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  • Things We Learned: Super Rugby Playoffs
    Rugby

    1) There's life in the Sharks scrum after Beast and there's life in the Sharks scrum right now. 2) When it's broken play, the Sharks play is, well, broken. 3) The 2014 Brumbies won't just try to squeeze teams out in the knockout rounds. 4) Ewen McKenzie is going to love Henry Speight. 5) The best part of the new format of Super Rugby is the abolition of the phrase 'finals series'.

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    1. There’s life in the Sharks scrum after Beast and there’s life in the Sharks scrum right now.

    The Sharks scrum was so dominant against the Highlanders, knocking the ball on could’ve been a tactic.

    The Highlanders might not be the best forward pack in the tournament, but you still have to scrum bloody well to get them on their backsides scrum after scrum.

    Thomas du Toit is a 19-year-old loosehead prop just out of school. He was scrumming against Chris King, a grizzled veteran of over 100 Super Rugby caps. The gulf in experience couldn’t be bigger. Neither could the dominance that du Toit had.

    It didn’t end with that battle either. Jannie du Plessis had many scrums where he gave bursting right shoulders. Bismarck du Plessis ended up being man of the match. Even the replacements were pushing the Highlanders off their own ball.

    It might sound crazy, but it’s almost as if it’s actually in Jake White’s interests to rotate Beast Mtawarira instead of him and the Springboks playing him into the ground.

    2. When it’s broken play, the Sharks play is, well, broken.

    Scrums were great, lineouts were great and the driving mauls were great. If you dominate those tight facets of the game, you ensure that the opposition only get to feed off scraps. The problem is that with some New Zealand sides will eat scraps gladly.

    While anyone with a soul should marvel at the running skills of the Highlanders backs, there should be a fair amount of justified finger-pointing in the Sharks video session. Disorganised defensive lines here, the odd questionable exit kick there...the Sharks certainly played their part in trying to make the game exciting. Who knows? Maybe that’ll make Kings Park sell out for the playoffs next year...

    Not that the margin of victory has any real consequence in knockout rugby, but there would be far less heart attacks in Durban if the Sharks could cash in more on the fine platforms they set.

    As for next week, the Crusaders pack won’t be as generous as the Highlanders were. Wyatt Crockett, Luke Romano, a couple of Whitelocks and whichever Franks brother plays there (no-one knows which Franks brother plays where. Not even their mother) will ensure the Sharks have more challenge at the setpiece.

    As for taking advantage of broken play, well there’s this Dan Carter chap who’s not too bad at putting players into space.

    3. The 2014 Brumbies won’t just try to squeeze teams out in the knockout rounds.

    After showing their Jake White roots for most of the season, coach Stephen Larkham put out a Brumbies team that showed off a multi-phase running game that hasn’t been seen in Canberra since Larkham played himself.

    There were some fine running moments by the Brumbies team, throwing many knockout rugby rulebooks out the window. While the Chiefs came back hard in the second half (predictably for a champion team), the Brumbies had set themselves up with an early lead big enough to hold onto which was gained through plenty of running and continuity.

    While the Brumbies had moments of schizophrenia earlier in the season jumping between basing their game on multi-phase play and basing it on territory, they seemed to revert to Jake White type for the most part in oder to grind out results and get to the knockout phase. Now, Larkham’s style is more prevalent and different skills are being brought out for the big games.

    Who said knockout rugby has to be boring? And while we’re at it, who says the Waratahs hosting the Brumbies is a done deal for the Waratahs?

    4. Ewen McKenzie is going to love Henry Speight.

    Originally from Fiji, Henry Speight becomes eligible to play for the Wallabies from early September. Judging by the way he’s playing, Ewen McKenzie might be so keen to bring him into the side, he might drive him to home affairs himself.

    Big, bustly and stands out among the rest. And that’s just his hair.

    Picking the Australian backline can often be a game of mix and match between some very talented players. However, with a spot opened up on the wing by Nick Cummins going off to Japan, why would McKenzie wait to resist picking Speight?

    5. The best part of the new format of Super Rugby is the abolition of the phrase ‘finals series’.

    According to SANZAR, this period of the tournament from the pseudo-quarter-finals onwards should be known as the ‘finals series’. Gee, I wonder why that hasn’t caught on?

    It’s a phrase that has been consigned to the post match presentation advertising hoardings and Rod Kafer’s interviews. No further.

    People are at a loss as to what to call this last knockout round in particular. After all, they aren’t technically quarter-finals, and just calling them ‘playoffs’ is a touch vague and far too Americanized. David Campese spent his entire Saturday in the SuperSport studio by blatantly ignoring any protocol or reason by referring to them as ‘semi-finals’. Aah, Campese...always a maverick.

    The one thing to be thankful about from the 18-team structure from 2016 onwards is that there will be 8 teams from the beginning of the knockout phase, so we can just call them ‘quarter-finals’ with accuracy and confidence. No more hesitation when talking about it.

    It’ll be for for the good of the game, because one must be careful throwing Americanized concepts around SANZAR in case they hear the term ‘playoff’ too much and go full Yank by introducing a best of seven match format for every knockout round.

  • Things We Learned: Final Round of Super Rugby
    Rugby

    1) Third isn't ideal, but the Sharks are in a good playoff space. 2) Big match experience is showing. 3) Disrespect for the referee is becoming as widespread as it is nauseating. 4) Playing Coenie at tighthead is just looking sillier by the game. 5) Conference trophy? What conference trophy?

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    1. Third isn’t ideal, but the Sharks are in a good playoff space.

    Forget about the ‘failure’ to beat the Stormers by 35 points. That was a bloody good performance from the Sharks.

    Against a Stormers side that’s been playing good rugby recently, the Sharks once again used Newlands to show their fine blueprint for knockout rugby at the right time of the season. They absorbed heaps of pressure and pounced clinically on the few chances they got. It’s rugby that’s very Jake White and very 2007 Springbok-esque.

    Playing in the first playoff round wouldn’t have been their goal at the beginning of the season, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of positives for the Sharks to use right now.

    They host the Highlanders next, and while that fixture didn’t go so well 3 months ago, the New Zealanders look in much worse form now and the Sharks should go into that game healthily confident but not complacent. If they get through that, they’ll then have to cross the Indian Ocean once for the rest of the playoffs (whether that be 1 game or 2), which is far better than when they had to cross it 3 times in 3 weeks in the 2012 playoffs.

    The playoff games will be tough, because hey, this is Super Rugby. It’s good that the Sharks got this big win to show some form just as we hit the business time of the tournament, because it was looking like their season might be unravelling after they lost the previous 2 games.

    Sure, getting a home semi-final would’ve put them in a better position, but that advantage doesn’t mean anything unless you have your way of playing knockout rugby down pat. Just ask the 2012 Stormers and the 2013 Bulls.

    2. Big match experience is showing.

    There were 2 matches in the final round that had playoff implications for both teams, namely Brumbies vs Force and Crusaders vs Highlanders. Both games showed a similar theme: the teams that have played in the big games before won comfortably.

    In their different ways, both the Crusaders and the Brumbies showed more calmness in how to play their games than their opponents did.

    The Crusaders even had the added goal of a bonus point try in their minds, but they never looked rushed to get it. They absorbed all that the Highlanders could offer in the first half, then cashed in when they got attacking penalties later.

    You could tell that these Crusaders players have done this kind of thing often before, and the Highlanders (who haven’t been in the playoffs for 12 years) couldn’t match them.

    The Brumbies didn’t do anything silly in their own half and looked at ease when they had the ball on attack. Matt Toomua orchestrated a wonderful game from flyhalf, running into gaps and making sound choices. Compare that to how the Force were forcing passes that weren’t on and getting tangled up in their running lines.

    This Brumbies team has experience of playoff rugby. This Force team doesn’t and it showed.

    Could this trend pop up later in the tournament? Well, the current Waratahs team haven’t been in the playoffs before and their semi-final opponents are most likely to be either the Brumbies or the Chiefs, both finalists from last year. While the Waratahs are a good team with a great record at home, facing opponents in a knockout who have more experience of it than they have will be another test of their credentials.

    3. Disrespect for the referee is becoming as widespread as it is nauseating.

    Now that the football World Cup is over, let’s stop following their example of arguing with referees, shall we?

    When it comes to captains, it’s not just Victor Matfield. Bismarck du Plessis showed far too much petulance to the referee. So did Schalk Burger. To a certain extent, so did Adriaan Strauss. Where is Jean de Villiers and his ‘deduct points from the overall log’ comedy material when you need him?

    It doesn’t stop at the captains either. In the Stormers vs Sharks game in particular, you could hardly get through one scrum, lineout, ruck or maul without someone shouting some something.

    “Offside!”

    “Hands in!”

    “Skew!”

    “Forward!”

    “He said something about my mother!”

    As for the debates around every penalty (either by the side who just conceded one or by the side who were given one but want to use the opportunity to debate a previous one), on every possible level, the less said, the better.

    Referees, if you hear anything like that, penalty. If they keep talking, move it forward 10 metres. 10 minutes of that should shut everybody up. Hey, that’s how you treat kids when they play rugby.

    4. Playing Coenie at tighthead is just looking sillier by the game.

    It was supposed to get better the more experience he got, but the more Coenie Oosthuizen plays at tighthead, the less redeeming qualities he seems to bring to the position.

    His performance against the Lions couldn’t have been less flattering for him. He clearly couldn’t deal with the pressure exerted in every scrum, conceded penalty after penalty and eventually got sin binned for doing it repeatedly. Scrumming contributions can’t get worse.

    It got to the point that whenever the Lions knocked it on into touch or kicked kick-offs out on the full, Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss kept electing the lineout option to avoid scrums. It would have been funny if it wasn’t for the fact that he was hiding one of the current Springbok tighthead props.

    With less than 18 months to go to the World Cup, surely it’s time for the Springboks to cut their losses on the time spent on playing Oosthuizen at tighthead and invest some experience on a younger specialist. Beyond Jannie du Plessis and Frans Malherbe, Marcel van der Merwe and Julian Redelinghuys are two young tightheads that are showing fine potential. Also, he might be benching, but another Springbok look-in for Lourens Adriaanse, anybody?

    Let’s put an end to this Coenie situation right now. That’s not just a message for Heyneke Meyer and scrum coach Peter de Villiers either. It goes out to Naka Drotske and Os du Randt too.

    5. Conference trophy? What trophy?

    The post-match presentation at Newlands showed that the South African Conference Trophy is close to getting the attention it deserves: none at all.

    Just a quick hand over to Bismarck du Plessis, a quick smile for the camera, and that’s the end of the trophy presentation. No champagne, no confetti, just a bit of extra luggage to deal with.

    The conference trophy might not even be put in the trophy cabinet. It might just be used to hold mints on John Smit’s desk.

    Next year, let’s not even hand out that trophy. All it symbolises is that a team earned a home playoff. Let’s just let them focus on winning it.

  • Things We Learned: Round 18 of Super Rugby
    Rugby

    1) We need uniformity with the advantage law. 2) The Waratahs are not just top of the log. They look like they should be too. 3) The Lions haven't just surpassed people's expectations. They've surpassed their own history. 4) Dean Greyling's commitment to conceding penalties knows no bounds. 5) Victor Matfield is an old dog that needs to learn new referee tricks.

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    1. We need uniformity with the advantage law.

    While it wasn’t the only reason that the Sharks didn’t win (or draw), that doesn’t mean that the particularly short penalty advantage granted to them on the final hooter shouldn’t leave them feeling aggrieved.

    Ask yourself this: would the Sharks have spread the ball wide like that to the wing if they knew that their advantage would be taken away from them? If the answer is ‘no’, or even ‘maybe not’, then you have to agree that they were the victims of the inconsistency that is used to apply the law.

    When an attacking team has a penalty advantage given to them, who knows how generous a referee will be? It seems to be anything from a spectrum of 2 phases with no real ground gained (as Rohan Hoffman gave the Sharks) to a virtually endless opportunity to score a try (rugby’s equivalent of a free hit).

    Surely some uniformity is in order? It’s not like leaving it to the whims of the referee’s personality is the only option. Perhaps give a limit of 4 phases for a penalty advantage and 1 for a scrum advantage? The referee can even call out ‘phase 1’ and so on that would help himself as well as the players (which would use a similar logic to how they tell scrumhalves to ‘use it once’).

    As stated above, it wasn’t the only reason that the Sharks fell short in Bloemfontein. While the game changed when Jake White took his rested Springboks off the bench (it felt like the theme of the A-team should have played when the du Plessis brothers came on), the Cheetahs showed a fine improvement in their kicking and their driving play to give a fine balanced performance that gave them enough of a buffer to hold onto.

    There are also many other reasons you could find throughout the season for the Sharks currently being out of the home semi-final spots. But hey, why let inconsistent law application be a factor at all?

    2. The Waratahs are not just top of the log. They look like they should be too.

    While others loosened their grip on the top in the final rounds of the log phase, the Waratahs tightened theirs. Only a top team could pull that off in this tournament.

    Their demolition of the Highlanders showcased everything that’s gone right for the Waratahs this season. Their scrum was fabulous, which gave a platform for their backs to take advantage and then some. This was far from just being the Israel Folau show, because they are far from being a 1-man team.

    One player’s improvement that should stand out as a shining light on coach Michael Cheika’s CV is Jacques Potgieter. Nothing more than a battering ram at the Bulls, now he’s a dextrous off-loader bringing absolute havoc to defences. Amazing what can happen to a player around coaches that encourage that sort of behaviour more.

    The Waratahs are the only team with a 100% home record this season which they backed up with a win in South Africa as well as New Zealand. Their reward is top of the log and a chance to rest whoever they want for their final game against the Reds in Round 19 (spoiler alert: that’s going to be a horrible game).

    3. The Lions haven’t just surpassed people’s expectations. They’ve surpassed their own history.

    Their win against the Rebels confirmed a couple of things for the Lions that weren’t anticipated at the beginning of the season. Firstly, it confirmed that they won’t finish last. Secondly, their current total of 6 wins is the most they’ve ever achieved since they were granted their own franchise in 2006.

    In a tough tournament, that’s an achievement that can’t be underestimated. After a year out of the tournament and an inevitable exodus of players that it brought, coach Johan Ackermann and captain Warren Whiteley led the team to a fine, encouraging campaign out of the ashes of their shambolic exclusion.

    With their sponsorship problems, it almost seems fitting that what started the season as a no-name team were also a no-name brand.

    While a 6th South African side in Super Rugby is guaranteed from 2016 onwards so that everyone can have their cake and eat it, one question remains: out of the Kings and the Lions, who benefitted more from the Lions relegation?

    4. Dean Greyling’s commitment to conceding penalties knows no bounds.

    Dean Greyling’s final test in Dunedin 2012 brought a performance that surely had the worst negative result to minute ratio in Springbok history and it will secure his spot in the Springbok Hall of Infamy. His commitment to conceding penalties lives on.

    Against the Stormers at Newlands, his scrumming angle pulled off conceding 4 scrum penalties in the first half alone. That’s a seriously eyebrow-raising return on its own. Nevertheless, the Bulls persisted with keeping him on the field to start the second half.

    Then when the Bulls finally won a penalty off a scrum, his choice of celebration was to seek out opposition hooker Deon Fourie and slap him on the head. Penalty reversed. Dean Greyling, your commitment to conceding penalties is almost as impressive as it is comical.

    After 48 minutes, he was replaced by Morne Mellett. It’s time that substitution became more permanent.

    5. Victor Matfield is an old dog that needs to learn new referee tricks.

    Well, isn’t Victor getting snippy with referees these days?

    John Smit’s autobiography describes his old Springbok captaincy routine with Matfield’s vice-captaincy. Matfield would be the bad cop with complaints to the referee and Smit would be the good cop, intervening in the discussion and taking Victor away. It was a way of making a point to the referee but still showing respectful captaincy.

    Judging by Matfield’s way of complaining to Craig Joubert, it’s clear that the Springbok legend never honed the good cop act. He may have played 250 tests and Super Rugby games combined, but experience won’t make him less annoying to referee.

    Victor, respect your youngers.


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