(Fancy making a fool out of yourself in the mailbag edition later this week? Send your questions in by email to SuperRugbyMailbag@gmail.com or you can find me on the Twitter as @el_nonpareil)
Do you know what the biggest difference – talent aside – between a good team and a bad team is? Bad teams keep shitting the bed because they keep on making stupid mistakes, and good teams keep punishing them for it. It wasn’t only the bad teams trying to throw games away in round one though: the Highlanders managed to return several gifts of years past to the Chiefs, the Lions somehow woke up just in time to save themselves from an opening week disaster, the Bulls threw the game away with a lack of awareness in the early stages, while the Rebels and Blues traded mistakes to begin with before the Blues decided to, you know, make the Rebels actually work for their points.
The Highlanders-Chiefs game, in particular, was a great example of how mistakes lose you matches and it was a mirror image of games between the two last year with the Chiefs being the benefactors this time around. It was the pick of the opening weekend’s games, and it seems that having such a big game to start off with might have gotten to the Highlanders with them making an uncharacteristic amount of mistakes. Last year, it was the Chiefs who had all the possession, running the ball at will but facing a determined defence that waited for their opponents to make a mistake (often while attacking in the 22), and then capitalise for the points. This time out, the Chiefs simplified their game plan and absorbed pressure from the Highlanders, forcing them to play with more possession than they’d typically like to – it wasn’t entirely by design either: the ball retention from the Highlanders at the breakdown was excellent and the Chiefs couldn’t really get a foothold in the game but some of the decision making with ball in hand, and the Highlanders’ balls skills let them down badly. Aaron Smith got quite a bit of criticism but some of it was a bit unfair with Lima Sopoaga getting a relatively free pass despite being responsible for some poor decisions in the Chiefs 22, on one occasion trying a cross kick with an easy overlap outside him. With Ben Smith now injured and a tough game against the Crusaders in round two, the Highlanders will have to improve if they don’t want to start a second consecutive season 0-2. The good news though, and there is plenty of it, is that the Highlanders will improve: their halves are too good not to get back to their imperious best, Tevita Li started off like he had a jet pack, Eliot Dixon will be back, and the Highlanders did manage to pretty much dominate a game against one of the strongest teams in the competition and if that game was played again in the playoffs, the Chiefs would have to be a lot better to pull another win out.
As for the Chiefs, they’ll be happy to come away with the points but rest assured they’ll be disappointed with their performance: they didn’t manage to get much in the way of continuity in attack and while their back line should gel – there’s also the potential for them to go supernova if they can get Charlie Ngatai back – I just don’t think they’re as good with Kerr-Barlow as with Weber. Weber accelerates the speed of the Chiefs attack and provides a fantastic support option on breakouts, while Kerr-Barlow just seems to blunt the bite that McKenzie and Cruden provide. The Chiefs might prove me wrong and lift the title at season’s end, but losing Weber for the year is probably the most significant injury we’ve had so far, and unless they start getting better service from their scrum half, the Chiefs won’t have it in them to beat the very best opposition, and they might very well end up with a former All Black passing from the base of the ruck (side note: has a team ever gone from having three good halfbacks to one so quickly?).
Anyway, on to the Linebreak Power Rankings! What, you want me to talk about offside lines, Eddie Jones, and the state of rugby? Fine but seeing as we’re talking Eddie Jones, here’s a picture of Eddie looking exceedingly glum as his team flattered to deceive against spirited opposition on Sunday:
Seriously though, who doesn’t see the resemblance? There’s a shared love for strong relentless athletes implementing a rigid sport-by-numbers game plan, being loved by followers of his team and loathed by fans of rivals. Check, check, and check. They share the bad side too you know? Burning out players with their grinding style, and their personality grates on their charges once they’ve tasted success. On top of that, they’re both combustible personalities who will say the most outlandish things to deflect attention from their shortcomings, of which both England and Manchester United had plenty on the weekend. This is a rugby website though so that’s the end of the football talk (rest easy Jose, this is all on Mr Jones from here on out).
The biggest problem with the way that England dealt with Italy’s unorthodox tactic was that they didn’t. There’s been a lot of criticism of the tactic Italy used but it’s entirely unwarranted: it applies the same principle as when teams don’t contest the lineout and don’t bind to the maul but instead have an onside player go round the back and make the tackle. Just as that tactic risks the line-out catcher keeping the ball and running through the middle, the “no-ruck” strategy risks the same thing: a player from the picking up the ball and charging through a loose defensive line around the tackle area (a method that Clive Woodward’s World Cup winning side employed effectively). Eddie Jones has tried to deflect attention from his players being unable to realise this for themselves and the blame for them not doing so has to be shared between the players and the coach. At this level, the players should have enough awareness of the laws and what they can see to figure out where the spaces are by literally using their eyes and brains, while Eddie Jones has contributed to this with his overly structured and inflexible game plan that takes decision making out of his players hands. The problem with this, and the games over the last few weeks from an England perspective, is that it shows other teams that England don’t adapt well if you take them away from their structured game and carrying on from the theme of mistakes in Super Rugby’s opening round, if you just stop making crucial mistakes against England so much, you’ll stop losing to them as frequently too.
Oh and Eddie: Italy didn’t have 23 players out there, they had 15. And you know the thing with 15 players on a rugby field? There’s always space to exploit somewhere. If they’re in among your players, they’re not in the defensive line out wide and they’re definitely not covering short chip kicks and grubbers in behind and they’re absolutely not covering their blindside properly. Here’s a top tip (but I want royalties from your salary if you use it): have your full back and blindside wing stay out on the blind and have your other backs fan out wide to the open side with only your fly half staying in tighter. Have your forwards pick and go a few times and now your halves have a choice to make: if they go to the blindside, the fly half has to wrap round and take the ball from the scrum half on the run, creating an overlap in the narrow lanes on the outside. If they go to the openside, your fullback and blindside wing wrap round to the openside outside of your fly half to give him a short passing option. If the wide defenders come inside to deal with these unmarked runners, pass it to your other backs who are helpfully stationed out wide. Pretty simple right?
Now that the England fans have all retired to their keyboards to flame me, the rest of you can get on to the Linebreak Power Ran- wait no, the LINEBREAK SUPERPOWER RANKINGS!!!!!!!!!!
- Hurricanes (Last Week: 1)
I said we wouldn’t learn anything from last week’s slaughter and I might have been wrong. The Hurricanes definitely couldn’t be described as fat, slow, or unfit in week one this time around and they face a second easy fixture in week two. Last year, the Hurricanes relied on their sheer speed – they were probably the fastest rugby team in the world from 1 to 10 last year – and ferocity to make a late run to the top of the regular season standings but this time around, they can use this soft start to the season to ease their way into a dominant position from the start. They have a few injury concerns with Milner-Skudder and Blade Thomson but then they could always start Beauden Barrett too…
- Chiefs (3)
I’m putting them up a spot this week but they can consider themselves lucky winners – and therefore lucky risers – but a win against the Highlanders in Dunedin in no small feat, and it might be the difference between a repeat fixture in the playoffs taking place in Hamilton.
- Highlanders (2)
As the Dalai Lama said, “when you lose, don’t lose the lesson”. It’s advice the Highlanders should take. They were impressive and frustrating in equal measures but thankfully for them, they have a little leeway this week as they face a Crusaders side shorn of Richie Mo’unga.
- Lions (4)
You can pick your narrative here: either the Lions were slow to adapt to heavy conditions under foot and were rusty against an underrated team but still managed to gut out a win… or they were lucky to survive under pressure and will regress to the mean after over performing last year. A lot will depend on how Elton Jantjies performs in the face of the blitzing defenders he’ll see all season after his struggles against the Hurricanes last season but he just doesn’t seem to have the temperament for that. The only solution for the Lions is to have Faf take the pressure off by using other players at first receiver but it seems like every good attack the Lions have runs through Jantjies taking the ball first. It’s a big problem, but it might not need a solution until the playoffs, at which point it’ll be far too late.
- Blues (9)
Could it be their year at last? Last season was a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly but if they can just keep it to the good and the ugly this year, they’ll be a serious threat to any team they line up against. The most important thing for them right now though is to stay in touch with the other Kiwi franchises through a tough run of fixtures until they have their full complement of players back AND TO STOP MAKING SO MANY MISTAKES (I’m looking at your Ihaia).
- Stormers (6)
Wait, what happened to the Stormers?! Tapping penalties and trying to run their opponents off their feet – are we sure the Chiefs ever came back to Waikato after their play-off win in Cape Town last season? If last week wasn’t a flash in the pan, the Stormers might be this year’s surprise package.
- Crusaders (5)
The Crusaders have slipped down the rankings slightly despite a good win last week mainly because they’ll be trotting Marty McKenzie out for the next few weeks and his brother, he ain’t. Sadly, it might turn out to be another lost season for an all-world pack. They’ll be worth watching every week though – Israel Dagg looks like he’s back to that 2010-2012 kind of world destroying form.
- Reds (8)
Quade Cooper tried his best to not win this game with some wayward goalkicking but he only gets the best supporting actor award for his role for backing up Nick Frisby. If the Reds want to make a run this year, they need to get better play out of their scrum half… or make a change to someone who isn’t the Bermuda Triangle for a rugby ball. Quade did manage to redeem himself as the game went on, and with a promising looking squad that is likely to improve week on week, look for the Reds to try and crack the top 6 soon.
- Sharks (7)
Potentially the most underrated side in Super Rugby, they need to figure out how to score tries more consistently because they can’t keep on relying on other team’s mistakes to score points – or maybe they can!
- Waratahs (10)
The Tahs might really miss having Kurtley Beale this season and it was a sorry sight to see Israel Folau shackled up so effectively. If Foley misses any significant length of time, this season could go south in a hurry – especially if the Reds continue to improve and the Kiwi franchises provide a repeat of 2016.
- Brumbies (11)
Brave in defeat, but without the something extra in attack that turns wins into losses – I wonder how many times I’ll be able to copy and paste this in for the Brumbies this season.
- Jaguares (12)
Can I give them much credit for beating the Kings? NOPE!
- Cheetahs (15)
C’mon man. You have to win that game from there – and you’re not moving up any further until you prove you can put teams away in close games (the other difference between good and bad teams!)
- Force (16)
Wait, are we all sure that the Brumbies and Force aren’t the same team? No wonder the ARU are talking about nuking them: it’s because they’ve already done it!
- Bulls (13)
If that’s the level of decisiveness that Pollard is going to show this year, it’s going to be a long year in Pretoria, and for South African rugby fans in general. COME BACK TO US HANDRE!
- Rebels (14)
Players were missing but so were a few more things: a fly half that can control a game, locks that can jump, locks that can push in the scrum, and wingers that can threaten in space. McMahon, Naivalu, and Korobiete can’t come in quickly enough.
- Kings (18)
Let’s face it, these guys have only moved up one spot because they didn’t quite get the same level of #BeatEmDown!!! that their fellow strugglers got, and that’s all there is to say about that.
- Sunwolves (17)
Can we just take a step back from all the talk about how the Sunwolves shouldn’t be a part of Super Rugby because they’re too shit, and look at the opposite side of the argument? They weren’t the only team that got hammered this week, and the Sunwolves played a far superior team to the Rebels. They got a real hammering from the Cheetahs last year as well but then again, the Rebels got a real pasting from the Crusaders (a better team than the Cheetahs admittedly) too and no-one is making serious noise about the Rebels not having a place in Super Rugby because they’ve got “potential”. You know who else has potential? There’s one team in the competition that has one of the biggest economies in the world as its local market, without any local rivals to share attention with, with a passionate and growing fan base, and a gap in the market to exploit. Seriously, what did all the people criticising them having a place think was going to happen? They need a few years to get a good structure together and bring players in that are comfortable playing at this level regularly.
Usually, I’d call it a day at this point but SANZAR have been super unkind – do they do anything that’s not super something? – and organised an early game… so here are the picks for Thursday and Friday (the rest of the picks – and the mailbag – will be up before Saturday’s games… as ever, picks in bold and home teams in CAPS):
FORCE +2.5 vs Reds **BEST BET**
Wait, I get to bet on an exciting, attacking team against a brave – yep, I mean limited – team who managed to keep a game tight against a team without it’s fly half last week and I only have to give up 2.5 points to do it? The Reds managed to come back and win against an underrated Sharks team last week, and started to show signs of gelling together as the game went along. They managed that with Quade kicking like a nightmare too and surely he can’t be that bad again… can he? With George Smith doing his best Benjamin Button impression, and Kerevi kicking on from where he left off last year, this should be a cakewalk for the visitors and it will be, if they can stop Frisby from hitting the self-destruct button he’s magnetically attracted to.
CHIEFS -6.5 vs Blues
The Chiefs weren’t great last week but they flipped the script on the Highlanders by absorbing attacks until a mistake happened, and then took the ball to the house but there was a lot of room for improvement, and they’ll have to improve if they’re going to overcome a Blues side overflowing with confidence. The good thing for the cowbell brigade is there’s a long history of the Chiefs rising to the occasion under Rennie and everybody knows what happened to the would-be King who stuck his neck out too far right? Clue: decapitation. Besides, this spread is way too kind to a team that let a depleted Rebels side stick around for way too long before putting them away. The Blues get a few more players back this week but Tana has opted against putting them straight into the fire, and stuck with his winning side from last week, but this spread basically says that this game would be a toss-up if it was in Auckland – and the Blues aren’t that close to the Chiefs – at least not yet.
I’d finish off with a joke but it’s 2AM here and I can’t even type anymore and have a shit sense of humour. Out!