Seven rounds of exhilarating Super Rugby action have now been completed and trends are becoming evident, players are beginning to get into their groove and most of the expected teams are starting to hit their straps. The top three teams remain the same (Brumbies, Chiefs and Sharks) and we can probably expect this to be the case for some time, while the Reds, Crusaders and Cheetahs have all cemented top six positions. Lower down the table a logjam is starting to form, which will only create extra intensity and pressure in the upcoming matches. Let’s have a look at each of last weekend’s matches in more depth.
The first match of the round six was always going to be one of the better games to watch as the ever-improving Reds visited the Highlanders under the roof at Forsyth Barr stadium in Dunedin. According to the odds and the way the tournament has gone for both teams so far, it wasn’t expected to be the tightly contested matchup that it invariably ended up being. The Highlanders are a team that contains some extremely talented internationals and their home crowd often propels them to greater heights. The Reds started extremely strongly with Will Genia marshalling his troops and showcasing his exquisite passing game. James Hanson dotted down early before both teams traded penalties after a number of indiscretions at the breakdown. The Highlanders hit back soon after when Elliott Dixon crashed over after taking a quick tap which caught the Reds off-guard. Andrew Hore was sinbinned shortly after for the Highlanders which the Reds capitalised on through a Jake Schatz try. The Highlanders finally upped the anti and played with greater continuity but failed to cross the chalk for the rest of the half. Much like the first half, the Reds started strongly after the break, led by some strong James Horwill carries, before Will Genia and Quade Cooper deceived the defence off the back of a scrum for the nuggetty number nine to score untouched and take a 31 – 16 lead. The Highlanders looked down and out, but to their credit and the superstardom of Hosea Gear, Ma’a Nonu and Buxton Popoali’i, they managed to rally back before a late penalty goal by Quade Cooper sealed it for the Reds. The Reds are starting to find their rhythm and look a much better team with their spine (Horwill, Genia and Cooper) on the field and Liam Gill is an exceptional young talent coming through the ranks. On the other hand, the Highlanders will eventually click, but they are leaving their run late if they want to make the playoffs in 2013.
The brave Kings as they are slowly becoming synonymous for, were greeted by a star-studded Hurricanes outfit in Wellington on Saturday. After being blown off the park in Christchurch by the Crusaders, most people expected the same to happen again this week and it did. The Hurricanes play an exciting brand of rugby and often throw the ball around to breakdown the opposing defensive structures. Once again, they had success using this ploy on Saturday, however, they were made to work by a team that plays with pride, courage that flows on from being tournament newcomers. The Hurricanes eventually ran in six tries using a dominant forward platform and their skilful backs led by captain fantastic, Conrad Smith to cut the Kings apart on a number of occasions. Having won three consecutive games, they are beginning to build momentum and will be dangerous opposition for any teams in the coming rounds. The Kings on the other hand have really upped their offensive game in recent weeks and as a result their once strong defence has suffered. Ronnie Cooke looked great with ball in hand and they never threw in the towel and ended up scoring the last try of the match, as they did last week against the Crusaders. The table-topping Brumbies await the Kings next in Canberra and I have no doubts that the Brumbies will have marked this game down as a five point opportunity.
The Chiefs and the Blues were expected to be involved in a high-scoring affair in Mount Maunganui over the weekend, however, in the first half, both teams showed some impenetrable defence and remained tryless. It didn’t take long for the Chiefs to get on the scoreboard in the second half as giant prop, Ben Tameifuna crashed over from close range. Shortly after, Richard Kahui charged a kick down to score the game sealing try in his first start for the Chiefs after a long injury layoff. To the Blues credit, they stuck at it in the dying minutes when winger and owner of one of the dirtiest rattails in the business, George Moala strolled over to ensure that the Blues finished within the seven point buffer. Moments like these are crucial in the context of the season given the bottleneck that currently exists mid table. In the end, the Chiefs recorded their fourth consecutive victory over the Blues and solidified their place at the top of the New Zealand conference standings in the process. Super Rugby champion teams are built around solid defence and week after week the Chiefs are developing their case for another run at this year’s title.
The Brumbies clash with the Bulls on Saturday was a difficult one to predict given both team’s heartbreaking losses the week before and the fact the Brumbies had to return home after a brief but productive African sojourn. In another match that was dominated by solid defence and penalty goals, the Brumbies looked the more complete outfit in the first half, before another late surge from the Bulls levelled things up with less than ninety seconds to go. The Bulls are an excellent team to watch on the fly and when there is a need to score tries, they are making a habit of doing it, or at least getting close to doing it as was the case last week. Sharpshooter Morne Steyn converted JJ Engelbrecht’s try from the sideline and when the game looked like heading for a 20-all draw, the Bulls failed to kick the ball out off the kick-off and the Brumbies won a controversial penalty goal that Christian Lealifano slotted with ease after the siren. The Bulls have now fallen short at the death two weeks in a row and given their results to date, these defeats could be very costly heading into the business end of the season. The Brumbies continue to win the close ones and although they haven’t shown their early season form in recent weeks, they are still finding a way to win which will continue to heap pressure on the Queensland Reds sitting just below them.
The Rebels are a team in disarray at the moment, especially given their record breaking defeat to the Sharks last week and the Cheetahs didn’t make it any easier on Saturday night. Firstly, it was a welcome sight for my eyes to see the newly laid grass in Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs stadium has been one of the worst in the competition in recent years given their inability to grow proper grass, however, they have now rectified this issue by importing some from New Zealand. The Cheetahs started well adopting a territory-based game plan as Burton Francis accurately pinned the Rebels back in their 22 time and time again. They had a number of chances to score in the first half, however they were either mowed down or spilt possession at the decisive moments. The Rebels went into the half time break down 10 – 6, after Hennie Daniller crashed over late in the first half and at that point they would’ve been pretty confident they could pick up the four points on offer. As the rain continued to pour, Robert Ebersohn made another trademark break, utilising his Sevens experience to flick a no look pass to Raymond Rhule to score his third try of the season. Shortly after, utility back Willie le Roux scored another try after the Rebels failed to handle an up and under or ‘gary owen’ as it is commonly known in Europe, which led to an easy try for the Cheetahs. Luke Jones was then guilty of a late hit and was yellow carded which then allowed Johan Sadie to go over for the bonus point try. The tides turned in the second half as the Rebels were completely outplayed, despite managing to score a late try. Post match, coach Damien Hill said there is currently a huge disconnect between the way his players train and their inability to follow the game plan once they run out onto the field. Things couldn’t be any worse for the Melbourne based franchise with Kurtley Beale out indefinitely for disciplinary reasons and rumours that James O’Connor is being linked to the Brumbies. For the Cheetahs they continue to surprise and it was pleasing to see Heinrich Brussouw starting to play with confidence after a bad run of injuries in recent seasons. His influence and leadership looks to be rubbing off on the youngsters around him and the Cheetahs will only grow in confidence if they continue to replicate their recent form.
Newlands Stadium in Cape Town was buzzing on Saturday evening as both the Crusaders and Stormers ran out in front of a packed house. The atmosphere was electric and Tyler Bleyendaal had the task of filling in for the irreplaceable Dan Carter, while Richie McCaw (sabbatical) and Kieran Read (injury) were also notable absentees. The Stormers got off to a jittery start losing three lineouts in succession as the All Blacks second row combination of Romano and Whitelock carefully masterminded some decisive steals. The match continued at a frenetic pace and Siya Kolisi managed to score the opening try on the back of another rolling maul. It didn’t take long for the Crusaders to hit back as Tom Marshall made a clean break and his teammates managed to build through the phases before Matt Todd crashed over. It was 13 – 11 at the half to the Crusaders in a match that was played at test match intensity. The second half was much the same as the first as the Crusaders showed great ball retention skills and composure, at one stage racking up 27 phases in a relentless period of attack. The Stormers managed to swing momentum around late in the game as they turned down a number of kickable penalties to go for the killer punch. There were some breathless moments towards the end of the match, however, when the referee blew the final whistle, the Crusaders prevailed in a thriller by five and you could see how much it meant to both their players and the management. The Crusaders played with more tactical and technical nous, which is what you would expect from a team laden with All Blacks. Conclusively, both teams were impressive and it would only be fitting for both of them to feature in the playoff stages of the tournament.
The final match of the weekend was certainly not a case of saving the best for last as the Waratahs failed to punish an incomplete Force outfit at Allianz stadium in Sydney. It really was one of the worst fixtures I have watched for a while given both teams inability to finish scoring opportunities and an overreliance of the boot to keep the scoreboard ticking over. In the end, the Waratahs won an arm-wrestle and strung together their first back-to-back wins in almost 12 months. Special mention must go to Israel Folau who was spectacular under the highball and added a lot of impetus on attack. The two Super Rugby centurions, Benn Robinson and Adam Ashley-Cooper had commendable games as the former perfected a key breakdown steal and the latter crossing the chalk after a trademark fend. Things are starting to look better for the Waratahs and there are signs that Michael Cheika’s plans are coming to fruition, however, this week they will be tested as they have to cross the ditch to play the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Three teams have the bye this week (Bulls, Chiefs and Crusaders), all of whom are exciting to watch, but the Sharks v Crusaders and Cheetahs v Stormers should be well worth some late night viewing. As we head towards the halfway stage, the front-runners are starting to make themselves known. The Highlanders have been the biggest disappointment, the Cheetahs have been the biggest surprise packet and the Chiefs and the Brumbies look like they will be hard to catch.