Super Rugby 2019

Weekend Review

Round Nine

After the previous weekend’s dour, uninspiring bore-fest that was Not-So-Super Rugby, Round Nine actually dished up some interesting fare. Not that there was not still a surplus of boring rugby, but at least the weekend gave us something more than a sleeping-draught of major invasive surgery anaesthetic proportions. 

This weekend gave us one epic rugby battle as the Chiefs and Blues battled it out in Hamilton. Probably the game of the season so far. It was a game that had everything, razzle-dazzle andgreat attacking plays, solid defence, moments of sheer drama, and the total commitment that you expect in a derby match. Especially a New Zealand derby where both teams have something serious to prove.

Thanks Chiefs and Blues, you gave us some Super Rugby the way it should always be played.

A couple of the other games featured teams that turned on the class in the second half and took the game away from their opponents after sucking up all the pressure in the first half – The Crusaders and the Stormers were the best of these second-halfers. Yet other games showed a team imploding spectacularly, another playing good clinical rugby to dominate completely. Only one game falls into the category of truly boring. (Sorry Brumbies and Lions, but that is what it was for me, as an unattached spectator.)

Another fascinating aspect of this weekend’s rugby can be found in the statement:- It does not matter how much ball you have got, it is all about what you do with it!

In Christchurch the Highlanders had just 58% of the possession, and a whopping 71% of the territorial advantage, and lost by 5 tries to 2.

In Melbourne, the Rebels had 54% of the possession and a 68% advantage the in territorial stakes, and lost the game by 5 tries to 3.

Over in Canberra, possession and territorial advantage was shared fairly evening, 54/46 to the Lions for possession, and 55/45 territory to the Brumbies, yet the Lions lost by 5 tries to 3.

Across to Africa and down to Durban where the Sharks had 57% of the possession and 55% of the territory, yet lost by a whopping 51 points to 17, and an extraordinary 7 tries to 2.

In all four of those games proof that possession does not equal victory was clearly evident – it is what you do with the ball when you have it that really counts.

The other two games saw an almost equal share of both possession and territory, with the Chiefs and the Blues running it very close, while the Bulls were in a different class to the Reds, they used their 50% of the possession so much better than their visitors.

Of course, there are those that will shout that you cannot win a game of rugby without the ball, and that is very true! But sometimes you simply have to hand the ball to the opposition in the knowledge that they will do nothing with it – let them make the plays and all the running, suck in and absorb that pressure, and then counter-strike when it all goes inevitably wrong. Ask the Sharks about that!

Just for a change, I am not going to have my weekly whinge about the referees – they were consistently mediocre again, but there were no truly glaring errors and misapplications of the Laws. 

(Some may yell that the Crusaders got away with murder, but the truth is that they played to the edge of the envelope allowed by the referee – that is how they always play, that is how the All Blacks play, and that is how every successful team plays – take it to the edge and then play right on that edge. This is not cheating, and it is not pushing the Laws to breaking point, it is simply playing to the referee and his interpretation of the Laws.)

On The Up

The Jaguares.

Are the Jaguares doing exactly what they did last year? Are they running into peak form just as the season clicks over into the second half of the fixture list, with playoff slots up for grabs? The Jaguares certainly seem to be building some real momentum, and it comes at a crucial time in the season. 

With the South African conference wide open, where any one of the five teams in the conference still have a chance of making the playoffs, it is late season form that will determine who gets to play in the quarterfinals. 

The Jaguares are certainly looking like contenders for a quarterfinal slot. They probably have an even chance of topping the conference log and earning a home quarterfinal for the first time in their history. 

They have won two on the road, and now return to Argentina where they could well pick up two more wins. 

Consider too that their defence and their discipline is finally clicking into shape as well! Making 96% of their tackles against the Sharks and keeping the home side to just two tries tells the story of their tackling. 

Far more impressive for anyone who has followed the Jaguares since they joined Super Rugby is the complete change in their on-field disciplines. For a team that previously gave away an average of 12+ penalties per game and played for long stretches with 14, often 13, men on the field, the simple stats from Saturday’s game against the Sharks tell a story. The Jaguares were penalised just 5 times, their hosts gave away 11 penalties.

What makes that figure of 5 penalties even more impressive, was that those 5 are the lowest number conceded by any team on the weekend.

If you are a betting man, you may just think about calling your bookmaker and popping a couple of your hard earned bucks on the Jaguares for a quarter- and semi-final berth.

The Stormers:

I am a little hesitant to suggest that the Stormers are on the up, given the strange inconsistency that has become the norm amongst South African teams – up one week, down the next like an old-fashioned carnival rollercoaster. But the Stormers have been showing some signs that they are finally starting to get their game together – their two tour games in New Zealand were lost due to an inability to score those crucial tries, their loss to the Reds was similar – they made all the plays but did not finish. As I said earlier – it is not about having the ball, it is about what you do with it, and the Stormers have been struggling to do something with the ball. This week things were a little different. First, they showed admirable resolution on defence, drawing the sting from a confident Rebels outfit, and then counter-punching in the second half to take the game comfortably, almost nonchalantly. 

If they can keep this up……………

Going Downhill:

The Sharks :

What the hell is going on down in Durban? 

How can a team that played such a superb game of focussed, clinical rugby while dismantling the Lions a week ago, simply vanish like a puff of smoke in one of our West Coast gales, transmogrify themselves into the rabble that produced the rubbish that they dished out on Saturday?

A friend of mine suggested that the Hawks investigate the possibility of match fixing…….

Of course, anyone who follows the Sharks will know that this is nothing new.

They do it year after year. Last year, they returned from a successful tour to New Zealand, where they had beaten the Blues by 63 – 40, and then lost by a single point, 37 – 38 to the Hurricanes in a game many thought they should have won. They returned home, riding on a wave of confidence and??? You guessed it! Promptly lost by 40 -10 to the hitherto woeful Bulls at home in Durban. A week later they beat the Stormers 24 – 17, and then had a week off, came back to beat the Highlanders, and then lost to the Bulls again, this time at Loftus 39 – 33. The next weekend they beat the Chiefs in Durban, but then followed that with a loss to the Jaguares……

2017 was the same – a loss to the Reds, beat the Brumbies, then beat the Waratahs, sneaked home by 2 points over the Kings, beat the Cheetahs, and then it all started to get out of shape again as they lost to the Lions, beat the Jaguares, then drew with the Rebels, beat the Jaguares and the Force, but were completely derailed by the Kings………

This is the story of the Sharks.

They promise so much, and then spectacularly implode at the most inconvenient moments.

Once again, it is the Sharks inconsistency that has returned to plague their fans and supporters – With their overseas tour still to come, this habitual inconsistency has left their playoff ambitions in peril.

The Lions.

I guess that Lions’ supporters better accept that their team is going through a process of renewal, again. 

After the chequebooks of the northern climes were waved, the core of the team that made the finals in three consecutive years abandoned the Highveld and headed off for richer pastures. When a team loses a host of their experienced heads; men brimming with power and talent, the result is often an ignominious slide down the overall standings and the need for a rebuilding process.

We know the Lions are rebuilding, and that rebuilding often goes hand in hand with parlous times. 

2019 is exactly that for the mighty Lions. 

Sometimes it has looked a bit like a skydiving championships as the Lions have gone into an almost spectacular free-fall. 

The loss to the Brumbies was perhaps not unexpected, but now they face the resurgent Chiefs and then the Crusaders over in New Zealand in the coming weeks. I do not see either game providing the Lions with the parachute they need to stop the freefall. The next two weekends may just see their season go “Splat!”

Confused?

The South African Conference.


After nine rounds of competition, it does look as if the Crusaders will be playing in yet another final, and that final will in all likelihood be in Christchurch.

They are a whopping 11 log points clear of the next best three sides in the competition, the Rebels, the Bulls, and the Hurricanes, all tied up on 23 points each. The Hurricanes are 3 points up on the Blues in third on the New Zealand log. 

The Rebels, in the Aussie conference, are 7 points clear of the Waratahs, and 8 ahead of the Brumbies. The Reds trail 9 back and the less said about the Sunwolves, the better. In Australia, it looks to be a shoot-out between the Rebels and either the Waratahs or the Brumbies, with the Rebels having the edge.

But in the South African conference, there is simply no way of predicting what will happen next. The Bulls currently top the pile, but they still have a tour of Australasia to come. The Sharks are second, but are also still to tour outside the country. The Bulls on 23 are just 5 points ahead of the team sitting at the bottom of the SA log, the Lions on 18. It is that close.

Sadly too, for those with high expectations, dreams almost, of Super Rugby glory for a South African outfit, it does not seem as if any of the five have the game or the form to be realistic challengers for the 2019 crown.

No Aussie side does either.

You see, the Crusaders are standing in everyone’s’ way!

The Players:

Damian McKenzie

Currently my favourite rugby player in the whole world, I am sad to report that Damian McKenzie is likely to miss this year’s Rugby World Cup. 

He has sustained a ruptured ACL injury, and will be out of rugby for between 6 and 9 months.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen confirmed the news as players from a national 41-man squad, which McKenzie was initially part of, gathered for a one day training camp in Wellington. 

We wish him a speedy recovery, rugby needs more players like him.

Lachlan McCaffrey

The Brumbies No.8 had another good game on Saturday and is slowly but surely building the form that makes him a serious contender for the Wallaby No.8 jersey.

He brings a certain mongrel to the Brumbies that has often been missing, even when the iconic David Pocock is fully fit and on form. 

McCaffrey’s mongrel provides a steely uncompromising edge to their game. He is not without blemishes to his game at the moment, but he does have a presence with the ball in hand, and without it. He misses some, but makes the important tackles, and works hard on the fringes of the breakdowns. 

He is not there yet, but he could be one worth watching over the next couple of months.

Karl Tu’inukuafe.

He plays with a smile, and with a certain focussed intensity and steel that makes him a handful for any opponent. He is a powerhouse in the scrum if given an inch he will quickly dominate his opponent, and his all-round game is a pleasure to watch in such a big man.  He has the skills too, that catch on his hip, and then a really slick transfer of the ball, was integral in Melani Nanai’s try. The All Blacks do not have to worry too much about their front row stocks.

Sam Cane

There is no better news this week than that about Sam Cane. 

You will recall that he broke a bone in his neck in October last year, playing against the Springboks in Pretoria. He was operated on before he could return home to New Zealand for an extended recuperation and rehabilitation period.

The good news is that Sam has been cleared to return to contact training at last.

Just to welcome him back, Steve Hansen immediately invited him to a one-day All Blacks camp, sending a clear message that he is still in the coach’s World Cup thoughts.

Welcome back Sam!

RG Snyman 

The player of the weekend, in my less-than-humble opinion!

Much has been made of the fact that South Africa has a surfeit of the powerful enforcer type lock forwards. Every team needs them, they are the steel in the backbone of every pack of forwards. The All Blacks have Sam Whitelock, the Springboks have Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert is another, Lood de Jager too. However, teams also need the skilful clever locks, the ones who play like an extra loose-forward, who carry the ball well but are also skilled in creating opportunities for others.

The All Blacks have Brodie Retallick, who towers over the rest of the ball-playing locks in the world for skill and creativity. He can step and run too! Maro Itoje is another of this type, if not quite at the level of a Retallick.

South Africa also needs some of those “clever” lock forwards, especially now that Pieter-Steph du Toit seems to be destined to play on the blindside of the scrum for the rest of his career. 

With that in mind, it was especially pleasing to see RG Snyman making his return from injury. 

During his time out he seems to have put away his attempts at being an enforcer type lock and focussed on the skilful aspects of his game.

His first game back in Super Rugby was a revelation. He carried the ball 12 times, making 55m with the ball in hand. He beat four defenders while carrying the ball, and covered the ground with remarkable pace. His handling has improved beyond all measure and some of his offloads were sublime, although there were two of the silly, no-look-under-arm offloads that he needs to get out of his system. His tackling was superior, and his all-field game as good as it gets.

Perhaps the best news of all is that he was not getting needlessly involved in the argy-bargy moments that soured his game in the past.

Playing like this, RG Snyman has a very big future ahead of him.

Tom Banks 

I have no intention of discussing Israel Folau in this review – but I do need to make mention of him when considering who might be his replacement in the Wallaby ranks.

The Wallaby selectors should take a long, hard look at Tom Banks.

His kicking game needs work, but then the man he might replace was also a bit light in the kicking stakes. He does have a penchant for running sideways, ala Beale, but he does have incisive moments too. 

He is no Damian McKenzie, but he can cut a line.

We might just be seeing Tom Banks in the Wallaby 15 jersey sometime.

Ruhan Nel

Ruhan Nel has struggled to make the change from Sevens to the fifteen man game so far in 2019. His tackling has shown a penchant for the stand-up-and-rip technique used in Sevens, or the smother and hold-him-up alternative. Not so on Saturday…

Against the Rebels, Ruhan Nel found his game. His tackling was, mostly, of the variety that you need to make in the 15’s game. He made 10 solid tackles, two of which are rated as dominant as he knocked the ball carrier back.  In addition, he scored 2 tries, won a turnover, made 53 meters with the ball in hand, in five good carries which included 4 clean breaks.

At last, he is showing why Rassie Erasmus brought him into the broader Springbok squad last year!

Dillyn Leyds 

I made mention of Dillyn Leyds in last week’s Review, both as one of the Little Guys who make rugby worth watching as well as for his own form. 

He must get another mention this week, as he continued with the sparkling form he has shown so far this year. Not only did he set up two of the Stormers tries, he also scored one of his own. 

The way he set up Damian de Allende’s try was simply sublime. 

In this game he made70 meters with the ball in hand in 9 carries, he beat 8 defenders, made two tackles and missed none.

He has rediscovered his ability to ghost through gaps, and is making good decisions, with some crisp passing and effective running lines. When he scored his try he made a 38m solo run to the line.

He will not disgrace a Springbok jersey playing this way!

Braydon Ennor

Cool, unfussy, and clever in his play. Good passing, good tackling, and an excellent offload to release his Crusader teammate Sevu Reece for a try. His own try was typically cool and clinical.

If they are going to dish out a jersey that says “Future All Black” on it, Braydon Ennor will be wearing one..

The Games:

Friday:

Crusaders 43 – 17 Highlanders

There were some glitches along the way – too many penalties and a whole heap of unpunished transgressions that have the anti-Saders yelling about bias. For me there was nothing extraordinary about it, that is the way any good team plays rugby. You find the edge of the envelope, and you play to that edge, knowing that you might go past the edge a couple of times and then you will hear the whistle and be penalised. If the referee is poor or inconsistent, so be it, he will be the same for the other side.

Danie Craven used to say that a flanker who does not get penalised at least twice in a game is simply not doing his job.

The Crusaders are simply a well-oiled machine that knows exactly how to find out where the edge is positioned with a particular referee, and then they play right up to that edge.

What is far more impressive is the way the Crusaders seem to coast during the first half of a game, not letting things get out of hand, not too worried about conceding the first half lead. 

They know that they have the end-game to beat anyone.

And boy, did they reveal that end-game against the Highlanders.

Nobody expected the Highlanders to lead 10-7 at halftime in Christchurch, but they did, and all credit goes to them for their first half effort. Except that a 3-point lead was not really enough! 

The real story of this game is that the second half dawned, and the Crusaders got up out of the restful bed that was their first half, and scored 36 effortless points to win 43-17.

There is really not much more I can say about this game.

Rebels 24 – 41 Stormers

The Stormers, without some of their biggest guns – Kolisi, Etzebeth and Du Toit – and with a man new to the captaincy role, Steven Kitshoff, they were not tipped to win by anybody.

I certainly did not expect them to produce a game of the quality they revealed in Melbourne at the end of a long and tiring Australasian tour. 

A massive defensive effort in the first half, with a clinical focus on stopping the Rebels no matter what they tried, laid the foundation for a second half that saw the Stormers play the kind of rugby everyone has been waiting for all year.

There was a clear focus and clinical execution in attack that has been missing in action up to this point. 

Three tries in less than ten minutes, clinically executed by Augustus, De Allende and Nel handed the game to the Stormers.

The Stormers’ front row bossed this game, with captain-for-the-day Steven Kitshoff providing the leadership and inspiration with a massive defensive effort, well supported by his hooker Bongi Mbonambi, who worked like a demon in the loose and won several penalties at the breakdown.

This was one of those games where “what you do with it” was what it was all about.

The Rebels chose the wrong game plan to take on the Stormers, probably thinking that the pack would be weakened by the loss of the three big Boks. They chose to play “around the corner” with pods of forwards running flat off the nine.  At one stage, near the end of the first half, the Rebels had enjoyed 70% of the possession but it was all very slow ball to forwards trying to rumble it over the gain lie – and right into the Stormers’ favourite kind of defensive situation. They like the forward collisions! That is how the beat the Sharks, that is how they beat the Lions. 

The Rebels ball was so slow and strangely ineffective that the Stormers managed a whopping 20 dominant tackles at the gain line. The immediate effect of all those dominant tackles sending the ball carrier backwards was that his support runners overran him, and then had to fall back before being able to get the ball. When you get such static ball on the backfoot, the defenders are going to get you, and the Stormers did.

Perhaps the single outstanding characteristic of this Stormers game was their patience. They simply trusted their defence, soaked up the Rebel pressure, and took their chances when they came along.

This weekend the Stormers showed that they have confidence in their defensive structures and abilities, few sides in the competition have that kind of confidence.

There was almost an element of the Crusaders’ playbook in the way the Stormers managed this game!

Saturday

Chiefs 33– 29 Blues

A great game of rugby. 

Two teams that played themselves to a standstill!

Great running, great passing, plenty of guts, some brutal collisions, and lots of razzle-dazzle too.

Some really beautiful tries, including one scored by Melani Nanai of the Blues that saw the ball passed no less than 22 times as it moved 80 metres downfield.

Oh, and the one by Lachlan Boshier of the Chiefs  that involved 14 phases? 

The Chiefs’ defence was as solid as a rock, and that is where they won the game. They made 194 tackles and missed just 14 for a 93% tackle success rate. The Blues were not far behind, but made just one too many misses, for a 92% tackle success rate. 

That was the only difference between these two sides that gave us the best rugby match of the weekend, perhaps even of the season so far.

Thanks guys, it was one for rugby lovers to savour.

Brumbies 31– 20 Lions

Maybe I am too fussy? Maybe I have expectations that rugby players cannot fulfil? 

I thought that this was a messy game of rugby.

If you are a Brumbies supporter you will be over the moon with the win. The Lions supporters will be hiding their red jerseys under a nondescript jacket, probably a beige one, for a while.

Yes, the stats tell us that this game was very much closer than the scoreline suggests, but the reality is that both teams squandered chances and opportunities with reckless abandon.

Decisions were poor, options were ignored, and there were far too many “Hail Mary” moments with players on both sides taking chances that were perhaps of the 60/40 variety, with just a 40% chance of success.

As I said at the start, maybe I am too fussy, but this was the one game of the weekend that I felt was a true waste of my time.

Speaking of poor decision making, I was wondering about the following: –

In the 7thminute, the Brumbies were down to 14 men after Tom Wright was sent to the sin bin. 

The Lions were camped in the Brumbies 22m area, and immediately and predictably went for the kick to set up a line out. 

The Brumbies conceded a penalty at the subsequent rolling maul, and again correctly, the Lions went for the kick and line out option. 

Once again the Brumbies infringed, and the referee signalled advantage to the Lions. 

The Lions kept playing with that advantage, and eventually scored in the corner. The conversion kick missed, but they were 5-0 up inside the first 10 minutes of the game, and still had the numerical advantage.

Most would say that the try was a fair reward for the Brumbies’ infringements.

But there is a very important question to ask here:-

Given that the Brumbies were struggling with the Lions lineout and maul, and given that the referee had already given two penalties against the Brumbies inside 3 minutes, with one penalty against the forwards for infringements in the lineout, and that he was signalling that he was about to give another if advantage did not accrue to the Lions – Would it not have been a better decision to take the penalty? 

Why?

A second penalty for a lineout infringement in two minutes was likely to attract the wrath of the referee and a team warning to cease and desist.

Another penalty and the Brumbies are down to 13 men.

Should the Lions’ not have accepted the penalty, kicked for the corner again, and used their powerful maul in an attempt to suck another yellow card out of the referee? 

They might even have earned a penalty try. Even a try closer to the posts and a possible conversion would have been a better outcome.

On such small decisions a game could be made or broken.

Not that this would have changed the final outcome, as I would suggest that the Lions are already a broken team in 2019.

Sharks 17 – 51 Jaguares

From a Sharks fan’s perspective, this is a game you would rather I did not remind you about. A Jaguares fan, on the other hand, would love to talk about this game for at least the rest of this week, if not a bit longer.

I have never seen a team produce such contrasting levels of rugby as have the Sharks in the last two weeks, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

This is a prime example of a game that proves the statement: “It is not how much ball you have, it is what you do with it that counts.” 

The Sharks had 57% of the possession and 55% of the territory, and did so little with the ball in hand that they lost by a whopping 51 points to 17, and an extraordinary 7 tries to 2.

Right from the kick-off this was a completely different Sharks outfit to that which had run the Lions ragged a week earlier. They seemed disinterested, lazy, and unfocussed. There seemed to be no energy and zero desire to play a game of rugby. There was no organisation, little communication, and a strange lack of commitment.

This looked like a team that thought the result was a forgone conclusion and they only had to pitch up and go through the motions.

Sadly, it was the wrong kind of motion, one that is more appropriately conducted in private.

The Jaguares, in total contrast to their hosts, looked hungry, focussed, and often clinically ruthless in everything they did.

As the game progressed the Sharks became desperate, and desperate men do dangerous things. Everything became individual rather than team efforts, with the likes of Andre Esterhuizen reverting to his overtly muscular crash-ball approach to the game of rugby. He was not alone, I just use him as the visible example of the malaise. Most of the Sharks played that way, and do not seem to have absorbed the lesson that they themselves taught at Ellis Park the week before – Rugby is a team game!

I could rant on for hours, but I think I will leave this one with the thought: The Reds must be looking forward to playing the Sharks!

Bulls 32– 17 Reds

Clinical, focussed, calm, and deliberate. The Bulls were all of these things as they set about dismantling a messy and increasingly brittle Reds outfit that never quite stepped up to the level required of Super Rugby.

The return of Springboks Warrick Gelant, Jesse Kriel, Handré Pollard, Ivan van Zyl, Marco van Staden and RG Snyman to the starting team made a huge difference in the Bulls approach to this game.

Pollard resumed his ice-cool game management and control, while RG Snyman produced a performance that suggested that South Africa’s lock forward stocks are as good as they could want to be before the World Cup. 

Perhaps their coach, Pote Human, a rookie in Super Rugby terms, will have learned more about team management in the last two weeks than he learned in the rest of the season so far – certainly he must have learned about when and how to rotate a squad and rest his Springboks.

Throughout the game, the Bulls played with precision coupled to pace and power, all managed by the clinical focus of Handré Pollard.

The Reds had no answer for the Bulls game, and it showed as their individual disciplines started to wobble. Fullback Hamish Stewart was a prime example of a Red who “lost it” when he grabbed the ball from Jade Stighling to deny him the chance of a quick throw-in when the ball had gone into touch. The Assistant Referee told him to put the ball down, which he initially ignored and then very deliberately threw the ball back out of Stighling’s reach. He was penalised for that bit of gamesmanship, and the Bulls scored from the resultant kick and lineout. Such was the cost of petulance.

Straight after half-time it was again Hamish Stewart who “lost it” as he was penalised for a dangerous cleanout at a ruck. He was subsequently cited by the match officials, but escaped with a warning at the judicial hearing.

Stewart’s actions were symptomatic of the Reds dilemma. The Bulls had complete control of the match, and the Reds could only respond with silly mistakes and petulance as their frustrations simply grew and grew.

This was a thoroughly professional performance by a Bulls team that is slowly maturing into a very competent unit.