Super Rugby: The first term report card; the Roar
March 19, 2014, 06:16:43
We’re five rounds into Super Rugby, and it’s already becoming clear who the teams to beat are, who the surprise packets are, and who the causes of desk-headbutting are.
By Brett McKay
So without further ado, here’s the first report card of the year.
As has been the case previously, this isn’t a ranking of best or worst teams, but rather my take on how each team is tracking according to predictions and guesstimations around likely performance and results.
The easy starting point here is the Sharks, who are going a hell of a lot better than I expected when the season kicked off.
The general anticipation around the Sharks was that Jake White would add some structure to their big but mobile pack, and some rough semblance of attacking plan to their talented, but often mercurial backline.
But wow. What a start to the season. White has done all that plus some, with an already hard-nosed breakdown presence becoming even more abrasive and damaging, and an attacking flair that almost seems out of character for Jake White teams.
He always told us that his Brumbies would play more attacking rugby in year three of his four-year plan, so maybe he’s just stuck to the same time frame despite the small detail of changing teams in the off-season.
Unbeaten in four matches, the Sharks already boast the largest points differential, and are not due to leave South Africa until the first week of May.
It’s not inconceivable that the Sharks could have as many as eight wins from nine games by the time they arrive in Melbourne for Round 12.
The Lions are another obvious inclusion in this category, and I’ll be highly surprised if anyone saw their opening month back in Super Rugby coming. Their pedigree is good, and they’ve always done reasonably well at Currie Cup level, but for some reason that’s never translated into Super Rugby wins.
Suddenly, they have a method that works well for them, a young fly-half whose boot oozes points, and they’ve already recorded the three wins that they’ve averaged throughout their Super Rugby existence to sit in a well-deserved fourth place on the overall standings.
The last two teams I’m throwing in here are the Bulls and Force, who I didn’t really have the highest of hopes for in 2014. Both now sit on 10 points from two wins, and both are playing well above their expected levels in the opening month.
Both now face a big test, too. The Bulls have the Sharks and Chiefs at Loftus, before departing for New Zealand and Australia where they will almost certainly lose games they probably shouldn’t.
The Force have the Chiefs, Reds, Waratahs and Bulls (coincidentally) over the next month, before heading to Africa themselves.
They’ve done well to start the season as they have, but we’ll know more about them in a month’s time.
These teams are going along about as good or as badly as expected. It was always going to be the biggest group, but it’s also the one that needs the least explanation.
Having the Chiefs-Brumbies-Waratahs in here is obvious. They were all expected to feature in the important parts of the table in 2014, and it didn’t take long for them to establish and consolidate their positions.
In truth, I don’t think any of them are playing at the best yet, but they’re getting the job done, and they’re winning games.
The Chiefs are showing that adaptability remains a hallmark of their planning, the Brumbies have bounced back nicely after a disappointing performance against the Reds first up, and after a start that blew people (and teams) away, the Waratahs will be a much better side for the loss in Canberra on Saturday night.
The Highlanders are ‘on par’ for the mid-table season I expected of them, though coming from the low base that was their 2013 season, that shouldn’t have been difficult.
I do worry that they’re a bit over-reliant on Aaron and Ben Smith, but they’ll cause some headaches this year, for their fans and opposing teams alike.
I wasn’t holding my breath for the Hurricanes and Rebels, and they’ve shown that to be a wise move.
The Hurricanes were impressive in putting 60 on the Cheetahs, for sure, but what about the three losses before that? One win a month might be about right for 2014.
There were impressive signs coming out of the Rebels’ trial games that the off-season defensive focus was paying dividends, but that’s kind of fallen in a heap in recent weeks.
And perhaps sadistically, this is what I thought might happen. Therefore, they’re on par as well.
We need to talk…
The Cheetahs and Stormers. Where do we start?
Both are much better teams than their lowly table position indicates, but it’s difficult to see how either team can get their seasons back on track over the next month, when both sides will face some of the more fancied teams in the competition.
The Cheetahs look a shadow of their 2013 version, like the consistently inconsistent Cheetahs teams of yore. Their attacking game plan looks like a variation of ‘JGITF’: Just Give It To Willie le Roux.
They already look hard-pressed to replicate their finals appearance of last year.
The Stormers are still very good defensively, but they remain bereft of attacking inclination. And as they’ve found out for the past few seasons, being very good defensively counts for little if you can’t create points.
The Blues need to stop giving teams 50-minute head starts before commencing their comebacks, or alternately, just try and play rugby from the start of the game.
Sir John Kirwan’s weekly No.10 roulette game seems to be having an effect on the team, too, with Chris Noakes and Simon Hickey playing different styles of games. What worked one week can only work the same way the next if you don’t make changes.
The Reds look to be in a bit of a holding pattern currently. We know what they’re capable of, and we’ve even seen glimpses of it, but I’m not sure when we’ll see that 80-minute display they’re so desperately trying to throw together.
The Reds’ pack is holding up well, and the back row is getting through a mountain of work in all the important areas, but they’re just not quite having the same impact as other similarly equipped loose trios in the top half of the competition.
I worry about the over-reliance on Quade Cooper, too, particularly while Will Genia remains a way off his best.
If Kurtley Beale has a quiet game for the Waratahs, they do still have Bernard Foley. If Matt Toomua is contained, the Brumbies still have the likes of Jesse Mogg, or even Nic White (and soon, Christian Lealiifano) to spark things.
If Cooper has a quiet game – like he did against the Sharks – who else can break open a game for the Reds?
And this just leaves the Crusaders.
If I held this first report card back another week or two, I suspect the Crusaders would be back on par. They have a good run coming up, before facing the Chiefs again over Easter, and I suspect we’ll be speaking of them in ‘contender’ terms well and truly by then.
They did start slowly, the Crusaders – they always do. But in all my time, I can’t recall the Crusaders ever playing as poorly as they did in the opening rounds.
Last week was a lot better against the Rebels, and the signs were there again that they’re getting back into their rhythm and that the combinations are returning.
I also think they’ve finally worked out their best backline combination, and with the set piece going pretty well already, this is another piece of the puzzle falling into place.
The few shots fired over their bow in the New Zealand media last week did the trick, too, and they’ll use this bye week to recalibrate and return to their expected standards.