Super Rugby Round 11 Brumbies' struggles expose wider Aussie problem

It was an historic weekend for Argentine rugby as the Jaguares notched their maiden victory over a New Zealand franchise with a gutsy 20-13 triumph over the injury-hit Blues in Auckland. The Jaguares trailed 13-5 at the break but they mastered the horrendous playing conditions after the break to make it three from three on their Australasian tour.

But easily the biggest shock of the weekend came just before that match as the Reds stunned the Lions at Suncorp Stadium. The Queenslanders produced a superb first half to lead 24-0 at the break, and did just enough in the second 40 to hold on for their fourth win of the season.

Elsewhere, there were wins for the Hurricanes, Brumbies, Highlanders and Stormers.

Australian Conference

Brumbies' shortcoming expose wider Aussie problem

It was another depressing evening of viewing for fans of the Brumbies - and Australian rugby supporters on the whole - as the two-time champions missed a golden opportunity to take down the Crusaders.

In what was Sam Carter's 100th Brumbies start, the ACT franchise got off to the perfect start when Henry Speight crossed after just two minutes. But a yellow card to fellow winger Chance Peni soon swung the momentum the Crusaders' way and the defending champions ran in three tries in 12 minutes to open up a 21-8 halftime lead.

Much of the second half was played deep inside the Crusaders' 22 as the Brumbies pummelled the New Zealanders' line with wave after wave of attack. Having continually thwarted the hosts' attempts to score, the Crusaders were eventually reduced to 14, and then 13, men as referee Jaco Peyper lost patience with persistent offside, breakdown and set-piece infringements.

With Scott Barrett and Ryan Crotty in the sin bin, the Brumbies were gifted a serene pass back into the match. But they were unable to find the line, the Brumbies instead making some of the most bone-headed, inexplicable decisions you're ever likely to see when playing against 13 men.

Firstly, there was the decision to send Henry Speight on a solo mission down the short side - despite having a clear one-man advantage on the open - making him easy fodder for the Crusaders' back-row. Soon after, the Brumbies were awarded a scrum penalty; but rather than push for another penalty and potentially a penalty-try, they called for a lineout.

The final embarrassment came after the Crusaders had managed to clear back beyond halfway. Needing to retain possession and move back up field, Brumbies fly-half Wharenui Hawera attempted a cross-kick for his outside backs but it was poorly executed and easily negotiated by the Crusaders.

The entire sequence was a lesson in what not to do when playing against reduced opposition. But what is more concerning is that it has hardly been an isolated theme across the four Australian franchises this season. The Reds, Rebels and Waratahs -- the latter most recently in their 28-0 loss to the Lions in Round 10 -- have all, at times, struggled with game management. Call it what you like, but "rugby IQ" is in short supply across Australian rugby.

"The one thing that our Australian teams want to go to all the time, is to set-piece; they don't want to play the game," former Wallabies utility Rod Kafer said during Fox Sports' post-game coverage.

"You've seen there, two guys in the bin, you know the clock's ticking, you don't want to go scrum; you don't want to have the first scrum and then get a penalty and then go to a lineout. Why do that? Either go scrum, scrum, scrum and have a crack or five [metres] out from the line, tap the ball and let's rumble; get the forward pack excited and you'll find space just getting the ball in play. If you pull it into set-piece, the space disappears; it's a lack of understanding about the core fundamentals of how you win games of rugby.

"We talk about heads-up rugby, we talk about having an understanding of how we want to play, yet we're not a country who wants to play heads-up rugby. We want to go to structure. We hear our people talk about it all the time: structure, structure, structure. It's not working for us."

Kafer's comments were right on the money, but the bigger question is: what is he doing about the situation to alter the outcomes? As Australia's director of elite coaching development, surely he should be instructing Australia's top coaches to move away from this "structure first" approach. And he should be working with national skills coach Mick Byrne so Australia's leading players, particularly the country's playmakers, are equipped with the tools to play "heads up rugby".

Fortunately for Rugby Australia and the Wallabies, there was evidence that there may be at least some rugby IQ in the Australian game in the Reds' 25-22 win over the Lions earlier on Saturday. Young-fly half Hamish Stewart had a solid game while it was the Smith Show up front as South African-born twins Ruan and JP, and Wallabies great George Smith, enjoyed superb games.

If Australian rugby wants to improve its "rugby IQ" they would be wise to sign George Smith to a coaching role the moment he decides to hang up the boots. Just when that will be is anyone's guess however, as he still has so much to offer on field.

New Zealand Conference

Who's in better shape: Crusaders or Canes?

Neither the Hurricanes nor Crusaders were at their best in Round 11, but it's clear they remain the favourites for this year's Super Rugby title.

Just one point separates the Kiwi heavyweights and two most immediate Super Rugby champions at the top of the overall Super Rugby ladder, with coaches Chris Boyd and Scott Robertson knowing the value of finishing at the top of that log. The Hurricanes can do themselves and their fellow New Zealanders a favour this week by denying the Lions in Wellington, who then face the Highlanders a week later in Dunedin.

But who exactly is travelling the better at this point of the season?

It's a difficult question to answer, for two reasons. The first is the fact the Crusaders are without star playmaker Richie Mo'unga while, for the Hurricanes, it's fair to say Boyd is yet to work out just who fits into his preferred backline.

The Hurricanes were far from perfect against the Sunwolves last Friday night, partly for which the Japanese side deserves some credit, in a game that was stop-start in nature due to the constant interference from officials. It certainly denied the Canes' some rhythm on attack, yet they still managed to secure the bonus-point win.

The Crusaders, meanwhile, were way off their best in Canberra but their ability to slow the game down when the Brumbies had a two-man advantage and, earlier, capitalise when they themselves were up a man shows just why they are the defending champions.

Both the Hurricanes and Crusaders have negotiated their South African road trips, while the Highlanders have this week's game against the Sharks in Durban to round out their tour. The Chiefs head to the Republic in Round 13.

A win this weekend for the Highlanders will ensure they stay in touch with both the Hurricanes and Crusaders, but it's hard not to look a few weeks ahead to the final two weeks of action before the June break. In Round 15, the Crusaders and Hurricanes do battle while a week later they then face the Chiefs and Highlanders respectively.

The answer as to who is looking more like the 2018 champions should be a little clearer then. Whether that is still the case after the All Blacks' three-Test series with France will partly be determined by the extent of the injury report at the end of that period.

For now, though, the important thing for both the Hurricanes and Crusaders is they have shown they can win ugly. The fact that there looks to be significant improvement in both franchises justifies their status as competition favourites.

South African Conference

Bulls must consider the posts in tight contests

There is no doubt that John Mitchell has made a difference in his first full season in charge Bulls. Their attack with ball in hand has been good, their set-piece excellent and their attitude superb. The players have been empowered to make decisions on the field, and have not been cocooned by playing to instructions.

But while Mitchell has given his team the freedom to express themselves on the field, he might have inadvertently handcuffed his team by his sole instruction.

It looks like Mitchell has told his side to back themselves when they get penalties inside the opposition's half, he wants them to kick the ball out and push for the try. This has worked out well on many occasions, especially as their lineout work and mauling have been very good. But on Saturday against the Highlanders it didn't quite pan out, as the Bulls spurned a number of scoring chances and ended up losing by a point.

You have to commend the Bulls for their positive approach, but against top defensive teams like the Highlanders, who have an excellent maul defence, it's better to try and build scoreboard pressure by taking the points on offer.

It's not negative rugby to take the points in a tight match, especially if you struggle to breakdown the opposition's defence. If the Bulls realise that, they will win a lot more of these tight matches.