AUCKLAND, NZ – The regular season of Super Rugby came to a conclusion over the weekend, with the last few spots in the play-offs decided. It saw a series of rather lop-sided results that saw some teams get back to the form that got them to the top spots and others continue on with the sort of garbage that meant they were never title contenders anyway. Here’s a breakdown of what’s what, in the Round 19 Super Rugby Review:
It all means that the Waratahs, Crusaders, Sharks, Brumbies, Chiefs and Highlanders will battle it out for the 2014 title while the other nine teams can figure out where it all went wrong. For some it was a foregone conclusion, others a disappointing end and, in the case of the Force, a limp end to a season in which they punched well above their weight. You’d have to think the Tahs are red-hot favorites given their strong run of form and home field advantage for the finals series. Their main challenge should come from the Crusaders, who still have a few question marks over whether they have the personel to take out yet another title. The Sharks will have to win away to pick up their first title, however, they had a glorious overseas tour this year so it’s not impossible. Of the rest probably the Chiefs are next most likely in contention due to their recent championship pedigree, but they’ll have a big test against the Brumbies and Highlanders would a real surprise to get past next weekend.
The Chiefs had it all to play for on Friday night in Auckland, where they did just enough to get over the Blues at Eden Park. This was a strange game, played in constant, driving rain. The Chiefs were immediately helped by the Blues willingness to run the ball, their minuscule playoff hopes resting on other results and a winning margin of over 38 points. Therefore they turned down plenty of shots at goal to chase tries, while the Chiefs sat back and played proper wet-weather footy and ground out a win. There were only two tries in the game and the decisive one to the Chiefs was cruelly an intercept to Liam Messam, who went 50 metres. The Blues got a consolation try late through George Moala but their hopes of a big victory were long gone by then. Hurricanes fans would’ve been tearing their hair out at the Blues attempt at expansiveness, a Blues win would’ve seen them jump back into playoff contention. However, it was not to be and the Blues season finished on a damp note, suffering their first loss at Eden Park in two seasons. The Chiefs would pull off a miracle if they were to go on and win it from here given their unbelievable run of injuries in 2014, but don’t count out Dave Rennie’s men just yet.
Chiefs 11 (Liam Messam try, Aaron Cruden 2 pen) Blues 8 (George Moala try, Ihaia West pen)
Man of the Match: Chiefs skipper Liam Messam had a big night, leading from the front and showing great pace to score the crucial winner.
Later on in Canberra the Brumbies buried any hopes the Force might’ve had of making the playoffs with an emphatic victory over their Australian conference rivals. It was one-way traffic for much of this game as the Brumbies got back the form that’s eluded them in recent weeks, especially their crushing defeat to the Waratahs. The home ran in seven tries in total, including a hat trick to first five Matt Toomua, whose battle with Bernard Foley for the Wallaby 10 jersey will be very interesting indeed. Also impressive was winger Henry Speight, who got through a power of work. The Force must be bitterly disappointed at the way their golden season has ended, however they exceeded everyone’s expectations including their own. They’ve played good, positive rugby most of the time and have given plenty of ball and tries to Nick ‘The Honey Badger’ Cummins, who is undoubtedly the cult hero of 2014.
Brumbies 47 (Matt Toomua 3, Jesse Mogg, Henry Speight, Joe Tomane, Tom McVerry tries, Christian Lealiifano 3 con, 2 pen) Force 25 (Pek Cowan, Sias Ebersohn, Chris Tuatara-Morrison, Jayden Hayward 2 pen, con, Ebersohn con)
Man of the Match: Matt Toomua pretty much ran the show in this game, putting the result out of the question in the first half.
The next morning in Pretoria saw the Bulls end their season by destroying the Rebels in a game that had nothing riding on it other than pride. This was a real beatdown, the high-veldt bully-boys having their way with the bottom-placed team from start to finish. The Bulls ran in four tries to give a bit of relief to their home fans, who entered this season knowing it’d be tough given the amount of player turnover they suffered. What resulted was an up and down campaign, but enough to be hopeful about the future, especially with breakout first five Handre Pollard. The Rebels will now pick up the wooden spoon for the season, which they will be disappointed with but in reality was always going to be a strong possibility.
Bulls 40 (Paul Willemse 2, Francois Hougaard, Dean Greyling tries, Handre Pollard 4 con, 4 pen) Rebels 7 (Jack Debreczeni try, con)
Man of the Match: Possibly the only guy going round who splits time at halfback and on the wing, Francois Hougaard had a good go at both in this game.
The game that was SUPPOSED to be the blockbuster of the weekend was on Saturday night in Christchurch, but the Chiefs and Brumbies victories conspired to make the Crusaders win over the Highlanders meaningless for the southern men, who knew they were through regardless before kick-off. The Crusaders, however, had a bit to play for as a win would give them home field advantage. As it turned out, the match itself was another let down, the Highlanders seemingly not interested and conceding 22 points by the 45th minute, effectively ending the game as a contest. Their main concern is an injury to star fullback Ben Smith, who looks like he’ll miss this weekend’s playoff against the Sharks. As well as this they should be very concerned that they are far from the team that rocketed up the table earlier in the season and led the NZ conference for a time. The Crusaders showed they have very much got their mojo back as a team who can ruthlessly exploit any weakness and gave themselves home-field advantage for their major semi and next weekend off.
Crusaders 34 (Matt Todd 2, Nemani Nadolo, Corey Flynn tries, Dan Carter 4 pen, con) Highlanders 8 (Richard Buckman try, Hayden Parker pen)
Man of the Match: Crusaders flanker Matt Todd dotted down twice, had a big game then revealed he knocked back an offer from the Force to go play for them next year.
The match they used to call ‘The State of the Union’ (maybe they still do? Anyone know?) kicked off afterwards in Brisbane and the Waratahs underlined their championship credentials by thumping their oldest rivals, the Reds. In a weekend of hidings this was no exception, the visitors running up a big score and not even letting the home side score a try. One thing the Reds did manage to accomplish was disrupt the Tahs line out constantly through skipper James Horwill, which will be an area of concern leading into the playoffs. Unfortunately you need more than an effective line out to win a game and the Tahs ran in four tries to end a miserable season for the Reds. They’ll be very much looking forward to rebuilding next year where they will endeavor to live up to the hype surrounding what will be a talented squad. Meanwhile the Tahs get a week off and the luxury of knowing that a home final will most likely mean a sold-out Olympic Stadium in Sydney, which will be making SANZAR very happy as well.
Waratahs 34 (Kurtley Beale 2, Jono Lance, Nick Phipps tries, Bernard Foley 4 con, 2 pen) Reds 3 (Mike Harris pen)
Man of the Match: Kurtley Beale’s consistent form continued and the Waratahs will be hoping it doesn’t end before the finals. They’ll also be hoping rumors he’s about to switch to rugby league are all a load of hot air.
Sunday morning in Johannesburg saw yet another beat-down, this time between two teams that had nothing to play for so it was good to see the Lions throw the ball around to get a big win over the Cheetahs. The visitors decided to give the home side more than a bit of help by picking up three yellow cards, which meant that their turnstile defense got even flimsier for a while there. Both these teams playoff hopes ended a long time ago and it was fitting that the Cheetahs reverted back to their leaky defense that cost them so dearly earlier in the season. The Lions showed they can actually get a win without kicking eight penalties, which was nice, plus ended what they’d regard as a pretty good season on a high. Even better news for them is that they seem to have finally found a jersey sponsor.
Lions 60 (Lionel Mapoe 3, Robbie Coetzee, Andries Coetzee, Ross Cronje, Corne Fourie, Warren Whiteley tries, Elton Jantjies 7 con, 2 pen) Cheetahs 25 (Cornal Hendricks 2, Willie Le Roux tries, Johan Goosen 2 con, 2 pen)
Man of the Match: Lionel Mapoe got a hat trick, so given that I’m giving the MOTM awards to the guys who scored the most tries this week, it’s a no-brainer.
The last match of the round was a reversal of fortune in Cape Town, where the Sharks trounced the Stormers in yet another one-sided match. After their recent run of awful form the Sharks finally started playing like the team that was odds-on favourite to win the title before the international break with a polished three-try performance. They didn’t have it all their own way, however, with the scores close until midway through the second half before they pulled away. The Stormers will be ruing a disastrous start to the season and a very unlucky run of calls from various referees, but, like the Reds, they had the squad to get it done and never showed up at the right times. The big question now is can the Sharks win away from home like they did earlier in the season? They will be confident of overcoming the Highlanders next weekend, but will definitely be keeping in mind the fact that it was that very team that handed the Sharks their first loss at home this year.
Sharks 34 (Paul Jordaan, Sibusiso Sithole, Stefan Ungerer tries, Frans Steyn 2 con, 5 pen), Stormers 10 (Nizaam Carr try, Kurt Coleman con, pen)
Man of the Match: Frans Steyn kept the scoreboard ticking over and reminded the Sharks future opponents that anything kickable will be dealt with accordingly.
The Hurricanes had the misfortune of watching their playoff hopes get washed away in the Auckland rain on Friday night, so most probably spent the rest of the weekend having a few beers and thinking about next season. Time for the weekly awards:
Performance of the Week: The Lions could’ve easily gone into their shell and ground out a kicking duel with the Cheetahs, but admirably ran the ball all over the park to rack up 60 points.
Idiot of the Week: Blues coach John Kirwan, who decided chasing a 38-point win in torrential rain was a good idea, even at halftime when the score was 3-0. The Blues could’ve actually won this game and ended their season on a high, but threw it away attempting to do the impossible.
So one final look at how the points table stacked up at the end of 19 rounds of Super Rugby:
Australia: Waratahs 58
NZ: Crusaders 51
SA: Sharks 50
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.