Super Rugby

Weekend Reviews & Thoughts

Round Twelve

What a weird weekend!

Two draws, and two other games that seemed headed for a draw. 

In the last 10 years of Super Rugby, we have seen an average of just 2.2 draws per season. Without including the technical draw between the Crusaders and the Highlanders after their scheduled game was cancelled, 2019 has already produced 3 drawn games, two of them during this weekend.

One of those draws featured an additional weirdness. 

That of a team scoring three tries to none, and still drawing a game.

Add in the plethora of cards waved around by the referees – with Angus Gardiner in a giving mood as he handed out no less than 5 yellows and two reds, Damon Murphy showing yellow twice, and AJ Jacobs also waving the yellow card twice.

These yellow cards have become something of a blight on our game. So far in 2019 Super Rugby has seen 58 yellow cards, which equates to 9,6 hours of rugby where there were less than 30 players on the field during the game. We need to talk about this some more…

The other weirdness of the weekend is really a reflection of a weird season. 

In the past Super Rugby has tended to be thoroughly dominated by four of the five New Zealand franchises, with just one or two of the  teams from outside New Zealand showing face from time to time. In recent years the Aussies have struggled to win games outside of their own conference, while the South Africans have had their problems when touring in New Zealand.

2019 has seen a complete reversal of this trend. 

Three of the NZ teams are struggling, with only the Crusaders looking and being truly dominant, while the Hurricanes have managed to stay in the hunt with their 8 wins, but have never looked a persistently dominant side. The Highlanders, the Chiefs, and the Blues are all struggling to find a consistent level of performance, or even a consistent game plan. In the combined 32 games played by those three teams, only 11 wins have been recorded, and that is very unusual for New Zealand teams..

The Aussie conference is equally weird, but perhaps better balanced, with the top three sides – the Rebels, Brumbies, and Reds winning on average half the games they have played. Only the ‘Tahs are on the down-slope, with 4 wins and 6 losses. This conference could be termed a “streaky” conference as teams embark on a winning streak of two or three games, and then swing over to a losing streak for two or three games. The table-topping Rebels are a prime example, they are still top of the conference, despite their current three game losing streak!

(The Sunwolves do not really count as an Aussie team, but their 2 wins in 10 starts is already weird as both those wins were achieved away from home!)

In South Africa we have a logjam that sees just 6 points separating first place from last place! All the teams, save the Jaguares, have shown a remarkable inconsistency of winning and losing in an almost hypnotic rhythm. The Sharks seem incapable of winning at home, while the Stormers are metronomic in their win-lose-win-lose-win-lose rhythm.

Adding to the Super weirdness factor is the poor quality of so much of the rugby currently on offer throughout Super Rugby. (Although this seems consistent with the poor quality of rugby we are seeing in the Top 14, the Premiership, and the Pro 14.)

2019 is a Word Cup year, yet the quality of rugby being played across the world resembles the kind of rugby we usually see in the year after a World Cup, when senior payers have retired in their droves, and a fresh batch of inexperienced youngsters step up to the top levels of the game.

It is all a bit weird.

A Bit Of Foot-Shooting, Again!

I started my previews to this weekend’s games by commenting that Sanzaar just do not seem to get the idea of neutral referees. Just one of the 7 games played this weekend featured a referee who was not a countryman of at least one of the teams out on the field.

I will add to that statement with an additional thought.

The quality of the refereeing is almost worse than some of the rugby on offer from the teams.

As I watched the weekend’s games unfold I was aware of the inconsistency of the referees from the very start.

Kieran Read is complaining about the way his Crusaders were pinged by Brendon Pickerill. Read was complaining about the referee’s interpretation of the scrum laws and suggested that the Sharks were scrumming illegally. Read’s complaints do smack of sour grapes after the Crusaders lost the opportunity to match the 26-game home winning streak they were after. His team conceded 13 penalties, while the Sharks conceded 10. The Crusaders conceded 3 scrum penalties and the Sharks 2.

However, Kieran Read may have a point about the referee’s interpretation of the scrumming laws. The penalties awarded both for and against the Crusaders were often iffy at best! It seemed to me that referee Pickerill was simply blowing the whistle based on his personal opinion rather than the actual law itself.

The very next game saw Angus Gardner seeming to lose it completely as he waved the yellow card five times and also handed out two red cards. At one point we saw 14 men playing against 12 as the referee blew the game to shreds. From a neutral perspective, it seemed that Gardner was trying to earn some Brownie points with the home side as he hammered the Sunwolves with 5 yellows (one of which was converted to red as winger Semisi Masirewa saw the red card in the 50th minute after receiving two yellow cards for separate incidents either side of half-time, the second was shown following a high tackle. One more card was issued for a clearly marginal high tackle, and the rest for “illegally” slowing the ball or being caught offside.

I am not sure when the yellow card became a punishment for being caught offside, or for slowing the ball down. It seems to me that the referees are using the yellow card as a fall-back option when they feel they have lost control of the game. Overkill? Or killing the game as a contest?

Sunwolves coach Tony Brown suggested that Gardner was trying to get noticed in this World Cup year!

In the Brumbies vs Blues game it was another Australian, Damon Murphy, who did his level best to ensure a home-side win. Not only did he penalise the Blues 15 times, and hand them 2 yellow cards, but he also suggested that the try scored by TJ Faiane was not a try, a decision supported by his Assistant Referee, none other than Angus Gardner (again), with Murphy saying the ball was not properly grounded, while Gardner suggested that Faiane had stepped into touch on the way in to score. Fortunately they referred the “no try” decision to the TMO, who had no option but to overrule their on-field call. The TV replay showed that there was not even a vague hint of an error in the grounding nor of the player going close to touch, yet the two Aussie refs instinctively called against the visiting Kiwi.

Throughout the game Murphy’s demeanour was almost aggressive when talking with the Blues, while it was much friendlier when talking to the Brumbies.

And the Aussie TV commentary went so far as to say that Damon Murphy was “One of the best referees in the world”……………….

Over in Argentina AJ Jacobs handed out a yellow card and a penalty try against the Stormers’ JJ Englebrecht when the outside centre instinctively reached for a pass with just one hand.

Referee Jacobs cannot be faulted, as this is the way all the referees are interpreting Law 11 at the moment.

I do, however, take issue with their interpretation of the law.

Law 11.3 Says: Aplayer must not intentionallyknock the ball forward with hand or arm. Sanction: Penalty.

Quite how an instinctive reaching for the ball is interpreted as an “intentional” knock forward remains a mystery to me. There is no intent, and thus no penalisable offence? 

Quite how JJ Engelbrecht’s hand reaching instinctively for the ball is worthy of a yellow card is beyond my understanding.

Enough about the referees:

Some Thoughts:

Rugby is strangling itself to death.

On Saturday a crowd of just 7 483 pitched up at Loftus Versveld to watch their team, the Bulls, take on the Waratahs. The Bulls are currently sitting at the top of the SA Conference log and have a very real chance of securing a home quarterfinal playoff at the end of the regular season. Over the years, the Bulls have been one of the best supported teams in South Africa, with more registered fans than any other team.

So? Where were those fans last weekend? 

Why are they staying away?

And it is not just the Bulls fans at Loftus, the empty seats were evident across the entire weekend of Super Rugby.

We can look around for scapegoats and blame Super Rugby and it’s weirdly manufactured format and conference system. We can suggest that the quality of the game has deteriorated. We can plead that the cost of tickets is exorbitant.

There is undoubtedly an element of truth in all of those.

I would, however, hazard that the real reason the fans are staying away is to be found in the game itself.

Statistics show that Super Rugby averages around 31 minutes of ball-in-play time during what’s supposed to be an 80-minute game. 

If the ball is in play for just 31 minutes, where is the rest of the time going?

Scrums, lineouts and penalties are eating up most of the 80 minutes of rugby we are supposed to be watching.

The entire issue of scrums sets and resets is again rearing its ugly head as the referees have once again reverted to their habit of constant interference and tinkering with each scrum. 

We do understand that player safety is paramount at scrum time, especially in the modern game when pack weights hover around the 900kg mark at the top level. 

What concerns rugby fans is that the referees stepping in between front rows to lecture them on how to bind is a constant of every scrum, yet something of a joke. 

No single top level referee in the game today has ever bound in the front row of a scrum, yet they consider themselves specialists on the dynamics and techniques of scrummaging! 

This is a bit like a celibate monk giving advice about sex!

Already the interference of the referees and law makers has seen the scrum engagement sequence become a ritualistic “Crouch, Bind, Set” which is at odds with the age-old rhythm of setting and binding the scrum at the same time.  During the 1995 Word Cup Final not a single scrum needed to be reset as the Springbok and All Black packs adhered to the old method of binding and setting at the same time.  

Today the entire sequence is at odds with the natural mechanics of setting and binding. 

Referees insist on space between the front rows before giving the “Bind” command, and then pausing before the “Set” command. 

The combination of the space, the crouch, and then the artificial bind, means that front rows are already leaning forward, off balance with feet further back than in the “olden days” – when the scrum then “Sets” both front rows are already set up for “hinging” or going to ground. They are automatically leaning too far forward!

Just to compound the comedy of errors brought to rugby by well-meaning but often clueless lawmakers, we then have the referees telling forwards how to scrum.

The entire farce is compounded by an ongoing lack of urgency to pack a scrum. 

Just this last weekend I watched referees move scrums away from one patch of grass to another as the conditions underfoot were, somehow, unstable. Goodness gracious, back in my playing and coaching days we packed down in mud, on slippery fields, and on grass as slick as soap. You adjusted to the conditions, you did not move around the field looking for a suitable place to set a scrum! Now the vaguest hint of a divot and the referee moves the scrum!

Let’s move on:-

The slow set and then constant resetting of scrums is one of the biggest blights on the game in the modern era. 

The lack of adherence to the Law is beyond exasperating.

Law 19.4 says: “Teams must be ready to form the scrum within 30 secondsof the mark being made.”

I would hazard that this did not happen at a single one of the 100 scrums ordered during the 7 Super Rugby games of this last weekend.

Not once!

I timed a couple of the scrums controlled by Jaco Peyper in the Bulls/Waratahs clash. The quickest set-up after the mark was made was 45 seconds, and that was up to the moment when the two front rows had bound together and were standing up facing each other, the moment when Jaco Peyper stepped forward and indicated that the second rows should get their heads in! The average time before a scrumhalf stepped in to put the ball into the scrum was 75 seconds, not counting the resets, lectures, and shifting the mark because of the “unstable footing”.

Across the entire weekend we saw front rows step up to the mark, and then disengage because one or another of the three was not quite ready to crouch… Again this was very evident in the Bulls/Waratahs game as Sekope Kepu pulled out of the bind time and again, perhaps because he was being monstered by Lizo Gqoboka? He would shake his head and point vaguely at Gqoboka’s shoulder or his neck or some other part of his opponent. 

Kepu was wasting time, deliberately, simply because he could not take the punishment being meted out by his opponent!

Whilst very evident in the Bulls/Tahs clash, the same thing was happening at scrums across the entire weekend. Even the Crusaders front row were guilty of similar time wasting posturing. 

As for the constant resets? Most usually caused by front rows collapsing as they are simply too far apart when they crouch to start the binding and setting ritual – because of the referees’ demands for clear air between the front rows. There is nothing more infuriating and boring than watching 16 behemoths peeling themselves off the ground after a scrum collapse and then carefully and ritualistically repacking their scrum for another “Crouch, Bind, Set” routine by the referee.

There has been a suggestion that referees must be more resolute and must be quicker to penalise without the constant resetting of the scrum, but that in itself defeats the object of the scrum. 

The entire scrum setting sequence needs to be rejigged and returned to the old way, a way that worked!

When there is an average of 14 scrums in a game, without resets, the game time ticking past between the awarding of the scrum and the actual put in is already some 17 minutes. Add in 6 or 7 resets and referee lectures………..

25 minutes of dead-ball time.

The next time issue has to be with the lineouts.

This last weekend saw 182 lineouts in the seven Super Rugby games.

The majority of the lineouts were preceded by the now standard round-table conference convened by the team with the put-in, as they circle and discuss whatever trick they will reveal in this lineout, and then eventually stroll casually over to the lineout to take up their positions, calling their signals loudly, while the hooker, who has already had a side-bar conference with one of the props, cups his hand to his ear and asks for a repeat of the call.

The hooker will then gesticulate furiously, suggesting that the opposing team have encroached on the line between the two rows of forwards. He will then step sideways off the mark and raise the ball for the throw.

This entire ritual from convening the conference to raising the ball for the throw takes, on average, between 65 and 75 seconds.

Once in every three lineouts the referee intervenes to ensure that the spacing in the lineout is to his liking. 

In any game where there is an average of 25 lineouts, some 31 minutes is thus wasted in setting up the lineout!

The scrums and lineouts are thus consuming some 48 to 50 minutes of game time, in every game. 

Small wonder then that actual playing time is just 30 minutes!

The next major issue has to be with the modern game itself. 

The game has become a monstrous bore as the rush defence tactic, and the prevalent tendency for all teams to play a crashball runner into the rushing defenders to set up a ruck-and-recycle sequence, coupled to the very close offside line at the ruck encourages a repetition of the crash/ruck tactic, a tactic given us a game that simply consists of ruck after ruck, after ruck.

Consider that the games played last weekend saw between a low of 123 rucks and a high of 165 rucks per game, with an average in excess of 149 rucks per game.

149 rucks crammed into 31 minutes of ball-in-play? That is a ruck every 4,8 seconds!

That is the sorry story of a game that is strangling itself to death.

Some writers have been complaining about the modern box-kicking habits of the scrumhalves of the word. I would suggest that those box kicks are the trigger for about the only bit of open running rugby we ever see on the field today.

Here are the actual scrum, lineout, ruck and penalty stats for each game during this last weekend:

Crusaders/Sharks: 13 scrums and 26 lineouts, 147 rucks, 23 penalties.

Reds/Sunwolves: 12 scrums and 33 lineouts, 153 rucks, 30 penalties.

Hurricanes/Rebels: 19 Scrums and 26 lineouts, 149 rucks, 15 penalties.

Highlanders/Chiefs: 14 scrums and 24 lineouts, 165 rucks, 12 penalties.

Brumbies/Blues: 14 scrums and 25 lineouts, 155 rucks, 24 penalties.

Bulls/Waratahs: 14 scrums and 26 lineouts, 123 rucks, 17 penalties.

Jaguares/Stormers; 14 scrums and 22 lineouts, 151 rucks, 22 penalties.

As one who has loved and been involved with the game of rugby for well over 50 years, I am very worried about the future of our game.

Some Players Worth Watching

Wes Goosen.

We are told that the All Blacks are looking for some depth in their right wing stocks. They need look no further than the South African-born Wes Goosen. (His family moved to New Zealand when he was 4.) At just 23 years of age Goosen has shown that he has the BMT to play the game at the top level, and his acceleration off the mark is special. A great finishing touch too. He has the power, the pace, and the size, at 95kg, that suggest that he could become one of the greats.

Curwin Bosch

Until he was inexplicably moved from the flyhalf position to full back by his coach in the 56thminute of the Sharks game against the Crusaders, Bosch had seemed to be in full command of proceedings, and controlled the game with a panache and focus that suggested that he could and would win the game for his team. He kicked 7 penalties, and his tactical kicking was spot on. His defence, often a weakness, has improved beyond measure in recent times. Curwin Bosch must be on Rassie Erasmus’ short list for Japan later in the year.

Duane Vermeulen

Known to one an all as Thor or Thormeulen, it took one of South Africa’s benighted television commentators to get it all wrong and call him Captain America….

That does not detract from a huge performance for the Bulls against the Waratahs. Singly dominating the entire Waratah loose trio, Vermeulen kept them busy and tied down all afternoon. His reading of Nick Phipps’ wayward pass for the intercept and gallop for the tryline was special, as was the hand off to get rid of the chasing Curtis Rona.

Thor is back at his best.

Marco van Staden

A huge performance by the 23-year old as he makes his mark after five months out due to a shoulder injury. His carrying was particularly impressive as he hit the ball up with power and precision, a low body angle and driving legs contributing to some very good meters made. However, he is no one-trick pony! His tackling was robust, his presence over the ball superb. One really great turnover. When you overshadow the likes of Michael Hooper, you are doing well! 

Lizo Gqoboka

Easily my player of the weekend. He gave Sekope Kepu a truly tough time in the scrums, a scrummaging display for the aficionados, and coupled that powerful display with some great carries, great tackles, superb clean-outs and all-field play. For a man that only started playing rugby at the age of 19, he has shown massive heart and huge commitment. He must be another name on Rassie Erasmus’ list for Japan.

The Weekend’s Games

Friday 3rdMay

Crusaders 21 – 21 Sharks

Have no doubt that the Sharks rattled the Crusaders on Friday. The physicality of the Sharks, together with their focus and commitment gave the home-side a huge fright and so very nearly won the game for the visitors from Durban.

Perhaps the most significant take-away from this game is that the usually unflappable Kiwis were moaning and groaning when the game was over. They do not like being outmuscled!

When Kieran Read felt it necessary to complain about his team being beaten in the scrums, you knew that that the Sharks hurt and rattled the Kiwis!

For me, it was a bit rich, especially coming from Kieran Read, to question the legality of the Sharks scrum. For the past six or seven years many have questioned the legality of the Crusaders scrum, especially when they had the likes of Wyatt Crockett, Joe Moody, and Owen Franks testing the outside edges of legality.

When the boot is on the other foot……….

There has been much celebration across the various social media platforms, lauding the Sharks draw with the Crusaders, yet I would like to add a note of caution:

Yes, the Sharks tackled like Spartans facing Xerxes’ Persians at Thermopylae. It was a gutsy, determined, often heroic, and focussed effort.

Yes, the Sharks outmuscled the Crusaders in the set-pieces and in the collisions.

Yes, the Sharks rattled the Crusaders and forced them into conceding a string of penalties.

And, perhaps, yes, this was very good “finals” type rugby.

Low risk rugby, minimising errors, ramping up the pressure, and waiting for mistakes that you can convert into points.

But this was no final, and there were still bonus points to be earned for scoring tries and gaining a points spread advantage too.

Log positions are determined by such things.

And if you cannot score tries, while conceding three, there is still something wrong with your game and your game plans.

The Sharks were so physically superior in the first half that one would suggest that they should have had much more than a penalty based 9-7 lead at the halftime break.

I would add that Robert du Preez Snr very nearly shot his team in their collective feet when he decided, in the 56thminute of the game, to move Curwin Bosch to fullback and deploy his son Robert Jnr at flyhalf. Almost immediately the dominance that had allowed the Sharks to play in the Crusaders territory and pressurise them into making kickable mistakes vanished. Du Preez Jnr was unable to maintain the same kind of game management, pressure and focus as Bosch, and started by making a couple of mistakes. The Crusaders are not the champions for no reason. The sensed the opportunity, and grabbed it. The game swung in favour of the Crusaders as they set up camp in the Sharks half of the field, and a feeling of inevitability started to creep into proceedings.

Last week I asked how it was possible that the Sharks, with a one-man numerical advantage for 34 minutes and a 2-man advantage for 10 of those 34 minutes, could allow the woeful Waratahs to stay in the game and nearly earn a losing bonus point. In that game it was the Sharks inability to score tries that very nearly gave the ‘Tahs something to celebrate.

This week the Sharks again could not convert dominance into scoring tries.

Well done to the Sharks for drawing a game many suggested that they would lose. I was one of the many.

Reds 32 – 26 Sunwolves

What was the defining factor in this game?

The Sunwolves indiscipline? A referee that was both card happy and had a slightly jaundiced view of the visitors?

Who knows where the actual truth lies. I for one thought that the game became less about the two teams and more about the referee, Angus Gardner, than is acceptable.

Much as I asked about the Sharks inability to put the Waratahs away when they had the numerical advantage on the field a week ago, I have to ask how the Reds managed to keep the Sunwolves in the game, despite four yellow cards and a yellow/red?

Nah, this is not a game worth reviewing in any depth. (Or watching, if you recorded it for some entertainment on a boring rainy day. Rather watch your finger nails grow.)

Saturday 4thMay

Hurricanes 29 – 19 Rebels

 

When the Hurricanes posted four tries in the first half, this game was over as a contest and a spectacle. The ‘Canes simply ran riot for 20 minutes, ran up a score of 26 – 0 and then went to sleep as the Rebels toiled away at trying to find a way back.

The Rebels tried really really hard for about 30 minutes, and then they too seemed to go to sleep.

As I did.

Not much more that I can say about it.

Highlanders 31 – 31 Chiefs

As I suggested it would be in my Preview, this was the most watchable game of the weekend, as two desperate teams went for each other with gusto. Both sides needed a win, and both sides went for it, with fortunes swinging one way and then the other.

When the Highlanders seemed to have taken a grip and pushed their lead out to 28 – 12 in the third quarter, it seemed that they would prevail.

But the Chiefs were not going to roll over and allow the Highlanders to tickle their bellies. 

They came straight back into the game with three tries in the last quarter, with a nail-biter right at the very end to draw the game.

The second draw of the weekend was a fair result for an entertaining game of rugby.

Brumbies 26 – 21 Blues

The Blues must be wondering where they went wrong against the Brumbies?

I would suggest that the Blues thought that they would have one over the Brumbies at scrum time, and that dominance would give them plenty of front-foot ball and the chance to play rugby in the Brumbies half of the field. That did not happen thanks to a spirited Brumbies pack and an overly officious referee, Damon Murphy, who handed the home side a string of scrum penalties in the Blues half of the field.

The Blues did race out to a 12 – 0 lead in the first 8 minutes, but then things started to go a bit pear shaped as they lost the forward battle and focus in equal measure.

This was yet another average game of rugby in a very average rugby season. Nothing worth reporting on.

Bulls 28 – 21 Waratahs

I have long hated the oft-quoted “It was a game of two halves” cliché. If you look back over my scribblings of the last 5 or more years, you will not find a single example of my using this cliché, ever. 

But I am going to use it today.

For the first time.

Ever.

(And this will also be the last time.)

The first half of this game in Pretoria saw a focussed, clinical, and coldly committed Bulls side build an 18 – 7 half time lead. That first half performance had been so focussed and clinical, that things looked really ominous for the Waratahs. 

It was a powerful performance by a pack of forwards that exuded confidence and power in equal measure. The backs, despite a completely rejigged midfield, had been quick, clean and focussed in everything they did too, with Handré Pollard the master of all he surveyed from the flyhalf position.

And then the second half dawned.

And the Bulls had gone to sleep.

The clinical focus of earlier was replaced with a bleary-eyed distracted attitude, much like someone who had celebrated with one-too-many the night before. The sharp edge was blunt and the finishing just a little haphazard.

Little errors, little slips of the concentration, moments of unawareness, and reactions just a half-tick too slow and the Waratahs sensed that they had a chance.

The ‘Tahs tried hard to get back into the game, with Kurtley Beale giving glimpses of the talent that made him so good, so long ago. To no avail.

It was still the Bulls pack that kept a stranglehold on the ‘Tahs pack and that hold sucked the momentum out of anything the Waratahs tried. Duane Vermeulen stood like a colossus as he was at the spear-tip of the Bulls pack that stopped the Waratahs time and again. Marco van Staden was an able lieutenant to Vermeulen, backing the No.8 with some really solid play over the ball and in the tackles to take momentum out of the Waratah drives. 

In the end, the Bulls were probably better than the scoreline suggests.

Jaguares 30 – 25 Stormers

Once again, the  Stormers seemed to have forgotten how to score tries. They had their chances, particularly late in the second half, but lacked the finishing needed to turn pressure into critical scores.

The Stormers could have won this game, but did not. The Jaguares could have lost this game, but didn’t. 

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

It was, mostly, a bore-fest not worth waiting up to watch late on a Saturday evening. 151 rucks in 31 minutes and a static game that seemed to meander along like an old lady admiring the flowers in the park.

The only noteworthy moment was the penalty try and yellow card incident which I have commented on earlier.