The way the inaugural Super Rugby trans-Tasman series is formatted, there simply isn’t time for teams to build momentum and launch a late-season tilt at a finals series.
Comprising just five rounds and a one-off final for the top teams, the Australian and New Zealand cross-over series is most definitely a sprint, not a marathon.
Five games before a final means that the 10 teams were always going to need at least four wins to be a chance of finishing in the top two. As it stands after one round of matches, I can still see several teams finishing with four wins, but still missing out.
But with one round of matches now behind us, the five matches all won by the Kiwi teams, the competition has quickly taken on sudden-death elements for the Australian sides. To get to four wins, the five Australian sides have to win everything from here in. And as I say, that still may not be enough.
Already, the pundits and commentators over the ditch have been quick to air their concerns over the ability of the Australian sides to compete in the trans-Tasman series.
Monday night’s The Breakdown on Sky Sport in New Zealand featured the typical discussion panel of ex-players and commentators, and there was a pretty familiar tone in their comments.
“I know there was obviously two close games but having watched the Australians and got a gauge for where they were — this was our first opportunity to really get that — and I was a bit disappointed with the intensity that they actually brought to the games,” former Chiefs and All Blacks outside back Mils Muliaina offered.
Thinking ahead to this weekend’s now crucial matches, former Crusaders and All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg pinpointed the opening exchanges as the most important.
“That first 20-30 minutes is crucial for Australian sides to put pressure on these Kiwi sides. Hopefully, we can get a few results otherwise she’ll be a long wait for Aussie fans,” he said.
Interestingly though, Muliaina had eased up by Tuesday, when asked if the Australian sides would win a game.
“I’m going to vouch for (the Brumbies), and they’re up against my old team, but I think they can do it.
“They’ve got the ability to be able to adapt after that first round, but yeah, I think they can definitely come back and be that one team.”
Certainly, on the first round’s showing, it’s going to be difficult for the NSW Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels to record four wins from their remaining games, with almost universal agreement among fans and pundits that the Brumbies, Western Force, and Queensland Reds offer the best chances of Australian wins this weekend and for the remainder of the competition.
But the Reds will need an almighty turnaround from their disappointing showing against the Highlanders last week, playing host to the Crusaders in a Brisbane blockbuster, pitting the Champions of Super Rugby AU against the Champions of Aotearoa in front of another massive Lang Park crowd.
After kicking away far too much ball from far too deep in their own half last week, the Reds will need to kick with much more purpose this weekend. Inaccurate kicks against the Crusaders will be punished by one of the most clinical counter-attacking games in rugby, and the Reds will need to chase their kicks very well, as well.
The Brumbies found success last week at the breakdown against the Crusaders, and the Reds certainly have the personnel to replicate this. Equally, the Reds scrum will hold up well, but they will need to pay special attention to their lineout, their one area of set piece found wanting against the Brumbies in the AU final a fortnight ago.
On the topic of the Brumbies, their structured set-piece game will set an excellent platform to overcome the Chiefs, perhaps the New Zealand side who thrive on broken play and unstructured possession more than any other. The Chiefs will do well to find parity at the breakdown, which if they can’t will certainly disrupt their ability to play quickly from one ruck to the next.
The Brumbies will take plenty of confidence from their near-miss to the Crusaders last week and will have the added benefit of having spent the week in New Zealand relaxing and preparing, while the Chiefs spent the first days at least recovering and making the long trek back to Hamilton from Western Australia.
The Highlanders will make that same long trek and then some, making the trip from the South Island up to Auckland, then over to Sydney, and then onto Perth, where they face the Force in the match many believe will open the Australian account in Super Rugby trans-Tasman.
The Force enjoy a high possession game and will need loads of it against the Highlanders, who did concede plenty of tries in Aotearoa and whose defence can lose shape under pressure. But the Highlanders have always been and still are a team more than happy to play without the ball, so it’s going to be a real test for the Force’s ability to work themselves into the right part of the field from which to launch their attack.
The Australian ’tilt at the finals’ is effectively on, but the sudden death nature from here means there just cannot be any further slip-ups. The wins have to come this weekend, or the prospect of an all-Kiwi trans-Tasman final becomes very real.
Super Rugby trans-Tasman – Round 2 (all times AEST)
Hurricanes v Rebels, Wellington 1705
Force v Highlanders, Perth 1945
Blues v Waratahs, Auckland 1435
Chiefs v Brumbies, Hamilton 1705
Reds v Crusaders, Brisbane 1945