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New Zealand Teams Proving to Be the Ones to Beat in Super Rugby This Year

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIApril 12, 2015

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 11: Patrick Osborne of the Highlanders
is tackled by Kieran Read of the Crusaders during the round nine Super Rugby match between the Crusaders and the Highlanders at AMI Stadium on April 11, 2015 in Christchurch, New Zealand.  (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)
Martin Hunter/Getty Images

It is nothing new for New Zealand to have a handful of the top teams in Super Rugby. Even since the conference system came into play in 2011, multiple New Zealand teams have been at the top or in the vicinity come playoff time, despite having a tougher draw.

This year's crop is looking especially strong, with four teams emerging as genuine playoff contenders. Indeed, you could argue the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders are all capable of winning the whole thing.

Only the lowly Blues are easy beats for those four teams. Given that you play every team in your conference twice, that is bad news for the New Zealand franchises—although they seem to be doing well enough as it is.

After nine rounds of the competition, only three times have Australian or South African teams beaten any of the top four New Zealand teams; two were in South Africa, and one was against a rusty Crusaders team in Round 1. Meanwhile, New Zealand's top four teams have beaten teams from those conferences 14 times.

That does not bode well for those two conferences. The Waratahs and Stormers were both on top of their respective conferences when they played the Highlanders, yet both were beaten. In Pretoria the highly rated Bulls went down to the Hurricanes, while the Sharks received a walloping from a clinical Crusaders team last weekend in Durban.

In many ways it highlights the disparity of the competition. That those four top teams have to play one another twice and the best in the other conferences get their extra games against teams of a lower level makes for an unfair advantage.

For many years it has been a problem in the Australian conference, as both the Force and Rebels have been among the lowest-ranked teams in the competition. This year you can lump the Reds in there with them. Even the Waratahs have yet to prove themselves against top opposition from other conferences, while the Brumbies, top of the Australian conference, achieved a new low of losing to the lowly Blues, who have struggled all season.

Perhaps the Brumbies' standing as the top Australian team is misleading. Thus far their only wins have come exclusively against teams in the bottom five of the competition, while they have had the fortune to play the bottom-of-the-table Reds twice.

In contrast, the South African conference is normally closer to that of the New Zealand one. It normally has three strong teams, a weak one and then another which varies in strength from season to season. This year the South Africans have not posed the same threat.

The Bulls have been the best in that conference so far, holding the distinction of having beaten the Crusaders and pushing the Hurricanes close, albeit at home. They are yet to travel, though, and will face the Chiefs and Brumbies on the road.

Aside from them, there has been little to write home about. Largely, the South African teams have been beating each other and the weak teams from the other conferences but have struggled against the top four New Zealand sides.

The Stormers have gone 0-3 in their games against those top four teams, succumbing to the Chiefs at home and being blown off the park by the Highlanders in Dunedin. They were unlucky against the Hurricanes, but they too have struggled with the pace and skill level of the best teams.

Meanwhile, the Lions are playing the best rugby they have played in years, although they are more of a spoiler team than a genuine contender, while the Sharks are below their normal standard and fill a similar role.

As it is, the Hurricanes are on top of the table, with the Chiefs in fourth and the Highlanders in fifth. If it were not for the conference system protecting the top team from each country, the Chiefs would be second. Keep in mind that the Hurricanes and Highlanders have both played less games than the others in the top half of the competition.

The speed these teams play at is a level above the others, but it is their ability to combine this with steely defence and physicality in the tight that makes them so tough to beat.

The Hurricanes in particular have flourished in these areas. No one has ever doubted their ability to create something from nothing, but this year they have added a tough edge to their defence and have become relentless close-in.

Likewise, the Highlanders have retained their status as battlers in the tight but have taken great strides in the backs, with attacking threats and fast hands all over the park. They are usually slow starters, but their forwards fight hard and hang in there for the first 20 minutes, allowing the backs to then cash in when the game loosens up. So far that has been the template for nearly all of their wins.

The Chiefs have not deviated from their successful tactics of the past three seasons, while the Crusaders have shown how devastating they can be after their traditional slow start. Of the four losses the Crusaders have had, two were against the Chiefs and Highlanders, with one coming away against South Africa's top team. 

All of those teams are packed with talent and play the game in a way that other teams struggle to contain with their mix of speed, flair and physicality.

Yet it is hard to see all four qualifying for the playoffs by virtue of the fact that they will have to play one another more than anyone else, which means they will be taking points off each other. Both South Africa and Australia are guaranteed a spot, but they will probably get one more in between them as well, given they do not the disadvantage of having to play six matches against three of the competition's top teams.

It is a flaw in the competition. You can talk about expansion all you want, but there is almost no doubt that Super Rugby has not been the same since the last year of Super 12 in 2005. Since then, the competition has become diluted, the talent is spread too thin, and the draw is not equal. Come playoff time, the top teams will not necessarily be competing for the title.

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