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Super Rugby's walking dead steal the show

They may be rugby’s walking dead, but they are providing quite a sub plot to this year's Super Rugby story.

The headline acts might be the Hurricanes, Crusaders, Lions, Stormers and the like, but having been pencilled in to leave the show at the end of the current series, the Kings, Force and Rebels are suddenly making it clear they’re not content to be extras in the crowd scenes.

OK, so what we saw in games involving those teams at the weekend wasn’t exactly Academy Award winning stuff, but whatever it takes right?

The biggest scene steals came in Sydney and Durban.

There is something very wrong with the Waratahs right now, and it is easy to suspect they just bowled up thinking the Kings were there for the taking.

It didn’t happen of course, the Kings refused to roll over, even when they were 17-nil down. They built pressure, and the Waratahs crumbled, a humiliating defeat sealed when Michael Hooper, who’d been one of the few Waratahs to earn his pay packet, let his frustration get the better of him, incurring a mindless penalty try.

The Rebels didn’t quite match that feat in Durban, but in a way their draw with the Sharks was equally significant, given that the Sharks are very much in the title race.

Obviously the red cards were a factor. The Sharks looked capable of winning with 14, but the end to the game was an object lesson in how not to close out a tight one. They’ll be kicking themselves over that result, although with the Jaguares slipping to another defeat, the two points for the tie was not the worst possible outcome.

The Force also made the Chiefs work very hard for the win in Perth, a city where New Zealand teams have sometimes come unstuck on the way to or from South Africa.

Matt Hodgson was again admirable the way he fronted for the Force, but the spoiling tactics of the locals and a high error rate for the Chiefs didn’t make for a great game. To hear Greg Martin almost gleefully pointing out that the Chiefs would not get a bonus point says a bit about current expectations.

The quality at the top end continues to be very good, and so I’m reluctant to focus on a negative but…..

It wasn’t a great weekend for the refs.

Simple mistakes, misjudgements, a detail or an incident missed here or there, perhaps one team getting away with something the other team didn’t, or vice versa…..are things that happen because human error is a part of life.

But when the heat is on, and it is certainly getting warmer in the Super Rugby kitchen, suddenly those things take on a more sinister connotation.

While some will shrug the shoulders and talk of swings and roundabouts, others will shout at the TV, throw the remote, and some will head for the keyboard and vent their fury on social media. It becomes a conspiracy, a DNA-inherent bias, playing to the home crowd, cheating…all that sort of thing, and it can get pretty nasty.

A lot of the criticism is out of proportion, and constant moaning about the refs can get a bit boring. And we’re all guilty of it from time to time.

But it’s not unfair to say this weekend there were a few too many mistakes.

Whether they affected the outcomes is debatable. I’m, sure most of us would agree that in most, if not all cases, the better team won, or in the case of the Sharks, Rebels debacle, that neither team was good enough to win.

Two of the Crusaders' first-half tries against the Stormers should not have counted. One came from what was surely a forward pass thrown by Jack Goodhue, another after Seta Tamanivalu had grazed the touchline with his boot while offloading in the leadup.

The Brumbies media are adamant the Hurricanes should have been penalised in the leadup to one try, and one of the Brumbies tries, a truly spectacular effort, might have also featured one that was “flat at best”. The Sunwolves were too well beaten, and too dignified to raise any objection to what we in the commentary box felt was a forward pass in the lead up to Aaron Smith scoring.

In Perth the Chiefs had to work extra hard against the Force to overcome the tactics of the home team, and a few calls that were definitely from the rough end of the pineapple…...although, having said that, they would have found the win even harder to come by had there been an immediate detection of a piece of footwork by replacement scrum half Finlay Christie that was more dumb than dangerous, but has resulted in a three-match ban.

There was nothing too sinister, it was all just a bit sloppy and as we get into the heart of the programme, it could do with a tidy up.

As I say, I think the Crusaders would have been too good for the Stormers anyway, especially given the ease with which they were able to expose the Stormers defence in the first half.

In recent years some teams have tended to compress their backline defensive setup, focusing their “d” on the inside and midfield channels in a way that almost dares the attacking team to throw a high risk, low percentage pass out wide where there is space.

The Hurricanes and Crusaders in particular have countered this simply by getting better at their wide passing. The ‘Canes countered the Waratahs defence in this manner a few weeks ago, and the Crusaders had great success against the Stormers, particularly on the left edge.

Then when the Stormers were threatening to get back into the game, the Crusaders went to their dependable forward pack, and cashed in on mistakes that came from a Stormers team that, while much more adept in their attack this year, are still not entirely comfortable chasing a game.

They’ll need to bounce back from that, and they’ll get their chance to do that against a Highlanders team that is playing with its usual character, and is winning, but without setting the place on fire.

We are over the halfway point now, with all but two of the teams having played eight of their 15 round robin matches.

It would be wrong to draw a line through too many, but the playoff race is starting to take a definite shape.

The Australasian playoff picture right now consists of the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders from New Zealand, and the Brumbies as Australian conference leaders. On current form the only team likely to threaten that five are the Blues, unless the Reds or Waratahs can get a big run going, which seems improbable.

The Lions are bowling along superbly atop their conference and the combined South African group, and despite having more games in New Zealand to come, the Stormers are unlikely to be headed by the Bulls in group one.

This week's Sharks Jaguares game is likely to have a big influence in the wildcard race, with the Bulls still only just in the frame despite their win over the Cheetahs.

It’s the start of a run of games at home for the Jaguares, and a win this week would get them right back in the picture. It will be a tight game, no doubt.

Any team not mentioned in the previous five paragraphs, you can pretty much rule out, but that’s not to say they‘re not going to have a supporting act role to play in the coming weeks.

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