Super 15 Rugby: 5 Things We Learnt from the New Zealand Conference
It is still in the early days of the 2013 edition of Super 15, with each team still finding its feet at the start of what will be another long, hard season.
As always, the New Zealand teams all look to be amongst the top ones and will be all worth keeping an eye on when it comes to working out who will feature in the playoffs this years.
Here are five things to keep in mind when you are watching the teams in the New Zealand Conference in the coming weeks.
The Chiefs Are the Real Deal Once Again
There were questions asked prior to the season as to how the Chiefs would fare in a mission to defend their title. Because of some key players lost and a handful of injuries, the outfit that has taken the field in the first two weeks of 2013 is very different from the one we saw in 2012.
They have answered their critics though, putting on two displays of outstanding rugby. Their offloading skills are the best in the competition and they choose the right times to execute too, meaning defences have problems containing them.
Up front they have a hardworking tight five, led by the ever-present Brodie Retallick, who was as good as any player in the competition this past round. This allows their loose forward trio to range and makes them threats running, while it also gives a lethal back line space to run.
A very well-drilled team and fit team, they look set to wear teams down with a fast-paced running game and pile up the points in the last 20 minutes.
Experience Is Not Everything
Sometimes a team plays its best when it is at its lowest point. A team with no expectations will often go out and play as though they have nothing to lose, throwing the ball around and looking to play an expansive, unstructured game.
For an example, look no further than the Blues in the first two weeks of Super 15. They are a very young team coming off the worst season in their history. There were little to no expectations on them to perform. And consequently, they have looked to play a more natural game using all the flair and skill they possess, a way in which youth can prevail over experience.
They look to be a team that is just having fun playing. What a difference that has made.
The Crusaders Are Slow Starters
This is not necessarily something we learnt, but something to keep in mind. It is hardly news that the Crusaders are slow starters in Super Rugby. How many times have they dropped one or more of their first few games before going on to make the top four and in some cases go on to win the whole thing?
They did not fire in their season opener against the Blues, looking weak in places on defence and struggling to get anything going on attack. Of course much credit has to go to the Blues.
But don't write off the Crusaders based on this performance.
In the first half they showed us how clinical they can be. There were only four times they even looked like scoring in the half, and four times they did score. It was this that ensured they went to the break just eight points down, despite having played virtually none of the rugby and having three tries scored against them. They remained in touch under all sorts of pressure, the mark of a good team.
Although they let the Blues get away in the second half, they showed enough to suggest they will be in the mix as the season progresses. Write them off at your peril.
The Hurricanes Are Vulnerable in the Tight
The Hurricanes have one of the most dangerous back lines in the competition with the likes of Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Beauden Barrett and Andre Taylor making them lethal. In the loose they are very good too, with Victor Vito the leader of a group that also includes three other highly underrated players, as well as promising up-and-comers.
But as the old saying goes, you can have all the backs you want, the best flankers in the world, but you will struggle to get the best out of them without a good tight five.
The Reds got the better of the Hurricanes in this department in the weekend, particularly early where the Hurricanes couldn’t get anything going and found themselves trailing. They struggled defending the rolling maul from the Reds line-out, while the Reds also got the better of the breakdowns.
At times the Hurricanes were their own worst enemies, dropping too much ball and preventing them getting any flow on. But this is made all the more likely when the tight five is not setting a strong platform.
Ultimately it was a game they could have won, but they simply squandered too many chances.
The New TMO Protocols Are Having an Impact
It seems like we have been calling out for the TMO to have more power for years. Finally the calls have been answered and the TMO can now go back two phases to rule on whether or not a try has been scored, rather than just rule on what has happened over the line.
Already there have been two instances where games were effectively decided by this.
The first came in the Crusaders-Blues game, where Israel Dagg was pulled up for a double movement late in the game. Previously this would have been a try, as there was nothing wrong with the grounding, which would have brought the Crusaders right back into the game and would have changed the way the last 10 minutes were played out.
A few hours later we saw another instance, where Conrad Smith was denied a try in the dying minutes for the Hurricanes due to a knock on earlier in the passage. The try was handy to the posts and the Hurricanes almost certainly would have walked away winners had the new TMO protocols not been in place.
Both decisions will be somewhat controversial, but both looked to be the right calls and ensured that the right results were achieved.