The Drawing Board- Super Rugby Season Review (13/7/11)
Welcome to the Drawing Board, Who’s Playing Who?’s one stop rugby shop. A special edition this week, I will bring you my review of this season’s Super Rugby season, with a look at how each team performed. Firstly though, congratulations to the Reds team who took out the Super Rugby title, becoming only the second Australian team (and the 5th team overall) to win a Super Rugby final in the professional era. Credit must also be given to the Crusaders, who played their part in what turned out to be an epic final, the best in a couple of years. Here is some news.
- Only one new cap in the All Blacks 34 man squad with Jarrad Hoeata being the only man without experience.
- The Springboks have named an inexperienced side to tour Australia and New Zealand due to their top 21 players all being out ‘Injured’.
- The Wallabies have named a Reds heavy squad, with Radike Samo landing a comeback after six long years out of international rugby.
- English rugby has been thrown into turmoil with several high profile resignations just prior to the World Cup.
- Hosea Gear is being courted by the Highlanders, whilst Aaron Cruden might play for the Chiefs next year.
- Bath Rugby has announced the signing of South African flanker Francois Louw on a three-year deal.
Here is the final Super Wrap for the season. This year has flown by quickly, which may or may not be a good thing.
Reds 18 – 13 Crusaders
In what was widely predicted to be an exciting contest between the arguably the two most talented teams in the Super Rugby competition this year, the final lived up to its billing. This was a final that contained enough drama and tension to make a soapy out of. Well maybe not, but it sure was tense and drama-filled. Both sides played a bit below their potential, with both guilty of committing uncharacteristic errors. This can be put down to a combination of the good work of the opposition and finals nerves.
The opening exchanges were played out at a frenetic pace, but it took a fair while before the first points were scored though. Digby Ioane could have given the hosts an early try but he failed to gather a well-placed Cooper chip (which he really should have), while the Crusaders launched two trade-mark counter-attacks in a breathless start. The Crusaders were the first to settle, and were starting to put pressure on the Reds defensive line by retaining possession through multiple phases. Their momentum was halted, however, by two not-straight line-out throws from hooker Corey Flynn (who had an off night). An unusual missed penalty from Dan Carter allowed Quade Cooper to give the Reds a 3 – 0 lead. Carter hit back, however, crafting a brilliant converted try with a grabber which he regained to score under the posts. Cooper kept the Reds in close company at the break by slotting his second three-pointer two minutes prior to the break to make the score 7 – 6 to the Crusaders.
Straight after the break, the Crusaders had a number of opportunities to extend their lead further, with Sean Maitland spilling the ball with a clear line ahead and Brad Thorn getting held up over the line. They had to settle for a Carter penalty. The Reds struck back soon after, with a superb try to Ioane. An up and under from the 22 for Crusaders’ scrum half Andy Ellis gave possession to the dangerous winger. The powerful winger turned on the gas to outpace Sonny Bill Williams on halfway and his left-foot step left fullback Tom Marshall clutching at thin air as he charged over, Cooper kicked the conversion to make it 13-10 in the hosts favour. This didn’t last long, as Carter kicked another penalty to level the scores.
The key moment came when Reds scrumhalf Will Genia (who didn’t have the best of games as his forward pack didn’t give him clean ball) produced some magic win the game. With the scores level and only 12 minutes left on the clock, the Australia scrum-half received the ball 10 meters inside the Reds half following a turnover. He initially appeared to be boxed in by defenders but quick footwork saw him break free into Crusaders’ territory. Genia still had plenty of work to do but a dummy to his outside support as they reached the 22 gave him just enough room and momentum to slide over the line. The Crusaders, the most successful side in the competition’s history, launched a series of desperate late attacks, but it was not enough as their Brisbane-based opponents closed out the victory. Of concern for the Reds was that they had opportunities to make sure of the game, but Cooper could not kick over a penalty or convert the Genia try. This turned out to be irrelevant in the wash up as the Reds claimed a well deserved victory.
Super Season Review
So, we have come to the end of another Super Rugby season, one that was so different in many ways. For a start, there was a new team in the form of the Rebels who hailed from Melbourne. Then there was the fact that there were these strange things called conferences and greater derbies. There was a new finals system that gave six teams an opportunity at glory. We even had a game in the northern hemisphere, due to the nomadic Crusaders looking for a home. The big question though, was bigger better?
The longer duration of the season coupled with higher attrition rate caused by the physical nature of derby rugby has had its toll on all the teams. Player depth came to the fore this season like never before, with some teams being reduced to fielding fifth or sixth choice players in key positions at certain stages. As a spectator, you can feel kind of cheated when you go to the game only to find it’s a couple of second string sides. Then of course there is the issue of player welfare. Under the current format, if its first edition is anything to go by, it is tough to imagine that many players will be able to have Super careers that span 12 or 13 years (like those of warhorses like Stirling Mortlock, Tana Umanga or Victor Matfield). Another aspect to consider is that of spectator value. The 2011 season had four weeks more of league play than did the old Super 14, but all the extra matches were local derbies.
It was not all bad, however. What has worked well this year was the way in which qualifier contenders were decided. The guaranteed spots awarded to the three conference winners provided some much-needed spice to the last couple of weeks of league action, while adding three wildcards in the mix had a lot more teams in with a chance towards the end. Of course the chances of actually winning the competition as a low-ranked wildcard is extremely thin, as it will mean having to win three away Finals Series matches in a territory that stretches more than 10,000 kliometres.
The new format still has the potential to become an utter borefest if all we get to see is the same old derbies in the same old places week after week. And next year will be a better test, because the next Super tournament won’t have a World Cup looming over it. Will players in out-of-the-running teams stay as committed to the cause as they did this year? Will the one-on-one match-ups that coloured so many derbies this year still be as enthralling? These will be answered over time, but for now they are good to ponder over.
Arguably the weakest conference this year, as three of the teams didn’t provide much in the way of competition to the top two. Squad depths become an issue in these teams, as they showed that they could not keep momentum going through the entire year. However, for the top two, the season can be considered a success.
Reds (Conference winners, 1st in the log, Champions)
A great season for the Reds was capped off by a win in an epic final against the Crusaders. They were consistently the best Australian team, and showed true champion qualities throughout the season. Even with the injuries later on in the season, they were impressive and can be pleased with their season. This is the final instalment in a fairytale journey for this side, from last in 2007 and not up to much in 2009, to winning the Super competition this year. Truly a top effort from them this season, let’s hope they can continue into next year.
Waratahs (Second in conference, 5th on the log, semi final playoff)
The Waratahs had a disappointing season for their high standards, with injuries not helping their cause. Losing a lot of key players for long period really hampered their season, but they pulled together well to gain a spot in the top six. They lost to the Blues in the semi-final playoff in a game that they could have won had they played well. A decent effort by them this season, but will be looking for better next year as they look to get more out of their top players.
Force (Third in conference, 12th on the log)
An interesting season for the Force, and one that they will be ultimately disappointed by. A strong late season finish saw them finish higher on the table, showing what they were capable of. They fail to produce though, and showed that they are still lacking a bit of star quality. It will be interesting next season with no James O’Conner, but they should hopefully be able to learn from this campaign. They will want to build on the late season form they showed.
Brumbies (Fourth in conference, 13th on the log)
Probably the most disappointing team in the whole competition with a season marred by player power, poor performance and injuries. They didn’t start the season well, losing to the Rebels and then sacking their coach. This didn’t stand them at all well for the rest of the season, and the results showed. They managed to win four games, but they played well below their potential. They will be expecting better next year, as they could only get better from here.
Rebels (Fifth in conference, 15th on the log)
This was a mixed season for the Rebels, and one that was fairly predictable. They started off really well, performing well at home. After seven rounds they had three victories, including one away from home. This proved to be as good as it got for them, with multiple losses and injuries to key players causing them to lose all confidence gained. Their defence proved to be very weak, consistently being overrun by teams and conceding soft tries. Best start by an expansion franchise, but that is not saying much when you look at who the other franchises were. Frustrating at times.
South African Conference
A bit of a mixed bag from the South African conference this year; with most of the teams being competitive but some not performing when expected. As expected, this was a physically demanding conference and was the closest to getting three teams into the top six. Only playing four games overseas suited them, with the dreaded fifth game on tour being scrapped.
Stormers (Conference winners, 2nd on the log, Semi finalists)
A good effort from the Stormers this year, but the men from the Cape will be disappointed with the final result. After starting the season well, they lost crucial games throughout the year before recovering to end second on the log and earn a direct semi final spot. They surrendered meekly, which they would be disappointed about, considering their season’s efforts. They had an amazing defence this year, but lost their attacking flair that made them so dangerous last year. More is expected from a very talented side.
Sharks (Second in conference, 6th on the log, Semi final playoffs)
The Sharks can be pleased yet disappointed about their season. They had patches where they played really well, but like the Stormers lost crucial games that could have seen them finish higher on the ladder. A good forward pack laid the platform, but they would go at times during games. Selections and injuries played their part, but after the start they got they should have come through with the results. Had the unenviable and near impossible task of travelling to beat the Crusaders where they showed that they were competitive.
Bulls (Third in conference, 7th on the log)
Much was expected of the defending champions this season, with a third consecutive title in their sights. Something didn’t seem right at the start of the season however, and they didn’t get off to the best of starts. This ultimately cost them a shot at defending their title, but they made a great late charge. They were not as ruthless as they have been in previous seasons, but the beast showed that it still had some life in it towards the end. A massive disappointment in the end considering the talent available to them.
Cheetahs (Fourth in conference, 11th on the log)
Surprise packages this year, the Cheetahs were actually quite fun to watch. This team knew how to attack and pushed more fancied teams all the way. The problem was that with this attack came some feeble defence, which probably ended up costing them a higher place on the log. 11th will be a disappointment now, but they would have taken that at the beginning of the year. A talented team, they showed that they had great character and talent. Will be looking for better next year, they have the potential to be everyone’s favourite second team.
Lions (Fifth in conference, 14th on the log)
Another team who probably could have finished higher; the Lions showed improvement from last year. That is not a hard thing though, when you consider that they failed to win last year. The biggest problem with this side was their inability to close out tight games. They could and did get themselves into potentially winning situations before falling away badly. Two wins on the road later on in the season showed that they have promise, but this is a team low on confidence and lacking any meaningful support at home.
New Zealand Conference
This was probably the most competitive of the three conferences. Every team was competitive, but the pecking order was changed quite significantly this year. Managed to get two teams into the semi finals, but again it showed how important home team advantage will be going forward. Will be disappointed that they didn’t get their conference winner inside the all important top two.
Crusaders (Conference winners, 3rd on the log, Runners up)
This was a season beyond belief for the Crusaders. They played really well, and what’s more they had to do it without playing a single game at home in Christchurch. Arguably the most talented side in the competition, they managed to overcome a huge travel factor and a massive injury toll mid season to make the Super Rugby final, falling short at the last hurdle. Their scrum was the best in the competition, whilst their backline could rip teams apart almost at will. A season to remember for the Crusaders; who should be pleased.
Blues (2nd in conference, 4th on the log, Semi finals)
Something tells me that despite making their first playoff match since 2007, the Blues will be disappointed about the season. The reason? They burst out of the blocks and were leading the competition at one stage. Their backs and forwards were working well and they were scoring tries almost at will. Then someone flicked a switch and they suddenly were woefully out of form, dropping games that they should really have won. Easily could have topped the log without a prolonged losing streak. In the end, it cost them a potential final spot.
Highlanders (3rd in conference, 8th on the log)
Another one of the surprise packages of this year’s competition, the Highlanders were up there challenging for a spot deep into the competition. They eventually fell away as the season wore on, but they would be pleased at their finish. Expected to be the worst New Zealand side, they outperformed several conference rivals. Their game plan was build around the forwards, but they missed the direction that Colin Slade would have brought to the backs.
Hurricanes (4th in conference, 9th on the log)
The Hurricanes recovered from a poor start to the season, but they would be really disappointed considering the amount of talent they had in their squad. They really didn’t gel well as a team, and fell off against teams they really should have beaten easily. Got some late season form when some of their injured stars came back, but it was way too late for them. A team in crisis at the moment, with several of their stars looking at their options for next year.
Chiefs (5th in conference, 10th on the log)
Like the Hurricanes, this would be considered a disappointing season for the Chiefs. They were surprisingly disappointing, with their backline failing to fire throughout the year. A couple of good matches would inevitably be followed by a poor performance or two. They did well to recover to 10th, but a look at the talent they had and they would have been disappointed that they were knocked out of semi final contention as early as they were. They have a new coach for next year, maybe he can turn them around.
South African Form XV:
15. Riaan Viljoen (Cheetahs) 14. Gio Aplon (Stormers) 13. Jaque Fourie (Stormers) 12. Jean de Villiers (Stormers) 11. Bjorn Basson (Bulls) 10. Peter Grant (Stormers) 9. Sarel Pretorius (Cheetahs) 8.Duanne Vermeulen (Stormers) 7. Willem Alberts (Sharks) 6. Schalk Burger (Stormers) 5. Andries Bekker (Stormers) 4. Steven Sykes (Sharks) 3. Werner Kruger (Bulls) 2. Adriaan Strauss (Cheetahs) 1. Tendai Mtwarira (Sharks).
Super XV for 2011:
15. Kurtley Beale (Waratahs) 14. Sean Maitland (Crusaders) 13. Robbie Freuan (Crusaders) 12. Sonny Bill Williams (Crusaders) 11. Zac Guildford (Crusaders) 10. Quade Cooper (Reds) 9. Will Genia (Reds) 8. Kieran Read (Crusaders) 7. Adam Thomson (Highlanders) 6. Schalk Burger (Stormers) 5. Andries Bekker (Stormers) 4. Brad Thorn (Crusaders) 3. Owen Franks (Crusaders) 2. Keven Mealamu (Blues) 1. Jamie MacKintosh (Highlanders).