We take a look at the 2013 Super Rugby season and proudly announce our winners, and losers and everything else in between, after 125 matches saw the Chiefs crowned as back-to-back Super Rugby champions – the fourth team to achieve the feat and the fifth franchise to become a ‘multiple winner’.
Team of the season can only go to the Chiefs, emerging as champions despite being targeted at every turn. Like the Reds before them, the defending champions came up against rivals who shelved their own game plans to spend 80 minutes doing nothing except disrupting how the title holders wanted to play. The men from Waikato responded accordingly, and while many say their title defence was ‘gutsy and courageous’ it was more indicative of a side toughing it out despite being given little change to play their own style.
Coach of the year has to go to Dave Rennie, with the former Manawatu mentor, along with Wayne Smith, able to keep their team ahead of the curve, no mean feat in one of the tougher tactical rugby nurseries in the game. The last 20 minutes of the final showed plenty, some feel that it was the Brumbies legs giving way, but careful observers would have noted the planned substitutions and how the champions operated at the breakdown, completely changing their tactics after halftime.
The turnaround of the season saw many teams put their hands up. The Blues, Cheetahs and Waratahs all had their moments, but to go past the Brumbies and their remarkable feats would be unfair, considering that Jake White, officially halfway through his four-year revival plan for the franchise, probably surprised even himself when his charges almost went all the way. Turnaround? Two Wallabies at the beginning of the season, increased to 13 as we speak. Would be more if the likes of George Smith and David Pocock were available.
Player of the season is a difficult one to pick. Aaron Cruden again guided his team around the park, Ben Mowen was a tower for the Brumbies, but the man who statistically trumps them all is Blues sensation Charles Piutau. Topped the charts in defenders beaten, was second overall in metres run, second in carries and second in clean breaks. Once again New Zealand rugby has produced a backline menace that we shall see a lot more of in years to come.
Golden boot goes to Morne Steyn, kicking 248 points to again be the most prolific point’s scorer in Super Rugby. Christian Lealiifano was the only other man to breach the double century, scoring 211 points.
The impossible made possible award of the season goes to the Chiefs. No team had as little possession yet they led the points and try scoring charts.
Try machine goes to Frank Halai, crossing ten times for the season. Special mention goes to TJ Perenara, the highest try scorer with single digits on his back with seven, while Rebels captain Scott Higginbotham was the most prolific forward with 6 tries scored.
The toughest conference of the year goes to Australia, with sporadic surges by the Rebels and the Force backed by the rebirth of the Waratahs, while the Brumbies and Reds make the Super Rugby Finals Series. Having a foreign team and their supporters clad in red visiting the country was also a big incentive for Aussie players to lift up their game. One for the trainspotters, it was the first Lions tour this millennium where the host didn’t win Super Rugby.
Off loader of the year goes to Quade Cooper with a stunning 52 offloads for 2013. A close friend of Sonny Bill Williams, the leading off loader for 2012, Cooper must have spent some time learning some old tricks of his mate, with 18 more off loads than the second best – Israel Folau. Modern attack coaches might label the offload as the single most important attacking play given its ability to fragment and confuse the defensive line. Notable mention goes to Luke Braid, the only forward in the top ten and third overall with 32.
The naughty team of the year goes to the Highlanders with 11 yellow cards. Perhaps not a surprise as the team was clearly frustrated as the season progressed.
Watch those Kiwi boots was the catch cry at ruck time, with the five New Zealand teams in the top seven for ruck percentage. While the sprigs have long ago been banned, New Zealand rugby has long prided itself on its ability at the breakdown, and this season again confirmed their status. Interestingly the first non-NZ side in the list is the Brumbies, whose work at the ruck got sharper as the year rolled on…George Smith anyone?
Tis the time for code hopping was the general feeling after Israel Folau became Sydney’s darling, and league and Aussie rules would be ruing the loss of one of their genuine superstars. Folau more than made up for the absence of a certain SBW, and next season could see another marquee man from the 13-man code switch to Super Rugby. Auckland is still holding their breath in anticipation for next season…
Match of the season is hard with 125 candidates, but the semi-final between the Chiefs and Crusaders would make most highlight reels, with the champions withstanding the challenge from the seven-time winners who had all their All Blacks firing and were the bookies favourites to knock off the title holders. Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder summed it up before hand by saying “the Chiefs have been a bit of a problem side for us”. Has a team ever been a problem side for the red and black?
Upset of the season goes to the Force, twice. Their 16-14 win over the Crusaders confirmed the Western Australian’s status as the most successful team to play the red and blacks over history, with just four losses in eight matches (admittedly with two draws). Perth’s growing reputation as a graveyard was given a boost when they knocked over the Brumbies 21-15, meaning that the bottom Australian Conference side defeated three of the eventual top six sides.
What we are looking forward to next season is a campaign where no one else tries to steal the competition’s thunder. The British and Irish Lions Tour was fantastic, but the fabled tourist’s 12-yearly visit took a little bit of attention away from Super Rugby. Still, very special to see Super Rugby teams take on one of the game's great traditions.
How will they fare in 2014 are questions delivered to the Reds and Bulls. The 2011 champions have lost Ewen McKenzie and Jim McKay, not to mention Digby Ioane, perhaps Australia’s most penetrative back. Meanwhile the Bulls have lost no less than eight Springboks, not too long after they lost the same number when the like of Victor and Bakkies moved on. Big changes for two former champions, how they react will be fascinating to watch.
Will they crack it this time is the question aimed at the Brumbies, clearly hungry to go one step further next season. But while the men from Canberra might be busy plotting, it would be fair to say that sides like the Cheetahs wouldn’t mind improving on their position as well. This is a big ‘watch this space’ as teams that threaten like the Free Staters and men from Canberra did this year often make improvement the following campaign.
Coaches quote of the year “We didn’t score enough points to win”
Players quote of the year “I’ve heard about that Israel fella, he can jump can’t he?”
Fan sign of the year “I haven’t fed the dog babe, I’ll be home late”