Super Rugby 2019

Weekend Review

Week Six

A weekend with a full seven fixtures is finally behinds us. It felt like way too much rugby for any one person to watch and absorb, so much so that I recorded all the games and watched them piecemeal over the four days that started on Friday. 

Which brings us to the same old complaint – too much rugby, too much mediocrity, and not enough excitement, in a weird conference system that guarantees sub-standard teams places in the quarterfinals. Mediocrity is rewarded, which is simply wrong.

I cannot wait for the return of the Super 14, when we are likely to see fewer fixtures on an average weekend, and must hope for a massive increase in the quality of the rugby served up, in a competition where all games become important.

Unfortuantely we still have to wait another 22 months before that will happen,

The Sunwolves Departure.

Moving on to the news that the Sunwolves will definitely leave Super Rugby at the end of the 2020 season. 

For the life of me I cannot understand the logic of keeping them in the competition all the way into 2020? 

Okay, there are some that are saying that this is because the broadcast contract only expires at the end of 2020, but that did not seem to bother the Sanzaar suits when they dumped the Force, the Cheetahs and the Kings at the end of the 2017 season? That dumping was in the middle of the broadcast contract, and was done with the blessings of the broadcasters!

Retaining the Sunwolves for yet another year just does not make any sense, either commercially nor from a rugby perspective.

There are a number of issues that Sanzaar seem to have sidestepped. Simply, from a financial point of view the Sunwolves will continue to be a drain on the Sanzaar wallet. They have been bankrolled by Sanzaar since their inception, and taking them beyond 2019 simply adds another layer of expenses.

The Sunwolves will undoubtedly struggle to put a competitive team together in 2020. The word is already out that a number of the current squad have contacted their respective agents and asked them to send their CVs to the professional clubs of the world. There is no future for them with the Sunwolves and some of the better players may well be leaving as soon as the 2019 season is done and dusted. In point of fact the Sunwolves will probably have serious difficulty signing new or replacement players for their final 2020 season as anyone with any ambition to play professional rugby will want a contract with a team that will still be around at the end of the season.

Hence, the 2020 Sunwolves promise to be nothing more than cannon-fodder and a bunch of extra fixtures in a season already clogged with rugby matches.

However, the worst part of the decision to kick them out after the 2020 season is that Super Rugby itself is condemned to yet another season of the unpopular and unworkable conference system, and the mediocrity that has already drained the stands of fans.

The Crocodile Tears.

Oddly, there is some resistance to the news that the Sunwolves are being dumped out of Super Rugby. 

There has been an almost universal (and instantaneous) sobbing in the Australian rugby media. They are all so very sad to see the Sunwolves go, and it is all big, bad bullyboy South Africa’s fault!

I quote: “For once again, it’s South Africa throwing their weight around and pulling the SANZAAR strings for their own benefit.”

Jamie Pandaram outlined in his Daily Telegraph article that while “Rugby Australia and New Zealand were keen to persist with the Sunwolves as a long-term strategy for growth in Asia, South Africa was vehemently opposed.”

“It’s understood there were threats of financial penalties from South African rugby officials to Australia and New Zealand if the Sunwolves remained,”Pandaram wrote.

The Australian also reported that the Sunwolves refused to pay a participation fee, the only team in the competition asked for such a contribution.

“South Africa had already “forced” the Sunwolves play in Singapore and Hong Kong so as to minimise their travel requirements from the Republic to play the Tokyo-basedside, and now it seems they no longer want to travel even half way.”

The Australianwent on to say: “Using that same logic, the Australian sides should insist on playing the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers in Perth, while the Kiwis can roll out the welcome mats for the South Africans on Norfolk Island.

Equally strange is the Japanese Union believing the Top League will be fine for their ongoing development and readiness for the proposed Nations Championship.

That they are evidently leading the charge to put the Sunwolves on ice should not surprise; they weren’t ever bankrolling the Super Rugby venture in the first place, just as there’s no evident interest in Super Rugby beyond their hosting of the Rugby World Cup later this year.”

Of course, this is coming from a country where rugby union would go belly-up if it were not for the South African broadcasting rights money that is keeping Sanzaar and Super Rugby afloat, and provides most of Australian Rugby’s finances in any one year! Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!

On the Green & Gold Rugby website the departure of the Sunwolves was labelled as “South African Skullduggery”while bemoaning the fact that Aussie teams will now “only” have six or seven home games in a season, and thus suffer a loss of revenue, thanks to South Africa………..

Sunwolves CEO Yuji Watase expressed his disappointment with the news, saying: “We have the responsibility to expand rugby in Asia as a kind of leader in Asian rugby. It is clear that this is going to be quite a kind of damage… in terms of the promotion of rugby.”

I am not sure that he has a valid point when it comes to the promotion of the game in Asia, the stadiums in Singapore and Hong Kong have remained echoingly empty when the Sunwolves play in those cities. 

I also struggle to understand the point of expanding rugby in Asia, when the overwhelming majority of the Sunwolves squad is made up of non-Asian players.

Sadly, the reality is the Sunwolves simply don’t deserve their place in Super Rugby. 

Nobody seems to be thinking about the fact that the departure of the Sunwolves will save Sanzaar millions in wasted expenditure, both in bankrolling the franchise, and in hosting games in far-away cities and stadiums to disinterested locals. 

I, for one, am glad to see the back of a team that was artificially created and based on a faulty premise from the word go.

Some Thoughts On the Weekend’s Rugby

The Good Ones:

Rieko Ioane. 

Wow, wasn’t he right on top of his game this weekend. Suddenly clicking into top form and causing the Highlanders to look very ordinary on defence. After scoring four against the Sunwolves the weekend before, he added another two against the Highlanders and is looking as dangerous as any wing I have ever seen.

Damian McKenzie.

Way back in 2015, when he made his debut appearance for the Chiefs, I wrote of the youngster with the skinniest legs in the world of rugby, but with unbelievable natural talent and such enormous potential to become one of the most exciting rugby players of his generation. He has certainly proved my prediction correct, and then some! 

All Black attack coach Ian Foster refers to Damian McKenzie as “a fly in a bottle” just waiting for the lid to be unscrewed. 

Against the Bulls McKenzie was more like a flitting dragonfly. Now you see him, now you don’t.

Moving him back to full-back has paid dividends for the Chiefs, with his rediscovered influence triggering their marked improvement in the last two weeks. He was simply outstanding against the Bulls on Saturday, with 5 ball carries for all of 75 meters, 23 passes and three try assists, kicking 6 conversions and 3 penalties, for 21 points, and making three clean breaks in another dazzling performance.

Brodie Retallick

Back at his best, Brodie Retallick was my player of the week. His workload as his Chiefs have struggled has been brutal, but somehow he found the energy to dominate the lineouts against the Bulls and impressed with ball in hand where he gained 23 metres from 11 carries with one clean break, and an offload and also scored twice.

Israel Folau

Regular readers of my scribblings will know that I am not the greatest fan of Israel Folau as a fullback. There are just too many holes in his tactical game and on-field nous. Defensively he sucks.

Yet, when he is on form as the kick-chasing aerial specialist there is no-one in the world that can compete with him. He leaps higher, faster, and more accurately than any other player on the planet. His re-take of a Bernard Foley up and under and the subsequent pass to his winger for the score out wide was sublime. His contribution to the Waratahs win over the Crusaders was enormous, both with his ball carrying and with those kick-chasing leaps, which all lead up to the moment when he got his name on the scoresheet in the 74th minute to put the result beyond doubt.

Malcolm Marx

Growing steadily in the leadership role since taking over the captaincy from the injured Warren Whiteley, Malcolm Marx was the Lions’ standout performer in the win over the Sunwolves in Singapore. He gained 45 metres from 7 carries with one defender beaten, 12 big tackles, and was rewarded for his commitment with a two tries for his efforts. His presence at the breakdowns was massive, with 3 big turnovers to his credit.

Pieter-Steph du Toit:

It seems that du Toit’s name crops up every week!This weekend he put in yet another huge shift, leading his team’s defensive effort with a huge 30 tackles. Carried the ball well, and was ever-present and persistent in the linouts. It might have been in a losing cause, but it was another standout performance from the big man.

The Not-So-Good Ones:

Jean-Luc du Plessis

Boy, is he out of form, or what? His kicking game has deserted him completely, with very poor tactical decisions, compounded by poor tactical and exit kicking. His distribution has suffered as he seems to have lost all confidence in his own game. He seemed to be mesmerised by the ‘Canes as he simply fed them possession. The look on his face after he kicked an attacking ball into the deadball area said it all. The young man is struggling to find himself and his game.

Waisake Naholo

Waisake Who?

Think back to 2015 when Naholo was the man who could score from anywhere on a rugby field. The Highlanders won Super Rugby in 2015 on a foundation of defensive belligerence and Naholo’s attacking genius. He scored 15 tries, most of which he made himself. He was brilliant, unconventional, and uninhibited. He was magical. And a certainty for All Black selection.

But something has gone very wrong with Waisake Naholo in the last 12 months. His confidence looks shot, and the harder he tries, the worse things seem to get. His yellow card for a tackle on Tom Robinson was hugely influential on the game against the Blues, yet the tackle was in no way malicious, it was just technically poor.

The look of resignation on Naholo’s face as he made his way off said it all. 

Marius Louw 

Quite what the Sharks’ replacement midfielder Marius Louw was thinking when he hung out the clothes line and tried to decapitate his Rebels opposite number we may never know. He has been cited for foul play and will face a disciplinary hearing.

The entire incident was simply mindless, and dangerous. He will probably find himself watching from the sidelines for a couple of weeks for that one.

The Hookers & The Lineouts

During this weekend I became fixated at the poor lineout disciplines of every single one of the Super Rugby teams in this year’s competition!

Consider that no less than 22 lineouts were lost in the 7 games played this weekend, and that is just the very tip of the iceberg. These are the lineouts where the ball was lost to the opposition! Add in the number of scrambled lineouts with confused takes, the over-throws that were eventually safely pouched by someone who was not the intended recipient, and the skewed throws et al.

The Lineout is one of the best attacking platforms in the modern game, as the backlines actually get some space to move in before the rush defence shuts them down. 

It should be a no-brainer.

Modern laws allow the ball-catcher to be lifted into low earth orbit, which should ensure a clean take, every time!

Yet, somehow the set-piece has become a shambles, with all manner of dummy runs and break-dance moves as players shuffle back and forth trying to confuse their opponents and mostly just confusing themselves. The modern crop of hookers also seem to be struggling with their throwing accuracy, often contributing to the confusion in the one set-piece that should function like clockwork.

At the very least the hooker should be able to hit the target. Every time!

They Must be Worried

The Stormers:

Jake White never coached the Stormers, but his sidekick, Allister Coetzee did. Perhaps the legacy of the Coetzee era lingers?

Jake himself must be beaming! 

The Stormers are playing Jake-Ball the way he preaches the game! Kick deep and use driving mauls and defence to milk penalties. It helped them win against the Sharks, the Lions, and the Jaguares, but against a team with clever backs, especially a clever tactical flyhalf, such as Beauden Barret of the Hurricanes, it is a risky game plan, because the world has worked it out!

At the risk of being labelled “one-trick ponies” the Stormers have played Jake-Ball once too often. They simply have to find a way of getting their backs back into the game. Perhaps the first change, an essential one, is to give Damien Willemse the chance to run the game from the starting flyhalf slot. J-L du Plessis is not performing, and looks to be very low on confidence, which is telegraphed to the rest of the back division. The Stormers have the talent, but they do not seem to have the game plan at the moment.

The Bulls:

The Bulls’ 56-20 loss to the Chiefs was the upset of the weekend.

After superbly dominant wins over the Stormers, Lions and Sharks, interspersed with an unexpected loss to the Jaguares, they were coming into this game freshened by a week off. The bookies and tipsters had them as favourites, but they found the going tough in their first outing against a New Zealand side.

The Bulls simply looked as if the early season form and focus had deserted them completely.

And that must be a worry! How does a team, with momentum and confidence, suddenly slump as badly as the Bulls did this weekend?

Bulls coach Pote Human was right when he said his players were playing like they were still on their bye week.

Some might call it a slip up, but there are those sceptics that will say that we have seen all of this before! Just last year, after beating the high-flying Hurricanes………. 

Highlanders:

The game against the Blues was the Highlanders to lose inside the final 20 minutes, and they did just that. 

A moment of silliness from Waisake Naholo and a yellow card to cut their numbers to 14, and the Highlanders gave up 10 points inside the final six minutes of the match to see the Blues bank their first win against a Kiwi team in 21 attempts. And this must worry Highlanders fans – they have just not been convincing in any of their games this season!

Define: Jingo

[jing-goh]

The On-Line Dictionary defines a Jingo as: 

“a person who professes his or her patriotism loudly and excessively, favouring vigilant preparednes for war and an aggressive foreign policy; a bellicose chauvanist.”

In the world of rugby, we define Jingo far more simply. We simply use a name:

Phil Kearns.

Phil Kearns is undoubtedly the most biased, stunningly one-eyed commentator on TV. He makes the experience of watching a rugby match with Australian commentators a painful, distasteful experience. 

As someone said: It is a fact that if you were an airline pilot, and he was a passenger, you’d never be sure if the engines were still running, or if it was just Phil whining.

The easiest way to deal with Phil Kearns is to turn the sound off.

The Games:

Friday’s Game

Blues 33 vs 26 Highlanders

Unity, belief, and a clear game plan helped the Blues to their well-deserved win over the Highlanders at Eden Park on Friday night. Rieko Ioane was outstanding, with superb running and stepping. His brother Akira, sometimes described as lazy in the breakdowns, with a low work-rate in the really tough stuff, was right in the middle of every collision, every maul, every moment of physical confrontation. 

Between the two of them they summed up the new-look Blues.

The Blues were full value, against a Highlanders outfit that had their chances, but did not take them.

This was a prediction that I got spot on. As I mentioned in my preview, the bookies and the tipsters tilted towards the Highlanders. I missed the winning margin by just 1 point.

Saturday’s Games

Hurricanes 34 vs 28 Stormers 

When the Stormers sit down to do their post-match analysis, they will have to acknowledge that this was a missed opportunity. For large chunks of the game in Wellington, the Stormers looked to have the game in the bag. 

It was an impressive first-half performance, that continued for the first 20 minutes of the second half.

But there were just too many soft moments, too many mistakes, a lack of clear, clinical thinking, opportunities wasted.

It was the usual mix of poor defence in critical moments (SP Marais), and wasted possession and poor clearance kicks (J-L du Plessis), some lost lineouts, an attacking ball kicked dead. Simple mistakes and fudged thinking that proved extremely costly. 

This was a game the Stormers should have won – they had two opportunities at the death to score off driving mauls – but they conceded tries too easily 

as they slipped 27 tackles and conceded five tries.

This was not a game that the Hurricanes won, this was a game the Stormers lost.

And then there is that archaic game plan………

I suggested the Hurricanes would win by 10, but it was much closer than that.

Waratahs 20 vs 12 Crusaders

One has to wonder whether the tragic shooting in Christchurch, and the subsequent hullabaloo about the team name, might have left the Crusaders reeling to some degree. Saturday’s surprise result, that brought an end to a 19-game winning streak, saw a most uncharacteristic display by the Crusaders as they made 18 handling errors, leaked two tries in the first 10 minutes, and put together just one of their usually brilliantly executed moves, for George Bridge’s try in the 28th minute. 

As Muhammad Ali once said, after losing to Ken Norton back in 1973: “Even the best has to figure to get beat sometime”so too the Crusaders. The winning streak finally ends. It was bound to happen sometime.But Ali also said: “I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.” 

Ali took the loss, and came back to win the next time he faced Norton.

This time out The Crusaders seemed out of sorts, and not quite focussed on the game, yet they made no excuses afterwards, they “did it right” and I have no doubt they will be back!

The Waratahs changed the game plan that has been their downfall all year. Instead of the archaic deep standing 10 and 12 as playmakers shovelling the ball out to Israel Folau, they reverted to a (for once) well organised game that included playing to the aerial strengths of Folau as a kick-chaser.  It worked well against an out-of-sorts Crusaders, and we are likely to see more of this style from the ‘Tahs throughout the rest of Super 2019.

I was not one of the 2% that predicted the outcome of this game correctly.

Sunwolves 24 vs 37 Lions

Pretty much as expected. A Sunwolves team intent on playing their brand of “organised chaos” against a Lions team that reverted to a more disciplined, focussed approach.

With Malcolm Marx kicking up a gear or two and playing a leading role, the result was inevitable.

In reality, there is nothing much one can say about this game, other than “pretty much as expected” as the Lions dominated the rucks, the scrums and the lineout and set up some well-executed mauls.

It was not a polished performance, but it was good enough.

Sylvian Mahuza conceded a penalty try and saw a yellow card for sticking his hand out to prevent a pass. Which was the only unusual and unexpected moment of the game.

A “crowd” of some 500 Singaporeans pitched up to watch a somewhat boring encounter.

I said the Lions by 18, so I was 5 off the mark.

Bulls 20 vs 56 Chiefs

I was a little confused as I watched this game.

Where did the team in the white jerseys come from? 

They played some exciting, error free rugby, with brilliant improvisation on attack, solid defence, and well-structured set-pieces. Surely this is a team right on top of their game, probably sitting somewhere close to the top of the 2019 log?

No, this was the Chiefs, bottom of the loggers, with just one draw and a string of losses to their name in 2019.

Yet they looked like championships contenders as they simply ripped the Bulls apart.

As for the team in light blue, they in turn looked like bottom of the loggers, yet they are on the top of the South African log, contenders for a play-off slot in Super Rugby 2019. 

They looked disorganised, listless, unfocussed, almost as if they were suffering from a post-party hangover of mammoth proportions. 

Somehow their disciplines deserted them as they conceded 9 penalties. 

Their powerful forward game vanished and their game over the ball on the ground was more a rumour than a fact as they conceded a massive 14 turnovers.

Considering that the Chiefs had lost to the Sunwolves at home, and conceded more than 50 points against the Brumbies, while the Bulls smashed the Stormers and overpowered both the Lions and the Sharks, this game was totally at odds with the form book and everyone’s expectations.

Perhaps the one lesson to be learned is that the 2019 Bulls are not yet a fully functional, experienced side? They should know that they cannot just pitch up and win. They have already tried that against the Jaguares. Did they think the Chiefs would be a soft touch?

This loss will serve as a serious reality check for the Bulls.

I got this pick completely wrong, but so did nearly every else.

Sharks 28 vs 14 Rebels

Sometime during this game I made the remark that the Sharks were still playing their boring forward pod oriented game, and that they just did not look convincing. Playing one-off-the-9 rugby is boring, static stuff and one of the primary reasons for the fans deserting the game in their droves. Watching paint dry is more exciting.

As soon as the Sharks started to move the ball wide, matters improved beyond measure. They looked good when they took the ball into the wider channels. Sadly, they did not do it nearly enough!

Yes, they bankedan important 28-14 victory over the Rebels.

Yet they somehow allowed an undisciplined Rebels outfit to score two tries and to briefly take the lead in the first half.

The Rebels discipline problems from a week ago persisted into the first half of this game, by the 35-minute mark they had already conceded no less than 9 penalties, and it looked as if their 20 penalties low point against the Lions would be beaten on Saturday. Somehow, perhaps a roasting by their coach at half-time, they fixed that problem after halftime and conceded just two more in the entire second stanza.

It did not help much as the Sharks showed good focus and composure and played some clinical rugby as they closed the game out in the second half, not allowing the Rebels any more points.

It was not a flawless display by the Sharks. 

They were poor in the lineouts and disjointed at scrum time, losing two scrums against a side that was taking a physical battering up front.

This was not a full-strength Rebels team, yet they made the Sharks work hard for the win.

Sharks supporters will be happy to bank the win, but the game asked more questions than it gave answers. Most of the questions were around the game plan and the persistence with crash-ball rugby.

At least I got this pick correct, although I was off the mark with the points spread, by 5.

Reds 36 vs 14 Brumbies

Regrettably, I have not had the time to sit down and analyse this game. I am also not going to set time aside for that job.  I scanned through the highlights package, and that was about it.  From what I saw in my cursory over-view was a Brumbies outfit that looked lost and a Reds outfit that was playing some of the best rugby we have seen from them in the last decade.

However, this was a highlights package, and it was on fast-forward for most of the time, so any comment I make is of little or no value.

Anybody can look good in a well edited highlights package.

I said the Brumbies would win, I was wrong, again.