1) South African derbies are becoming really rough to sell. 2) Crusaders are back. All is normal again. 3) The New Zealand Conference just got really interesting... 4)...and that plays into the Sharks hands. 5) Naka Drotske's coaching box antics are reaching great proportions.
1. South African derbies are becoming really rough to sell.
In a full weekend of Super Rugby, only the masochistic would say that the 2 South African derbies that ended Round 10 were a case of saving the best for last.
While the Sharks will give you all the ‘a win is a win’ and ‘we did what we needed to do’ rhetoric around their grinding out of the Cheetahs (which is all true to an extent), the match certainly didn’t display the finest option-taking. While they succeeded in extending their lead at the top of the table, they didn’t do much to get the kids in the crowd excited apart from occasionally giving them the opportunity to shout ‘Beeeeeeeast!’
Then came the Stormers against the Lions, where the flow of the game had a more formalised method of torture. The Stormers showed a fair whack of intent to the first half, taking their half-time try tally to the nosebleed heights of not one, but two. After sucking the viewer in to take note of them, they then almost impressively brought the option-taking down many a peg to put in a pointless second half, displaying a fierce commitment to keeping their record streak of being unable to score 20 points in a game (now 8 in a row).
As for the Lions, they at least showed more honesty to the public by being completely ineffective throughout.
All of this sets up next week’s mouth-drying prospect of the Cheetahs against the Stormers next weekend. In the battle of the bottom sides, who will bring who down to whose level? If you’re having second thoughts about watching it on Saturday, what do you think New Zealanders feel about waking up at 3am to watch it? Let alone rugby fans up North who get to choose between that and the Heineken Cup semi-final.
2. Crusaders are back. All is normal again.
They had us going there for a while, but the Crusaders are back.
They were pushing their typecast slow start to the limit of what they could get away with, but after their worst 5-game start since 1996, they’ve got back on track with a 2-win tour of the Republic and now a win against the Chiefs in Hamilton, which is surely the biggest statement of intent one can make in Super Rugby these days.
It brings a calming sense of familiarity to proceedings. An out of contention Crusaders team throws rugby fans off kilter. It's soothing to have them back. It coupled well with the Force ending their 5-game winning streak in bringing normality back to the tournament. If the Force had beaten the Rebels in the Star Wars derby, they would’ve been top of the Australian Conference and second overall. That’s just crazy talk.
3. The New Zealand Conference just got really interesting...
While it wasn’t in the South African Conference’s league of one-sidedness, the New Zealand Conference log was threatening to turn slightly one-horse racy as the Chiefs sat pretty.
3 rounds ago, the Chiefs had an 8-point lead over the Crusaders (with the knowledge that they were still going to play them at home in Hamilton of course). Now it’s been cut to 3 points, an all too familiar strike position that the Crusaders tend to get themselves into.
While those 2 usual suspects sit as the top 2 in the conference, the next 2 aren’t far behind at all. The Hurricanes have put on a good run after their own rough start and now they sit 4 points behind the Chiefs and with a propensity for bonus points that must be watched. The Highlanders are 6 points off the top. Yes, they are the only New Zealand team left that has to tour South Africa, but at least they’re up there.
6 points separate the top 4 in the New Zealand Conference. Compare that to the South African one, where the top 4 are separated by 21 points.
4...and that plays into the Sharks hands.
Another round of Super Rugby, another week of the Sharks sitting pretty at the top. They’ve even extended their lead to be guaranteed no matter what happens next round as well.
They still have to tour, and that will probably bring them down a peg, but only in relation to the top of the log, not the top of the conference. While the other conferences have real scraps on their hands when it comes to who’s on top, the Sharks can look on while New Zealand and Australian teams hopefully keep taking points off each other so that they can entrench their home semi-final spot.
While no South African derby is a given result wise, the Sharks have only 3 derbies left and they’re against the 2 bottom sides in the tournament (2 against the Stormers, 1 against the Cheetahs). While the final rounds before the playoffs will be filled with derbies with teams trying to spoil each others’ chances everywhere, you’d definitely choose the Sharks run-in over anyone else’s.
It’s the Brumbies against the Chiefs this weekend, so if the Sharks can pull off an expected home win against the Highlanders, they’ll extend the gap between them and third even further. Should prove to be yet another week of making the harps play even louder around the Sharks season.
5. Naka Drotske’s coaching box antics are reaching great proportions.
The frequent cuts to the coaching box camera is a fairly modern rugby phenomenon, and Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske is starting to give the air time plenty of material.
From referee’s decisions to a player’s mistakes, Drotske was full value in expressing himself. He’s come a long way from the days of calm onlooking. Now there’s far more theatre to add to his on screen presence that couples nicely with his unshaven, half-dazed pre-match interview look that gives the slight suspicion that he might’ve spent the night sleeping in his car.
South African franchise coaching boxes seem to be gathering their own shirt with top bottom undone identity. Drotske provides the theatrics with Os du Randt sitting calmly behind as if he is the on duty bouncer of the group, Frans Ludeke’s Bulls box gives an exam hall appearance of studious note-taking and the Stormers box shows Allister Coetzee giving affectionate touches to his under pressure colleagues every week in a room that’s far too small for Matthew Proudfoot.
All of which have a long way to go with Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, of course. But hey, that’s why he gets paid the big bucks.
SuperSport, want a way to increase viewership? Provide audio from the coaching box. You’re welcome.
1) 'Being able to draw pretty' is the new 'being able to win ugly'. 2) South African results on tour are the worst they have been for years. 3) Gert Smal's mere presence on its own is not enough to galvanise the Stormers. 4) Handre Pollard has had his moment of announcing himself in professional rugby. 5) The revolution against the half-time interview is up and running.
1. ‘Being able to draw pretty’ is the new ‘being able to win ugly’.
It’s always been said (in rugby as well as other sports) that teams prove their champion credentials by showing their ability to win ugly. Well, the Chiefs have now given a new twist to this as the back-to-back champions have proved their credentials with back-to-back comeback draws.
With 4-try bonus points achieved in each drawn game, it means the Chiefs go back to New Zealand with a tour haul of 6 log points. Top teams are generally satisfied with taking 6 points from their stint in the Republic, and this surely makes it the most successful tour ever that didn’t include a win.
As for the game in Bloemfontein itself, it wasn’t just the fact that they caught up with a 24-point half-time deficit that impressed. It was the calmness around the whole comeback that stood out. No player rushed or forced the issue, which might have opened up chances for soft tries to the opposition. By the last 20 minutes, when the deficit went from 15 points to 8 points, it felt as though the Cheetahs were the ones with a mountain to climb, not the Chiefs.
They managed to end it thrillingly with their try on the hooter to cap off an enthralling game. The Cheetahs were full value for their half-time lead, and the Chiefs oozed class in rescuing themselves in their own enterprising way.
Screw the ground out, hard-fought arm-wrestle wins as season definers. Give me the draw with the great comeback narrative and the running rugby any day.
2. South African results on tour are the worst that they have been for years.
The 2014 drought of wins by away teams who had crossed the Indian Ocean had become a cute anomaly. Now that the Crusaders and Waratahs have ended it with a quick flood of wins on tour, we are left waiting for a South African team to follow suit as the cute anomaly starts turning into a cold reality.
After the Cheetahs and Stormers returned home having lost all 4 of their tour games, the Bulls loss against the Hurricanes marks the 9th loss in a row by South African teams on tour in 2014. That makes it the worst collective South African streak in a single Super Rugby season since 2005. That year, the South African sides ended up losing 12 games on tour in a row, a streak that can only be avoided this year if the Bulls pull off a win on tour.
If they don’t, it seems a big ask for a young Lions team to get much from their tour. Which means it might be all up to the Sharks to be the sole ones flying the flag high when it comes to overseas games. Hell, if certain trends continue, it might be all up to the Sharks to be the sole ones flying the flag high on the Super Rugby log itself.
3. Gert Smal’s mere presence isn’t enough on its own to galvanise the Stormers.
No-one should have ever realistically expected an overnight quick fix by Gert Smal, but one might’ve thought that his hiring and presence could’ve brought out at least an extra gear by the players performing at home in front of their new boss. Alas, it was not to be.
We already knew that the ugly Stormers game wouldn’t provide a tournament-winning challenge let alone get much out of a tour from hell. Now all the problems get magnified when it doesn’t provide a home win, especially when your opponents ended the match so utterly in control.
A lovely try that came from a good Peter Grant pass and a Juan de Jongh break aside, it was an insipid Stormers performance. The Waratahs were patient against an organised defence, which meant they had more than enough ball to control the game, and control it they did.
It’s likely that the future of the coaching staff won’t be seriously under threat before the end of the tournament (because this isn’t football). If Smal is going to share some tactical nous for his coaches to build on, he better do it soon. The good news is the Stormers have a bye this weekend. The bad news is that it means more teams will pull away from them as they sit at the bottom of the log.
4. Handre Pollard has had his moment of announcing himself in professional rugby.
He became one of the most hyped players that didn’t have a Super Rugby cap in the last 2 years. That’s what leading the way from flyhalf in a World Cup winning Baby Bok team will do. While he’s yet to establish himself at this level, Handre Pollard has given us an exciting glimpse of what his much anticipated professional career can bring.
An away loss to the Hurricanes wasn’t unpredictable for the Bulls, especially when Victor Matfield isn’t playing. Experience counts for a lot when you’re on tour, and it was always going to be rough without it. They’ll be disappointed for a few things now, but hopefully everyone will look back on this game as the one that marked Pollard’s entry into Super Rugby.
A flyhalf try that involves a dummy and a good step is always a thing of beauty. When it comes about after a failed South African staple diet of a driving line-out maul, it becomes an even more beautiful sight for sore eyes.
The way the Bulls have introduced Pollard into Super Rugby bit by bit off the bench has similarities with the way they introduced his Baby Bok midfield partner Jan Serfontein. With Jacques-Louis Potgieter going off injured, Pollard will probably be presented with the challenge of the starting 10 jersey against the Highlanders.
This tour might well end up being rough for the Bulls, but it could provide more than enough to get excited about.
5. The revolution against the half-time interview is up and running.
The Lions have brought a lot of good things into Super Rugby upon their return this year. With some good coaching clearly evident, some little known stars performing and some underdog wins under the belt, they’ve brought many things for people to admire.
However, their most valuable contribution to the tournament (nay, rugby itself) is their most recent refusal to grant a half-time interview.
Warren Brosnihan was left stranded and at a loss with his SuperSport microphone on the sidelines as the Lions all trotted off to the changing rooms at half-time with their minds firmly set on their oranges. A tasteful, classy boycott, sparing us all of the dreaded huffy puffy ‘insights’ that a tight forward whose had his head stuck in a scrum all day has of the game in general, eating up valuable televisual minutes away from Nick Mallett.
Lions, spread the lack of word.