Super Rugby

Weekend Review

Round Seventeen

Last week was not a good one for me. I have not had a migraine attack in at least 10 years, and had forgotten how debilitating the damn thing can be. Suffice to say that it knocked me over last Monday, and kept me from doing the things I usually do for the entire week. By Friday I was much better, but it was too late to do anything about the weekend’s rugby, two games had already been played! 

I apologise to those who read my scribblings, and thank those who enquired and offered their sympathies.

Another week, another shot!

As I was incapacitated, I did not comment on the referee and match official faux pas of Round 16, and there were a couple of pretty big ones.

The Rebels were left wondering why Waratahs winger Curtis Rona was penalised for a no arms tackle on Marika Koroibete, yet the referee, Paul Williams, chose not to award a penalty try? From my neutral perspective, as I viewed the incident I muttered “penalty try, yellow card” and was left a little bemused when only a penalty was awarded.

Marika Koroibete was thundering down the left wing with a mere meter or two to go when Rona clattered into him, with no arms, questionable height, and serious intent. There can be no doubt that Koroibete was illegally prevented from scoring the Rebels first try. 

The Rebels went down by five points, and their challenge for a playoff wildcard was made infinitely more difficult by the result. 

What appears to be a wholly incorrect decision by a referee has jeopardized a team’s entire season.

Over in Durban John Plumtree felt that the red card shown to the ‘Canes flanker Vaea Fifita was incorrect, not because the incident was not worthy of sanction, but because referee Nic Berry did not rule it to be a shoulder charge to the head, which is an automatic red card, but rather ruled it a high shot delivered with force, and thus a yellow card.

I have to disagree with Plumtree on this one. This was a red card incident whichever way you looked at it, and the Sanzaar judiciary agreed, suspending the young flanker and forcing Plumtree to send him home.

Moving on to the most recent weekend. 

The Blues are a little miffed at the referee and TMO that denied Augustine Pulu a third try midway through the second-half. A try that would have won the match for the Blues.

The Match Officials ruled that Pulu failed to properly release the ball after being tackled before diving over the line when the Blues were leading by six points. If the try was given, the Auckland-based side could’ve pushed the lead out to 13 points.

As Blues coach MacDonald said:  World Rugby needs to clarify some of their rules, as referees’ decisions are starting to have a big impact on games.

In Cape Town South African referee AJ Jacobs had a bit of a nightmare, as he missed so many high tackles that I thought we were watching a game from the 1970’s. He also failed to police the offside line with any consistency, allowing both sides to set up camp some meters beyond the offside line.

One ruling against Steven Kitshoff in the scrum was so laughably wrong that even he, the referee, seemed embarrassed when Kitshoff queried the decision.

The biggest error was, to my mind, AJ Jacobs’ failure to apply the Law that governs the scrum correctly. Law 19 states very clearly that the scrumhalf must throw the ball into the scrum without delay and at a quick speed.

The Law Reads:

Law 19.13:

13. When both sides are square, stable and stationary, the scrum-half throws in the ball: 

  1. From the chosen side. 

2. From outside the tunnel. 

3. Without delay. 

4. With a single forward movement. 

5. At a quick speed. 

6. Straight.

7. The scrum-half may align their shoulder on the middle line of the scrum, thereby standing a shoulder-width closer to their side of the scrum. 

8. So that it first touches the ground inside the tunnel. 

The Sunwolves knew that the Stormers scrum was immensely powerful and likely to devastate their own somewhat wobbly formation, so they had obviously decided to test the outside of the envelope in this regard, and delayed putting the ball into the scrum as much and as long as possible. With the scrumhalf frequently simply holding the ball ready for the throw, but not putting it in, or even stepping away from the tunnel and appealing to the referee, despite the scrum being steady and waiting.

The intent was obvious, draw the power out of the Stormers scrum as they struggled to find the rhythm that usually governs a scrum.

Referee Jacobs was oblivious to the tactic, to the point that even the television commentators were questioning his officiating.

I will leave the subject of the referees for now.

The Conferences and the Playoffs:

First and foremost, the rights to host quarterfinals have been decided.

Christchurch, Buenos Aires, Canberra and Wellington will be the host cities for the quarterfinal phase.

The Crusaders, who have a bye this coming weekend, have secured the top spot and cannot be overtaken. They will play in Christchurch all the way, as long as they remain unbeaten in the playoffs.

The Jaguares finally have done what so many predicted they would do in their first year of Super Rugby, and have qualified to host a quarterfinal in Buenos Aires, having won the South African conference.

The Brumbies, uncatchable in the Australian conference, have also earned the right to stage a quarterfinal in Canberra.

And, finally, the Hurricanes, second on the overall log with 49 points, have secured the fourth and remaining home quarterfinal because they are, weirdly, “fourth” on the log. Wellington will be the venue for the remaining shootout.

The top four are easy, but the next four, those that will qualify for a wildcard entry to the quarters, are still in a wide-open scramble.

Top of the chasing pack are the Bulls, on 36 points, followed by the Lions on 35, the Rebels and Stormers on 34. 

Those four are followed by the Sharks on 33. The Chiefs and the Highlanders on 31, and then the Waratahs on 30.

Mathematically, all eight have a chance of making the quarters, although it might require a miracle or two for the Chiefs, the Highlanders, and the Waratahs to get through.

The most fascinating aspect of the final weekend of Super Rugby’s regular season is that all the sides between 5thand 12thon the log have to play a team also within those 5-12 rankings. Round 18 has taken on an importance never seen before, a veritable knock-out round, with the winner taking all!

Let’s examine the permutations. 

  1. The Crusaders have a bye and can rest up, rejuvenate, and plot their quarterfinal against whomsoever should qualify for the daunting task of travelling to Christchurch.
  2. The Jaguares host the Sunwolves. It would take an epic turnaround in the fortunes of both these teams for the result to go against the Jaguares. Even a worst case scenario would still see the Jaguares qualify to host the quarterfinal at home.
  3. The Brumbies, with 43 points, are uncatchable at the top of the Aussie log, the second placed Rebels are 9 points adrift. The Brumbies play the Reds in Canberra, and should bank another 4 points, possibly 5.
  4. The Hurricanes, on 49 points, play the Blues in a game that will have no effect on the ‘Canes qualification for the fourth of the home quarterfinals. If the ‘Canes lose, and the Jaguares win with a bonus point, the South Americans could displace the ‘Canes as the second placed team on points only.
  5. The Bulls currently sit in 5thposition with 36 points. They have to play the Lions in Pretoria. Effectively this is a playoff for the fifth place on the log. At worst, the Bulls will finish on 36 or 37 points, but have a real chance of pushing their log points to 40 or 41. If the Lions win, they will pass the Bulls on the ladder and go to 39 points, possibly 40, claiming 5thplace for 2019. A loss for the Bulls, together with some weird results elsewhere such as the Chiefs beating the Rebels by more than 42 points, could see the Bulls drop all the way down to 8th.
  6. As mentioned above, the Lions are in with a chance of climbing up the ladder to 5thspot. However, should they lose, and either or both the Stormers and Rebels win their games, both could pass the Lions, relegating the Jo’burg team to, at best, 8thon the log, still enough to qualify for a playoff.
  7. The Stormers sit in the 7thspot at the moment, with 34 points. They host the Sharks this weekend and must be looking for a win to cement their place in the quarters. A loss with a losing bonus point might be enough, but they are in a precarious position, with so many of their front-line players on the injured list.
  8. The Rebels, equal on points with the Stormers, but 8thon the log after losing one more game and having a worse points difference, could also head up the ladder and secure a playoff spot for the first time in their history. Their problem is that they face the resurgent Chiefs this weekend, albeit in Melbourne. The Rebels have just returned from a 66-0 thrashing by the Crusaders, a week after the Chiefs gave the Crusaders a bit of a hiding in Suva!
  9. The Sharks in 9th, simply have to win against the Stormers in Cape Town, else their 33 points will send them home to pack up the squad rooms for the season. The best case scenario would obviously be a bonus point win, which could be enough to place them as high as sixth, provided that the Rebels’ success is limited to a win without a bonus point. Win without the bonus point for the Sharks, and their place in the play-offs would still be confirmed, but their placing would be determined by whether the Bulls secured a losing bonus point against the Lions, if they scored 14 or more points than their Pretoria-based side, and whether the Rebels defeated the Chiefs or not. So many ifs and buts!
  10. The Chiefs, 10th with 31 points, play the Rebels in Melbourne, knowing that a bonus point win would elevate them to 36 points for an 8thplace finish on the log. Anything less, and their season is over.
  11. The Highlanders sit in 11thspot with an equal number of points to the Chiefs, 31, and a game against the Waratahs on the weekend. Their problem is those 3 draws that they have on their record for 2019. This is critical, as the rules for Super Rugby determine that the number of wins recorded in the season is the first of the tie-breakers if teams finish level on the log. The Highlanders simply have to bank a bonus point win over the ‘Tahs if they want a snowball’s of making the playoffs. Then they have to pray that a bunch of other results also go their way.
  12. The Waratahs, down in 12thwith 30 log points do have a theoretical chance of making the playoffs. They have to bank a bonus point win over the Highlanders, and then they must pray that the Chiefs do not pick up a bonus point while beating the Rebels, the Stormers to lose to the Sharks, and the Lions to lose to the Bulls without picking up a bonus point. Should all those results work the way the ‘Tahs want them to work, the Waratahs, Chiefs and Lions would all be lodged between seventh and ninth on 35 points, and if the Stormers and Rebels also picked up bonus points in their defeats, that 35-point logjam would extend to 11th place.

With five teams all tied on 35 points, the first tie-breaker rule would be based on matches won, which would give the Lions the edge, as they would have eight wins compared to the Waratahs, Chiefs, Stormers and Rebels who all have seven.

The Lions would then take the seventh spot, with only the eighth and final position vacant, and that would be filled by the team with the best points difference.

The Waratahs currently have a better points difference than the Chiefs, Stormers and Rebels, and if they were to secure a bonus point win over the Highlanders, it would be the only way the Waratahs could qualify for the quarter-finals. If even one of all those results goes against them, the Waratahs season is over.

(Further down we have the Blues, the Reds, and the Sunwolves who truly have nothing left to play for in 2019.) 

As a final summary of each team’s chances:

The Crusaders:

Untouchable in first place.

The Jaguares:

Highest possible finish: 2nd

Lowest possible finish: 3rd

Probable finish: 2nd

The Brumbies:

Highest possible finish: 2nd

Lowest possible finish: 3rd

Probable finish: 2nd

The Hurricanes:

Highest possible finish: 4th

Lowest possible finish: 4th

Probable finish: 4th

The Bulls:

Highest possible finish: 5th

Lowest possible finish: 8th

Probable finish: 5th

The Lions:

Highest possible finish: 5th

Lowest possible finish: 9th

Probable finish: 7th

The Stormers:

Highest possible finish: 6th

Lowest possible finish: 9th

Probable finish: 6th

The Rebels:

Highest possible finish: 6th

Lowest possible finish: 11th

Probable finish: 8th

The Sharks:

Highest possible finish: 6th

Lowest possible finish: 11th

Probable finish: 8th

The Chiefs:

Highest possible finish: 7th

Lowest possible finish: 13th

Probable finish: 9th

The Highlanders:

Highest possible finish: 7th

Lowest possible finish: 14th

Probable finish: 10th

The Waratahs:

Highest possible finish: 8th

Lowest possible finish: 14th

Probable finish: 12th

Super Rugby might have offered up some pretty dour and unexciting rugby during the season, but the interest and excitement generated by the qualification permutations certainly exceeds all expectations. What rugby league in the world can offer up such a close-run conclusion to the regular season?

On the Up:

The Bulls:

Give credit where credit is due! For a team with a tradition of consistently poor touring results over the years, this has to have been their best season ever.

Undefeated in New Zealand, with two creditable draws, and a win over the Rebels in Australia  so that they have bagged 8 log points away from home, and secured a quarterfinal berth no matter what happens this coming weekend.

The Jaguares:

Some mealy-mouthed Aussies suggested that the inclusion of the Jaguares in Super Rugby was wrong, as they are an international team in disguise. (Okay, so it was only Mr Super-Mealy Hyper-Jingo Phil Kearns that really sounded off about the Jaguares after his dream team, the untouchable Waratahs lost to the South Americans, but there were some Aussie keyboard warriors who supported Kearns on various media websites.)

The reality is that the Jaguares have brought something new and different to Super Rugby instead of the ongoing procession of New Zealanders beating all-comers, with the South Africans mostly also having the edge over the Aussies.

Since their arrival in the competition there have been predictions that the Jaguares would become on the dominant teams, simply because they have so many internationals in their squad. During their first two years they failed dismally to adapt to the rigours of Super Rugby, especially the disciplines required on the field and off it. They struggled. Then in 2018, under new coach Mario Ledesma, they started to play the way we expected them to play, and then they kicked on in 2019.

Yes, they have a healthy dose of internationals on their books, but then so do the Crusaders, the Stormers, the Sharks, the Hurricanes, and the Waratahs….

The Jaguares are worthy contenders for the Super Rugby title.

Edging Down:

The Lions.

The loss of Kwagga Smith to what appeared to be a serious hamstring injury was devastating for the Lions. They conceded the game on the ground to the likes of Ardie Savea, and the gaps that Smith covers in the defences were exposed in his absence. One hopes the injury is not serious and that he will be back soon. The Springboks need him!

The Stormers.

Yes, undoubtedly the Stormers were not at full strength, with injuries to senior players and Springbok rest weeks for others depriving the team of much experience and mongrel. Having to field an almost third string squad, including three debutants, demonstrated the problems faced by the Stormers.   No matter how many youngsters you throw onto the field, one expects the basics to be ingrained in their game, yet it seemed is if some of the very basics were missing, as their handling yips reappeared after a couple of games where they had looked to have sorted the nerves and the jitters. This was not a good weekend for the Cape Town based team despite their win over the lowly Sunwolves!

The Sharks.

The fishy pendulum continues to swing, wobbling off course a bit along the way too. The 34-7 loss to the Jaguares demonstrated all that is wrong with the Sharks as they did their level best to play 10-man rugby and wasted so much ball that it became a painful exercise to watch.

Quite why Robert du Preez (Snr) persists with selecting Robert (Jnr) at 10 when the obvious skills of Curwin Bosch are available, remains a mystery that can only be solved if we use the word “Nepotism” – Robert (Jnr) has never quite stepped up to the marker he laid down in his Stormers days, and seems to be low on confidence and clarity in 2019. Even his ball-carrying has been slow and ponderous.

This does not look like a happy team.

Some Players:

Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)

Wow!  This fellow’s vision and skill on the attack is simply astounding. That cross-field kick-pass is a thing of beauty, and his ability to make the rush defence stop in its tracks is sublime. He is destined to be a major force for the All Blacks at the World Cup.  Yes, he got plenty of chances against a woeful Rebels, but you still have to be good enough to take those chances! His vision and understanding of spaces is beyond normal!

Scott Higginbotham (Reds)

I used to be a great fan of Higgenbotham, back in his Rebel days, but have found him to be increasingly ill-tempered and undisciplined since he joined the Reds. He has allowed the red mist to could his vision too often and it detracts from his undoubted talent.

Until Saturday and his last ever game for the Reds! 

He was pure quality as he ruled the field in the game against the Blues. 

He may just be an answer for the Wallabies now that David Pocock’s availability is in doubt. Sadly, he is one of many who are leaving Australia for an overseas del.

Augustine Pulu (Blues)

Deserved a hat-trick of tries against the Reds in Brisbane, but had to settle for just the two, deprived by a doubtful TMO decision. One of many contenders for an All Black call-up in 2019.

Sevu Reece (Crusaders) 

The competitions leading try-scorer with 13 in the bag, his blinding pace and willingness to get involved has been a feature all year. He has lightning quick reflexes and is never found taking the balk from a standing start. He must be very close to an All Black call-up!

Friday June 7th

Highlanders 24 – 24 Bulls

The Bulls’ scrummaging power paid off in Dunedin. They deprived the Highlanders of field position and space, bogging them down in a scrummaging contest, and keeping them pinned in their half of the field.

It was not pretty, despite both teams starting the game with plenty of attacking intent. When the Bulls saw that the Highlanders seemed to have the legs on them out wide, they simply slowed the game down in the second half, camped in the Highlanders half and inched their way closer and closer until the game was tied. 

Reds 29 – 28 Blues

Brad Throne would have enjoyed the way his squad of youngsters fought back to win this one, although the Blues were desperately unlucky when a TMO call went against them! The Blues were guilty of their usual dose of silly mistakes and weird decisions, and lost a game they should have won!

Saturday, June 8th

Crusaders 66 – 0 Rebels

The Rebels were in the wrong place, at the wrong time, against a team that wanted to set some records straight in their last regular season run of 2019.  This was rugby’s version of slaughtering seal pups.

Waratahs 24 – 35 Brumbies

It never looked like the Waratahs were going to come back after the Brumbies had kicked out to a 28-3 half-time lead. They tried, a bit, but they look a sadly out of sorts outfit.

The Brumbies outplayed the ‘Tahs, man for man. 

Lions 17 – 37 Hurricanes

When Kwagga Smith left the field, the Lions’ challenge seemed to evaporate. Without Beauden Barrett, who was a late withdrawal, the Lions still could not contain a rampant Hurricanes side, who looked even better once flanker Ardie Savea and hooker Dane Coles came on in the second half.

Not much more one can say about this game.

Stormers 31 – 18 Sunwolves

The Stormers 3rds/4ths were good enough to win the game, but not good enough to claim a bonus point. 

That about sums up the game.

To may handling errors, too many silly mistakes, too many over-cooked kicks and chips, much eagerness, not enough focus and intensity.

Simply not good enough, Stormers!

Jaguares 34 – 7 Sharks

Oy Vey Sharks……

You cannot expect to bash your way to a win every time you take the field. That is not how rugby works.