Grab the popcorn for Aussie run to play-offs
With 10 rounds of the Super Rugby season done, things have suddenly got a whole lot more interesting in the Australian conference.
I finished off the last column saying that anything can and will happen in Super Rugby, and that's certainly been the case in the within our conference.
Form has been fleeting, consistency hasn't existed unless you include 'inconsistency', and where I suggested that the Brumbies probably loomed as the major – and possibly 'only' – source of Australian play-off hopes, well, even that claim now looks rather shaky.
Consecutive losses to the Crusaders and Highlanders means the Brumbies have now only won one of their last four matches, and with a bye in there as well, they added just four competition points to their tally for the month of April. Worse, they haven't scored a bonus point of any variety since Round One; only the Southern Kings have fewer bonus points for the season.
Their form will be concerning enough, but their inability to find bonus points is becoming reminiscent of their 2009 and 2010 campaigns when a lack thereof kept them out of the play-offs.
If there is a silver lining to the Brumbies' current situation, it's that the weekend of Round 10 saw something of a resolution to the background boardroom showdown that has been going on within the club.
I'm not sure how much of the sorry saga has found its way to the rugby365 pages, but the short of it is that CEO Michael Jones probably had moral high ground in what became a pretty ugly attempt to seek answers around a series of major financial transactions before his tenure, yet somehow managed to make his position more and more untenable. He accepted a payout offer to walk away this past Saturday.
It means that we may never know the full story behind the whole ridiculous mess, but at least it can no longer affect the players. And it obviously was having some kind of effect; it had to. The longer it went on, the more the team would have absorbed, and in reality, the flatter they looked on the field.
For their game at the weekend against the Highlanders, they took the unprecedented step of heading to New Zealand probably two days earlier than they usually would, just so that they could reconnect as a squad without the corridor whisperings going on around them at their Canberra training base.
In the last two weeks, their play-off credentials have taken a severe beating, and with it, their lead of the Australian conference has evaporated. The loss the Highlanders – an error-riddled display that followed another error-riddled display against the Crusaders in Round Nine – saw the Brumbies drop to 10th overall now, and it's probably a fair reflection of their current standing.
Can they regain their early season form and make a run to the conference lead? Who knows. But they do have a relatively good run into the June International window.
They'll host the Bulls – who are playing a lot better now than I anticipated they could at the start of the year – this Friday, and then play the Rebels away, have their second bye, and host the Sunwolves the last weekend of May. They could win all three, but on current form, they could just easily lose two of them.
The clash with the Rebels in Round 12 suddenly has a season-defining look about it. For both sides.
The Rebels took the Australian conference lead by default after they beat the Cheetahs in Round Nine, and then watched the Brumbies implode against the Crusaders. The win against the Cheetahs was one of their better performances of the season, but typifying their up and down campaign, it came in the middle of two lacklustre showings against the Hurricanes, and then the Blues in Auckland this weekend just gone.
In both cases, they lost games they really needed to win in order to prove their worth, and worse, they lost badly. It's hard to see how they could hold onto the conference lead with this kind of inconsistency, never mind a run that includes the bye this weekend coming, the Brumbies, the Chiefs in New Zealand, and the Force at home.
Like the Brumbies, they could also just as easily win all three or lose at least two.
And this just leaves the Waratahs, who looked done for when beaten by the Brumbies in Sydney three weeks ago, but who now look the Australian team most likely after finding some very handy form on tour. Their demolition of the Western Force in Perth proved they still knew how to attack, but to then follow that up with a very impressive win at Newlands this past Saturday has suddenly made a lot of people in Australian take notice.
This time next week, the Waratahs could be leading the conference; an unthinkable scenario less than a month ago. And on current form – 10 tries scored in the last fortnight, and only four conceded – who could argue?
They host the Cheetahs and Bulls in Sydney on consecutive weekends now, head to Christchurch to take on the Crusaders, and then face the Chiefs back in Sydney. Three weeks ago, you'd have said the Waratahs might battle to win two of those four, but suddenly winning maybe even three is well and truly possible.
It makes for a cracking next month of rugby, and beyond that, the run to the play-offs in July.
And there will be more drama in the Australian conference; you just know it. So pass over the popcorn!
By Brett McKay
* Brett McKay is an Australian rugby writer and commentator, who has sat through more Bledisloe Cup and World Cup Final losses than any human should have to endure, and is desperately hoping for a change of luck soon. For regular musings on rugby, sport, and all manner of life's trivialities, you'll find Brett on Twitter at @BMcSport