What an emphatic win for the in-form Super Rugby side from Australia, The Reds. What made this victory so much more deserving is that Ewan McKenzie, the coach and head of the Queensland-based franchise’s brain trust had a definite plan to it all. Granted, this sounds a bit strange, seeing as every one of the coaches in the competition had to have a structured plan in place. That may very well be the case, but were those plans based on correcting the errors of seasons gone by? I don’t think so!
In New Zealand, any early front runners are always competing with The Crusaders as the Canterbury outfit tend to start peaking later and later in recent years. They have the “stuff” champions are made of, so they always come back strong, as they showed again this year. They can never be written off and every year the media (in S.A. anyway) make big news of their slow starts, just to change opinion completely mid-way through the season. The other franchises in New Zealand all seem to have what it takes to win competitions on given days, but lose their way too frequently on many other outings.
The Blues lacked cohesion and structure this year, just as they did last year. Stephen Brett does not command enough respect as a pivotal general and Luke McAllister is just not versatile enough to be switched from fly-half to centre week in and week out. Pat Lam knew this, but hoped it might change, it didn’t. The Chiefs have an equally erratic team-axis in Stephen Donald, who fails (without fail) to put a magician like Richard Kahui away or into any scoring opportunities. Mills Muliaena has far too little effect on proceedings from the back and Isaac Ross lacks confidence and is a shadow of his former (Caterburian) self. The Highlanders place way too much hope and confidence in their two All Blacks, Cowan and Thompson, as has been the case in the last 2-3 seasons. Jamie Joseph is new at his job, so he deserves another go at mending the blunders of 2011. Mark Hammett must wish he got the job at his old team, rather than get stuck with petulant children like Nonu and Weepu. Nonu’s contract was not renewed and he went looking to Japan to further his career. The NZRFU stepped in however and got the Blues to offer the bulldozing mid-fielder a contract. With the added condition that he be allowed to take up a lucrative deal in Japan after the RWC and before the Super Rugby season starts in 2012.
Our good mates in Australia may have won the trophy, but except for The Reds, these guys were nowhere. The Waratahs have a similar problem with Berrick Barnes as the Blues have with McAllister, whereby the blonde former Queenslander is shuffled from fly-half to centre and even the bench on a whim. Phil “the Wombat” Waugh is passed his sell-by-date and his retirement could not have come earlier. Kurtley Beale is outstanding, but is used too close to the advantage line to be effective. He is a non-issue anyway, as he is chasing the money train to Melbourne from next year. Speaking of the Rebels, they had their pipes cleaned more often this season than all the work done by Melbourne plumbers all year. Having Stirling Mortlock, Rod Macqueen and a few ex-internationals in the mix, simply isn’t enough to anchor a franchise. Throw in Cipriani’s of-the-field antics and you have a ready-mix for disaster. The Brumbies need Jake White like Keith Richards need Mick Jagger. They’ve lived off the memories of the Roff/Gregan/Larkham era longer than is even possible for die-hard Aussies to do. They desperately need structure and a leader with focus, Gitaeu might be a genius, but he doesn’t inspire confidence to his followers.
The Perth-based Force had an average season at best, no different to last year and possibly very similar to the year to come. Nathan Sharp remains the only force (excuse the pun) to be reckoned with up front, while David Pocock’s supporting role is worth mentioning. Boy-wonder James O’Connor has a bright future, but there has to be a decision made as to where he is to play. Messing around in a backline can have dire consequences for your future. Can anyone say Ruan Pienaar?
We all know what happened in the S.A. conference. The Bulls started badly and never had the look of champions about them. They were in unfamiliar territory and for the first time, Frans Ludeke’s true ineptness shone brighter than The Milky Way. If there was ever a team that orchestrated their own destiny, only for the coaches to shine, it was the Western Province outfit of the late 80’s. The Bulls players Ludeke “coached” to two Super Rugby titles are no different . Heyneke Meyer built the ship with Matfield, Botha, Du Preez and Steyn , commanding it. Ludeke had little or no share in the sculpting of their past success and doesn’t have the worst track record of loss-to-win ratios in the history of this competition for nothing. The Cheetahs fought bravely and managed to win on tour for the first time ever, but their player pool is insufficient, much like their funding and that has been their story for years. The Lions thought they could buy a team and secure some respect, but they were horribly mistaken. John Mitchell is a visionary, but he needs a few more seasons to cultivate an ethos in Johannesburg. The Sharks played well as they do every year, but key selections at key moments left them stranded. Lambie will come “into his own” as a pivot very soon and when Smit leaves (again) post RWC, Bismarck du Plessis will claim his rightful place as the hooker in form. Stephan Terblanche is past his prime and probably had to depart even before this season. Meyer Bosman is a fly-half and not a centre, but if he is to play there, he needs a creative partner, let’s hope Marius Joubert is that person.
If the Bulls didn’t resemble a champion side this season, the Stormers have never resembled one. They lack power and affectivity in the tight exchanges, but decide rather to procure ridiculously expensive backs. They build a whole game plan around defence and forget about attack. The primadonnas in their set-up is second only to the ones starring in the soap opera that is Stamford Bridge. This has been the case for a few seasons now, but they have cleverly disguised this fact with glittering new signings who play their best rugga on paper.
If all this is taken into account, Ewan McKenzie has done magnificently to come away with the 2011 Super 15 title, or has he? If we dissect his approach, we find only four key elements to it; namely a dominant front row, a number eight that crosses the gain line every time, a scrum-half that links the backs and forwards brilliantly and a fly-half that controls proceedings. How much more complicated need a game plan be to be effective? Not much, according to me, but with McKenzie being Australian, he might just reveal that his team’s success amounts to much more than mere basics…