Picking a winner in Super Rugby is anyone's guess
Take Jake White as an example. The former schoolteacher had reached the pinnacle of his chosen profession, winning the 2007 World Cup with the Springboks. He wanted to carry on, but his union chose to discard his knowledge.
Four years later White signed on with the Brumbies and moved to Canberra. Or did he? England’s dismal showing at the 2011 World Cup persuaded them to find a new coach and White was one of those short-listed. When the 2012 season began in mid-February, White was torn between his new job with the Brumbies and the possibility of coaching at international level again.
Ultimately, he chose the Brumbies and there were many who doubted his resolve. How would the players react to a coach who seemed as though he did not want to be there?
As it turned out, they reacted positively and White’s well-known ability to bring the best out of young talent brought instant results. Expected to bring up the rear in the Australian conference, instead the Brumbies dominated it, entering the final weekend of log play with one hand on a home play-off.
They needed a single point from their final match at home against the Blues. The Auckland union had been whipping boys for most of the season, but they chose Canberra as the venue to remind us of their pedigree. In the process they kicked the door open for the Reds, the defending champions, and Ewan McKenzie’s troops proceeded to march right through it.
So the Brumbies, who had dominated the Australian conference for four months, finished seventh instead of third, missing out on a home play-off by one lousy point. Try telling the players how much progress they have made in 2012. Try telling the coach that the team will be better for the experience. Next year they have to start from scratch and it will all be that much harder.
The Reds duly beat their old enemy, the Waratahs, with a bonus point last Saturday, and that led to a frantic bosberaad in the Kings Park press box. With two games left in log play, the permutations for the play-offs had to be interrogated. Who could play who? was the initial question. Who wants to play who? was the automatic corollary.
The accepted opinion was that the Sharks needed to beat the Cheetahs by five points, but not many more, and they definitely did not want to score four tries. An unconverted try in the “points difference” column would eliminate the Brumbies, whereas an unearned four-try bonus point should ensure the Sharks remained behind the Bulls in the table.
That was significant because the sixth-placed team would play the Reds, whereas the side in fifth place would have to travel to Christchurch to play the Crusaders, champions of Super Rugby on an unbelievable seven occasions.
It was at this juncture that another former Springbok coach entered the Kings Park press box and reminded us that the games played by the press were far removed from those of the coaches and players. “You need to win by not too many,” we said. “You see your arse that way,” he replied.
And in the circumstances the wise old eighth man was proved correct. The Sharks won by 19 points and scored four tries, giving the Bulls the perfect opportunity to choose which team they would rather face in the play-offs.
And the Bulls were no strangers to cooking a last-round result, having beaten the Reds 92-3 at Loftus in 2007 to leapfrog the Crusaders and earn a home semifinal.
Yet the Bulls chose to ignore mathematics on this occasion and when Jacques Potgieter crossed the line close to the end for an entirely unnecessary bonus-point try, this weekend’s fixtures were set in stone. It may be that the Bulls’ brains trust wanted it that way; after all, the blue machine has beaten the Crusaders in play-off rugby three times in a row. Then again, it might be that not administering the coup de grâce would be seen as a sign of weakness.
Whatever the case, it was the Sharks who jetted off for Brisbane and the Bulls who embarked on the longer haul to Christchurch.
Few expect either team to return victorious, but as Jake White will tell you, unpredictability is king at this stage of the season.
The Sharks travelled without Pat Lambie, who was clearly unfit in the 40 minutes he lasted against the Cheetahs, and Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper will miss the game thanks to a one-match ban administered as the result of a clumsy tackle against the Waratahs. Cooper is more central to the Reds game plan than Lambie is to the Sharks, which may be enough for an upset.
The Bulls have laughed in the face of critics all year, making light of the preseason departure of a half-dozen stalwarts. They have the puncher’s chance against the ringcraft of the Crusaders. But it might not be enough on this occasion.