A team who lost to the Jaguares last weekend remains the team to beat in the Super Rugby playoffs – at least according to Scotty Stevenson’s final playoffs edition power rankings.
Last week: 1 (N/C)
You can’t judge the Lions playoff team on the result of last week’s game against the Jaguares because that was a very different team. Coach Johan Ackermann rested 23 of his players last week, potentially gambling away his grand final hosting rights in order to the boost his quarterfinal victory chances. Some would say that is a rational bet. Others might say that is the craziest coaching move in the history of Super Rugby.
The Lions finished the regular season in second spot, but they still have top spot in the power rankings, and here’s why: they have the Ellis Park advantage over the Crusaders who used up so much gas at sea level that it would be amazing if they had enough left for altitude. The Lions have also scored more points and more tries, run for more metres, beaten more defenders, and won more turnovers than any other team in the competition.
It gets better: the Lions scrum has forced the worst opposition win percentage this season, and they allow the fewest passes, the fewest carries, the fewest rucks and the lowest average time in possession. The Lions, simply, are a very good team.
Last week: 4 (up 2)
What is it with the Hurricanes? The more impossible the task the more chance it seems this team has of completing it. How else can you explain them losing to the Sharks back in May then rolling the Crusaders in a bonus-point victory in Christchurch on Saturday to set up the most implausible minor premiership ever?
Coach Chris Boyd said this week that they may not be the best team on paper (unless you are looking at a print out of the regular season table, I suppose) and he may have a point. The Hurricanes boast just one player (Julian Savea) in the top 25 ball runners in the competition and just one player (Ardie Savea) in the top 25 ball carriers. Thank goodness for Mr and Mrs Savea.
Yet, maybe that’s the secret to the last couple of years of Hurricanes rugby: they play like a team, rather than rely on a handful of stars. Only the Chiefs, Crusaders and Lions have scored more points per game this season, and the Hurricanes still make the most carries per game, and the second most metres per game of any side. They are also tough to beat at the break down, where they have won more rucks than any other play off team.
The Sharks may have got the better of the Hurricanes back in May, but it’s hard to see the final qualifier troubling the top qualifier in Wellington this week.
Last week: 5 (up 2)
All the pre-match talk last weekend was that the Highlanders may feel the sting from the last couple of weeks worth of travel which saw them take on the Kings in South Africa before facing the Jaguares in Argentina, before returning home to Forsyth Barr to meet the Chiefs. So much for that theory.
The Highlanders may well be the best conditioned team in the competition, and play the game at such a pace you are left to wonder whether they are just trying to get it over and done with so they can have a beer. They were manic against the Chiefs. If it isn’t in the clean out, then it is attack of set piece, and it if isn’t that then it’s expert kick chase or quick line out throws. They never slow down.
They will be odds-on to beat the Brumbies in Canberra, although this is one of those games that requires some tipping caution. The Brumbies, on their day, can manufacture a certain kind of tempo that the Highlanders won’t enjoy but whether they have the variation in attack to trouble a team that makes more tackles than any other is questionable.
It may surprise readers that there is no side in the competition that kicks the ball more than the Highlanders, and that won’t change against the Brumbies. This is a team that loves to say “here it is, now what are you going to do with it”, and the answer all season has been, “not much.” Only one team has allowed fewer points this season, and we’ll get to them later.
Last week: 3 (N/C)
The hardest thing about the flight to Cape Town for the Chiefs is spending all that time in an enclosed space with Dave Rennie and Kieran Keane who were understandably a little gutted about the result against the Highlanders on the weekend. The top spot was their for the taking at Forsyth Barr but the ‘Landers were too good (again) for the visitors.
The Chiefs are rightly lauded for their counter attack, but against the Highlanders it felt like the Chiefs spent too much time waiting for the counter and not enough time building the attack. Even Aaron Cruden, in his half time interview, hinted at the lack of patience from the Chiefs.
There is no doubt the Chiefs boast a better attack that the Stormers, but in most categories the numerical advantage is negligible. They offload more – and will need to – and run for more metres, but the Stormers are no slouches on the carry either. Where the Chiefs can prosper is in their kick return game.
That said, the Chiefs could well use the kicking game themselves, knowing the Stormers have struggled to play rugby outside their own half this season. If they hem them in and – importantly – kick their goals, they should account for the hosts with some comfort.
Last week: 2 (down 3)
Of all the ways to bottle the regular season, getting beaten up by the Hurricanes at home would probably be the worst, but this has been the one sticking point for the Crusaders all season: playing New Zealand sides.
The Crusaders have not lost to a foreign opponent all season, and have already beaten the Lions in South Africa (43-37) but they have struggled against teams that have shown a willingness to be creative with the ball and finished the year 2-4 against their fellow kiwis.
All of that is a roundabout way of saying that flying to Johannesburg to take on the most open, running team in South Africa is just about the worst assignment you can imagine for this team.
There is plenty of hope though. The Crusaders have made more clean breaks than any other side this season (though many of those can be assigned to giant winger Nemani Nadolo who has been ruled out of the quarterfinal) and they also make more offloads than anyone else.
Add to that some staunch defence (the fewest missed tackles per game this year, and the best tackle percentage) and you still have a team that is more than capable of winning this game, and the whole damn thing. They will need Andy Ellis back, and they’ll need something special out of first five Richie Mounga who is still a baby at this level and will be up against a wily old veteran in Elton Jantjies.
Last week: 7 (up 1)
I’ve been tough on the Stormers this season because they have been unconvincing as a rugby team. Yet here they are, with home advantage, in the playoffs. So much for style over substance.
The one thing we do know about the Stormers is that they are defensively impressive, and have conceded the third fewest points per game this year. They also know how to take the points when they are on offer, and given the Chiefs got themselves into all sorts of penalty pressure against the Highlanders last week, they can ill afford to test the refereeing team in this match.
We’ve already covered the Stormers inability to play territory this year, but where they can come unstuck against the Chiefs is in their appalling turnover rate. They have lost the ball more times than any other team this season which is no drama against the Sunwolves and the Cheetahs, but a massive ball ache against the click play of the Chiefs.
The Stormers lineout will be a massive asset for them with Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth both ranking in the top 15 lineout forwards this season. Neither of the Chiefs locks, Brodie Retallick or Dominic Bird, rank in the top 25.
On the home advantage thing: the Stormers have a frankly disastrous play off record. Newlands may be a formidable place to play, but it’s hardly a fortress.
Last week: 8 (up 1)
The Brumbies have a great line out drive.
Last week 10 (up 2)
I’m not entirely sure the Sharks should be in the playoffs, but I don’t make the rules and so here they are. It is doubtful if there has ever been a team in Super Rugby so averse to playing rugby. The Sharks carry the ball less than any other team, pass the ball less than any other team, and win fewer rucks than any other team.
It’s like attack is an optional extra with these blokes, and they’ve decided not to upgrade. That said, they still somehow manage to make more metres per game than the Brumbies, which says more about the Brumbies than the Sharks I think.
There is only one team in the competition that spends less time in possession than the Sharks, and that’s the Kings. In the Kings’ defence, that was only because they had no idea what the ball was for and spent most of the time they did have it coming up with all new and exciting ways to give it back.
We can all agree that the Sharks attack is pretty much non-existent, but they do have an ace up their sleeve – they have the best defensive record of any team in the playoffs, conceding a measly 17.9 points per game. That being said, much of that has to do with the fact teams haven’t been able to kick goals against them. Sharks opponents this season have combined for just 62% from the tee.