Reds set to lead play-off charge
Keiran Smith
May 23, 2011
The Reds' Quade Cooper passes the ball, Waratahs v Reds, Super Rugby, ANZ Stadium, Sydney, Australia, February 26, 2011
Quade Cooper and the Reds look destined for the Super Rugby play-offs © Getty Images

It's been an eventful Super Rugby campaign from an Australian perspective. Two provinces are flying high, while another three languish in the ladder's bottom four rungs.

The weak showing by the Rebels, Brumbies and Force has even led to former Stormers skipper Luke Watson claiming Australian teams have received a leg up through the new conference format as the Reds and Waratahs get to play the other 'weak' local provinces twice. While Watson is no stranger to controversy, the comment seems wide of the mark considering the Lions are the worst team in the competition, and until just recently the Cheetahs had lost eight of nine. It's a safe call the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers all enjoyed the 'free' points on offer from their South African cousins just as much as the Waratahs and Reds did from their local rivals.

Perhaps if Watson was speaking from a NZ perspective the argument would be more credible, but regardless of which division is the strongest, it is the Queensland Reds that are the dominant force in this year's competition. Their dismantling of the Blues was a warning shot of intent and they will be hoping for a similar result when Dan Carter the Crusaders visit this week to consolidate their grip on top spot. With only the Brumbies, Force and Chiefs to play in the final three rounds, it's difficult to see how the Reds will not finish in the top two and secure a home semi-final.

The strength of the Reds is their consistency to play an expansive, attacking and most of all an entertaining brand of rugby. Rarely does a top of the table encounter live up to its billing, but the match against their Auckland rivals two weeks ago had everything good about southern hemisphere rugby. It was the running game at its electric best and the architect, Quade Cooper, again underlined his importance to club and country.

His re-signing last week for another 12 months has removed a potentially distracting saga for the Australian Rugby Union in the lead up to the World Cup and allows the player to concentrate on what he does best. Cooper is unlike many other professional athletes in his preference for signing short term deals. It is characteristic of his self-belief that his value will continue to increase with each season and given his rise to prominence in just five years since schoolboy rugby you would not bet against him cashing in again next year.

"The Brumbies used to be a fortress both on and off the field, but the citadel's foundations look anything but steadfast anymore."

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the disappointment of the latest campaign is undoubtedly the Brumbies. Since sacking coach Andy Friend after Round 2, they have won only once in nine games and sank to the lowest point in their history in the heavy defeat to the Lions two weeks ago. In the aftermath caretaker coach Tony Rea launched a blistering attack on his own players accusing them of lacking fight and spirit.

It was a desperate ploy to spark a response from the lifeless Brumbies, the only Australian province to win a Super Rugby title. Rea's outburst that the Brumbies are "an organisation that makes too many soft decisions" also gave a glimpse into the turmoil within the inner sanctum. The Brumbies used to be a fortress both on and off the field, but the citadel's foundations look anything but steadfast anymore.

To their credit the players did respond to Rea's barrage and held the Force to a draw in Perth over the weekend, but even then were lucky to escape without a loss. The only man that may not be disappointed with the 2011 Brumbies is incoming coach Jake White, as the expectations of his stewardship will hardly be that high for next season, despite his well-credentialed CV.

While trying to rebuild the team's morale, White will no doubt want to quickly stamp his authority on a province that has had two coach-toppling coups in the past seven years. However, he may need to do it without Rocky Elsom, who is currently weighing up his playing future, with many tipping the Wallabies captain may return to the Waratahs for the 2012 season.

It's unlikely though we'll see the Brumbies' hierarchy front the fans for an honesty session like the Waratahs hosted recently. Despite the negative tone of the evening the initiative is to be commended and the Tahs largely answered the fan's call by scoring five first-half tries against the Lions on Saturday night.

The issue for NSW, like all Sydney-based teams of any code is that they must entertain as well as win and the Waratahs have fallen short of those dual aims for a few years now. Coach Chris Hickey can rightly point to the ongoing concussion issues of playmaker Berrick Barnes for the lack of fluency in their attack and he will be hoping the latest head knock for his pivot does not prevent him taking part in the season-defining African leg of their campaign.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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