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Crunch time for Tahs pack despite some chinks in Crusaders' armour


Paul Cully

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Key players out for the Tahs

This weekend is looking like a tough week for the Australian Super Rugby teams.

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At the beginning of the month, the Aviva Stadium in Dublin witnessed the surprising spectacle of dual British and Irish Lions loose-head prop Gethin Jenkins being repeatedly bent in the scrum against Irishman Mike Ross in a Heineken Cup quarter-final between Jenkins's Cardiff and Leinster.

But the relevance of Jenkins's woes to the Waratahs, Wallabies and All Blacks was not in the form of the Irish tight-head with solid, rather than spectacular, set-piece abilities. Instead, it took the shape of a familiar, huge second-rower driving behind him: Brad Thorn, 37, in the blue of Leinster on a short-term deal, still going strong, still physically dominating at the highest level, still producing the sort of horsepower that makes happy men of his tight-head props.

When NSW pack down against the Crusaders on Sunday we will find out just how much New Zealand will miss him - and if Benn Robinson has the ability to exploit the absence of his 116 kilogram motor.

Engine room … the front row, from left, Sekope Kepu, Tatafa Polota-Nau and Benn Robinson.

Engine room … the front row, from left, Sekope Kepu, Tatafa Polota-Nau and Benn Robinson. Photo: Steve Christo

The amount of the power Thorn generates through the tight-head side can be measured by the frequency with which it is referred to by tight-five teammates. Ross's praise - "like having another tight-head behind you with the power and weight coming through from him" - sits alongside the many flattering words that have been sent Thorn's way in homage to his peerless ability to shove large frames around a paddock.

Unsurprisingly, there have been whispers that his departure might have taken a little sting out of Owen and Ben Franks's work at scrum time, although presumably made out of earshot of the weighty brothers. The accusations stemmed from a wobbly performance against the Chiefs' front row in round three, but something closer to normal service was restored last week against the Hurricanes after gradual improvements in previous weeks.

The Crusaders' first try, to Kieran Read, came after a dominant attacking scrum in the fourth minute. In the 18th minute, the Hurricanes' pack was driven off their ball and had to improvise just to retain possession. Perspective is required though - it is the most vulnerable part of the Hurricanes' game. Robinson, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sekope Kepu will provide a much sterner test.

It has not been easy for Robinson to get underneath Owen Franks as he has done with other tight-heads, the converted hooker John Smit in particular. The younger Franks has a low body position and a reputation for immense work in the gym and meticulous preparation.

Yet Thorn's departure from the scene presents an opportunity for Robinson to test Franks in a way that has not been possible in recent years, with the ageless hard man a constant presence for the Crusaders and All Blacks. Andrew Blades and Mike Cron would make for fascinating company during the 80 minutes. Each man will sleep easier if the pendulum has swung a little their way.

An examination is also on its way for Kepu. The big man endured a difficult World Cup on the loose-head side against squatter opponents, and there should be no surprise the Crusaders have chosen to start Ben Franks there instead of the taller Wyatt Crockett to search for technical difficulties in Kepu's game. It takes a particular type to want to anchor a scrum of 900kg packs and Kepu has previously shown his best work to be in open spaces.

The scrum has become of such vital importance to the Waratahs because so much of their game is based around the set-piece. The correct noises are being made about trying to develop a more complete game but the evidence remains to the contrary, including the mournful sight last week of backs joining a maul to attempt a pushover for the four-try bonus point against the worst side in the competition.

The NSW model is power, forward dominance and pressurising the opposition. It can be a potent mix against more pliable packs but if the Crusaders are in the mood to show Thorn's exit has not lessened their power, a long day at the office certainly beckons.

An inquisition into the state of Australian scrummaging this year is upon us. Robinson, so painfully missed by Australia at the World Cup, will walk into the Wallabies side at loose-head. His partner at tight-head for the June Tests should be pencilled in by Monday.

9 comments so far

  • I think you'll find the Waratahs played the Rebels last week not the Blues.

    Date and time
    April 27, 2012, 4:19AM
    • Look at what a difference having Sita Timani pack down on the right side made to the Tahs' scrum, even with Paddy Ryan at tight head. Remember that last scrum - Rebels or the week before, when Paddy and Sita drove straight through them?

      Karma Police
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 10:37AM
      • This is exactly why NSW and other teams are struggling right now. Everyone complicates a very simple game - you score tries, you win. They can write columns about match-ups and who is missing who and who is better in the scrum, but in the end if you don't have people who can penetrate the line, catch and pass and score tries you aren't going to win consistently. We have many people playing at the top levels in Australia that literally can't catch and pass. Until we start rating footballers on different criteria we will be stuck with people like Halangahu (worst player to EVER play that much Super rugby) and lose people like Kurtley Beale.

        Date and time
        April 27, 2012, 12:06PM
        • it might pay to remember that Sam Whitelock is a certainty for an AB second row slot in three weeks and it just may be that the Crusaders will take advantage of a Waratah's second rower - Dean Mumm - who doesn't always pull [or push] his weight for his State or his country [remember the defeat to Samoa among others] and who currently leads the S15 competition for most tackles missed and for most penalties given ... I think it's foolish to predict massacres on the rugby paddock but the Waratahs will struggle against true class this weekend ... as they have all year and, realistically, as they always do ...

          Date and time
          April 27, 2012, 12:22PM
          • Totally agree. Thorn was unique but the Crusaders are the most professional province in S15. The canes (my mob) were sadly depleted right up until hours before game but I gave canes an 18 pt start and thought that was maybe right I was. They will not need to be at 60% to beat the tahtahs. They have poor standard of basic skills, a back line with no imagination/talent and a scrum that the Crusaders will demolish. Only problem for Crusaders will be to not drop standard to tahtahs level. I got 6 picks last week and this will be the easiest pick for this week. These next three weeks will see the tahtahs heading to the cellar

            heading off
            Guatavita, Colombia
            Date and time
            April 27, 2012, 1:42PM
          • I suspect you're right chracol. I also expect the 'Tahs to kick the ball to the Crusaders even though it's usually an insane tactic, as we've known for years.
            The 'Tahs ought to make a stand this weekend. After the Crusaders they play the Brumbies in Canberra, the Bulls in Sydney & the following week the Stormers in Cape Town !
            Ah well, 'Always look on the bright side of life, de dum.....'

            Date and time
            April 27, 2012, 2:50PM
          • @ heading off
            As 'Tah Tragic' and having picked the last two rounds correctly with the winning margin for the first game as well in both, I'm tipping the mighty Crusaders to 'dust it' with the Tahs. Head not heart ! But I still struggled with that decision.
            My question to you is if this is such a done deal for the Crusaders what would the margin be?
            And while we're at it what on earth is going on at the Blues?

            inner west sydney
            Date and time
            April 28, 2012, 9:10AM
        • waratahs can never seem to have all 15 firing on the field at the same time (as the crusdaer, stormers always seem to do). if the tahs scrum works, then the backline falters; if the backline is firing, forwards lack penetration/momentum. i get so frustrated watching them play. best game of s15 series so far was recent stormers v. crusaders - hard fought forward play, good skills by backs, smart kicking....i'd pay money to see that every week...oh wait, I do, it's called foxtel

          Date and time
          April 27, 2012, 2:56PM
          • The big problem for NSW is the one alluded to in the headline for this and pretty much every story every week. It always seems to be a 'make or break' game. Crunch time.

            Whilst much of this is journalistic hyperbole, good teams do not have weekly 'make or break' games. No-one was saying this about the Crusaders last week, or the week before, even though their record was average. No-one is saying it this week either.

            From memory, people were saying it about NSW after week two.

            Yet the Waratahs are closer to the top of their conference than the Crusaders are. If they lose, it is not the end of the world or their season.

            Whilst this is mostly because the Aussie teams aren't very good, I suspect the Waratahs would play better if they relaxed a bit. They've choked in a couple of finals, but now that they seem to treat every game as final, they choke in those too.

            Date and time
            April 27, 2012, 11:19PM

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