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Bridging the gulf





There’s a lot of talk about a gulf between New Zealand and the rest in Super Rugby.

Right now there’s some validity to it.

A total of 31 games have been played between New Zealand sides and the rest, of which only the Stormers have managed a win, and a good one at that, over the previously unbeaten Chiefs.

Of the other 30, only seven have been decided by a margin of seven points or less, 16 have been won by 19 points or more, and nine have seen the New Zealand team post 50 points or more.

There are still opportunities left…eight games remain between New Zealand and Australian teams, five between New Zealand and South African teams, and the Blues have a game in Tokyo as well, so it’s early to start closing the case file.

And besides, the number of all New Zealand matches to come means there will be some compression on the table, and with the format the way it is, three New Zealand sides…and I think we can say this with reasonable certainty, three New Zealand sides will have to travel offshore for playoff games with a travel/home ground/one-off factor to them.

But right now the results and the margins tell a story.

There were some remarkable factors in the games at the weekend, and they might reveal some of the reasons why things are the way they are.

The Highlanders produced a quite astonishing comeback against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, a game they probably had no right to win, especially given their uncharacteristically sloppy defence.

So how did they?

Once upon a time the altitude would have been enough to finish a visiting New Zealand team off in such a game, but not any more. Fitness, and bench depth have taken that factor out of the game.

The rest of it came down to belief and trust, and the ability to perform with accuracy under extreme duress.

The winning try was the ultimate reflection of that, although if Fred Zeilinga had shown just a touch more commitment to gathering in Marty Banks first chip ahead it might have been game over.

Instead, the Highlanders regained the ball, Banks repeated out wide to Waisake Naholo and from there on it was just a matter of good control, good decision making, safe passing and patience.

Over 20 passes, involving 13 players, many of who handled two or three times including rookie flanker Dillon Hunt, who had the presence of mind to just shift direction slightly and hold the ball long enough to ensure Naholo would go over.

It was breathtaking in its execution, but also in its simplicity, and if it underlined a difference, it was in the New Zealanders superior conditioning, the faith in their skills, and a desire to put players into space, not into contact.

On Saturday the Crusaders put on a clinic against the Bulls.

I was castigated, quite rudely, by a Bulls fan earlier this year, in response to a season preview in which I stated there would be questions about the Bulls style of play and whether it would be effective, particularly against the New Zealand team.

The argument seemed to be that the Bulls had last year shown more of an inclination to pass the ball around and that I was lazily reading off an old script.

Well, against the Crusaders they passed the ball around all right. They passed it more times than the Crusaders did, in fact.

And yes, they scored three tries, you’ll get that in a high scoring game when then opposition scores ten.

But most of the time they passed it across the field, with no real attempt to manipulate the defence, find a bit of space, create a mismatch with a back on a forward, get on an outside shoulder, it was always a one on one situation. Occasionally, as in the example of Jan Serfontein, there was a breakthrough….but never enough to threaten the result.

Sorry to be so blunt, and I realise the Bulls still have the Highlanders to play and a chance to throw some egg at my face, but the Bulls look stuck in a time warp with a predictable offence and a robotic defense that was mercilessly unpicked by the Crusaders, who adjusted their attacking game with a succession of well placed kicks.

The Crusaders were good enough to win emphatically despite having two elite All Blacks forwards sidelined. They are a very good side, coached by a man who has risen through the Crusaders/New Zealand age group system, and has brought fresh ideas and enthusiasm to a franchise that had gone a little stale.

Definitely a gulf there.

A dilemma too, for the Bulls. If they try and go back to their traditional strengths that’s unlikely to work because their set piece is not longer a weapon, and frankly the game has moved on.

The Stormers might be a different matter.

Yes, they copped a bit of a hiding in two games in New Zealand (not to mention a couple of rough refereeing calls), but they were good value for their win over the Chiefs and were right in the game in Wellington until Beauden Barrett reached into his bag of tricks.

Again, there’s a bit of a difference in thinking, with Barrett having the confidence and the skill to execute a perfect cross field kick from within his 22 with the game still very much on the line.

Interesting enough, in a midweek interview Cory Jane emphatically denied it was a “low percentage” or “high-risk” play. The space was there, the kick was on, and so they did it. They were thinking about process, not outcome.

There were two wins for New Zealand teams against Australian opposition.

The Chiefs just had too much firepower and class for a rather shambolic Reds side, a team under a relatively new coach who appears at times to be struggling.

The Blues completed a worthy fortnight in Oz with a win over the Waratahs that was more comfortable than the score suggested. They probably created the fewest opportunities of the New Zealand side, but with a mix of skill, power and pace, punished the ‘Tahs from turnover ball. Their problem is they can’t beat any other New Zealand sides.

The Lions have already demonstrated forward, progressive thinking and the Stormers appeal as a team that can do the same, with Robbie Fleck and Paul Feeney in the think tank.

They have already demonstrated a modifying of their game plan this year, and if they are prepared to learn from their experience in New Zealand they have the talent and the coaching staff to take their game further.

And the Sharks are having a good season as well. Their two defeats were narrow and the draw with the Rebels an aberration. They’re playing to their strengths, and there’s some structure about their game. The try scored by Jeremy Ward against the Force was nicely set up, with a couple of big forwards stationed one-off to fake a drive, and good width to their attacking line that stretched the defence for Ward to break through. The only thing is we won’t really know how good they are until playoff time.

And that is what is so darned frustrating about this competition right now. It is so counter-productive, so contrary to the original mission of Super Rugby to have a whole group of teams from two countries not playing against each other.

It was only eight or nine years ago that New Zealand had to rethink its game, partly because of their collapse at the 2007 World Cup, but just as much because of their defeats to the Springboks in test rugby and the pre-eminence of the Bulls in Super Rugby.

There are factors in South Africa that New Zealand did not have to deal with for sure, but lessons were learned and the game has not looked back.

South Africa has an even steeper hill to climb, but with Saru prepared to rationalise its Super Rugby presence, a move towards better structures and greater synchronicity with the national team, things can improve.

However, coaching is a big issue.

You have one team that has been outstandingly coached, and two or three others that are on the right track, but there needs to be a greater emphasis on the development of coaches and co-ordinated coaching structures.

The biggest differences at the weekend, the gulf if you must, were in skills, techniques, fitness levels and mindsets that have been drilled into the New Zealand players through outstanding coaching.

Footnote : Thanks to those of you who have bought my book Behind the Silver Fern-The Players Speak. Pleased to say it has been shortlisted for Cross Sports Book of the Year in the UK, so thanks for the support.


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