Waratahs have the look of champions
June 2, 2014
Brett McKay and Andy Withers discuss the weekend's talking points
The last round before the June International window, Round 16 of Super Rugby, gave us upsets galore, and some chops and changes on the competition table with teams out of and back in the race. The action set up beautifully what already looms as a thrilling run into the 2014 final series on the resumption in late June.
Here are the talking points from the weekend in the last Super Rugby edition of Scrum5 for a couple of weeks. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Has the Sharks loss to the Stormers undone all the good work?
Hands up who tipped the Lions and the Stormers? Exactly. No-one.
Lions 32-21 Bulls (Australia only)%]
And while it was another horror round for the tipsters - three from seven, thanks for asking - the lowly ranked Lions and Stormers beating the top South African teams, the Bulls and Sharks, respectively, had the major impact of tightening up the race home for the finals.
The 32-21 loss to the Lions probably killed the Bulls' already tenuous finals hopes dead, as they were never going to get the 10 wins that could guarantee finals action, and even getting to nine was going to be an uphill challenge. With only two games left in the season for the South African conference, the best the Bulls can do now is eight wins; even if they snare maximum points in their remaining games, that will still only get them to 43 points. And in my projections and predictions, that leaves them at least two points short. Furthermore, with games against the Stormers and Melbourne Rebels to come, the Bulls can't even take on the spoiler's role from here on - with both teams below them on the table.
The Sharks' last-play 21-19 loss at home to the Stormers really makes things interesting, though.
Sharks 19-21 Stormers (Australia only)%]
Just four points separates the three conference leaders now, and New South Wales Waratahs and the Crusaders, each with a game in hand over Sharks, are suddenly eyeing off top spot; they will each become massive Stormers fans ahead of the final-round return clash with the Sharks in Cape Town.
Heading into the June break, there's only eight points between the Sharks in top spot, and the Hurricanes in sixth. The Force are only one point back in seventh, and likewise the Chiefs in eighth. And with a number of jostling teams playing each other of the remaining rounds, Super Rugby has plenty of surprises left yet.
Genia, Horwill serve Wallabies reminders
Queensland Reds' season is long gone, but a couple of their best players each put in a timely reminder of their evident quality in the thrilling 38-31 win over the Highlanders in Brisbane on Friday night.
Reds 38-31 Highlanders (Australia only)%]
Will Genia, playing his 100th game for the Reds, ensured his name remained fresh in the minds of Wallabies selectors, with a commanding performance that made the race for Australia's No.9 jersey all the more complicated. While Waratahs half Nick Phipps makes a decent argument in favour of combinations, and the Brumbies' Nic White brings a lengthy kicking boot to the table, neither can draw on Genia's 55 caps worth of Test experience.
Similar can be said of former Wallabies captain James Horwill, who produced his best match of the season for the Reds just as it was becoming widely believed that he was in danger of missing a starting berth for the first Test against France on Saturday night in Brisbane.
With three uncapped players among the five locks named by Ewen McKenzie, and with Rob Simmons a certain starter to run the Wallabies lineout, Horwill's No.5 jersey was thought to be under threat from Luke Jones, Will Skelton and Sam Carter. For the first Test now, at least, it wouldn't surprise now to see Horwill resume his place in the middle of the Wallabies pack.
Crusaders effective, if not completely flawless
What of the Crusaders?
Crusaders 30-7 Force (Australia only)%]
Statistically, at least, they're in a better place than at the same point last year.
This year, they sit in second spot overall, and lead the New Zealand conference. Their record is 9-4, and they've scored a couple of more tries than at the same point in 2013 - when they were sitting sixth overall with an 8- 5 record.
Certainly, their breakdown and defensive intensity looks as dangerous as ever. They have the best lineout jumper in the competition - Sam Whitelock - and their dominant scrum won two penalty tries against Western Force in Christchurch, on Friday night.
But their attack still seems off, doesn't it?
The backline just doesn't seem as potent as it has in the past, and I'm still not convinced they've worked out their best combination - especially with Tom Taylor still playing in the unfamiliar No.13 jersey.
Yet, they're still well and truly in the hunt, and you'd be completely mad to write them off. If there's a tougher prospect than a Crusaders side at the top of their game, it might just be a Crusaders side still to hit their straps properly.
As a guide, the Crusaders' last championship side (2008) ran in 49 tries in 13 regular-season games - winning 11. Last season, they'd scored 32 tries after 13 games; this year, the tally is 36, albeit with the penalty tries included.
Familiarity and continuity key for charging Tahs
It's very difficult not to be impressed with the Waratahs by now, heading into the June recess. They're playing with a level of confidence not seen in too many other teams in Super Rugby currently, and they appear to be the most adaptable of all the teams in finals contention.
Chiefs 17-33 Waratahs (Australia only)%]
The win over the Chiefs in New Plymouth is a perfect case in point. The Waratahs had all the running in the first half, enjoying 60% territory and possession, and they looked to be sitting comfortably at 13-3 at half-time. The Waratahs had led at half-time in seven games previously, and went on to win them all.
Whatever confidence they drew from that stat would have been dented as they were challenged in the second half, the Chiefs even taking the lead briefly before the Tahs took it up a gear and finished with all the running, adding 17 points and two tries in the last 13 minutes to seal their first win in New Zealand since 2010. They are now undefeated in eight matches they have led at half-time this season.
Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, and Adam Ashley-Cooper - particularly - added to their already decent claims at Wallabies selection in the first Test, but in truth, there wasn't a bad player in a Waratahs jersey.
There was one remarkable stat emerge during the game, too: the Waratahs have had 14 players feature in every game in 2014, while the reigning champions, the Chiefs, had only five players appear in every game.
Continuity and familiarity are major factors why the Waratahs are sitting so high on the tally, and why they are looking as likely as any of the teams thought to be genuine contenders. A game in hand over several other teams in the top six is another ace up the sleeve, and, suddenly, Michael Cheika's early-season stated goal of a top-two finish is looking like a moment of crystal-ball genius.
Brumbies win sets up Homebush blockbuster
The Brumbies' impressive six-tries-to-one demolition of Melbourne Rebels in Canberra on Saturday night sets up the June 28 clash against the Waratahs as a proper blockbuster clash on the resumption of Super Rugby after the June Tests.
Brumbies 37-10 Rebels (Australia only)%]
There's rivalries in all Australian conference games these days, but perhaps none so much as that between these teams; and now we get a truly season-defining match-up to boot.
The Waratahs could go a long way towards cementing top spot in the Australian conference with a win at ANZ Stadium, while the Brumbies are already steeling themselves for the first of what they're seeing as a series of warm-up matches before the finals series. The Brumbies still have designs on going one better than their defeat in last year's decider.
You just hope know that both sides - and the Australian Rugby Union, for that matter - get in early and give this match the promotion it deserves. Brumbies' fans will certainly be making the trek up the Hume Highway, but Homebush has largely remained on the "no-go" list for Waratahs fans over the years.
Such an occasion, and such a crucial match deserves the biggest Australian crowd of the year, and with good support for both sides. Make it happen, rugby gods and administrators alike.
Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
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