Three Points
Hodgson's presence inspires a genuine Force
Brett McKay
May 13, 2015
Hurricanes 32-24 Sharks (Australia only)-1

Super Rugby Round 13 was the one where something we long suspected was finally confirmed. As if it wasn't already clear, the Sharks' 32-24 loss to the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday means that we can officially put the red line through the Durban side for 2015.

The loss left the Sharks a win behind those couple of teams on the fringe of the top six, and by the end of the round, with wins recorded by the Crusaders, Lions, and Rebels, the gap back to Sharks stretched out to eight points. Stick a fork in them; they're done for the year. 2016 and Jacques Potgieter cannot arrive soon enough.

Here were a few other things to stand out in Round 13.

The Crusaders have given me a headache. Again.

Oh, Crusaders, just put me out of my misery, please!

Even with their 58-17 thumping of Queensland Reds, the Crusaders still only have six wins with four games to come. They now can't get to the eleven wins I maintain will be needed to be safe in the top six, and even to get to ten wins they will have to win everything from here on.

For a fortnight now I've been of the belief that the Crusaders are also done for 2015. A combination of indifferent form and a run home that includes a bye this weekend, the Waratahs in Sydney, the Hurricanes at home-ish in Nelson, and away games to finish against the Blues and Brumbies, leaves me with the obvious conclusion that they are, indeed, done.

But this is the Crusaders I'm trying to convince myself are done, and the Crusaders that put 26 points on the Reds in the 18 minutes after half-time, and 38 points in half an hour all told, could seriously beat anyone.

There is still life in the Crusaders' campaign after Friday night's thumping of the Reds © Getty Images

And we all know the rule: "you never write off the Crusaders."

So I won't put the line through them just yet. Their current +100 points differential means they could certainly qualify with ten wins, but they would need to keep winning as well as they did on Saturday, and against teams a lot better than the Reds. Even the Blues, only four points above the Reds at the foot of the table, will offer up a significant challenge at Eden Park in the penultimate round.

I don't think I've ever applied the hypothesis of Schrödinger's Cat to Super Rugby before, but that's where the Crusaders are currently. They're not definitely dead for the year, but they're really only alive in theory.

Hence the headache…

The current form Australian side was tipped to run last

Confession time. In very early pre-season predictions, I was completely caught up in the Queensland Reds' recruitment buzz, and was still of the belief the Western Force had turned a corner, to the extent that I thought they might be a chance of sneaking into the playoffs alongside the Brumbies and NSW Waratahs.

The Melbourne Rebels? Well, process of elimination meant they had to run fifth in the Australian conference. I don't think I had them finishing 15th overall (that might have been reserved for the Lions, in another piece of prediction irony), but it's fair to say I wasn't expecting the Rebels to be in the playoffs hunt with five rounds to go.

Their win over the Blues was a well-executed and well deserved comprehensive thumping, and it built on the good work they'd been producing in the weeks before it.

Only last week I wrote of how their defence is now doing much more than keeping them in games, but in this match, we could see that they're learning the lessons of losses past, too. Their second half is a good case in point.

Rebels flanker Jordy Reid had an outstanding game against the Blues © Getty Images

In previous seasons, and maybe even earlier this season, the Rebels would've become a bit panicky when the Blues hit back just after half-time through a converted try that brought the margin back to a point. But the Rebels remained in control on Friday night.

The best response to the opposition posting points is more points of your own, and this is what the Rebels did. Both times the Blues scored in the second half, the Rebels scored a converted try themselves within three minutes. It meant the Blues never got a chance to apply scoreboard pressure; they could only continue chasing the game.

This bodes well for the Rebels this weekend. Against a Reds side in Brisbane with nothing left to lose, and buoyed by a spate of off-field appointments in recent days, the Rebels will need to keep their wits about them this Friday night, too.

The handiest element of their Blues win might just be the way the Rebels were able to quickly transition into attack, and indeed score tries from the ensuing counter-attack. The tries for Colby Fainga'a and Dom Shipperley against the Blues are perfect examples, and if they can do this to the Reds again this weekend, they'll be well on the way to keeping the playoffs dream alive.

Six into 7 won't go, but Hodgson can't be discounted

Colleague Sam Bruce was bang on the mark a fortnight ago, talking about the luxury of options Wallabies Coach Michael Cheika has at his disposal in the openside flanker stakes. Most opinions have it is a three-way race between David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Reds' forgotten man, Liam Gill. But the field is even wider than that.

There is still a bit of love for George Smith, too, now that he's eligible again, though the statement via his agent in the days following the ARU policy shift probably rules him out. As should the aforementioned wealth of options.

Rebels flanker and Spring Tour Wallaby debutant, Sean McMahon remains a smokey, with his ability to play both sides of the scrum seen as a plus. But in the last three weeks, and as if it wasn't difficult enough, another candidate has emerged to muddy the waters even further.

Few players in Australia have the ability to single-handedly turn around the fortunes of their side, but what Matt Hodgson has done for the Western Force since his return cannot be underestimated. Think of what Andrew Johns used to bring to the Newcastle Knights in the NRL, or even Jonathan Thurston with the North Queensland Cowboys in the current day. Take away their creativity and kicking games, and you're left with what Hodgson gives the Force: presence.

Western Force are a totally different team with Matt Hodgson at No.7 © Getty Images

"He turns 34 this year and that's a unique thing in Australian rugby. I just think that whether Hodgo is part of a match 23 or just in a wider squad, he is going to have an influence and when you go into a World Cup having a senior player like him there it's going to have an impact across the squad," Force coach Michael Foley said post the win over the Waratahs.

And this is an important point, particularly the wider squad inclusion. Cheika has been meeting with a so-called leadership group over the last few months, and it was notable to see Hodgson listed among ten other names. When the Wallabies took on the Barbarians in London in November, it was Hodgson tasked with leading a young team around the park. It's the same job he does in Perth.

Don't be surprised if Hodgson is included in Wallabies training squads post-Super Rugby. While the ability to play both sides is a positive for McMahon, the young Rebel doesn't yet have the leadership feather in his cap that Hodgson does. And this could be Cheika's biggest RWC surprise yet.

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