Scotty Stevenson presents all the discussion points that matter heading into Round 2 of Super Rugby this weekend.
The Kings and the Sunwolves meet in Singapore this week, with the â€˜homeâ€™ side desperate to restore some pride to their points differential after last weekâ€™s shellacking at the hands of the Hurricanes. Given their final quarter effort against the defending champions, the Sunwolves should probably be favourites.
They will certainly be favourites to stay in the competition at least. It is understood the Kings are on the chopping block as SANZAAR meets this week to discuss the future make-up of the competition. Regardless of good intentions or political imperative, it is clear the Kings will be the first side for the scrap heap. The Sunwolves and the Jaguares are, through the eyes of the expansionists, far more geographically important to the competition, and assurances have been given that they will not be forced to exit.
The Kings arenâ€™t the only side under threat. The viability of the Cheetahs side is under the microscope as well. Even more so given Australian Rugbyâ€™s steadfast refusal to cull at least one of its five sides, regardless of sustainability.
Super 16 anyone? Watch this space.
Will the Blues keep putting the boot in?
The Blues may have put 50 past the Rebels in Round 1, but the biggest surprise was just how many times they kicked the ball in play. All up, the Blues made 33 kicks in play, the most of any team in round one, and well up on their 2016 average of 20.9 per game. First five-eighth Ihaia West led the way with 12 kicks in total, forcing the Rebels to attack from depth and allowing his team to capitalise on the error count.
It will be fascinating to see if they persist with the tactic against the Chiefs â€“ fascinating because the Highlanders, who last year topped all teams on the kicks-in-play average (27 per game), kicked just 18 times in last weekâ€™s loss against the Chiefs, and allowed two tries from pass errors inside their own half.
The Blues will be keen to play territory against the Chiefs, but making the tactical decision around the kicking game even harder will be the fact the Chiefs missed 37 tackles against the Highlanders*. That would be an open invitation to the Blues to run the ball but for the inconvenient fact that, yes, the Chiefs still won.
To kick, or not to kick, that is the question.
(*To put that missed tackle count in perspective, the Sunwolves missed 43 tackles and got pumped 83-17. The Chiefs sure know how to scramble.)
Can the Sharks play some rugby, please?
Before round one we wondered if the Sharks would ever again look interested in playing rugby, and it appears the answer to that is an emphatic no. They should still have won against the Reds, but it appears not much has changed from last year in terms of the Sharksâ€™ attack.
If it wasnâ€™t for the Forceâ€™s first up effort against the Waratahs â€“ a smorgasbord of serious ineptitude that returned the fewest metres, the fewest clean breaks, and the fewest rucks from the fewest carries and passes off the fewest minutes in possession â€“ the Sharksâ€™ stats would have looked even worse.
The Sharks played with just 34% of the ball against the Reds, and they can ill-afford to do that against the Brumbies this week. The Brumbies love it when teams give them ball to play with, which is exactly why the Crusaders tried their hardest to break records for the number of pass completions and carries against them last week.
To wit: the Crusaders carried a round-topping 157 times in the match and topped the pass count at 220. And they only just snuck a victory. The Sharks, by comparison, carried a measly 78 times and made 80 passes against the Reds. The Brumbies would love them to do that again this weekend. If they do, it wonâ€™t be so close.
Joaquin Tuculet should be your new favourite player
The Jaguares managed a first up win away from home against the Kings in Round 1, but will face a much sterner test this week against the Stormers. If they are to stand any show, theyâ€™ll be hoping their fullback Joaquin Tuculet can replicate his stats from last week. Because they were phenomenal.
Letâ€™s put aside the fact it was against the Kings, and recap the Argentinean internationalâ€™s game return and round ranking: 18 carries (2) for 145 metres (2) with 6 defenders beaten (6) and 3 clean breaks (6). Tuculet also scored a try and claimed an assist on another.
Put him in any other team and he would have been one of the most talked about players in the competition this week.
Who’s the bigger loss: Ben Smith or Richie Moâ€™unga?
It is a massive nut-punch for fans that the southern classic will be shorn of two of its brightest stars this week. Richie Moâ€™unga (hand) and Ben Smith (concussion) have both been ruled out of the indoor clash this Saturday, meaning some major adjustments for both the Crusaders and Highlanders coaching staff.
This eventuality did get us thinking though. Which is the bigger loss? One is the captain of his side whose calmness at the back has been instrumental in the Highlanders resurgence as a genuine force in the competition. The other has inherited the ten jersey at a franchise that puts an awful lot of stock in a first five who can control the game.
Ben Smith may be considered the better player â€“ a Rugby World Cup-winning All Black, and by most measures the worldâ€™s most reliable fullback â€“ but we think the absence of Richie Moâ€™unga is the more crucial blow.
The Highlanders have plenty of men who can… if not exactly fill Ben Smith’s boots, certainly boast the experience to wear them well. Matt Faddes, the Highlandersâ€™ Player of the Year in 2016, would be on option, and another would be the returning cult hero Richard ‘Barracuda’ Buckman.
The Crusaders will go with Mitchell Hunt â€“ a fine schoolboys player who has had limited opportunities at this level. Thatâ€™s actually an understatement. Hunt has just two Super Rugby caps to his name and will be in the cauldron this weekend.
Only because of Huntâ€™s inexperience, weâ€™d say the loss of Moâ€™unga outweighs that of Smith. But feel free to give us your opinion below.
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