Gloom for Australia in Super Rugby as playoffs near
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) Bad days in Australian rugby got worse when all five of their Super Rugby teams suffered heavy losses in the tournament's penultimate regular-season round.
After a 3-0 test series defeat by an England team coached by one of their own, Australian Eddie Jones, Australia now faces the prospect that only one of their teams will make the Super Rugby playoffs – and then only because of a forgiving qualifying system.
A black weekend for Australian teams began when the Auckland-based Blues, a team already out of playoff contention, crushed the ACT Brumbies 40-15, delivering a heavy blow to the Brumbies' hopes of qualifying for the post-season.
Then the Chiefs beat the Queensland Reds 50-5 and the Christchurch-based Crusaders crushed the Melbourne Rebels 85-26, scoring 13 tries.
Later Saturday the Wellington-based Hurricanes beat the New South Wales Waratahs 28-17 in Sydney, defying the Waratahs' vaunted home-ground record and clinching their own place in the playoffs. Finally, the Cape Town-based Stormers beat the Perth-based Western Force 22-3 to complete a clean sweep of Australian franchises and to raise further questions about the steady decline of Australia's rugby strength.
Next weekend's final round will determine whether the Waratahs or Brumbies, tied on 39 points, claim the only playoff place still available to an Australian team. The Waratahs face the improving Blues, while the Brumbies play the Force and may have the upper hand in the sudden-death contest for a playoff place.
Whatever happens, the best either team can do is reach 44 points, which would almost certainly make them the lowest-ranked side to reach the playoffs: their 39 points are currently only good enough for seventh place on a combined table.
Australia might be able to turn around its current form in Rugby Championship test matches later this season, but it seems unlikely. Two factors seem to be primarily responsible for its current decline in both tests and Super Rugby; the steady trickle of leading players to Europe, which is depleting its depth, and a lack of quality coaches at a Super Rugby level.
The Brumbies' Stephen Larkham and the Waratahs' Daryl Gibson are both former international players finding their feet in new head coaching roles. The Rebels, Force and Queensland Reds have all recently experienced a high turnover of coaches. Todd Blackadder, who will leave the Crusaders at the end of this season after eight years in charge, has been linked to the Reds and his arrival might help reverse those trends.
The manner of the defeats of Australian teams in round 16 will still concern their fans. The Brumbies came to Auckland with the chance to push for a playoff place and instead were over-run by the last-placed team in New Zealand.
Needing a forceful start, they instead conceded four soft tries to trail 28-7 after 20 minutes, a lead mitigated only by a penalty try. The Brumbies are playing a style, heavily dependent on set pieces and rolling mauls, which seems at odds with Larkham's record as one of Australaia's most-talented backs.
Larkham said his players were still feeling the toll of the England series.
''You can blame a lot of things, but realistically we've got to look at ourselves and turn it around,'' he said. ''That's the positive we'll have leaving Auckland, a lesson learnt and we're not going to let ourselves down with this last week's preparation.''
The Rebels' experience at the hands of the Crusaders was even more severe. The Crusaders seemed to score at will, producing their first try after only two minutes – to lock Sam Whitelock in his 100th Super Rugby game – and scoring six more tries before halftime, which were followed by another six in the second half.
The Waratahs seemed to have the best chance to turn the tide, in Sydney where they win almost 75 percent of their games. They were ahead 17-11 early in the second half and seemed in a strong position but the Hurricanes were able to lift their defensive effort and run in 17 unanswered points.
In doing so, the Hurricanes clinched their place in the playoffs, joining compatriots the Chiefs, Crusaders and the defending champions Highlanders, who qualified with a 34-8 win over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires to complete the round.
The Johannesburg-based Lions, who became the first team to reach the playoffs last weekend, consolidated first place with a 57-21 win over compatriots the Kings, while the Stormers sealed a home playoff with their win over the Force.