It’s been a season of some real highs but also some real lows, great celebrations for some fans and a total lack of anything to celebrate for others. Here is my review of the Super Rugby 2015 season.
The Final Table
The Highlanders won the final away to the Hurricanes but the table ended like this:
1) Hurricanes 62 2) Waratahs 47 3) Stormers 45 4) Chiefs 48 5) Highlanders 48 6) Brumbies 47 7) Lions 42 8) Crusaders 41 9) Bulls 37 10) Rebels 35 11) Sharks 29 12) Reds 22 13) Cheetahs 21 14) Blues 20 15) Force 15
The points might not immediately make sense but the top places are taken by the top teams from each countries conference. The Canes were the runaway winners followed by a group of 5 teams that made the playoffs. Next there was a mid-table group of 5 more teams who had varying degrees of hope of making the playoffs. Finally there were 4 teams fighting it out to make sure they didn’t come last or were they just bumbling around?
Here’s my team by team review:
New Zealand Conference 1st Points 62
The Canes had a storming season, the legendary centre partnership of Nonu and Smith was reunited in a nearly completely All Black back line. But the biggest change was the platform they were given by the forwards and the new coaching setup must take a lot of the credit.
As far as the season goes they kicked off with a great start by winning 3 on the bounce on tour. That confidence then carried through the rest of the season, only picking up two losses along the way. That is extremely impressive, especially in a world cup year where there are mandatory rest periods for your top players in New Zealand. They come unstuck in the final but have much to be proud of and gave a good send off to some senior players. There has to be a question about if they can repeat anything like this form next season, with several senior players moving overseas after the world cup, but that’s a problem for another day.
Grade – A
Australian Conference 1st Points 47
The defending champions were looking at going back to back. That vision took a hit on the very first day of the season where they were turned over by the Force. They did make it into second place but really lacked the consistency that you expect from champions. They only ever managed to string three wins together once. I did wonder at the beginning of the season if the dual role that Cheika took on as both the head coach of the Wallabies and Waratahs would be too much. I don’t know if that was a factor but they didn’t really look like upsetting the New Zealand apple cart, even if they were the best of the rest.
Grade – B
South African Conference 1st Points 45
The Stormers sneaked to the top of the South African conference, whilst they kicked off the season with 4 wins there were no TBPs. Then 3 losses to New Zealand sides put a dampener on things. But a series of efficient performances with only an upset against the Cheetahs carried them to the top of the conference. Even though they had beaten the Brumbies earlier in the season, they were the playoff team with the fewest points and dropped out at the quarter finals. But in a poor year for South African sides they put together a solid if unspectacular season.
Grade – B
New Zealand Conference 2nd Points 48
One of the pre-season favourites, they had a couple of key blows in losing Cruden and with SBW having limited playing time due to injuries. This told in their results with 2 losses in the first half of the season and 4 in the second. Even with these difficulties they came second in the regular season, if you only look at points. But one of the things that I have noticed this season is the shallow depth of the Super Rugby franchises. Once those two players were lost it was always going to be an uphill battle.
Grade – B
New Zealand Conference 3rd Points 48
The Highlanders are a side that have a history of playing attractive rugby and causing the odd upset but not having the consistency to get results week in week out. This year taking a group of players from all over New Zealand and further. Many of whom who haven’t made it with their home franchises. Add in a coach who has built great team unity and a game plan that fits the players. Finally a couple world class players to execute that game plan. That combination managed to carry them all the way to the title.
The season did have a couple of blips along the way, but the only two games where they didn’t pick up points were where their All Blacks had to be rested. Another example of the depth available to the Super Rugby Franchises. But they picked up their first ever title and clearly it was an A grade season.
Grade – A
Australian Conference 2nd Points 47
The Brumbies kicked off the season with a feast of running rugby. That proved to be a false dawn as they became the greatest exponents of the rolling maul. Pocock’s try scoring exploits are built upon this. When this game plan worked, they picked up the TBP but when it was stopped there didn’t seem to be a plan B. However when it mattered their backs delivered in the first playoff game. Finally the travel took its toll and they bowed out at the semi final stage.
Grade – B
South African Conference 2nd Points 42
The Lions have never finished higher than 12th before and even dropped out of Super Rugby for one season. This season with a style of rugby that was very un-South African has surprised everybody. It started off very poorly with 3 defeats and then they managed something miraculous. They used their tour games to kick-start the season with 3 wins from 4, these are the games that sides normally struggle with. They managed to go into their final game of the season with all still to play for but they fell just short of the playoffs.
There were 9 wins but only one of those was by more than 5 points. It could have so easily been a disastrous season, but this was a side that could hold it’s nerve.
Grade – A
New Zealand Conference 4th Points 41
The most successful Super Rugby side of all time was saying goodbye to some of its greatest sons this season. It didn’t start very well with an opening loss to the Rebels but the Crusaders are famous for their slow starts. The high number of All Blacks that came back slowly and had to be rested didn’t help their cause nor did trying to play 3 fly halves or first five-eighths. For much of the season they were knocking the door of the playoffs but showed themselves to be flat track bullies. If they could get the ball to Nadolo they racked up large points but if not then they really struggled.
Grade – C
South African Conference 3rd Points 37
Two opening losses, where the performances disappointed their supporters, led to open letters to the franchise letting them know it wasn’t acceptable. Seven wins out of the next nine games turned things round and the playoffs were a possibility. Then the Bulls collapsed on tour losing their last 5 games including to two of the bottom three teams. Some rebuilding work needs to happen before next season if the only South African winners of Super Rugby are to challenge again.
Grade – C
Australian Conference 3rd Points 35
The Rebels hadn’t finished above 12th before and this was a real breakthrough season for them. With the theme of firsts the target for their season they really delivered with their first overseas win, first win in Canberra, etc… A disappointing end to the season meant they dropped away and greater consistency next season will be a target. Maybe having accomplished many of their goals they unconsciously relaxed.
For a fuller review have a read of my interview with the Rebels about their season.
Grade – B
South African Conference 4th Points 29
There were clearly some off-field issues at the Sharks. There were some coaching changes but that should not have led to a poor level of discipline on the field. This wasn’t just a matter of giving up too many penalties but picking up red cards. Key leaders in the squad picked up long suspensions and this married to injuries sank their season. Rumours that discipline was improved by telling players they wouldn’t get paid when suspended didn’t help the team image. There is clearly lots of work to be done fixing the franchises culture before results will improve on the pitch.
Grade – D
Australian Conference 4th Points 22
The head coach come into the season with many questioning his ability to lead. Add into this some players who have reputations of being divisive and the ingredients for a disastrous season were all there. This time around they managed 4 wins with only 1 against a team that finished above them. Champions and two more appearances in the playoffs being followed by 13th twice shows that Graham is not the man to lead. Does this franchise know what they need to do to fix things?
Grade – D
South African Conference 5th Points 21
The grading for the Cheetahs might be a bit harsh after they lost their best players in the off-season as the Bulls raided their squad. The season started off brightly with 2 close wins, in retrospect however they were against struggling franchises. From there on in they were poor and there were very few highlights. Whilst it would be nice to talk about their 3 other wins, it was the big losses that stand out more. That included losing by 43 points to the Crusaders. With the South African resources stretched over 6 franchises next season the quality could drop once again.
Grade – C
New Zealand Conference 5th Points 20
Kirwan entered the season as a dead-man walking coach. With no answer for the on field general position of fly half/first five-eighth and a lost dressing room. It’s not surprise the season started with 7 losses. Somehow the Blues won their first three games at Eden Park in what looked like being a winless season. Fighting among the board that came into the public domain also undermined the season. The only highlights were, the emergence of a couple of young players but mainly the replacement of Kirwan with Umaga for next season.
Grade – D
Australian Conference 5th Points 15
The Force propped up the table with only 3 wins all season. An opening round win over the reigning champions was a false dawn. The really surprising thing is that they managed the double over the Waratahs! The only other thing that excited the fans was the return of the Honey Badger who wasn’t at his playing best but the banter was still there. This is a franchise who, from the outside, don’t seem to know where they are going. It’s clearly ages until the next season but nothing I hear makes me believe that there is going to be much improvement.
Grade – D