The tipping nightmare continued for Super Rugby supporters as two major upsets were recorded in Round 9. They came in the form of the Stormers’ victory over the Rebels in Melbourne and the Jaguares recording an equally unexpected away win in Durban.
Elsewhere there were wins for the Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies and Bulls.
Read on for some of the big talking points from Round 9.
Rebels’ flat attack falls flat on unhappy night for Quade
Melbourne Rebels’ struggles against non-Australian conference opposition continued on Friday night as they turned in their worst performance of the season to date.
Worryingly, it provided a blueprint for the rest of the competition in not only how to shut down their attack but also frustrate the hell out of five-eighth Quade Cooper.
On several occasions during the Rebels’ 41-24 loss to the Stormers, a clearly irritated Cooper vented his emotions after teammates had failed to grasp his 50/50 pass or hold onto a cross-kick – as was the situation when rookie winger Semisi Tupou blew a certain five-pointer.
The Rebels were off, and the Stormers knew it.
The South Africans came with a similar game plan to what the All Blacks have used against the Wallabies in recent times, one that is based around being particularly selective as to what breakdowns you attack.
Robbie Fleck’s side were happy to let four, five and even six breakdowns pass without sending a player in to attempt a turnover; all the while knowing that their defensive line was intact and that the Rebels’ flat attacking framework could be well contained.
With little to no space to work in, the Rebels had a hard time creating opportunities and the longer their phase sequences went on, the more unlikely they looked in breaking through.
And the visitors were certainly aided by their early five-pointer which meant the Rebels were always chasing the game to a degree; the further the hosts fell behind, the more they tried to force their attack and the Stormers merely waited for the mistakes to come.
While the Rebels are a perfect four from four against Australian conference opposition, they have been beaten by the Lions, Sharks and Stormers, and only narrowly avoided a defeat from the Highlanders when Shannon Frizell knocked on over the line.
With three more games against New Zealand opposition and a visit from the Bulls to come, they clearly need to rethink their strategy for inter-conference matches. Whether that is attempting to play more without the ball is a matter for Dave Wessels to work out over the coming weeks.
His more immediate challenge, though, is working out how to beat the Waratahs at the SCG. NSW are two from two at the much-debated venue this season, and who knows what frame of mind the hosts will be in given the Israel Folau dramas of the last week.
For Quade Cooper, Friday night’s defeat may have just dented his Wallabies hopes ever so slightly, too, serving as a reminder that the enigmatic fly-half isn’t quite the same player in heavy defensive traffic. After a glowing start to life in Melbourne, how Cooper responds to this bit of adversity will be vital to the Rebels’ fortunes in the back half of the season; so too the chances of the 29-year-old lacing up the boots in Japan.
The Rebels remain well placed to top the Australian conference, but any potential postseason run will be short and not so sweet if they fail to adapt to foreign opposition.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Crusaders at home look simply unbeatable
A week after they piled on the 36 second-half points against the Brumbies, the Crusaders issued another brutal reminder of their ruthless attacking ability in repeating the dose for the Highlanders on Friday night.
Trailing 10-7 at the break in Christchurch, the two-time defending champions ran in four tries, and a further penalty-try, in the second half to blitz their southern rivals 43-17 and extend their lead at the top of the New Zealand conference to 11 points.
At the halfway mark of the season, the Crusaders’ points differential is an incredible 121 points and 78 more than any other team in the competition.
The Crusaders simply have another attacking level they can go to and, when they get on a real roll, few teams have the ability to go with them.
Having worked their way through a tricky period following the Christchurch terror attack, the debate around the club’s name included, the Crusaders have completely refocused on completing a hat-trick of titles.
Coach Scott Robertson admitted the ongoing discussion around the Crusaders name and brand had rattled many of his players, probably more-so than he ever could have imagined. But the coach can only manage what his players do on the field, and Robertson has again proven his skill in narrowing the focus to that which is contained within the white lines.
What will also drive the Crusaders through the back half of the season will be a desire to send veterans Kieran Read, Owen Franks, Jordan Taufua and Ryan Crotty off with another Super Rugby title.
They were unable to do that when club greats Dan Carter and Richie McCaw exited the franchise four years ago, so the motivation to ensure there isn’t a repeat of that failure must be huge.
Robertson still has a variety of All Blacks rest weeks to negotiate through the second half of the season, but such is the amazing depth at his disposal it shouldn’t present too much of a problem.
Unfortunately for the Highlanders, a fifth straight defeat has likely ended their 2019 campaign. Aaron Mauger doesn’t have the same amount of depth at his disposal as Robertson, and injuries to All Blacks Liam Squire, Aaron Smith and Waisake Naholo have severely tested the Highlanders’ playing stocks.
As for how you can get near the Crusaders, particularly at home, where they haven’t been beaten in 24 matches, is the key question that must have all other Super Rugby coaches scratching their heads.
So far this season they have knocked off the Chiefs, Hurricanes, Brumbies and now the Highlanders by an average margin of 25.75 points. If they finish top of the overall ladder, which they already lead by 11 points, the playoffs appear completely academical.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Conference remains as clear as mud
Is this the week when South Africa’s teams reveal their true selves, we wondered in previewing Super Rugby round nine. We thought we had finally got a handle on them. Bring on Monday, we concluded.
The Lions performed pretty much as we thought they might, albeit with coach Swys de Bruin’s post much quote in Canberra — “for the first 10 we were right in it, but two soft slips on defence and 14 points later …” – summing up the performance so eloquently that we need no more words to describe the effort in losing 31-20 to the Brumbies; and, yes, they were flattered by the 11-point margin.
And the Bulls – with Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel back from their Springboks-related rest, and with man of the match R.G. Snyman and Marco van Staden each fearsome in making their first appearance of the season after injury -showed in scoring five tries and just one penalty in their 32-17 victory over the Reds at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria that they do for certain have more than their fly-half’s goal kicking in their arsenal.
But it’s fair to say that we did not consider that Monday coming round would see us reflecting that the Stormers would have defeated the Rebels by 17 points in Melbourne or that the Sharks would lose 51-17 at Jonsson Kings Park. Did anyone? And in considering the latter two performances, we’re still unable to decide which result was the bigger shock.
The Stormers, let’s remember, had scored just 122 points in eight games before Saturday, having crossed the stripe for only 11 tries. So just how did they post 41 points and five tries in 80 minutes in Melbourne, where they were without their undoubted three best and most influential players in Pieter Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi?
“We’ve been threatening the entire tour to put in an 80 minute performance, which is what was required tonight,” Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said, reiterating his pre-game position that had drawn more than a little mirth in South Africa. “Today things went our way and the passes stuck, but it was an outstanding defensive performance. We knew what the Rebels were capable of on attack, and we put them under pressure in our defence and our work rate.”
The Stormers now have a 4-4 win loss record having completed their tour of Australia and New Zealand, and they’re in the playoff spots, as are all the South African conference sides bar the Lions, unlikely as that sounds. Given the consistent inconsistency of those same sides this season, however, we’re left to wonder if the Stormers are only as good as their next game, against the Brumbies at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday.
Consistency: It’s a word that brings us back to the Sharks.
One week ago, they had assumed top spot on the South African ladder with a sensational effort to thump the Lions in Johannesburg. So good was the performance, however, that the Sharks simply had to back it up. Seven days later, they produced a game against the Jaguares that was so inept and lacking in both aptitude and attitude that it was every bit as bad as their previous effort in Jozi had been good; in reality, the Sharks did not appear ever to be in the game mentally, and that’s the real worry.
Is there a chance the Sharks underestimated the Jaguares?
It’s worth noting that key forwards Tendai Mtawarira, Coenie Oosthuizen and Jacques Vermeulen were all rested with Springboks Rugby World Cup workloads in mind. Is it as simple as recognising the importance of that trio to the Sharks?
Sharks coach Robert du Preez described the defeat, simply, as “a terrible day for us”.
He wasn’t wrong.
“We just couldn’t get going. Right from the word go, there was no energy. It’s very hard to explain after such a good performance last week. We were very poor today.”
The Sharks still appeal as being perhaps the best balanced team in South Africa, but that’s not a statement that can possibly be made about any team that produces such fluctuations in form.