Super Rugby

Weekend Review 

Round Thirteen

This week’s Review is somewhat truncated – Internet issues coupled to time constraints have prevented me from giving my fullest attention to scribbling down my thoughts and sharing them with you, the long-suffering readers of these things. Mother’s Day and a 270km round trip to visit my Mum took care of Sunday; the tax-man and his never-ending demands for paperwork and more paperwork; family affairs that need undivided attention; a broken garage door motor; a vehicle that needs a new roadworthy…. This week is kinda done!

Oy Vey! It is the Referees, again!

The Aussie media is in a bit of a tizz about the performance of referee Egon Seconds in the match between the Lions and the Waratahs at Ellis Park.

Personally, I believe they have every right to be kicking up a bit of a stink about Seconds’ performance. 

It was an abysmal performance! 

His refereeing seemed more than a little biased, his positional play as a referee was beyond poor, and then there were the moments where he seemed to want to get actively involved with the game, including what appeared to be an attempted clean-out on Michael Hooper!

In this game Mr Seconds penalised the Waratahs 11 times, and the Lions twice. Which seemed to be a bit lenient towards the home side? 

Mick Mallett went so far as to say “A couple of calls had gone the Lions way”and spoke of what seemed to all a clear forward pass that led on to a Lions’ try early in the second half.

Let me be clear, though, the Waratahs cannot protest innocence! They were very fortunate not to see one or even two legitimate yellow cards for continual transgressions in the red zone. However, Egon Seconds’ leniency does not excuse some of his ineptitude in other aspects of his game.

Perhaps Mr Seconds had an off day? 

I think not, if I look back over his record for the year and the number of times he has been criticised for his positional play and the times he has blocked a pass or a runner. He has a penchant for getting much too close to the action and then being in the way of the players. It might work when controlling school games, but not at the higher end of the game!

Then I look a little further and note that in the two games he has handled between South African and Australian teams, the penalty count has been 31-3 in favour of the South Africans.

There is certainly something wrong there! 

When South African teams play under neutral referees their disciplinary record is pretty much on average with the rest of the teams in the competition, but not so when Egon Seconds has the whistle.

Egon Seconds is out of his depth at the Super Rugby level. Period.

Whilst Egon Seconds had a very poor day, by anyone’s standards, he was not alone.

The referees of the South Hemisphere’s premier rugby competition have been woefully poor throughout the season, and can frequently be accused of outright bias.

Over in New Zealand Ben O’Keeffe had a particularly poor game as he hammered the Jaguares with a couple of very iffy calls. He was forced to penalise the Highlanders too, their disciplines were visibly poor, but the 50/50 calls all went the way of the home side. O’Keeffe has a reputation for bias in favour of the New Zealand based sides.

Nick Briant was less biased but often overly officious in his handling of the Blues/Hurricanes clash, handing out 26 penalties and a yellow card, with the flow of penalties against the Hurricanes sometimes more than a little confusing.

The Rebels/Reds game saw Angus Gardner go to his pocket, yet again. He sent two of the Reds to the sin-bin, one early in the first half and another early in the second half – and during the times they were reduced in numbers, the Reds conceded 17 points, and went on to lose the game by just six points. Those two yellow cards had a direct impact on the outcome of the game!

Gardner has been heavily criticised in the media for the ease with which he produces cards. Last week he handed out no less than 5 yellows and two reds. Even the Aussie commentators were questioning the ease with which he reaches for the pocket! Yet, it seems that Sanzaar’s refereeing boss Lyndon Bray is not doing anything about the problem!

The first twelve rounds of Super Rugby saw 58 yellow cards waved by referees, an average of just short of 5 per weekend. This weekend added another four to that tally, so we now have 62 yellow cards in the 2019 Super Rugby competition.

Somehow that seems to be way too many!

Seven Super Rugby games were played this weekend, and in every game there were plenty of refereeing errors.

I would be the last to suggest that a referee should be error free in his handling of a game. The referee is human, and mistakes will happen. 

Consider that the referee is there to watch 30 human behemoths battering into each other during an 80 minute game of rugby. Those massive, skilled, fit, muscular professional rugby players make something of the order of 22 to 25 mistakes that require the whistle to be blown to order a scrum, and then there can be around 12 to 25 penalties too. That is anywhere between 34 and 50 times that the referee has to blow his whistle to stop the game because a player made a mistake. Add another 15 or 20 plus lineouts, and the referee is blowing his whistle around 75 times a game to stop the action, and then set up a restart of some sort. 

Now add the mistakes that players make that do not require the referee’s intervention. The missed tackles, the poor passes, the slips and falls, the bobbled ball, the wrong read of the bounce of the ball, the poorly executed kick, the dropped ball…. You can start adding them if you wish. Fortunately Edinburgh University did the counting for us some years ago, and suggested that there were about 125 player mistakes in any one Test match! 

An average of 4,16 mistakes per player.

And we do not accept that the referee will make the odd mistake?

It is not the mistakes that are the cause of the public disenchantment with the current crop of referees. 

It is the inconsistency of their game management, coupled to constant evidence of bias, and an uneven application of the Laws, with the home side often being favoured.

It is the poor use of technology, and then the often laughably inept performance of those tasked to provide decisions when they have that technology at their disposal.

Most importantly, it is the lack of visible accountability for errors and ineptitude. If a rugby player makes a mistake, it is the referee that, in the first instance, will rule on the mistake and order a sanction of one form or another, be it a scrum or a penalty, a card even. If a player transgresses the laws beyond the ambit of the referee’s sanction, the judicial hearing will step in and provide some form of justice.

Whether we agree with the justice meted out by the judicial hearing is neither here nor there, the fact of the matter is that the process is transparent.

If a referee errs, if there is some process of remedial action, the entire process is hidden behind an impenetrable smokescreen as Sanzaar and the Referees’ governing bodies provide no report on that possible sanction and remedial action, and zero response to enquiries by interested parties. As far as the public and the playing professionals are concerned, the referee receives no sanction whatsoever if he errs on the field of play.

This is very wrong.

Rugby is supposed to be about the 30 players out on the field contesting the ball and attempting to score points. 

It is not supposed to be about the referee and his influence on the game. 

The referee should be the invisible man on the field. 

Teams should not have to prepare their game plans and tactics according to which man has been allocated to carry the whistle in the next fixture! 

Bluntly, rugby is not about the referee! 

Hence it was frustrating, nay, infuriating this weekend, to see too many instances where the men with the whistles were having too much of an impact on the game. 

The whole system has become perverted.

To add insult to injury, Sanzaar persist with the appointment of non-neutral referees!

The Bench

During the 2019 season we have watched the evolution of a new approach by several of the Super Rugby teams. Instead of starting a game with their strongest XV, they hold a significant number of their stronger players on the bench, with the idea of introducing them later in the game with the clear intention of making as big an impact as possible.

The Blues have used the tactic since the beginning of the season, relying on their starting squad to play their hearts out for a predetermined period of time, often 50 minutes, before they unleash their power players later in the game. Often the sight of two All Black prop forwards replacing the starting props is enough to drain the energy from an opponent who has already had to work hard to contain the previous prop for 50 minutes. They have done the same with some of their backs, exchanging Ma’a Nonu for Sonny Bill Williams was a regular tactic until an injury to SBW halted the practice.

Last weekend we saw the Jaguares use the same tactic. There were four international players on the Jaguares bench, waiting to come on later in the game and bring their accumulated experience, nous, and skills to the contest just when the Highlanders were likely to be tiring.

On a couple of occasions in 2019, the Stormers were in the wonderful position of having a complete international front row on the bench, a Springbok hooker and Springbok prop forwards ready to replace their already powerful starting front three later in the piece.

The Reds have held back Wallaby Taniela Tupou on a couple of occasions. 

The tactic has been used at international level too – back in 2017 Eddie Jones started to deploy what he termed his “finishers” at around the 60-minute mark in Tests, starting with slightly lesser players early in the game and then unleashing the heavy artillery, relying on experience and skill to up the ante in the latter stages of a game. 

Does the tactic work?

I am not so sure.

The Blues have not had the best of season, despite the impact-player tactic helping them early in the season.

I am sure that the tactic did not work for the Jaguares against the Highlanders either. They lost, did they not?

Yes, the replacements are surely part of any coach’s tactical planning, but they are more than simply super-subs sent on to finish the game. They are also there to provide the back-up if a starting player is hurt and has to leave the field. They are also there to change the flavour of an attack or a defensive alignment, a tactical substitute if you will. 

The danger seems obvious. 

Players become 60-minute players or 20-minute players, rather than working for 80-minute fitness and endurance. 

If the unforeseen happens such as an injury, and it will, the team might well be less well equipped than it would be if a player on the bench was a genuine 80-minute player.

In my less-than-humble opinion, you start with your best XV on the field from the kick-off, and your substitutes are used if a player is visibly tired or injured, off form etc. Yes, in desperation they can also be used to try and swing the flow of a game, but that has to be a desperation tactic, not a firm predetermined focus. It is up to the starting team to lay the foundation for any victory.

Here are some of my observations from Round 13.

The Waratahs frustrate their supporters, again. 

The Waratahs, on paper they should be the Aussie version of the Crusaders, with so many internationals in their lineup that they are a near Test level team. They have gone home from South Africa with just two bonus points despite being in the position to win against both the Bulls and Lions. (Okay, maybe just against the Lions, the Bulls certainly had that game under control all the way.) 

The ‘Tahs certainly have a right to whinge about their loss to the Lions, referee Egon Seconds did not cover himself with glory as he penalised the ‘Tahs out of the game. He also missed a clear forward pass which ended in a try for the Lions.

Sadly, Mr Seconds, despite his pro-Lions bias, was also an impediment to the home side, frequently blocking passes and obscuring runners when the Lions were surging forward with a score being on the cards. Evidence of this was seen when Malcolm Marx ran into him at the back of a lineout. Seconds was simply in the way of the game, again.

There was a slightly uglier incident when Ned Hanigan seemed to deliberately shove the referee. This was quite obviously a deliberate action, probably born of frustration.

My own view of the game was that neither side deserved to win, with defence being a mere rumour as both sides parted like the Red Sea every time a modern Moses touched the ball.

The Waratahs were up against a disjointed Lions outfit struggling to find their game, despite the return of Marx and Whiteley, yet the almost-Wallaby outfit could not get a grip on the game at all.

They had a chance, when fly-half Bernard Foley went close to stealing the game with a long-range drop-goal late on, but it was not good enough and went just wide of the right-hand upright.

The defeat leaves the ‘Tahs six points adrift of the Rebels in the Australian conference, setting up a virtual must-win contest for Daryl Gibson’s side in Brisbane next week. 

Barrett vs. Mo’unga Debate 

Richie Mo’unga, playing front-foot rugby behind a dominant Crusaders pack on Friday provided one and all with a master-class of pivot play that was worth the price of a ticket to the game against the Bulls. Even the most one-eyed-plastic-Viking-helmet-wearing-blue-painted-face-beer-swilling-blue-jersey-wearing-die-hard-supporter of the Bulls would have to acknowledge that Mo’unga was simply sublime out on that field.

Everything he tried seemed to work even better than he had planned. Every time he touched the ball, something happened.

Which immediately gets the New Zealand media in a frothy-fizz!

One and all they restart the debate: Barrett or Mo’unga to start for the All Blacks?

I would suggest that the All Black squad for the World Cup simply has to feature both, and I would go further and suggest that Match-day 23 selections for the bigger games will always feature both – one to start and the other on the bench, perhaps even rotating roles.

Both are right are right on form, save for some, at times, wayward goal-kicking.

This last weekend, Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga led the Hurricanes and Crusaders respectively, to very good wins. Barrett producing yet another moment of sheer brilliance to deny the Blues a first win over their north island rivals in eight games.

That interception of the Augustine Pulu pass was brilliant!

Richie Mo’unga was not far behind as he shredded the Bulls defence for two tries in the 45-13 victory.

He might not have Barrett’s instinct for those momentum shifting moments of individual brilliance, but he does have a remarkable ability to create opportunities for those around him.

Barrett often plays a second receiver role as he loops around his 12, while Mo’unga prefers to be the initial playmaker, two styles that offer different options when they are both named in the same match-day squad.

Steve Hansen is unlikely to shift Barrett from starting in the No. 10 jersey, but he is sure to use Mo’unga as the impact player to go on and change the flow of a game.  

It is a nice place to be in as the World Cup looms!

Do the Sharks have a Plan B?

The Sharks might well feel that they let one slip against the Chiefs on Saturday, but I could not help wondering whether it was not one that they could and should have won, if they had varied their game plan just a little.

Much has been said about the Sharks “showing the way” for South African teams that want to beat New Zealanders – Do it with muscles! Physicality and power…. but that did not really work against the Crusaders, that game ended in a draw not a win! 

And it did not work against the Chiefs. 

Yes they have a draw against the Crusaders and seven points from their tour to Australasia, but in each of the two games against the New Zealanders the Sharks looked so much more likely to win when they did take the ball wide after crashing it up the middle time and again. 

There is a lesson in there – you need a Plan B! 

Crashball rugby can only take you so far…..

No, a game based purely on muscle will not beat the New Zealanders, they are far too clever for that!

Blues

I cannot help wondering about the Blues. Are they jinxed? What exactly is the cause of their ongoing failure to win games? They were not bad against the Hurricanes, in fact they impressed at times during the game. But they just do not seem to be able to put their good moments together to make for good stretches, and then into an 80-minute performance.

Like a number of other teams in the competition, the Blues seem capable of creating the scoring opportunities, but somehow lack the ability to get the ball down, to finish the score.

Why?

Last weekend in their home-game against the Hurricanes the Blues tackled, cleaned out and scrummaged superbly against the visitors, but they just didn’t have the attacking edge required to score the tries. Sam Nock scored his first try for the Blues, and they got close at least four other times through Ma’a Nonu, Scott Scrafton and two lineout drives, but they just couldn’t get the ball down.

I watch the Blues, and then I think of the Stormers, the Bulls, the Sharks, the Waratahs, even the Lions. Teams that all suffer from the same inability to convert opportunity into scores. What should they be doing differently?

The South African conference

The top team has 29 points, the bottom team has 24. That is what separates the teams in the South African conference. Just five points!

The Sharks have played 12, one game more than the other four. 

That means the Bulls, the Jaguares, Lions and the Stormers all have a game in hand as we head into Round 14. 

The last five fixtures of each team’s Super Rugby season are going to be absolutely crucial to see who can win the conference and earn that home quarter-final.

The Sharks have two home games and two away games left. One away game includes a trip to Argentina, the other a trip to Cape Town to face the Stormers. One home game is against the Lions, the other against the Hurricanes. Niggly fixtures, one and all.

The Stormers have four home games and one away game. They play the Crusaders, the Highlanders, the Sunwolves, and the Sharks in Cape Town, with a visit to the Lions as their away fixture.

The Lions have got the Highlanders, the Stormers, and the Hurricanes at home, while their  two away games include the Sharks and the Bulls. 

The Jaguares have three away. (Remember, though, they won four away games on the trot last year!) The Hurricanes, the Waratahs, and the Reds lie ahead in the next three weeks, before hosting the Sharks and the Sunwolves back in Argentina.

The Bulls start their Australasian tour this weekend, and have a reputation for being very poor tourists. They play the Rebels, the Brumbies, the Blues, and the Highlanders before returning home to host the Lions in their last regular season fixture. Not the most difficult of away fixtures, but…………..

Nobody can be sure of where the SA Conference is going. 

I would suggest that this is exactly what a rugby competition should be all about – every single team in with a chance right up to the final week! 

It should be exciting, nail-biting even, if only there were still some rugby fans out there that remain interested in Super Rugby.

My own predictions?  I would suggest that the Sharks and the Bulls have the more difficult final stretch of the season, which then hints that the Jaguares, Lions and Stormers have a slightly easier run at trying to top the pool. But predicting the conference winner? – No, I am not even going to try.

Why is Robert persisting with Robert?

Before this tour Curwin Bosch has not started at flyhalf in a Super Rugby game for the Sharks since 2017. 

In other words not since Robert du Preez Jnr moved from Cape Town to Durban to join the team coached by his father. 

There was one exception, a Currie Cup game where Bosch played at flyhalf against Griquas in Kimberley in 2018, and then Robert (Snr) still played Robert (Jnr) alongside Bosch at inside centre.

During this 2019 Australasian tour, Bosch has been given the opportunity to start at flyhalf, and he has been a revelation as he sparked the backline into gear, kicked with accuracy and nous beyond his years, and carried the ball as well as any other flyhalf in the game. Against the Chiefs, it was Bosch’s quick, slick, jinking runs that troubled the Chiefs’ defence. Those runs also seemed to galvanise and energise the players around him, pulling the Sharks back into a game that seemed to be drifting away from their collective grasp.  

In previous games on this tour, it was Bosch’s game management that ensured the win over the Waratahs, then his calmness and composure was pivotal in the Sharks’ impressively competitive showing against the Crusaders. 

Why then does Robert (Snr) persist with switching Bosch to fullback after around 50 minutes of the game and sending Robert (Jnr) out to take over the flyhalf job?

I would go so far as to suggest that the arrival of Robert (Jnr) brought an end to the Sharks chances of winning against both the Crusaders and the Chiefs. If Bosch had continued as the pivot…………….

The decision to send Robert (Jnr) on to the field against the Chiefs seemed to be wrong in more ways than one.

Bosch was shifted to fullback, with Aphelele Fassi being forced off the field. Up to that point Fassi had been playing very well, perhaps the next best of the Sharks after Bosch himself. Why would you withdraw one of your primary ball carriers and runners? Why would you switch the player who has been running the game out of his preferred position?

I must add that Robert (Jnr) is so obviously out of form at the moment that many are questioning his inclusion in the match-day squad, never mind his early appearance on the field!

Some Players Get A Mention:

Malcolm Marx. Starting to show the form that every South African wants to see from their favourite hooker. The stats tell us that Marx made a whopping 16 carries, for 101m with the ball in hand, broke through tackles twice, and even made three clean breaks. He won a turnover, made 8 tackles, 7 passes and 2 offloads. His presence at scrum time is of a glowering powerhouse, almost intimidating opponents simply by being there.

A Man of the Match performance!

Harold Vorster. He had his first start since round three and showed a freshness and focus that has been missing from the Lions back division for a couple of weeks. Powerful with the ball in hand, he showed that he is more than a muscle-monkey set on playing archaic crashball rugby as he produced some good stepping and swerving, whilst his distribution was spot on. With the likes of Andre Esterhuizen seeming to have lapsed into doing nothing more than crashing into opponents, Vorster has put his hand up for the crucial 12 jersey when the time comes to pick a Springbok squad.

Richie Mo’unga.I could wax lyrical over Mo’unga’s performance this past weekend. He executed the Crusaders’ game plan to perfection:- Run the Bulls ragged for 40 minutes, stretch their forwards to breaking point, keeping the ball away from contact, and then attack the inevitable gaps that will open up at the Bulls start to lose their defensive disciplines.The two tries the Crusaders scored late in the first half were simply as a result of the sheer exhaustion of the Bull’s defence. It was very clever rugby.

In the second half Mo’unga changed the plan, and started to tease the Bulls with sniping runs, quick passes, chips, grubbers, tactical kicks, and kick passes as he unleased the skills that make him a certainty for the All Black RWC squad. It was a virtuoso performance by a flyhalf at the very top of his game. Those two perfectly placed crosskicks in quick succession were sublime. Neither George Bridge nor Reece had to break stride in running onto those pinpoint kicks.

Thank you Richie, you made the weekend’s rugby for me.

Ardie Savea.If Richie Mo’unga produced the virtuoso performance of the weekend, with the front-foot ball provided by his forwards gaining the upper hand in the trench warfare that is the forward collisions, Ardie Savea showed that even one of those trench soldiers can rise above the sandbags and join in the fun. Once again he did his bit down in the dirty world, smashing Blues attackers back time and again, and then produced moments of magic when he got the ball in hand and started to run. On form, and certainly on his way to Japan for the RWC!

Kwagga Smith.Another warrior from the trenches. Somebody even said that he was South Africa’s version of Ardie Savea. The power in his legs and shoulders was never more evident than when he stood firm to take the collision and then straightened up in the tackle, and lifted the man who was tackling him sky-high! He might be short, but he makes up for that lack of height by covering more territory than any other loosie in South Africa at the moment. He should surely be on Rassie’ short list?

The Weekend’s Games

It is a bit late in the week for any meaningful comment on the games played last weekend. I will simply say a word or two.

Blues 12 – 22 Hurricanes 

The Blues just do not seem to have the confidence to win games. The ‘Canes took their chances, or created chances, and then took them. The Blues did not.

Rebels 30 – 24 Reds

Yawn!

Bulls 13 – 45 Crusaders

The Bulls were out-thought, out-played, and out-classed. Very clever rugby by the Crusaders from the outset, and the Bulls had no idea how to take a grip on the game and slow the Crusaders down.

Highlanders 32 – 27 Jaguares

The Jaguares had their chances, so did the Highlanders. The Highlanders took their chances.

Chiefs 29 – 23 Sharks

How to blow your chances of winning a game? Change your flyhalf after 49 minutes. Robert (Snr) needs a kick in the unmentionables.

Lions 29 – 28 Waratahs.

Man of the Match performance by Egon Seconds.

Brumbies 33 – 0 Sunwolves

How on earth did the Brumbies manage to restrict themselves to just 33 points? Woeful game.