Brumbies must address discipline to play finals
May 26, 2014
Podcast: Andy Withers and Brett McKay discuss the biggest Super Rugby talking points
Round 15 of Super Rugby was the one in which table position meant nothing, and some teams thought to be well in contention finished the round with the tail between the legs. We saw inspirational defence and expansive attack rewarded equally, and happily not too much controversy from the officials (but of course, still enough to talk about).
Here are the talking points from the weekend. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Horror results cause major table shake-up
How did your tipping go in round 15? Yeah, mine was rubbish, too. But if you thought that was rough, spare a thought for SANZAR's gatekeeper for the official Super Rugby tables.
Try to get your head around all this movement in the top eight: it started easily enough, with the Sharks' win over the Blues in Albany maintaining their five-point lead atop the competition table. After that, though, it was madness.
Melbourne Rebels 19-41 Waratahs (Australia only)%]
The Waratahs started the round in fourth spot, but a bonus-point win over the Rebels vaulted them into second overall and first in the Australian conference. Likewise, the Crusaders' bonus-point win over the Highlanders (that very nearly wasn't) shot them to the top of the New Zealand conference and into third spot overall.
Western Force started the weekend outside the wildcard places, but their bonus-point win moved them up to fourth after the Hurricanes' bonus-point win over the Chiefs had also catapulted them inside the top six, settling in fifth spot. The Highlanders gained two bonus points courtesy of their heartbreaking four-try, three-point loss to the Crusaders, but they actually dropped a spot in all the shuffling to sixth.
That's four-bonus point wins, and a double bonus-point loss causing some major movement.
Hurricanes 45-8 Chiefs (Australia only)%]
And the big losers?
The Brumbies' capitulation in Pretoria dropped them from second overall to seventh, and suddenly in a spot of bother.
Reigning back-to-back champions the Chiefs, meanwhile, dropped from third to eighth overall, courtesy of their thumping in Wellington. I outlined three weeks ago how they might miss the finals; I couldn't quite believe what I was suggesting, but now that prospect looms very real.
Impressive Sharks tweak game plan to be even smarter and more precise
When I looked into the crystal ball and scribbled down those forward projections three weeks ago, the Sharks were looking scratchy enough for me to suggest they would finish their Australasian tour with just the one win they'd managed at that point but their predicted 11 wins would still be enough to finish top of the Super Rugby log.
Blues 23-29 Sharks (Australia only)%]
Now they've finished their tour with two more very impressive wins in New Zealand, and with three games against the bottom two South African teams to come when they return home, there's every chance they will really run away with top spot from here. In truth, they'd be disappointed if they didn't finish the season with the 13 wins that now look quite likely.
Most impressive about their win at North Harbour Stadium, though, was the subtle tweaking to their game plan. They still kicked as much as they always do, but they kicked smarter and more precisely. Knowing the Blues' back three include some of the more dangerous open runners in the game, the Sharks generally avoided kicking to them in uncontested situations. Francois Steyn ran a lot more from fly-half than he has in as long as I can remember, and used his outside men well to test the Blues' defence.
But once again, the Sharks' dogged defence was their hero element. They defended with only 14 players for 20 minutes in the second half, and even conceded points, but never enough to allow the Blues back into the contest.
Yes, the score went within a converted try, but the Sharks, in reality, were always in control. And they remain very much in control now. They return to the Republic for derbies against the bottom five-placed Stormers and Cheetahs, and look primed to host finals with almighty momentum behind them.
The best of timing; the worst of timing ...
If there was any doubt that New South Wales Waratahs are the form Australian team, all lingering uncertainty was blown away on Friday night in Melbourne, as the Tahs did precisely that to the Rebels.
They've now run in 16 tries in their past three outings, have timed their ascension to the top of the Australian conference perfectly, and look to be on the song sheet from which Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie is singing when he picks back-three players who can't kick and says "we know how we want to play".
That said, there's one generally reliable aspect of the Waratahs' game they need to redress, and that's goal-kicking. A team simply will not get away with leaving 16 points on the field come the knockout stage. Scoring six tries is a good night out, but converting only one takes a bit of the gloss off. Their next big test comes in New Plymouth on Saturday afternoon, against a hurting Chiefs side with plenty to prove.
Bulls 44-23 Brumbies (Australia only)%]
At the opposite end of the scale, the Brumbies really can't have timed a slump much worse. They appear stuck in a game plan they can't get out of against South African teams, and now outside the wildcard places, look to be in a battle to secure a finals berth.
In truth, the Brumbies and Bulls played very similarly in Pretoria but the differences were stark. Where the Bulls kicked with intent and chased hard to create contests, the Brumbies kicked long on auto-pilot, almost always to a Bulls sweeper, and very rarely with any kick-chase pressure coming through.
And their discipline remains a massive issue. In the past month, the Brumbies have gifted their opposition 26 shots at penalty goal, of which 20 have been successful. In that same period, they've scored only one try less than their opposition in four games, but the three losses have been by more than 15 points on average.
Some harsh introspection is needed in the capital, or the Brumbies can forget their title aspirations.
South Island classic goes down to the wire
The "game of the year" tag does tend to be thrown around a bit loosely these days, but it's a tag well-warranted in the case of the Highlanders-Crusaders cracker in Dunedin on Saturday.
Highlanders 30-32 Crusaders (Australia only)%]
A game that went back and forward for the entire 80 minutes, it featured lead changes, comebacks, blowouts, more comebacks and even a yellow card for All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. It had literally everything, including last-minute TMO drama and a decision that still divides the south island neighbours and their respective supporters a couple of days later.
If I'm completely honest, I'm still not sure how a try wasn't awarded. Yes, the TMO indicated the ball was grounded on the goal line and the touch-in-goal simultaneously, but considering Patrick Osborne was diving parallel to the touch line, and that Israel Dagg's contact pushed him along the goal line, can we be absolutely sure the ball didn't touch some skerrick of the goal line first?
The more I look at the replay - especially the head-on shot - the more convinced I become. And I reckon the Sky Sport NZ commentators were thinking the same thing, judging by their exasperated reaction to TMO Vinnie Munro's explanation.
Regardless, the Highlanders showed that they're far from gone in this competition while also showing the Crusaders are very, very beatable. Which means we can only be in for even more drama before this season's complete.
Force enter uncharted territory
Another tip of the hat to Western Force, to finish.
Force 29-19 Lions (Australia only)%]
I'll stick my hand up as one of the many, many, many doubters who scoffed at the early-season news that the Force had set themselves a goal of winning eight games in 2014. Yet here we are, with four rounds to go, and the goal has been met.
The side has well and truly proved themselves a quality outfit this year, and capable of beating anyone. Their eight wins is a club record, as is their current streak of five consecutive wins at home.
But the job is still a long way from being done.
Michael Foley wouldn't dare speak in finals terms when ESPNscrum spoke to him a few weeks back, but anything less will be a major disappointment for the West Australian side from here.
They've had a wonderful season that they can be incredibly proud of, the Force, but there's even more history they need to make in 2014.
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