Finals hope for Australian Super Rugby Conference
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 19: Curtis Rona of the Waratahs scoes a try during the round 14 Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and the Highlanders at Allianz Stadium on May 19, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)
There is stills Quarter-finals hope for the Australian Super Rugby Conference –  or should that be ‘final’ hope. The only surviving team, the NSW Waratahs, will face the Highlanders in Sydney for an all important playoff fixture.
Important on so many levels; for the franchise, the state, the coach and ultimately, to Rugby Australia’s confidence.

Finals hope for Australian Super Rugby Conference

The last two years have been difficult for the Australian Super Rugby Conference. Not involved in any of the semi-finals for several seasons, and with only one guaranteed place, they have failed repeatedly to reached the heights of 2014. That was when the NSW Waratahs were a high performing unit and claimed their only Super Rugby title; under current Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika.

But in recent times, they have reflected the lessened power of rugby in Australia. It has piggy-backed on two International tour losses at home – 2016 to England (0-3), and in 2018 to Ireland (1-2).

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Home losses that only reinforced the depowered strength of their Super Rugby teams. So reaching the Finals Series this season does bring hope.

Hope for the other states which will be represented: Australian Capital Territory (ACT Brumbies), Victoria (Melbourne Rebels) and the Queensland Reds. Of note, the fifth Australian Super Rugby side is in fact, the Sunwolves from Japan.

New South Wales need to represent

This is a good side. The common idea that all Australian Super Rugby conference teams are ‘push overs’ is nonsense. Including many Wallabies, like game maker Bernard Foley, the side will be of equal to the Highlanders; critically for them, in front of a home crowd.

While comparison to the regular season victory by the Waratahs is ungrounded; when you recognize that when Tevita Nabura was sent off in the 17th minute, which freed them to score a convincing 41-12 win. This game will be different.

That match in May also ended the incredible 40-game drought against New Zealand teams….but only the once though in 2018. So even if ‘Tahs will feel confident they have experienced a sole win over their trans-Tasman neighbours, it does not occur regularly enough to be full of confidence.

So for the Sydney-based team to represent all of Australian rugby, a quality resulted is desirable. Possibly so, as much for the amalgamation of states, but especially so for Rugby Australia.

Having to endure such long periods of endless losses to New Zealand teams, this year there have been some rays of sunlight. The Rebels performed above expectations; after gelling many of the unemployed Western Force players, into their squad.

Some talk has been that this has been the best season since 2014. True, but it is certainly not a form-changing one. Just the single team, compared to four Kiwi teams and two South Africans/one South American side.

So in 2018, the NSW Waratahs hold all the Finals hope’s for the Australian Super Rugby Conference.

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The Highlanders play an expansive game, built around a fierce defence. They jump onto any turnover, and like the Crusaders, act quickly to convert opportunities. A front-on tackling team – epitomized best by Waisake Naholo’s late tackle in their final match at home.

Using a type of rush defence, all players secure in the knowledge that the men next to them will make their tackles. It is the Highlanders culture of ‘mateship’ that is often shown in their commitment to defence.

“I’m really excited. I can’t wait to get into it, to be fair,” head coach Aaron Mauger told Fairfax Media, looking ahead to his first playoff match in charge of the Highlanders. “We’ve got a lot of our guys who will play next week rested, so they will be fresh, energised and ready to go . . . only a couple of niggles and hopefully we should have everyone available to jump on the plane.”

After resting their leading All Blacks Aaron Smith, and co-captain Ben Smith, the team from Dunedin might want to ensure they get the right start when facing the Waratahs. That is, unlike their South Island neighbours the Crusaders, who allowed the Waratahs to gain a huge lead in their fixture in May. The ‘Tahs leaped out to a huge 29-0 score, which was very tough to redress.

The Crusaders managed to overcome the Australian Super Rugby conference team, but it will be a warning to the Highlanders. Don’t allow the home team ‘too much rope’. Not many teams have overcome big first-half leads in 2018, so the two teams playing will want to keep the other within reach; if behind at the break.

The second 40 minutes has been an area the Highlanders will have more confidence in. If they do need to ‘chase down’ the home side, fans back in Dunedin would bet on their ‘Landers side to achieve their goals, ahead of Sydney-siders hopes.

Waratahs must reverse performance from last week

Fitness might be the home sides only weakness. Michael Hooper won’t be fit again, and they will want Cameron Clark and Kurtley Beale to recover from illness. But with Curtis Rona (see main photo credit), the superb Israel Folau and Foley in the backline, they might favour running in a few tries against the visitors. Big defence is required from their pack though, so expect a forwards-heavy bench to aim to hold back the Kiwi opposition.

They must perform better than their last result. Losing to the Brumbies in Week 19, the team recognized that they were not prepared. “I think it’s on us, this whole week’s on us. When we get it right, attack and defend, we can beat anyone,” Bernard Foley told media, after the game last week.

Waratahs Bernard Foley surges forward during the round 14 Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and the Highlanders on May 19, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

“We’ve just got to get it right and come with the right attitude next week.”

Being a critical Super Rugby quarter-final, fans should expect a much better performance. Both teams will play at 110% no doubt, but if the NSW Waratahs wish to progress into the deeper stages of the 2018 finals, then this weekend the Australian Super Rugby conference squad must be at their very peak.

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NSW Waratahs v Highlanders – Saturday, July 21. Allianz Stadium, Sydney

 

“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images

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