Whoa, mumma! Welcome to Super Rugby finals
July 21, 2014
Scrum5: Brumbies will test the Waratahs
Whoa, mumma! What a cracking start to the 2014 finals series: two absolute, knockdown belters of qualifying finals played with pace, physicality, precision, and passion. I said this after the second game in Durban was done, but it's worth saying again: if the remaining three finals are even half as good as the two this weekend just gone, we'll have been seriously spoiled.
Here are the Super Rugby talking points from the first weekend of the Finals Series. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Australia living the Super Rugby dream
All week leading to the opening matches of the finals series, Australian rugby collectively had one thought in the back of its mind: wouldn't it be great if the Brumbies got through to play New South Wales Waratahs in the semi-finals in Sydney next Saturday.
That scenario, of course, ensures an Australian side will play this year in the Super Rugby final - something that has only happened nine times in the 19 years of the competition. It will be the Waratahs' third appearance in the decider, should they make it that far, while it will be the Brumbies' seventh.
While the Brumbies were disappointed with their 14,284 crowd, for a knockout match featuring last year's finalists, the Waratahs will be hoping those fans who held off to discover their opponents, along with Brumbies fans heading north, snap up remaining tickets this week. For all the talk of a dream semi-final, it will be a major let-down if there's fewer than 40,000 at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.
Even though Aussie teams have featured in nine Super Rugby Finals, Australian teams have faced off in a semi on just two occasions - the last being the Brumbies' 51-10 demolition of the Waratahs in Sydney in 2002. There's a decent argument to be had that, 12 years on, these current Waratahs and Brumbies are in better collective form; such a mouth-watering prospect therefore deserves the biggest stage and the biggest build-up the game in Australia can provide.
Brumbies made it harder for themselves
Brumbies 32-30 Chiefs (Australia only)%]
So, yes, the Brumbies last played the Waratahs in a finals match when they drubbed their arch-rivals in 2002; while it might be handy in a pub debate, it's not exactly a result the current-day Brumbies will be able to learn a lot from.
The fact they've got there this year is the bigger story. Skipper Ben Mowen described the 32-30 win over the Chiefs as the best of the past three years for the rejuvenated club, but the Brumbies already know the enormity of the challenge ahead of them - even if they do fancy their chances against the Waratahs.
From my vantage point on the sideline for ABC Radio, the most impressive thing about the Brumbies' start was the way their attacking intensity forced the Chiefs - one of the better defensive sides since the June break - back on their heels while defending in their own quarter. It was as if the Chiefs knew the attacking waves were coming, and all they could do was brace for impact.
But the Brumbies did make it hard for themselves. Their intensity after the break didn't match their opening, and they soon found themselves in the same situation as the Chiefs did in the opening minutes: down a man, and leaking tries. It wasn't until the Brumbies scored their fourth try, to flanker Jarrad Butler from a rolling maul, that they properly clicked back into their systems.
They will certainly have to be mindful of that against a more ruthless side, like the Waratahs, but it shouldn't be difficult to find motivation: their season literally rests on a complete 80-minute performance. What they will remember is the way their midfield defence strangled the Waratahs' attacking space in round five in Canberra; expect a similar tactic to close down Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau, as well as an aerial assault on the Waratahs' lineout.
The Brumbies' experience gained and lessons learned from their charge to the final last season, particularly when they looked done against the Bulls in the semifFinal in Pretoria, cannot be discounted, either. The Brumbies may have made it harder than they'd have liked on Saturday night, but they have done alright in tight finals situations before.
Power v Smarts
Sharks 31-27 Highlanders (Australia only)%]
We saw the old boxing adage "a good big man always beats a good little man" played out in the second qualifying final in Durban, although for a minute it really looked like the crafty little Highlanders were going to cause the biggest finals boilover since the Sharks themselves upset Queensland Reds in a qualifier in 2012.
The Sharks dictated pretty well every physical aspect of this match. They dominated the breakdown, the collision, and the set-piece. At scrum time, they did more than just dominate; they complete pulverised the Highlanders' pack into a hurriedly retreating strewn pile of green jerseys. Midfield scrums suddenly became 20-metre rolling mauls with the ball on the ground. The Highlanders could stop the rot only with illegalities or prayers to higher beings. It was truly brutal.
But the Highlanders played it smart. Knowing they were losing the contest by a good margin, they simply avoided the contest. Loose ball in the slightest hint of space led to multiple passes, broken-field running right up there with the best we've seen this season, and the half-time proclamation that an upset would be welcomed.
When Lima Sopoaga converted Phil Burleigh's try from nowhere in the 63rd minute, to put the Highlanders back in front again, David was all set to topple Goliath once more.
Alas, it wasn't to be and the big bruise-brother Sharks kicked ahead to secure a return trip to Christchurch.
The result left us with the best four teams in the competition, probably, but you couldn't help but feel for the team from the deep south - who had very nearly pulled off a second Miracle of Durban.
Full credit to both Craig Joubert and Steve Walsh
Criticism of referees usually begins nanoseconds after full-time, but praise takes disproportionately longer to materialise when it's well and truly due.
In the case of both Joubert and Walsh, the qualifying finals were the spectacles they became because both referees allowed their games to flow, established early benchmarks regarding what was legal and what wasn't, and rewarded the attacking team at the breakdown.
It meant that the Brumbies could get out of the blocks as quick as they did in Canberra. It meant the Chiefs could come back when they eventually held the ball for prolonged periods. It meant the Sharks could dominate the physical contests in Durban. It meant the Highlanders could reap the rewards of their sublime broken-field play. Refereeing criticism has been rare this weekend, ensuring the games and the players receive the full breadth of discussion, and we're all the better for it.
The challenge for the remaining whistleblowers - and we should see the likes of Glenn Jackson, Chris Pollock, or Jaco Peyper in action for the semis - is to somehow outperform Joubert and Walsh, while at the same time ensuring a fair contest and a decent spectacle. It's already obvious that the man in charge of the final will be thoroughly deserving.
Chiefs and Highlanders unearth some proper talent
Their finals series departures will still be raw, but the Chiefs and Highlanders can still be rightly proud of the way they finished their 2014 seasons. Both teams fell at the first finals hurdle, with the harsh-but-possibly-fair assessment being that their inconsistency throughout the season meant that they snuck into the finals as it was.
But despite their exit - the closeness of both results sure to rile the respective teams until the first game of 2015 - both the Chiefs and Highlanders have a couple of super-talented young players in their ranks we're sure be seeing a lot more of in the coming years.
Liam Squire has been a breakout star of the season © Getty Images
Liam Squire started the season as potential cover for the Chiefs' impressive back-row but finished it a hard-working 80-minute regular at No.8. The Tasman forward debuted off the bench against the Highlanders in round three, missed a few games in the middle of the season, but was a lock at No.8 for the final six weeks of the comp. In just 10 games, his tackle, runs, and metres gained numbers are comparable to his inspirational back-row colleague and All Blacks blindside Liam Messam. There are a number of players leaving the Chiefs now, but you already get the impression Liam Squire is a player they'll rebuild around.
Richard Buckman, I'm quite sure, is actually the 125kg twin brother of Patrick Osborne playing in a very, very good disguise. To say he plays "bigger" than he appears is a massive understatement. But it's not just his pace and his surprising power that catches the eye; it's also his skills and his ball work. The 25-year-old Hawke's Bay flyer actually made his debut for the Hurricanes in 2011, played two more games for the Highlanders the following year, and wasn't sighted at Super level again until this season. In 2014 he's played every minute bar 14 in round three, and his combination with Malakai Fakitoa and Ben Smith down the right side is a very dangerous prospect. A quality player, with a very big future.
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