Assessing the five Kiwi teams ahead of the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs
With the Blues record 13th straight win of the season over the Waratahs, they have built Super Rugby Pacific’s best record and would have put together an undefeated regular season if not for Ardie Savea’s last second heroics in round two.
They are without a doubt in the box seat to deliver a Super Rugby title with home ground advantage sewn up, but one wonders if getting a loss out of their system would have been ideal right here ahead of the playoffs.
With 13 straight wins, the Blues will now have to go 16 in a row to be crowned champions of Super Rugby Pacific. If they fail to do that, it will be one of the biggest choke jobs in Super Rugby history.
They have the competition’s leading Most Valuable Player candidate in Beauden Barrett who has been instrumental in getting them home in big games against top opposition. They will need Barrett to keep producing the big plays down the stretch.
The Crusaders will put away the Reds for the second time next week in their quarterfinal. The Queenslanders have not beaten any of the five Kiwi teams this year and that likely won’t change now.
Scott Robertson’s men will bank a home semi-final and quietly go about their plans with one eye on a possible trip to Eden Park for the final the following week.
The third-placed Chiefs have questionable credentials, having narrowly escaped away losses to the Rebels in Melbourne and the fast-finishing Drua in Fiji, two sides parked at the bottom of the ladder.
But it is the heavy home defeats to the Crusaders, Blues and Brumbies that brings into question just how valuable home ground advantage for their playoff game against the Waratahs will be.
The New South Welshmen are good enough to pull off an upset in Hamilton next week and expose the Chiefs for who they are: a good but inconsistent team that has gone 1-4 in their five games against the other top four sides.
If any side is going to be upset in the quarterfinals, the Chiefs are the most likely candidate as the competition’s counterfeit contender.
With their loss to the Force and other final round permutations, the Hurricanes will now have to travel to Canberra to face the Brumbies where they were demolished earlier in the year.
Despite the Brumbies late season fade, the Canes up-and-down season deserves to be buried once and for all on the cold turf at GIO Stadium.
The Hurricanes could pull off something but in the long run they will be better off taking the loss. A semi-final berth will paper over the cracks of a team that should be in re-building mode and cleaning out some of the roster.
They have the worst scrum of any Kiwi side despite possessing a swathe of New Zealand age grade front row prospects and the experienced pair of Owen Franks and Dane Coles. The Brumbies pack should eat up the Hurricanes tight five at set-piece time and prove too much.
Tony Brown’s Highlanders just simply do not deserve to be anywhere near the playoffs and neither do the Force, but that is the nature of this poorly provisioned playoff system.
This is one of the major problems with the competition that has eight of the twelve teams qualifying. The incentives for sides to spend a few seasons building a genuine contender are not there.
You can plod your way through and still be in with a chance, just needing to get hot for a three-game streak. As a result, some of the New Zealand teams aren’t blooding younger combinations that need time to build for the future as they still hold out hope a title is on offer this year.
The Chiefs will be better off in three years time starting Cortez Ratima at halfback and Rivez Reihana at first five every week, building a 9-10 combination between the 21-year-old and 22-year-old that will give the franchise the foundation for a long title window in the future.
Instead they think they are half a chance now so Brad Weber and Bryn Gatland have the jobs. Weber is a genuine All Black halfback of course but at 31-years-old, the sun is setting. Gatland is an admirable performer but will not be in the picture for national selection.
It’s the same at the Hurricanes, who have flip flopped between Ruben Love, Jackson Garden-Bachop and Aidan Morgan throughout the season at 10 while veteran TJ Perenara holds the 9 jersey over Jamie Booth and Cam Roigard.
The Hurricanes need to find a top young halfback prospect and pair him with 20-year-old Aidan Morgan to start every week. In three years, they will have the halves combination they need to contend as both young players have the necessary experience while still possessing their peak athletic ability.
If Super Rugby teams had to put together a quality season to reach the top four instead of eight to make the playoffs, they would have to think longer term in getting there as mediocrity wouldn’t be good enough.
The also rans that are making it this year are chopping and changing combinations every week in search of the magic chemistry that could surprise everyone at the last hurdle. Long-term planning is taking a backseat in some cases.
The consequences of this are felt higher up with the All Blacks having shortages of specialist players in their prime athletic years that they can actually pick.
The All Blacks need international quality options ready under 25 years old, not a host of journeymen at the end of their careers. Marty Banks holding down a Super Rugby back-up job with the Highlanders is not what the All Blacks need at first five unfortunately.
New Zealand’s young blue chip players in key roles likely need to have at least 25-30 Super starts under their belts to be a genuine chance of being a test selection. That means they need starting jobs at 20 or 21-years-old to build the necessary experience. For forwards, they could start a little bit older.
If these careers are held up or delayed, or they are rotated in-and-out every other week, pushed into playing multiple positions, then what do the national selectors have to go off? There is often not enough.
Chiefs second five Quinn Tupaea debuted last year for the All Blacks out of necessity, which was probably a little bit too soon despite Tupaea being a top centre prospect through the age grades.
The Chiefs bungled his introduction to Super Rugby by omitting him from their 2019 squad which cost him a year of valuable experience even though he was ready at that time. The Covid-reduced season in 2020 gave him 12 games in his first season, seven of which were starts and they were mostly in the 13 jersey.
By the time of his All Black debut he had 19 Super caps, of which just 13 were starts, and just seven at second five. He didn’t majorly disappoint at international level, he just wasn’t given enough development time to hit the ground running.
This year the 23-year-old is starting to hit his straps with nearly 30 Super Rugby caps in what is now his third season and is probably ready to contribute meaningfully as he enters his prime years as an athlete.
This three-season arc is what the Super teams should be providing for the absolute top prospects coming through, particularly in the backs who peak earlier than forwards and the speed and agility declines earlier on the downside.
If the Super teams were forced to build genuine contenders, instead of the Oprah-inspired ‘you get a playoff spot, you get a playoff spot’ setup, then the incentives might be better aligned with what the national side needs.
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