AUCKLAND, NZ – Well, this site is called Rugby Wrap Up, so it makes sense to have a wrap of Super Rugby 2014. There’s awards, team reviews and a look at what might happen next season. Firstly though, I’d like to say thanks to all the people out there who have read and fed back on this column throughout the season. It’s sparked some lively debates and hopefully informed more than a few about the top pro competition in the world. While my Hurricanes again failed to make a dent at the business end of the season, I came away pretty happy with the entertainment provided by the 15 teams. We saw some great games, some not-so-great ones, some cracking tries, horrible refereeing decisions and team’s fortunes go up, down, round in circles and, apart from the Waratahs, out the window.
Just in case you missed it, the New South Wales Waratahs won the grand final, beating the Crusaders in a sensational match 33-32 in front of 62,000 at Olympic Park in Sydney. But plenty happened in the lead up to that memorable final, so what better way to recap it all than a load of team reviews:
Top Player- Beauden Barrett. The back-up All Blacks first five was so important to the Canes it was a shame he didn’t always have the back up around him. Showed how much he was missed in season defining loss to Highlanders at the Stadium. He played hurt, lack his usual zip and Andre Taylor couldn’t kick the goals. Honourable mentions: Jack Lam, Julian Savea.
Top Performance – vs Chiefs 45-8, round 15. Stunning demolition job of the defending champs that catapulted the Canes into finals contention.
A frustrating finish to a promising season from the Canes, who started slowly and then finally showed their hand a little too late in the piece. Still, they were the top try-scoring team in 2014 and have some great potential under new coach Chris Boyd next season.
Top Players – Jerome Kaino/Patrick Tuipulotu. Pretty tough choice for best player. Kaino came back in midway through the season and had an immediate impact. Tuipulotu was an unknown at the start of the season and an All Black by the end of it. Honourable mentions: Bryn Hall, Tevita Li.
Top Performance – vs Force 40-14, round 17. This was supposed to be where the Force sealed their playoff hopes, but the Blues came out of nowhere and played like the team they should’ve been for the previous 16 rounds.
If the Hurricanes were frustrating the Blues were excruciating. Coaching dramas, the signing of a league player who decided he’d had enough halfway through the season, terrible results away from home and yet, the Blues still had a mathematical chance of making the playoffs going into the last couple of weeks. Whether Sir John Kirwan keeps his job next year will be the story of the off-season.
Finished: 5th, beaten in playoff
Top Player – Brodie Retalick. One word sums up this guy in 2014: immense. His work rate carried the Chiefs on more than a few occasions and talks now of him being the best lock in the world are pretty valid. Honourable mentions: Liam Squire, Liam Messam.
Top Performance – vs Crusaders 18-10 round 2. Despite being defending champs no one gave the Chiefs much of a shot of pulling this one off, but they did on the back of some brave defense and great captaincy from Aaron Cruden.
It was just a bridge too far for the Chiefs this year. Chasing a three-peat is unprecedented in Super Rugby, doing it with the amount of injuries they suffered is insurmountable. However, the return of Sonny Bill Williams next season should mean they will be firm favorites to be playoff contenders again.
Finished: 6th, beaten in playoff
Top Player – Malakai Fekitoa. The guy the Blues didn’t want made them pay dearly for their oversight, scoring against them in round 1 and then terrorizing every other team on a path to ultimately representing the All Blacks in the June test series. Honourable mentions: Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga.
Top Performance – Sharks 34-18, round 11. Who saw this coming? A pure formality for the Sharks turned into an absolute nightmare as the Highlanders carved them up on their home turf.
The Highlanders will have to go down as the success story of Super Rugby 2014. No one expected anything of them, so they obliged by playing like they had nothing to lose. It was great to watch, they pulled off some memorable upsets and unearthed some great young talent. Hopefully they can build on it next year.
Finished: 2nd, beaten in grand final
Top Player – Nemani Nadolo. The big Fijian winger was the missing piece of the puzzle for the Crusaders, adding a strike weapon not just out wide but also getting through a phenomenal amount of work in the middle of the park game after game. Honourable mentions: Colin Slade, Sam Whitelock.
Top Performance – vs. Sharks 38-6, semi final. An absolute dismemberment of the much-feared Sharks pack made this game a completely one-sided affair after only about 20 minutes. The Crusaders completely thrashed the visitors as their run of form came at exactly the right time of the season.
One point. That’s how close the Crusaders got to returning to their place atop of Super Rugby. After a slow start they got their act together on their South African tour and never looked back. Despite a hiccup against the Sharks at home they rolled into the final with a strong squad that shouldn’t be too different next year.
Top Player – Israel Folau. The competition’s top try scorer with 12 and one of the few guys who gets everyone up and paying attention every time he’s anywhere near the ball. Folau’s ball skills are incredible and the Tahs will do well to keep him on their books. Honourable mentions: Bernard Foley, Michael Hooper.
Top Performance – vs. Crusaders 33-32, final. This effort kind of mirrored the Tahs entire season, they started off with a bang, dropped off a little then showed the guts and determination to get themselves out of a hole and emerge victorious.
While the cynics might be saying ‘it’s about time’, the Tahs rightfully took out a competition they had dominated by playing attractive rugby with a host of star players. Ruthless coach Michael Cheika didn’t take any crap from anyone and it was obvious all the egos that have hindered this team in the past were left at the door as the took out the title.
Top Player – James Horwill. The leader of a pretty sorry bunch in 2014, Horwill brought up his 100th match in a loss to the Blues but kept battling on all season. Honourable mentions: Mike Harris, Beau Robinson.
Top Performance – 38-31 vs. Highlanders, round 16. Just when it seemed the Reds season was about to hit a real nadir, they pulled this highly entertaining performance out in front of a loyal home crowd in Brisbane.
This will go down as one those seasons the Reds and their supporters will be doing their best to forget, with a pretty poor return given the strength of their squad. While they do have some legitimate complaints with regards to refereeing this season, they’ll need a serious off-season to be a contender next year.
Finished: 4th, beaten in semi final.
Top Player – Matt Toomua. Playing first five for the Brumbies must be a pretty daunting experience when your coach (Stephen Larkham) is the team’s greatest ever and has a stand named after him. However, Toomua impressed enough to make it into the Wallabies and guide the team to the semi finals. Honourable mentions: Henry Speight, Nic White.
Top Performance – 41 – 23 vs. the Chiefs, round 11. The Brumbies got a bit of revenge for their final loss last year with a serious hiding, in fact much worse than the final score reflects.
The Brumbies were a highly consistent team in 2014 and hung in at the top of table for the whole season. Canberra was again a very difficult venue to go and play but ultimately it was a shocking run of injuries at the wrong time of the season that undid the Brumbies.
Top Player – Jason Woodward. The Wellingtonian had a breakout year in a stint over in Melbourne, landing more than a few shots at goal and chiming in for a some good tries. He was so good that the Hurricanes have taken him back for 2015. Honourable mentions: Tamati Ellison, Scott Higgenbotham.
Top Performance – 32-24 vs. Brumbies, round 7. A big upset at home against the usually clinical Brumbies should have been a sign of things to come from the precocious Rebels, but unfortunately this is as good as it got.
The Rebels came into 2014 with no expectations on them and left having fulfilled them. Apart from a couple of good performances they rightfully propped up the bottom of the table and will again look to recruit to solve their combination problems in the offseason.
Top Player – Matt Hodgson. Captain Fantastic led from the front, back and both sides of the field for the Force in 2014. While he’s a blue-collar player in every sense of the word, Hodgson chimed in for a couple of important tries. Honourable mentions: Nick Cummins, Alby Mathewson.
Top Performance – 28-16 vs. Waratahs, round 9. The Force had already announced themselves on the scene by the time this game rolled around, with wins over the Chiefs and Highlanders. So the Tahs were under no illusions as to what faced them in Perth but still got tipped up.
The feel-good story of 2014, the Force were supposed to be cellar-dwellers yet again but instead took matters into their own hands and ripped the comp apart with some stunning rugby and results. They faded away after the international break and unfortunately missed the playoff spot they probably deserved but still won a massive amount of respect from anyone watching.
South African Conference:
Finished: 3rd, beaten in semi final.
Top Player – Bismarck du Plessis. Another captain leading from the front, he showed why he’s rated the top hooker in the world with a series of brutal performances and accurate set piece play. Honourable mentions: Frans Steyn, Lwazi Mvovo.
Top Performance – 30-25 vs. Crusaders, round 14. This has got to be the against-all-odds performance of Super Rugby history. Down to 14 men after 15 minutes, then 13 for 20 minutes of the second half, the Sharks managed to not only win in Christchurch, but do so in entertaining fashion.
What the hell happened? After the best tour by a South African side ever, the Sharks got complacent and let it all slip through their fingers at the back end of the season, losing key fixtures and with it home advantage for the finals. By the time they limped into their semi against the Crusaders they already looked like they had lost interest and paid dearly for it.
Top Player – Handre Pollard. The third choice first five going into the season, Pollard took his opportunity when it came and guided the Bulls to some important wins. He was rewarded with captaincy of the Junior Boks at the U-20’s World Cup. Honourable mentions: Victor Matfield, Jacques-Louis Potgeiter.
Top Performance: 23-19 vs. Sharks, round 6. The Bulls were the first team to trip up the Sharks in 2014, doing so at their Loftus Versfeld fortress in the pouring rain. Not much about this game will make the highlight reel, but it’s still an impressive result.
Impressive because the amount of player turnover the Bulls suffered in the off-season was enormous. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for them and they ended up doing probably better than even they would’ve thought, still in with a sniff of the playoffs after the international break.
Top Player – Schalk Burger. The fact that he was injured for a long stretch and what the Stormers results were like without him shows how much of an impact the big flanker had on the Stormers this season. Honourable mentions: Nazeem Carr, Jean de Villiers.
Top Performance – 21-19 vs. Sharks, round 16. The Stormers finally got their act together at the end of the season and tipped up the Sharks in a result that had grave ramifications for the home team, effectively costing them top spot in the title race.
The Stormers were incredibly disappointing in 2014, starting off badly, getting worse and then, almost cruelly for their fans, turning good at the end when all hope was lost. Like the Reds, they have some fair complaints about officiating, but they probably blame poor game plans far more than that.
Top Player – Cornal Hendricks. The flying winger benefitted greatly from the fact that a lot of the Cheetahs games turned into an attacking free-for-all, but was richly rewarded with a call up to the Boks during the international break. Honourable mentions: Adriaan Strauss, Willie le Roux.
Top Performance – 35-22 vs. Stormers, round 11. While the Stormers of 2014 weren’t as big a scalp as they usually are, this was a big result for the Cheetahs as they finally put in a decent defensive effort.
Wanted: defensive coach for a team that is fully capable of scoring points but unable to stop them. The Cheetahs, so impressive last year, somehow forgot how to tackle and conceded an avalanche of points that was always going to impede any serious title hopes they may have had.
Top Player – Warren Whitely. Someone had to keep picking up the ball and charging forward for the comp’s least fashionable team and it was the big number 8 that did it. Honourable mentions: Marnitz Boshoff, Franco van der Merwe.
Top Performance – 34-10 vs. Stormers, round 2. While they ended up down the bottom of the table, the Lions didn’t hesitate to pull of a major upset in the first weekend, not only downing the fancied Stormers but giving them a hiding.
The Lions came, tried hard but ultimately ended up where they belonged, down the bottom. They are a team that’ll always be up against it given their seemingly meagre resources and expect more of the same from them next season.
Match of the year: As good as the final was, it was just shaded by another match the Crusaders were involved in. Back in round 15 they travelled to Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin and put on an epic match against the Highlanders, winning 32-30. Both sides threw absolutely everything into this game and it had pretty much everything: brilliant tries, Richie McCaw getting sinbinned, an amazing comeback and even referee Glen Jackson getting smashed in the face (accidentally of course). Even though the highlights package is great to watch, they really don’t do the game justice as it was played with test match intensity for the entire 80 minutes. It’ll be mainly remembered for putting to rest any doubts that Malakai Fekitoa would make the All Blacks, a huge game from rising star Nemani Nadolo and how it all came down to an incredibly controversial TMO decision. Check it out here and tell us what you think:
Try of the year: After winning their first 10 game, the round 11 clash the Sharks had at home against the Highlanders should have been a shoe-in. Unfortunately they got completely ambushed and lost in a shock result, the highlight of which was this unbelievable effort from Malakai Fekitoa (it’s the second try in this little highlights package, the first two being a big hit on Conrad Smith and a great try vs. the Blues):
Idiot of the year: It seems a long time ago that I first dished out this award to Hurricanes flanker Adam Hill, whose lack of knowledge of the rules meant he was sinbinned only moments after getting on the field as a replacement in the Canes loss to the Stormers in round 1. Since then it’s been shared around a fair share of referees, TMO’s, fans, officials and even myself for giving out the wrong advice on what matches to watch. At the end of the season it’s pretty hard to pick a clear cut winner, so I’m giving it to referee Steve Walsh due to the fact that he is probably the most annoying person involved in the game in this day and age. Sky TV here in NZ have recently added a function on their coverage to be able to mute the referee’s microphone during broadcasts and it’s a very badly kept secret that criticism of Walsh’s in-game management was the reason behind this innovation.
Super Rugby 2014 is all over. Once again, congratulations to the Waratahs, worthy champions and thanks to everyone who has read and contributed. Also huge thanks to my learned colleague Stephen Reynard of Wellington for helping me out with this massive season wrap-up.
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.