Australia – so where the bloody hell are you?
By this time last year five of the ultimate six qualifiers for the play-offs were already sitting comfortably within the top 6 places on the table. The Sharks only squeezed in ahead of the Bulls by winning the game between the two sides on the final weekend ahead of the playoffs. It seems likely that there will be more movement among the Top 6 this season but some favoured teams have made life difficult for themselves by getting off to a poor start.
The Reds won their first three games this season only to lose the next three. They have been crippled by injuries but still look off the pace. They play the Brumbies this weekend and then limp into the bye weekend. They will be looking to replicate last year’s post-bye run of success, where they won eight of their next nine games.
Great things were expected of the Blues but they too have had a shocker of a start to the season winning only one of their first five games. New arrivals Piri Weepu and Ma’a Nonu are yet to make an impression and the team has struggled to do the basics. They have now had the bye and will be looking to get their season back on track against the Rebels this weekend.
The Waratahs have lost four of their first six games with only the win over the Sharks showing the type of form that saw them make the top six in 2011. After the bye this weekend they will have five games within Australia during which time they will need to get back to their winning ways.
The Stormers, Highlanders and Chiefs have played the best rugby and are deserving of their places at the top of the table. These teams have already shown themselves capable of getting results despite losing key players to injury. As Australian conference leaders the Brumbies are notionally sitting at third place in the table but on the basis of points earned they are sixth.
The Brumbies have played some good rugby and are showing signs of the Jake White influence. Meanwhile credit must be given to the Hurricanes and Cheetahs for the manner in which they have entertained in the early rounds of the competition. The coaching of Mark Hammett and Naka Drotske is a credit to the front row union!
The Australian conference has been the most disappointing so far. It is worth noting that no Australian team has yet won on foreign soil during this year’s competition. It is an indication of their underperformance that no Australian team has a positive points difference after six weeks of competition. The Brumbies at zero are the best of the bunch.
Much is likely to change before the final round robin games are played on the weekend of July 13th & 14th. One suspects that the Crusaders will by then be back in the fold and the early exuberance of the Hurricanes and Brumbies may have run out of steam. If the Stormers, Crusaders and Waratahs were to emerge as conference winners, I would imagine that the Chiefs, Highlanders, Sharks and Bulls will be competing for the other three playoff slots, with perhaps the Chiefs unfortunate to miss out.