In the 20th minute of the engrossing qualifying final between the Reds and the Sharks, Ewen McKenzie made a fateful and wrong decision. Reds five-eighth Ben Lucas was badly injured and had to leave the field. McKenzie had the option of moving inside-centre Mike Harris in one place. Harris had started at five-eighth for the Reds in three matches this season. The Reds had won all three matches. Instead, he moved Will Genia to five-eighth. Big mistake. Genia is the best halfback in the world. His long pass from the rucks gave width to a Reds attack that wanted to stretch the Sharks into tiredness. But just after half-time, Genia, playing in a position he rarely plays, threw a speculative cut-out pass that was intercepted. Moments later the Sharks had scored under the posts. Game over.
Why did McKenzie make this strange decision? In the Herald on Thursday, McKenzie pointed to the early onslaught from the Sharks as the decisive factor in the outcome of the match. There was no mention of the Genia ploy. After the match, however, McKenzie explained that Genia had trained at five-eighth during the season and that Harris had taken a knock to the head. But Harris stayed on the field until the last quarter of the match. There is no explanation here about the intelligence of taking match-winner Genia out of his match-winning position when there was an adequate substitute.
There is a lot of talk about McKenzie taking over from Robbie Deans as the coach of the Wallabies in 2014. The lack of clarity in the Genia matter raises significant doubts about his tactical nous for the job.
Before the match, Sharks coach John Plumtree said the Reds did not deserve to have a home qualifying final because they got an advantage over South African sides by playing in the "weak" Australian conference. How arrogant. The fact is that three South African sides made the finals because their conference was much weaker than the New Zealand conference. Some statistics make this obvious. The Australian conference sides accrued 32 wins, scored 210 competition points; 179 tries for and 218 against. The South African sides had 42 wins, scored 247 points; 210 tries for and 189 against. The New Zealand teams had 46 wins, scored 264 points; 222 tries for and 174 tries against.
Some more fascinating statistics, which were published on The Roar website, further undermine the credibility of the Plumtree attack on the Australian conference. In the past two seasons, the bottom four teams in terms of log points gained inside their own conference were: the Cheetahs 17 points, Lions 20, Rebels 21 and Western Force 26. These figures suggest that it is the top South African sides that get the greatest benefit from playing two matches against each team in their conference. This benefit is reflected in the fact that the top four teams inside their conferences are: Stormers 60 points, Reds 56, Crusaders 52, Bulls 51.
So the two worst teams of all the sides in their own conferences are two South African sides. This explains, in part at least, why there were three South African sides, two New Zealand teams and an Australian side in the finals, even though the New Zealand conference was clearly the strongest last year. The conference system, brought in two years ago, has created a terrific Super Rugby tournament. It deserves to be supported, not kicked around. The average rate of tries in the pool rounds this season was 4.91 per cent, up from 4.47 last year. The total attendance figure was 2,626,729, an average of 21,539 a match, up from last year's 19,445. This includes the woeful Waratahs' numbers. Any side from any conference can defeat any other side. The hapless Blues defeated the Bulls and the Brumbies, when that team needed only a bonus point to make the finals. The Rebels downed the Crusaders. And the Cheetahs beat the Hurricanes.
And let's not forget that the Sharks weren't expected to defeat the Reds in the qualifying final at Brisbane. They aren't expected to beat the Stormers tonight but this is the year when anything can happen.