reds needed to clean up their act. But no. Three minutes later, Jake Schatz was pinged for not releasing the tackled player, while defending on his own line. The Reds had just lost a player to the sin-bin for a ruck infringement yet here they were again, not heeding the lesson. With Schatz also earning a yellow, the Reds played out the game with 13 men.

Albert Anae was then twice penalised at the scrum. Students of the dark arts will argue the Lions on both occasions popped up out of the scrum, which certainly happened, but the point is the Reds were still making the mistake of giving Berry reason to penalise them.

Whether these decisions were right or wrong doesn't matter. This was a classic case of a team not heeding the warnings and making the necessary adjustments to stay out of trouble.

Make no mistake, there was plenty wrong with Berry's officiating. But the Reds' players were equally guilty of some mind-blowingly, coach-killingly, window-smashingly dumb play. And that had as big an effect on the result as did the refereeing.

That all said ...

There can be no doubt that perceptions around home-town decisions and the crucial non-use of neutral referees are well and truly out there, and cannot be shaken. SANZAR brought this upon themselves when they ditched the exclusive use of neutral refs several years ago, for all number of reasons including, among others, the reduction of travel costs for officials.

Referees, by definition, are there only to officiate and adjudicate on the Laws of the Game as they see them unfold in a match. Further, professional referees have got to where they are because they are the best in their field. They are literally paid to officiate fairly, evenly, and without bias or prejudice. But that still doesn't remove the perceptions of bias that most certainly do exist. Tell a Reds fan at the moment that Stuart Berry is a good referee, and see how many milliseconds the explosion takes to eventuate.

So on this point, I have somewhat changed my tune. If the reinstatement of neutral referees removes the perception of home-town officialdom, it can only be a good thing for the game. It might not - and I suspect it won't - make the slightest difference to the standard of officiating, but it will be one less issue Lyndon Bray has to deal with.

The table condenses again

Back in the first couple of weeks, I made mention that the top six, if the finals started the following day, looked different to what was - and still is - expected. The expected cream is now starting to rise to the top (four of last year's top six are there again now), but the real story is just how tight it's becoming mid-table. Just a bonus-win separates seven teams at the moment, from the Chiefs in third spot down the Highlanders in ninth. The 10th-placed Reds are only a point further back again.

And over the next month or so, a lot of these mid-table teams play each other, meaning there has to be even more shuffling of the teams. By then, with most teams having played seven or eight games, we'll certainly have a better idea of who the proper contenders are. But I suspect this mid-table squeeze will take a lot longer to resolve itself.

What did you think of the weekend's Super Rugby? Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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