The fixtures last weekend started to sort out who had finally switched onto their game plans effectively. Some teams whether by design, behavior or poor play are already heading to another season of disappointment. Some teams have been unlucky, some teams are clinging on but only a few are actually bringing their training plans and pattern of play to fruition in the arena. Already the likely semifinalists are emerging.
For mine the Stormers, Sharks, Chiefs, Reds, Crusaders and Brumbies are the front runners for the 6; disputing this assertion, down but not out would be the Cheetahs, Bulls, Blues, Waratahs, Hurricanes and with a mountain to climb but not impossible are the Force, Rebels, Highlanders and the Kings with the Kings wooden spoon favorites at this stage.
Came back to earth with a thud this week but still had chances all the way through against the Stormers. Their line speed and physicality in defence feature of their season so far was overshadowed by the strong offensive effort of the Stormers. Definitely missing Jesse Mogg’s speed and intuitive vision on attack. George Smith was outstanding and is he Wallaby bound? Toomua showed glimpses of real class. Great win in Durban beating the Sharks and fierce at home, Jake White has worked a miracle in the Australian Capital.Mowen a good hard working captain, underrated player.
Living up to their unwanted moniker of “rabbles”. They have been competitive without dominating any team so far this season. Completely and utterly wiped off the park in all facets of play by the Sharks this week. Their pack was insipid; Higginbotham and captain Delve the only two up to S15 standard. Their backs were outplayed and is the James O’Conner brand suffering from not settling in one position. Coach Damien Hill has a multitude of problems to attend to and not all game related – already playing to avoid the wooden spoon. Not enough class in key positions and will struggle again this season, coach’s nightmare at the moment.
First game with the “big 4” back in action together – Horwill, Genia, Cooper, Ioane. Did just enough to win although the bulls were one dimensional and easy to read. Will have to play much better to replicate their S15 winning season of 2011. Their attack seems stifled and static, lacking the freedom of the last two campaigns. Big plus with Horwill back – he is big, strong and physical – a sort of “follow me lads” leader. Genia and QC once they are firing will add immensely to their scoring ability as a team. Too many good players to ignore though.
Having to rebuild a wasted, insidious culture in the middle of a heartland NRL city. Coach Cheika is open about what he wants to do; he expects his players to deliver and is changing their mantra to a more ball in hand, entertaining and expansive game style. The Waratahs have always had the depth and the numbers. Now they have to start delivering results to get the fan base back. When the group fully switch on to their patterns they will be hard to beat. Captain Dave Dennis is doing a good job leading the “pretenders”.
Michael Foley and his management group are working unbelievably hard to improve this franchise’s fortunes. They have the capability on their day to upset and beat anyone. Their main problem is lack of consistency and lack of star power and/or game breakers. This withstanding, I still expect them to be the great improvers of the tournament this season. When they get it right, as they did against the Reds last week, they are a very hard side to beat. The game this week against the Waratahs could be season defining for both sides.Pek Cowan is going great as a captain and prop; Hugh McManimen is an inspired signing. Is Deans looking at him?
South African Conference
Same game plan, same style, different results. Their imposing physicality and direct style whilst able to win them a few games, will not give them the dominance they had in their 2007/9/10 winning seasons. Other teams have moved on but the Bulls still persist in a possession, position based game with great tactical and goal kicking by Morne Steyn. They have great backs but need to sue them more thus requiring a whole new tactical approach to improve their fortunes. All coaches would love their forwards resources. Out of all the teams that I have met in the S15, the Bulls would be the single most humble and accommodating group of men I have met; outstanding individuals and fantastic ambassadors for Pretoria and Northern Transvaal.
They came, they saw and they conquered 3 of 4 opponents at their home grounds on their Australasian Tour. Any team in any of the three conferences would be very happy with that. The Cheetahs are unfashionable, well coached by Naka Drotske, well captained by Adrian Strauss and have belief, they are entertainers and leave nothing in the tank. May lack the absolute class with Johan Goosen now injured, to go all the way but a few teams will rue the day they played them. Capable of anything, anywhere, anytime. They are that sort of team.
Have added pace, power and lateral attacking options to their renowned defence and physicality. Big, strong, fast, committed, balanced – the coaching staff under the astute Allister Coetzee, have reinstated Pietersen as goal kicker with immediate results and this in turn has freed up Jantes to orchestrate their gameplans.They are setting the pace in 2013.Well led by Andries Bekker up front and Current Springbok captain Jean de Villiers. Could go all the way this year.
Coach Plumtree changed the team and the captain in the process dropping two Springboks.This in turn reinvigorated their attack, albeit against opposition which failed to turn up defensively. They look a well-rounded group with big strong loose forwards, a hard grafting pack and effective backs spearheaded by Lambie and Mosman. A team to watch closely.
Welcome to the big-time boys – after the euphoria of a new franchise launch, a first up win against an inept Force side and hopes for a bright future the past two weeks have brought reality tumbling cruelly down around and over them. Broken eligibility rules, the brutal reality of playing in NZ and Australia and doubts over their depth and game plan have contrived to see what the Team management can come up with. Coach Sexton is a 100 game veteran of Super rugby and Coaching Director, Alan Solomon is a wily, tough old SA coach – they will have their whole rugby experience and coaching ability, their mantle and their resolve tested and this year may be a very hard learning curve for their entire group. But they look determined, unbowed and excited; these things mean a lot in the culture of a franchise.
New Zealand Conference
The two knights, Sir John Kirwan and Sir Graeme Henry, have this team well primed. They are rebuilding their patterns of play and reconstructing the Blues culture. This will take time but it will happen. The group looks committed, has two very experienced players in Weepu and Captain Ali Williams, leading them and is exciting with their all in; ball in hand, direct approach. May not feature this year but are looming large. Great team to watch and will bring back crowds to Eden Park this season
One of three real form teams – always hard backing up after winning it. But they have methodically rebuilt their attacking game post SBW, stepped up their defensive game and kept their high powered, all energy and bustle, all round game intact. No mean coaching feat but then they have probably the most well rounded and gifted coaching group in the tournament. Under rated forwards, classy backs, steely resolve and a back to basics connection with the people culture I expect them to just rack up points and build to the pointy end of the season. Look very good. Great coaches; good captains in Liam Messam and Craig Clarke which seems to work well with this group.
They were underdone and got spanked by the Blues; they lost a game they should have won by a single point to the Canes. Coach Blackadder as is his wont didn’t panic but soul searched and came back with the expansive, width of the park 15 man game only the Crusaders can really play well. 13 tries in two weeks but the test is to come in the republic, the Stormers and the Sharks lie in wait comforted by the fact that Dan Carter is on baby alert and inspirational captain, Kieran Reid is injured. Will the demons of past Blackadder campaigns in SA be revisited? One thing though is that historically, the Crusaders of all the franchises have the depth, the capability and the class to prosper. Back in form and too good to dismiss. I am sure the Sharks Coach John Plumtree and the Stormers Coach Alistair Coetzee will think so too.
With just the right sprinkling of class across the board and down their spine – Conrad Smith, Savea, Barrett, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito, Dane Coles – the Canes have made a bright start – losing to a good Blues outfit but beating both the Highlanders and the Crusaders in NZ conference games. They also lost a controversial game to the Reds in which referee Steve Walsh made several contentious decisions (how surprising) that went against the Canes. Coaches Mark Hammett and Alama Ireimia have the side playing an up tempo, fast paced game, using their strike weapons well. Hammett endured fierce criticism for shaping the team his way but the culture there is good. They are well led by Conrad Smith, play for each other and appear a united and happy team.
Dream Team, Nightmare start. Far too good to dismiss but they have to start winning and soon or the Ferry will have sailed out of the pier. Have the basis of a good spine, heaps of experience and possibly one of the best assembled back threes in the game. Forwards are big, strong and drilled – badly missing Nasi Manu though. Slade settling back in slowly; Aaron Smith’s form a concern but he is good and will come out of it. The half second extra he is taking is hurting them and I’m sure Jamie Joseph and Scotty MacLeod will fix this. Jamie has built a good, hardworking culture down there and they have a great stadium to play in. There are really no excuses. The players just have to front up, be honest and have belief. Far too much experience and class to be where they currently sit.
My team so far:
15 Jesse Mogg 14 Kade Poki 13 Rene Ranger 12 Jean de Villiers (vc) 11 Willie Le Roux 10 Pat Lambie 9 TJ Perenara 8 Kieran Reid 6 Ben Mowen 7 Heinrich Broussow 4 Andries Bekker 5 Hugh McManimen 3 O Franks 2 A. Strauss (c) 1 S. Kitshoff
Captain– Adrian Strauss
Vice Captain – Jean de Villiers
Coach – Jake White
Assistant Coaches – Naka Drotske & Dave Rennie