Round 18: time for a report system? one thing to miss about conference play

Just one conference remains undecided in Super Rugby after Round 18, yet four teams are still in a fight for the final two places in the playoffs.

The Crusaders and Waratahs claimed the New Zealand and Australian conferences with comprehensive victories over the weekend, while the Jaguares' loss to the Bulls leaves the Lions in the box set to take out the South African title ahead of the final round.

The other winners from Round 18 were the Reds, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Stormers.

Read on for some of the storylines from the weekend's action.

Australian Conference

Is it time for a foul-play report system?

The Sunwolves were expected to be little more than cannon fodder on the Waratahs' path to the Australian conference on Saturday night and so it proved, but only after the Japanese franchise were reduced to 14 men.

Sadly, it wasn't Taqele Naiyaravoro's record-breaking double nor Israel Folau's brace on his return from suspension that were the major talking points from the Waratahs' 77-25 victory. No, again, rugby's hotly-debated foul play laws were responsible for much of the post-match debate.

Earlier, the Sunwolves had been right in the contest. Tries to Akihito Yamada and Michael Leitch, who delivered a devastating fend to Waratahs back-rower Ned Hanigan, and the boot of Hayden Parker had the visitors trailing the Waratahs by only a point a minute out from halftime.

But on one final attacking raid, Waratahs captain Bernard Foley cut through the defence; the No.10 offloading to Folau who cruised in to score his second five-pointer. At first, it appeared the Television Match Official had been called upon to review the final pass, but then the dialogue between referee Frederico Anselmi and assistant Will Houston was played over the broadcast.

Upon reviewing the footage, it was clear Sunwolves winger Semisi Masirewa was in trouble for a lifting tackle on Foley. Moments after Foley had offloaded to Folau, Masirewa drove the Waratahs playmaker back into the Allianz Stadium turf, the first contact point unfortunately being Foley's head.

From that moment, Anselmi only ever had one choice but to send Masirewa off. World Rugby's laws are crystal clear on the lifting tackle in that if a player lands on the head or neck region, the sanction must be a red card.

But what isn't taken into account in the lifting tackle law is the momentum Foley had as he broke clear and the fact his sole focus was executing the final pass to Folau; Foley wasn't bracing for contact at all. There is no disputing the fact that Masirewa's tackle was dangerous. But given Foley's angle and speed, his movement clearly also played a role in his final landing position.

Post-game, stand-in Sunwolves coach Tony Brown backed recent calls for a report system similar to the one used in rugby league. There was no malicious intent in Masirewa's tackle, yet the combination of Foley's speed, body position and the Sunwolves winger's technique resulted in the worst possible outcome and, ultimately, the red card. The Sunwolves were always going to be up against it from thereon out.

"A tough one to take as a team, as a coach you're going 'yellow card, maybe','" Brown said. "I don't think there's any intent in there. It was just unfortunate. I think it was Steve Hansen said that just put players on report like they do in (rugby) league and play on.

"Maybe a yellow card and then if it's a serious incident then he gets suspended after the game."

A report system certainly seems like a logical option for discussion, at the very least, particularly for cases where there is no intent on the part of the offending player. It would ensure contests, like the one in action on Saturday night, are not spoiled by an incident that is the result of a combination of factors. It would also reserve a referee's right to still punish players for deliberate acts of foul play or where there can be no excuse for high contact or lifting tackles.

Masirewa has since been suspended for three weeks: surely that's a suitable punishment rather than removing any chance his side had of victory on Saturday night?

New Zealand Conference

Farewell to the Southern Derby double?

SANZAAR last week put out a curious press release following its board meeting in Singapore, a single-paragraph statement saying they were "making progress" on Super Rugby's future.

If recent headlines are to be believed and players' voices, such as Kieran Read, are observed, then the competition may revert back to a round-robin tournament from 2020. The days of the conference system may well be numbered.

For players, coaches and fans alike, that decision cannot come soon enough. For while in each of the seven seasons it has been in action the competition's best team has gone on to win the competition, it did take an almighty effort from the Crusaders to maintain the tournament's integrity last year. Fortunately for SANZAAR, the Crusaders' win over the Lions in Johannesburg meant the competition retained its integrity.

If the conference system is to be confined to the scrapheap, there is one facet of the competition supporters will miss: two editions of the Southern Derby. The South Island seldom fails to produce one, and usually two, of the year's most thrilling fixtures of any competition from across the globe.

Friday's iteration was no different.

After one game in five weeks, you might have expected the Crusaders to be a tad rusty. But any thought of some sluggishness was obliterated in just the third minute with the first of two tries from winger George Bridge.

David Havili added the Crusaders' second in the 14th minute before the Highlanders responded with a try from Tyrel Lomax; followed by a breathtaking try by Ben Smith after a break from Lima Sopoaga. The Crusaders had the final say of the first 40 through Scott Barrett, completing a five-try opening half. It would be hard to find a better 40 minutes of rugby this season.

There were then three tries in the first six minutes of the second half. Running rugby at its best.

While the Crusaders went on to claim the match comfortably, there wouldn't have been a fan at the ground or watching at home on television that would have gone home unhappy.

These two great rivals bring the best out in each other and the competition will be poorer for seeing it only once a year if the conference system is eventually scrapped. A Southern Derby double aside, its demise can't come soon enough.

In the meantime, SANZAAR is likely to be spared an undeserving winner once more. With that win on Friday night, the Crusaders have locked up the No.1 seeding for the finals. Given what they showed against the Highlanders, it's hard to imagine anyone going to Christchurch and denying the Crusaders a ninth Super Rugby title. There looks to be no stopping them now.

South African Conference

Sharks shoot themselves in the foot, again

The Sharks will have nobody but themselves to blame if they don't make it into the Super Rugby playoffs this year.

Their Jekyll and Hyde performances continued this past weekend when they lost to an out-of-sorts Stormers team that were just looking to close out the season, have a beer and start working on the plans for the 2019 campaign.

The Sharks have rarely put two successive top performances together in 2018, while their record against New Zealand opposition is actually better than when they have played their compatriots or Australian opposition.

The Durban side, who were involved in the final match of Round 18, had the chance to make up some ground on the Jaguares and the Rebels after both suffered surprising defeats. However, the Stormers proved to be too strong for the Sharks, and now their destiny won't be in their own hands when next weekend's final round of matches come around.

The Sharks basically need the Highlanders to beat the Rebels and then they must beat the Jaguares in Durban to qualify for the playoffs. Hopefully for coach Robert du Preez, the players turn up at Kings Park with the right mind set this time around.