Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: Feeble Aussies a cause for concern

Luke Whitelock of the Highlanders is tackled by Robbie Abel of the Brumbies. Photo / Mark Metcalfe
Luke Whitelock of the Highlanders is tackled by Robbie Abel of the Brumbies. Photo / Mark Metcalfe

The change from mainly New Zealand derby matches to games against overseas sides has given us a better idea of the state of the competition and it has to be said the Australian conference is not in good shape.

The Aussie teams really struggled last year and that trend is continuing - a look at the points table will confirm that. The Brumbies are fourth overall, yet have won only two from five and are on 11 competition points.

The Chiefs, Jaguares, Sharks and Hurricanes all below them have more points, which suggests the Australian conference is incredibly weak, a concern for rugby across the Tasman plus competition organisers Sanzaar, who have devised the conference system.

It's good to see the Jaguares as high as they are - sixth at the moment, with four wins from five. I was critical of them last year and wondered what they were going to offer this time, and it was always going to be a different dynamic given they are spared playing New Zealand teams due to the competition structure.

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Their biggest challenge will be coping with the travel, and they have yet to make their second trip to South Africa, but they certainly look like they've learned from last year. They look better equipped and in better shape than the below-par Aussies.

The South Africans are ticking away nicely. The Lions, who made last year's final, have won four of their five and will again be a threat, and the Stormers have won four from four.

When you compare the South African and Australian conferences, you can see why there's so much speculation across the ditch about how they can strengthen theirs.

The Crusaders are on top with five wins from five, and the Chiefs, also undefeated, had a bye last weekend and are only two points away.

That shows how tough the Crusaders have had to fight this season, apart from their recent win over the Force.

They have won only one bonus point, yet the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Lions have collected three each and that might catch up with the Crusaders when it comes down to the nitty gritty of fighting for a finals position.

A word on the Highlanders, arguably the most injury-hit team in the competition, and their win over the Brumbies in Canberra. I said last week, after the Highlanders' defeat to the Hurricanes, that I still found them impressive regardless.

I said then that I still expect them to be there at the end of the season because they are such a tough nut to crack and they showed that against the Brumbies. They just won't go way; they have a resolve built on recent success and too many good players, despite all their injuries.

Canberra is a tough place to to get to (no direct flights from New Zealand) and play.

They have an expectant crowd regardless of form and always give you a difficult game because they have a proud history.

Their big challenge now is that they are rumoured to be one of the Australian teams facing the axe, an extremely challenging situation. Their only way to fight back is to keep winning, so losing to the Highlanders won't have helped their cause.

NZ teams vs Aus teams this season...

Rebels 18 Blues 56
Crusaders 17 Brumbies 13
Hurricanes 71 Rebels 6
Reds 20 Crusaders 22
Rebels 13 Chiefs 27
Crusaders 45 Force 17
Brumbies 13 Highlanders 18

This week
Highlanders v Rebels
Blues v Force
Reds v Hurricanes
Waratahs v Crusaders

- NZ Herald

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