Canes and Crusaders impress as tries dry up
April 20, 2014
Colin Slade has given the Crusaders' backline some stability © Getty Images
Super Rugby Round 10 saw the Hurricanes issuing another subtle remainder than they've still got ambitions around playing deep into July and August, while the roller-coaster Australian conference got even more confusing. The Crusaders proved that they still have plenty to offer, while the South African derbies produced games that I'm not even sure a mother could love.
Here are the talking points from the weekend, as I saw them. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Hurricanes can mount a charge
It was hard not to be impressed with the way the Hurricanes ran away with their New Zealand conference derby with the Blues on Friday night in Wellington. Like the Crusaders the week before, the Hurricanes discovered the major benefit of a bonus-point win over a mid-table counterpart, and after starting the round in 10th spot as one of that big group on 16 points, the five-tries-to-two win saw them soar as high as 5th, before eventually settling just outside the top six in 7th place.
Though it feels like a sudden emergence, the Hurricanes have been building for some time now. They've won three of their last five games since touring South Africa early in the season, and the two losses have only been by eight and four points. The three wins include a complete demolition of the Cheetahs, an impressive, gutsy win over the Crusaders, and now the equally impressive win over the Blues.
And here's a claim - is there a better backline running around in the New Zealand conference right now? Julian Savea started the season slowly, but has exploded in the past fortnight, lifting back-three colleagues Cory Jane and Andre Taylor, too. Scrumhalf TJ Perenara has been reminding everyone of his immense talents, while fly-half Beauden Barrett could lay a decent claim on being the form player in the NZ conference currently.
Holding them all together, in that glue-like role that he performs so well, is their skipper and champion All Blacks midfielder, Conrad Smith. For so long the stand out in some less-than-brilliant Hurricanes sides, Smith is playing as well as ever, but now has some wonderful in-form talent around him.
So consider this: over the next month, the Hurricanes play the Queensland Reds, the New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney, and the Rebels in Melbourne, plus the Highlanders and Chiefs at home, before playing the rest of the NZ conference over the remaining rounds.
It's far from the worst run home, and the next five games particularly present some real opportunity. There's no reason why the 'Canes couldn't emerge out the other side with four wins from those five games, and if they did that, they'd be right in there for the business end of the season.
Rebels account for Force, but neither move on the competition table
I made mention on Twitter just after full-time on Friday night that it was equal parts weird and ironic that despite the Rebels' 22-16 win, which ended the Western Force's winning streak at five games, neither team moved on the Super Rugby table. At that point in Round 10, the Force remained in 4th place, while the Rebels still couldn't get away from 13th.
Certainly, the late try to the Force was the difference. Had the Rebels maintained their 22-9 lead before Nick Cummins scored after the siren, the Rebels would've jumped the Reds and Blues directly above them.
It just highlights how tight things are for that middle group of teams, where at the close of the round, just a bonus-point win separates the Hurricanes in 7th spot on 21 points, and the Rebels in 13th on 16 points.
It also highlights how ridiculous the Australian derbies have become. Attempt to follow this, if you can.
The season started with the Reds beating the Brumbies, and the Waratahs accounting for the Force fairly comfortably. Since then, the Waratahs thumped the Reds, the Brumbies beat the Force, the Force belted the Rebels, the Brumbies held out the Waratahs, the Tahs thumped the Rebels, the Rebels beat the Brumbies, the Force beat the Reds and then the Waratahs, the Brumbies squared the ledger with the Reds, and now the Rebels have done the same with the Force!
Only nine points separates the five Australian teams at the end of Round 10, and all five have lost at least two derby games thus far; the Reds, Brumbies and Force have actually lost three each.
While it is worth noting the NZ conference is only separated by nine points as well, it's nevertheless amusing that talk of the Australian conference being the weakest has gone a bit quiet this season, isn't it?
That man Slade again, as Chiefs-Crusaders serve up yet another classic
So here's a stat: since Super Rugby went to the conference system in 2011 with home and away derby games within each conference, the Crusaders have won the return game against the Chiefs every year. In that same timeframe, the overall record stands at Chiefs 5, Crusaders 5, and six of the 10 games have been decided by less than seven points. Another two games have been decided by less than nine points.
And so it was again in 2014, with the Crusaders squaring the ledger after the Chiefs triumphed in Round 2. Played in mostly horrible conditions, it was never going to be a four- or five-try thriller, but the gruelling tussle was no less enthralling. High tackles, failed concussion tests, and a shoulder charge that we may not yet have heard the last of, all made for a dramatic evening, which Chiefs fly-half Gareth Anscombe could have decided with a 52m penalty kick well after the final siren.
Crusaders fly-half Colin Slade proved the difference, and there can be no coincidence that the Crusaders' run of three wins on the trot - both games in South Africa, and now back in New Zealand - have come with Slade wearing No. 10. Suddenly there's some stability in a position that had been causing some issues this season, and the backline is functioning better as a result.
The other major difference Slade has brought was what won the game for the Crusaders: goal kicking. Where earlier in the season, the Crusaders were kicking with less than 40 percent success, Slade has now kicked 17/23 (74 percent) in the past three games. Slade's much improved accuracy has lifted the Crusaders' overall success rate sharply, where previously it was only 59 percent.
On Saturday night in the wet, Slade's six penalties were enough to secure the win and consolidate the Crusaders in the top six. They've been building nicely in recent weeks, but this win over the Chiefs will be one that people take notice of.
But to finish, here's something for Chiefs fans to cling to: though the Crusaders have won the second game between the two sides each year, on both occasions the sides have met in a third game, the Chiefs have won through to a Super Rugby Final.
Not the prettiest, but four points nonetheless
While neither the Waratahs nor Sharks played badly over the weekend, I can't imagine either side were doing celebratory cartwheels in the dressing rooms after their matches.
After dominating open play for large sections of the first half, the Waratahs didn't exactly shut up shop, but rather the game changed and became more of a slow dance towards a second-half stalemate. Israel Folau's try within 30 seconds proved the difference for the next 79 minutes.
Israel Folau's first-minute try proved crucial against the Bulls © Getty Images
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika admitted post-match that his team let the game get away from them, while also lamenting their ability to capitalise on chances given.
"The key statistic in rugby is the conversion rate. And not just in tries; converting the opportunities we've made to go further down the field, keep the ball, put pressure on the opposition," Cheika said.
I'll openly admit that I gave up watching the Sharks-Cheetahs live at half-time, having literally fallen asleep during the first-half. When I eventually did watch the second half in daylight hours, my early declaration remained well and truly justified. And to think I'd labelled the Stormers-Lions game the likely "snorefest".
Sharks coach Jake White summarised the Sharks performance perfectly at half-time, suggesting "There's no rhythm, it looks like we're playing in different units; sometimes we win the ball and we're disconnected with our backs, and when we've got the ball in the backs we're disconnected with the forwards."
It was a situation that only marginally improved in the second 40, but it remained a game that never really got out of second gear.
So the point in all this is that both the Waratahs and Sharks did what they had to do to get the four competition points. Both teams were lacklustre in attack for long periods of time - and that will happen with injuries to key attacking players - yet they got the job done.
And that is often the mark of the top sides, having that ability to find a win with an imperfect performance.
Where did all the tries go?
Up until the start of Round 10, there had been well over 250 tries scored across the 55 games, at an average of 4.8 tries per game. Yet in the six games throughout Round 10, only 15 tries were scored in total, and seven of them came in the Hurricanes-Blues game on Friday night.
The remaining five games managed only eight tries all up, with the Crusaders, Bulls, and Lions not crossing the stripe at all. The Lions have only managed one try on their past three outings now.
Part of the reasoning will be some slippery conditions in a few games, but not all of them. So is it just an anomaly or have defences finally caught up with attack in 2014?
It's going to make finding a suitable candidate try for The Whiteboard later this week interesting, too.
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Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.