Six weeks into the 2010 Super 14 tournament, the NSW Waratahs are in the top four. But is this elevated position a case of flattering only to deceive?
Spiro Zavos writes for Roar that the other three leading sides are there without any qualms about whether they’ve been promoted above the level of their abilities. Can we say the same about the Waratahs?
The Bulls are the unbeat-a-Bulls at Pretoria. They have won 15 Super 14 matches on the trot at home. New Zealand rugby writers are beginning to wonder whether the team are the new Crusaders, the second Super Rugby dynasty since the tournament started in 1996.
They started the season blowing away South African, Australian and New Zealand sides by taking the ball up hard from first phase play and then setting up their big runners from second phase play.
But against the revitalised Hurricanes they went back to their traditional game of booting up-and-unders or launching driving mauls. These are tactics that the new interpretations have supposedly de-powered this season. But if referees allow kicking teams to take catchers out (in the pretence of playing at the ball) or allowing any number of stoppages for driving mauls until there is no other option but to drop it down, the Bulls will remain unbeatable.
There should be a call now, as well, to referees to be really strict on teams forming the maul at the lineout, something that the hapless Paul Mark actually got right and was (unfairly) disciplined as a consequence. Also, there should be no leeway when the maul stops.
The point here is that the maul goes against the most important principle of rugby in that there should be a continual contest for the ball. There can be no contest if the ball is parked down the back of the maul, with the bound forwards in front of it technically off-side. Defending sides should be rewarded for stopping the maul, which is the only real defence against it.
The issue for the Bulls is whether they can transport their Pretoria game, which is best played at altitude, to Australia and New Zealand. When they play the Western Force in Perth we should get an idea of just how unbeatable the team really is.
This presumes that the Western Force will play as determinedly as they did against the Waratahs. You can’t help thinking, though, watching the Western Force that there are still issues between the majority of the players and the coach.
The team desperately needs a new and Australian coach who will hopefully drop Nathan Sharpe as captain and build a new squad around David Pocock as captain and a number of the younger players.
This brings us to the Waratahs and another team, I believe, that certainly needs a new coach and new captain to replace Phil Waugh (this is sacrilege, I know).
After the match, Waugh said one of the only interesting things I’ve ever heard a player or a coach say in those idiotic on-field interviews. ‘We probably didn’t kick enough in the first half,’ he noted when he was asked about the way the match went and the strong effort put up by the Western Force.
The kicking by Berrick Barnes and others was actually quite good. Generally it was for field position. But you don’t score tries and put pressure on other sides by kicking the ball to them. Gossip has it, though, that Waugh is the leader of the kicking tactics.
It must drive forwards crazy when they fight to win some possession only to have a back boot the ball to the opposition. And under the new interpretations – except for when the South African Jaco Peyser is refereeing – teams can hold on to the ball for long periods of time and mount sustained attacks once they get hold of it.
Peyser ensured a Waratahs victory when he penalised the Western Force several times on the Waratahs tryline when Waugh was blatantly grabbing the ball before the tackled player could play it.
Thankfully, Luke Burgess has rid himself of his kicking habit. But like a smoker who alleviates his cravings with fast food, he now runs excessively across the field before passing. This is almost as bad (but at least the ball is not delivered to the opposition) as kicking the ball away. A number of Waratahs players are carrying injuries and bruises from the hospital passes delivered to them by Burgess.
The Waratahs coach, Chris Hickey, will be under pressure if his side doesn’t make the finals. I always believe that 90 per cent of good coaching lies in accurate selecting. Hickey seems to have got the forwards right. This is a plus for him. The Waratahs pack, especially the loose forwards, have a bit of mongrel and an appetite for the rampage about them.
But the backs are a mess. They did not create or make one line break against the Western Force. Nor did they look like making such a break. Last week I called for the immediate introduction into the starting back line of Josh Holmes, Rob Horne and Kurtley Beale. Surely this has to happen next week.
The halves do not have much energy in engaging the opposition loose forwards, in contrast with Will Genia and Quade Cooper of the Reds.
With Berrick Barnes and Tom Carter in the centres there is not much penetration and too much plod, especially from Carter.
Drew Mitchell is playing splendidly. But he is a one-man band in the back three. There is no guile or real pace from Sosene Anesi. Lachlan Turner is coasting. He had one run out of trouble against the Western Force. But he is too willing to kick the ball away rather than bolt away with it. He does not seem to be involved in any set movements, either.
But then the Waratahs backline does not appear to have many moves in its bag of tricks. They occasionally shovel the ball along the line and appear to hope that something will happen.
This gets us back to the coaching staff. You could say that Michael Foley has done an excellent job with the forwards, that Scott Wisemantel, the skills coach, needs to get the backs playing smarter and more constructive rugby, and Chris Hickey needs to start selecting a side that reflects the best of the talent in his squad.
The obvious answer to all of this, of course, is to say: ‘We can’t be doing too much wrong if we are in the top four.’ Winners are grinners, as the adage says.
But can the Waratahs keep on winning with their present pedestrian style?
On Saturday night against the Blues we will get a better indication of what the answer is to this question. The Blues are an erratic team but against the ACT Brumbies at Eden Park they played more effectively than they have for some time. Rene Ranger proved too much for the Brumbies outside backs to handle.
If Ranger can be kept in check and if the backs play with the pace, efficiency and skill of the forwards, the Waratahs can entrench themselves in their top four placing, a nice position to hold in the run in to the finals.
Will this happen, though?