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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.
Scrum5
Away form set to cost Chiefs dear
Brett McKay
May 5, 2014
Scrum5 podcast: Brett McKay and Andy Withers discuss the big Super Rugby talking points

Even with the Sharks ending the drought of South African teams winning east of the Indian Ocean, Super Rugby round 12 gave us yet more proof that current form means nothing when it comes to teams playing away. Both the Brumbies and Hurricanes were superb winning the previous week, yet they couldn't carry that momentum with them over the Tasman.

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.

Still life in the Blues

The Blues' impressive 44-14 demolition of Queensland Reds on Friday night showed there is still life in the Auckland-based team, and that Eden Park, with a full round of New Zealand derbies to come between now and the end of the season, might be a "voodoo" destination for a few more teams yet. The Blues are unbeaten at their Auckland home this season, and their record at home stretches to 10 wins from 13 matches over the last pwo seasons. And this includes a win over the Stormers at Albany's North Harbour Stadium, where they'll host the Sharks in Round 15.

Blues 44-14 Reds (Australia only)
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More importantly, for both the team and coach, Sir John Kirwan, the win against the Reds puts them back in the middle of that group of four teams on the fringe of the top six. Had the Reds pulled off an upset, the Blues' season would've slipped perilously close to the "mathematical chance" territory that makes for interesting discussion but essentially means a team's campaign is done.

With a unbelievably dangerous back three, skipper Luke Braid to come back in, Jerome Kaino already killing it, and now Ma'a Nonu playing Test-level football in Super Rugby for the first time in I don't know how long, the Blues will have an impact on the make-up of the top six - whether they make it or not.

New Zealand conference has to end in tears

The Blues' win, the Chiefs' return to winning form, and the Crusaders' defensively brilliant victory over the Brumbies shaved yet another point off the spread over the New Zealand conference, in which now only five points separates the five teams.

Chiefs 34-8 Lions (Australia only)
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The Chiefs sit on top, on 30 points, followed by the Crusaders and Hurricanes on 26; the Highlanders are also on 26 - courtesy of their double bonus-point loss in Cape Town - and the Blues trail on 25. The Chiefs sit third on the overall table with the Crusaders sixth and the Hurricanes, Highlanders, and Blues taking the next three spots just outside the top six.

And with the five teams to play the aforementioned full round of New Zealand derbies over the remaining rounds, the season can only end in tears for at least a couple of them. Five teams in the top nine looks great right now - and it is - but a maximum four can squeeze into the play-offs.

And more's the point, with anyone capable of beating anyone - particularly at home, as we've seen all season - it means the five teams will only end up taking points off each other. In a cruel twist, the strength of the New Zealand conference will also become its weakness, with those points shared meaning more of the five teams will miss the play-offs than is probably deserved.

Brumbies recalibrate for Jake's return

So here are some questions I've been considering since about a 4.14pm (EST) on Saturday: if the second game on tour is the hardest for teams to get "up" for, is Jake White's task in Canberra this weekend harder or easier after the Sharks' six-point win over Melbourne Rebels last Friday night? And if the game weren't already on the Brumbies' minds, how much more fired up to face their former mentor will they be after turning in probably their worst performance in the last three years against the Crusaders in Christchurch?

Crusaders 40-20 Brumbies (Australia only)
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Brumbies coaches Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher cited an overly relaxed build-up to what was always going to be a big test for their players as one reason for their lacklustre display; they also said that traffic delays on the way to the ground ensured their warm-up was shortened. Whatever the reason, the Brumbies were well off the pace in the first 40; and even after scoring the first try after the break, they never really troubled the outstanding Crusaders defence. The 20-point margin was a fair reflection of the two sides.

Fisher said during the week that he saw "no benefit in losing", and of course he would say that before a match; but after the event, I'm sure the Brumbies will see the defeat as the ideal - and hopefully last - chance to recalibrate.

Once again, the Brumbies' discipline was their Achilles heel. Though both sides were penalised eight times at the ruck and the offside line, the Crusaders only gave the Brumbies three shots at penalty goals. The Brumbies, by contrast, gave Colin Slade a shot every time they were penalised, and he landed the goal seven times.

With superboot Francois Steyn coming to town, the Brumbies' area of concern increases by another 10-15 metres. If the Brumbies want to go one better than they did in 2013, discipline should be their primary area of focus this week.

Waratahs reap the rewards of underplay

The difference in the Waratahs' approach against the Hurricanes was evident in the opening minutes. In stark contrast to games over the previous month or so, the Waratahs played their attack in Sydney a lot wider and a lot faster; the result was Rob Horne's opening try after only a minute. From that start, the Tahs gifted the Hurricanes a decent lead before finally getting their act together and levelling the contest at half-time. The match finished with eight tries, and would have to be right up there with the best games of 2014 thus far.

Waratahs 39-30 Hurricanes (Australia only)
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The big lesson for the Waratahs was the success they found with their attack. Where they had looked confused and contradictory in recent games, fly-half Bernard Foley and inside centre Kurtley Beale largely ran in their own channels and not into each other. Foley relished life as the primary playmaker, and Beale excelled by taking advantage of the space Foley had provided. Both underplayed their hand, though, and the result was a more rounded, and a more polished, performance of which coach Michael Cheika was rightly proud after the 39-30 win.

The quality of the attack was significant for the match being one of Israel Folau's quieter games in a good while. This is important because the Waratahs were starting to look as reliant on Folau as the Reds are on Quade Cooper. Foley and scrum-half Nick Phipps also had their best game for the season as a combination, and Horne, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Carraro were all very good, too. Of the pigs, Kane Douglas and Dave Dennis also turned out season-best games. And the legend of Michael Hooper just keeps growing.

Ten the magic number, and I see the Chiefs falling short

Since the inception of the conference format in Super Rugby, 10 wins has been the minimum needed to qualify for the finals. The minimum number of points has varied a little in the high-50s, but 10 wins has always been the mark. In fact, in 2012, 10 wins wasn't enough for the Brumbies and the Hurricanes to qualify.

Points tallies will be lower this season, with teams no longer getting points for the bye, but 10 wins will still be the mark. So I've looked into the crystal ball to see who can and can't get there. With seven points now between the Bulls in 10th and the Rebels in 11th on the current table, I've ruled out all teams below this gap.

South Africa: the Sharks certainly will qualify; I think they'll finish with 11 wins and probably top the table. The Bulls won't, though; they only have four wins now, and with one more bye and the South African teams not playing in round 17, they play only five more games. Even if they win all five they can only tally 10 victories. And I don't think they can win all five.

New Zealand: my crystal ball threw me a bit. It suggested the Crusaders will go on with the job and get to 11 wins and top the conference. The Hurricanes won't get 10 wins, but I think they'll get nine and sneak in with an already healthy bonus point tally. I think the Highlanders and Blues will get to eight wins and fall short. And this may surprise people, because it surprised me: I figured already the Chiefs wouldn't get to 10 wins, given their two draws during the season already, but having won only one away game in five attempts this season, and with three more to come, plus two home games in New Plymouth, I think the eight wins they'll manage will leave them short of the top six.

Australia: The three teams in the top six now - the Brumbies, Waratahs and Western Force - can all get there. The Brumbies and Waratahs can even get to 11 wins, I believe. Bonus points will determine their final finishing order; with only three points separating them now, it'll be tight. The Waratahs-Brumbies game at Homebush, and the Brumbies-Force in Canberra in the last two rounds of the regular season will be majorly decisive.

Obviously, bonus points still have a major role to play in determining the finishing order, especially since I can see four teams finishing with 11 wins. It'll be interesting to revisit this exercise in the final round and see how close to mark this was.


Discuss the taking points using comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

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