Super Rugby: New Zealand Conference Midseason Report Cards
Believe it or not we are already halfway through the 2011 Super Rugby competition. It doesn't seem long since we were eagerly anticipating the start of the new competition and interested to see how the new conference concept would play out.
After eight rounds, we've seen the competition begin to sort itself out with a definite favourite, a group of five or six contenders, and then another group who are really just making up the numbers. Sure every team has shown that they are capable of playing good rugby, but few have done it on a consistent basis which separates the top teams from the bottom teams.
The New Zealand Conference has been billed as the strongest of the three conferences throughout the campaign. Whether this is true or not comes largely down to opinion. There have been both over-achievers and under-achievers in this conference so far and with the exception of the Crusaders, none have stood out above anything the other two conferences has to offer. On reflection, it seems that the top teams from each conference will be the ones to beat.
So let's have a look at how the New Zealand teams have fared so far in the 2011 competition. Although there is still a long way to go, this early season form can give us a good indication of what to expect as the competition progresses, as well as who to expect to see come finals time.
1. The Blues
We have come to expect inconsistency from the Blues. It's not a surprise to see them put 50 points on a team one week and then lose to the same team the next weekend.
This year their consistency has been better, albeit against weaker opposition. They had an impressive win over the Crusaders, where their forwards showed that they can stick it and their backs were able to let loose.
Other than this though, their wins have come against average to poor teams, and to go with this the wins have been far from convincing.
But they are winning and that's the most important thing. At the end of the season it matter's not whether you won by 20 points or one. And this is key for the Blues. They have lost just one game and also drawn one.
Their draw gets correspondingly harder from here on in, but one would be crazy to write them off. If they can play to their potential they are capable of beating any team in the competition, as was shown in the first week of the competition.
Attack: A. They have proven to be hard to stop and will carry on like this with so much talent in their backline.
Defence: C. Defensively they've been no more than average. But as I say earlier, they've been doing enough to win.
Backs: B. On their day they have the best backline in the competition, no questions asked. However, this isn't always the backline that shows up to play. Still, they have been more consistent this year and a B is a fair reflection of where they are at.
Forwards: C. Again inconsistent but proved against the Crusaders that they can match any pack in the competition and were are large factor in that win.
2. The Chiefs
The Chiefs have been very average to date in 2011. While they have a backline full of talent, they have struggled to gain dominance up front, which has made it hard for their backs to prosper.
They had a good win against the Sharks in wet conditions in Hamilton, where they held the South Africans scoreless. But other than this, they have delivered a lot of uninspired performances and have often got close but not been able to finish off.
Their main problem is the lack of a dominant figure in the tight five. Their front row lacks a hard man who will do work, while they have also struggled in the scrums. Their locks are predominantly ball runners and don't commit to enough rucks to ensure good quality ball for the backs.
They have looked dangerous on the counter attack, but really haven't been given a lot of opportunities to make use of their lethal backline.
Attack: C. They've looked good when on the front foot, and their backs have been able to make the best of what they've been given for the best part of the season.
Defence: C. At times they have looked very good on defence, particularly against the Sharks. Unfortunately they have also struggled at times, hence the grade.
Backs: B. Their backs haven't been bad, but have struggled to cut loose like we know they can. However, given the ball they've had to work with they've done a good job.
Forwards: E. Have struggled in almost every game. Need more muscle up front and more physicality hitting rucks and tackles.
3. The Crusaders
There is no question that this Crusaders team is genuine class. Not only have they been winning, they've been winning well. They are truly a team in every sense of the word. Even with the world's two top players on the sidelines in the weekend, they were still able to hand a 27-0 thrashing to the defending champion Bulls team.
They may have started slowly but since their win over the Brumbies in week four, they have looked all class. Defensively they are almost unbreakable, always getting into formation and never letting the attacking team find a gap. On attack they are devastating with weapons all over the park.
This is a team that is going to take some beating and with the return of Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw imminent, they will be tough to topple.
Attack: A. Have put up 40 points three times this season. With Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean in the midfield they are able to gain momentum, and they have some of the finest finishes in the competition out wide in Zac Guilford, Sean Maitland and Israel Dagg.
Defence: A. Despite letting a few soft tries in against the Sharks at Twickenham, the Crusaders defence has been almost impeccable and has withstood attacks that have cut other team's to pieces.
Backs: A. Again, it's hard to fault them here. With genuine class right through their backline they have been a handful for every opponent they've come up against.
Forwards: A. Very good, with just the one blemish against the Blues.
4. The Highlanders
My beloved Highlanders have exceeded even my own expectations. At the start of the season it was clear things were looking up for the franchise and that they would be an improved side from that of the last few years.
But few could have predicted what was to follow.
After seven games the southern men have notched five victories and their two losses have come to the Stormers in Cape Town, as well as the Crusaders, possibly two of the hardest games for any team.
New coach Jamie Joseph has re-installed some of the traditional values of Otago and Highlanders rugby to the team, and they are now hitting rucks and tackles with passion and are physically beating teams up in the forwards. To go with this, they have added a new dimension to their game and have shown they have a very good running game, which has seen them become a much more dangerous team with ball in hand.
They have got their trip to South Africa out the way nice and early and now face a much easier draw in the second half of the competition.
Whether they will make the playoffs or not is still unclear. They are certainly in the mix though, and whatever happens the southern men have gone a long way to winning back some of the respect that they had for so long in the early years of the competition.
Attack: B. Their new approach has made them a much more dangerous side and has seen sides such as the Bulls struggle to contain them.
Defence: B. Defensively they've been pretty good with the exception of the trashing they received from a Crusaders outfit that was just too good. Still, they've leaked a few soft tries that have made results too close for comfort.
Backs: B. The Highlanders backs are finally looking dangerous again. Kade Poki has proven to be a live wire, while Jimmy Cowan is playing some of the best rugby of his career. To go with this they have good level headed players in Ben Smith, Colin Slade and Kendrick Lynn to take good options.
Forwards: A. They haven't done much wrong up front. Their tight five is smashing teams physically while their loosies are looking dangerous ranging out wide.
5. The Hurricanes
The Hurricanes have been the biggest underachievers of the competition. They have a team laden with All Blacks, but once again, have failed to deliever.
Much like the Chiefs, the problem lies up front. They have struggled to get dominance up front, which has restricted their backs from cutting loose.
They haven't been able to settle on a halfback-first five combination, which has meant that the outside backs have struggled to adapt to the players inside them.
In Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Hosea Gear and Cory Jane they have four of the world's best backs. None have prospered this year though. Nonu has been average and at times brainless, Smith has been above average but far from his best, while Gear and Jane haven't had the same chances they would get behind a better forward pack.
And that's just it. They haven't had a dominant forward pack. Victor Vito has been good and Jack Lam has showed that he is a quality player, but few others have put their hands up. It's very hard to win rugby matches like this, hence the results.
Expect an improvement in the second half of the season, but the way things are going, it's going to be a long season for the men from Wellington.
Attack: B. When they've had their opportunities their backs have looked good. Unfortunately games aren't won from simply having a good attack.
Defence: C. Defensively they've been average. Weak around the fringes, while the backs too often look disorganised.
Backs: C. To be fair to their backs they haven't had much quality to work with. But at the same time they've done little with what they've had and will need to find a quality first five before they will really compete at this level.
Forwards: D. Have struggled to gain dominance. Their looseforwards have looked good at times, but it is hard for them to prosper if the tight five is getting pushed around the way it is.