After the high of the Rugby World Cup in 2011, the Waikato Chiefs (my team) rode the wave of success at international level into their Super campaign, and collected their first Super Championship in 2012. This year complacent kiwi fans have been stunned by some close loses to our cousins across the ditch. New Zealand teams have hit a form slump in the middle of the season, and the Australians are taking the spoils.
The South African teams are always hard to beat at home, and apart from the Stormers and Cheetahs they haven't been travelling well and it's given the Australian teams of the Brumbies and Red's the confidence to sit pretty in the top two spots on the table if you're counting points.
The Chiefs and Blues are the top two teams in the New Zealand conference, and they've both suffered losses to the Reds in recent weeks, and the Waratahs were too good for the Chiefs a week ago in Sydney. The Waratahs have some classy players, with the likes of Israel Falau doing damage with his size and pace and they can't be written off in the tight competition of Super Rugby.
The Reds beat the Hurricanes in round three and then held on to an impressive one point win this weekend over the Blues to knock them off their perch as the number one kiwi side. The Reds have a confident Quade Cooper and the world's number one halfback in Will Genia returning to his consistent best as he directs play around the park from the platform set up by a powerful pack lead by Captain James Horwill.
Head Coach for the Brumbies ex-Springbok coach Jake White has put something in their water this season, and they're recording some gutsy wins coming down to the wire. They've built a game on solid defense with a potent back three who can get the job done out wide. They've drawn twice but only lost one game this season and haven't looked this good since losing Stephen Larkham and George Gregan; maybe the return of another George who wears the number seven jersey has something to do with this new found success!
Top 3 in Australian franchises
It seems to me the key players in these top three Australian franchises are stepping up come the International season with the Lions tour not too far away in June. Another possibly theory is that the demise of teams like the Rebels and Force who can win the odd upset, have left a gulf in the Australian conference between the top tier and the bottom, making it easier for the top Aussie teams to stay on top considering you play each team in your own conference twice.
Whatever the case maybe, New Zealand and South African teams are going to have to start peaking their performances come the business end of the season, because they'll have to beat some talented Australian teams if they're going to have any shot at making the finals.
My prediction for the remainder of the season is that the Brumbies and Red's will continue their winning ways and teams like the Crusaders and Waratahs will need a late run to crack the top six. The Blues and Chiefs will battle it out for top spot in the New Zealand conference while the Bulls and Cheetah's will have a hungry Stormers and Sharks teams to subdue in South Africa if they're to hold on and make the top six.
Whichever teams makes it to the finals, they're likely to meet a self-assured Brumbies and Red's side who aren't used to losing.
Brad Mills enjoys the outdoors and almost any sport... For a day job he's a journalist who works at the Rhema Broadcasting Group in Auckland New Zealand.
Brad Mill's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/brad-mills.html