While the Melbourne Rebels still sit on top of both the Australian Conference and the overall Super Rugby ladder, their loss to the Hurricanes on Friday night exposed some worrying concerns. With a bye coming this weekend, the Waratahs and Reds have the chance to further close the gap.
The Rebels are a team that is dominant when it is on top. In all four of their wins this season they have gained bonus points for winning by at least three tries. They also look like the most complete Australian side, with a strong forward pack aided by a lethal backline. However, when the opposition matches their attacking skill the Melbourne side fall apart.
Against both the Waratahs and Hurricanes the Rebels surrendered decent leads when they were faced with a dominant attack, losing convincingly from a seemingly strong position. They have also not won (or even played) a close game, suggesting that when the match becomes a real contest Melbourne fades away.
The Waratahs are ranked second in the Australian conference, with an extra game still to play compared to the Rebels. They have only lost one game this season, in Argentina, with a draw coming in Durban against the Sharks. NSW are a team that finishes strongly and have proven their ability to grind out close matches.
Their best passage of play for the Super Rugby season so far was a 20 minute period in Sydney where they absolutely demolished the Rebels, scoring almost at will to turn the score from 3-20 to 44-20. The Waratah’s ability to win in the face of adversity is their biggest asset, although a lack of bonus points will hurt them on the ladder.
The Queensland Reds are the biggest surprise of the new Super Rugby competition, using their powerful forward pack to grind out wins against far more fancied teams. They have already caused a few upsets, but probably lack the backline finish to be a true threat to the top teams.
The Brumbies have been disappointing so far. After being the strongest Australian side last year, they have now lost to all of the other three. They badly need to work on both their set piece and backline play if they want to be in the contest against the New Zealand sides.
For mine the Waratahs look like the strongest Australian side, although their lightweight forward pack is an obvious weakness. They seem happy to chase though, and have the attack to take advantage when bigger teams get tired. The Rebels may finish on top of the conference due to their ability to pick up bonus points, but NSW will be more of a threat if they can reach the Super Rugby finals.