A competition which began on Thursday, February 23 with the Blues thrashing the Rebels in Melbourne has finally finished. Here's what we learned from six months of Super Rugby:
Crusaders were the best team
Who knows what would have happened had Kwagga Smith not been red-carded in the final? The Crusaders were definitely on top at that stage (12-3), but tired considerably in the final quarter. Some might say it was the right result, that the Crusaders had by far the tougher draw and playoff matches. Actually, I'd say that too.
Scott Robertson is the real deal
Coaches can't fake it at this level. The Crusaders and their 12 All Blacks needed careful managing this year before and after the British & Irish Lions tour and Robertson nailed it, creating a fun and inspiring workplace and a team culture that the franchise perhaps hasn't seen since the Robbie Deans days. Don't let the surfer dude/break dancing antics fool you - Robertson knows his rugby and how to manage people. Most importantly he knows how to get his knowledge across to his players.
The Aussies are in trouble
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has a job on his hands to provide meaningful resistance in the first Bledisloe Cup test in Sydney a week on Saturday. Australian rugby is in trouble - they can't decide which Super team to cut and their record in the competition this year speaks for itself. In 26 times of trying they failed to beat a New Zealand team. As for the All Blacks, they will be battle-hardened by having three teams in the playoffs and after coming through a tough series against the British & Irish Lions.
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Lions show the way for Boks
South African rugby could do worse that following the Lions' recipe for success - an ambitious game plan backed up by excellent coaching. Johan Ackermann's departure for Gloucester is a big loss for the game there.
The Kiwi kids are all right
Rieko Ioane (Blues), Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes), Jack Goodhue (Crusaders), Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders), Jackson Hemopo (Highlanders)... the young talent keeps coming through the New Zealand rugby pipeline.
The older guys still have it, too
Sam Whitelock (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Ryan Crotty (Crusaders)... these guys aren't old (Retallick is still only 26 and the other two are 28) but they are consistently performing. All three have had outstanding seasons and took their games to a new level this year. Retallick was a monster in his team's semifinal defeat in Christchurch after travelling home from Cape Town. Crusaders skipper Whitelock was a revelation all year.
Four of the five NZ teams are consistently good
Not much separates the Crusaders, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders. Every contest between them is close to a 50-50 equation, which is what makes the NZ derbies so good and a lot of the other Super Rugby matches predictable dross.
Alas, the Blues still have a way to go
It was significant that the Blues bombed against the Sunwolves in Tokyo in their first competition match after beating the British & Irish Lions in that thriller at Eden Park. Tana Umaga appears to be on the right track, but clearly has a way to go before the Blues can find the mental edge to be as tough to beat as the four other NZ teams.
And the most promising newcomer goes to...
Jack Goodhue from the Crusaders. A try scorer in the final at Ellis Park and a 22-year-old with a big future. Defensively he is close to a perfect operator in the midfield and his incredible fitness and strength means he stays that way for 80 minutes if necessary.
How does Sanzaar improve the competition?
Make for a fairer draw. The fact that the Lions got the playoffs without facing a NZ team was a farce. And, yes, neutral officials for playoffs matches, in particular the final. Few could find fault with the performance of Jaco Peyper and his fellow officials at Ellis Park, but the pressure on everyone is eased if officials aren't blowing the whistle in games featuring teams from their own nation.