Five surprises, five disappointments and five things to figure out as Super Rugby 2024 reaches the end game


After this weekend there will be five more rounds of Super Rugby Pacific and then the finals. So, let’s reflect on the five biggest disappointments, surprises and unknowns this season.


1. Advance Australia, Fair or Not

Much of the time, Aussies consume Super Rugby standings in three ways: how is my team doing, how many Aussie teams are better than the Highlanders, and will an Aussie team be in the Grand Final? For four fifths of fans, the first question was joyless, the second answer was one or two, and the last one was just nah.

In 2023, three Aussie teams topped the Landers and none made it to the final week’s action. In 2020 and 2022, it was three and no. From 2016 to 2019, one and no. In 2015, none and none.

This year, so far, at this point, all caveats assumed, disclaimed implied, no fates mocked: the answers are (1) good for 60 percent of Aussies, (2) maybe all of them and let’s talk about the Crusaders, baby, and (3) probably not.

That is surprising improvement, especially after Annus Horribilis Wallabis.

2. The Rebels Finally Earn their Name

The back-room drama of professional rugby in Melbourne is well documented and will be even better told next year by our own Geoff Parkes. But it is the play on the pitch which has surprised.

Parkes took me to the Rebels’ training facility in 2022 and Kevin Foote took the time to walk me through each room, explaining his long-term vision. The overall sense I gained was of modesty.

Foote is a Capetonian from the old, horsey, and leafy (and often seen as more English than modern England) Southern Suburbs like me, which means he is not the quintessentially irascible Rassie-like Afrikaner provocateur. When I think back on it now, his forecast was precisely on point.

Kevin Foote. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

He told me 2023 was a work on and 2024 was the year it would come together, he reckoned. But the way he said it, and the gentle hum of the office around him, the availability of all staff to chat, and the openness of training without barrier, ticket, or fans (compared to the AFL madhouse next door) made the name, the Rebels, incongruous.

Sitting in the shadows of some of the earth’s great sporting structures, the little club seemed to be climbing a rugby Everest without ropes. The ‘rebellion’ seemed quiet.

No more.

The rebel yell is loud and led in a chorus by Darby Lancaster, Carter Gordon, Filipo Daugunu, Taniela Tupou, Josh Kemeny, Alex Mafi, Vaiolini Ekuasi, and the rest.

With Andrew Kellaway returning along with Rob Leota (his calf ready at just the perfect time with leader in work rate and the Rebels’ best 2024 forward Lukhan Salakaia-Loto sidelined with a broken foot which required surgery), there is hope for the home stretch on the field and there is a renewed sense of purpose, spurred on by an (almost) unprecedented feud between union and overlord.

The fight in the court may be part of what ignited the Rebels to rebel.

3. Crusaders Leave it Late

A souffle collapses because the protein in egg whites only expands so much: if whipped too much, elasticity is lost, and when heat is applied, the concoction cannot expand enough.

Thus, the Crusader season of 2024.

They always start slowly, but this is beyond procrastination. The Crusaders are proactively delaying the implementation of their energy-intensive phase of the tournament until it is desperate.

With six rounds to go, the perennial heavyweights of every form of Super Rugby except Super Rugby AU is padlocked to the floor under the table, slurping onion soup with a rough wooden spoon. That number, six, looms.

For example, if the defending champions merely return to their historical win ratio (71%, with the Brumbies a distant second at 59%) and take four from six games (versus the Rebels, Reds, Highlanders, Brumbies, Blues, and Moana) they could very well sneak into the swollen playoffs. A home-and-away format for just the four top teams might build more drama, but the competition has quarterfinals instead, which gives the Saders a narrow avenue of hope.

What if they only drop one, almost certainly to the Blues? Does six wins get them to the promised land?

The final match against Moana could be the difference between the greatest collapse of a dynasty in one season (not even qualifying for finals, after ruling for decades) and having one last Samson moment, spoiling the season for one of the North Island hopefuls.

Why is there still hope, besides the optimism which reflects brightly from the 14 Super Rugby trophies in their cabinet?


They have only conceded 25 tries (or 3.125 per match), which in this competition is not bad. It ties them with the Brumbies in the top five for try stinginess. To put that in context, Moana has conceded 45, and the Rebels 36. Even a modest uptick in Sader attack efficiency, as in boosting a league-low lineout (76% successful on their own ball, a number nobody could conceive being associated with this team) and finishing the many breaks they have made but not converted, will trigger wins and bonus points.

4. The Blues Go All Bok

The Springboks infamously rode their defence to a back-to-back crown in Paris on the strength of one-point wins thrice in a row, which can always look or seem lucky, except when the overall trend is looked at closer: whether it was Scotland’s potent attack (3 points allowed), Ireland’s even more lethal scoring ability (13 points), or the All Blacks (11), the Boks made their own job easier by making their opponents play worse than usual. Rare has been the team who scored three tries against this vintage of South Africa; even two is a grind.

The Blues were not known as a defensive team, but this season, they are basing their title challenge on it, only conceding 13 tries, eight less (or one full try less per game) than the Hurricanes. This translates into a 171-point differential, the best in the competition.

Do not look at mere tackle completion percentage. This is not the Blues secret; they are not the team missing the least attempts. Again, look to the Bok D: a higher ratio of dominant tackles, and aggressive raids behind the gain line (even if they miss) are the key.

In their latest 46-7 loss, the tidy ball control Brumbies lost 16 turnovers, 4 key rucks, and the gain line to the Blues, who throw Dalton Papali’i, Akira Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea into collisions in the middle of passing lanes. In the mayhem which ensues, those same players (plus the Ioane brothers) profit from fractured fields.

Mark Telea. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The heavy defeat flowed from defensive negation. The Blues did not start the first three rounds that way; their defensive systems are trending better as the long tournament wears on.

5. Charlie Cale is Big

Some guys are small but play big. Michael Hooper comes to mind, and he never even used Rob Valetini-type hair to create the illusion. Others are huge but play small (fill in the player you yell at every weekend on your own team). The rest are exactly the size in real life as they seem on television. Will Skelton really is an eclipse. Nic White actually can shop at Baby Gap.

When the Brumbies elevated Charlie Cale (born in 2000) to the senior squad in August of 2022 after a stellar season with the Uni-North Owls in the Bentspoke John I Dent Cup, all the talk was of ball in hand and how athletic he is. He is.

The breakaway runs, the fleet-footed tries, and the skillful passes out the back are on full display. He can go 80 without looking gassed.

But he is big too (he is listed at 1.94 m and 105 kg and that seems off by a few digits) and as he is figuring that out, he is mowing over defenders.

In the grudge derby with the Reds, Cale knocked over two tacklers, got his hands free in the tackle twice for offloads, and made 27 hard yards along with making eight passes. However, I was more surprised by the ‘melt factor’ in his 13 hard tackles: folding carriers like an old newspaper.

In a recent interview, Bath coach Johann van Graan spoke of the ‘a bit mad’ factor in a big carry No.8: to want to carry 15 times across the hardest tackling zone every match is indicia of good rugby insanity. To do it, you have to see yourself as a big bear impervious and ready to rumble.

Cale rumbled for 78 metres against Moana Pasifika, bouncing three tacklers who were not fragile, and Joe Schmidt may well like the fact he is seldom pinged for high tackles, the bane of recent Australasian Test sides.

Cale has made 11 Instagram posts and all of them show him (no critique; this is the zeitgeist) even the one with a machete, and in every one of them, he is the big guy in the picture.


1. Kicking by Eddie’s Young Guns

Carter Gordon is not ‘emotionally damaged’ by Eddie Jones’ calamitous handling of the Wallabies in the World Cup. In fact, he is still a freewheeling playmaker, free from care, and too free at times (when kicking for touch from a penalty or in his setup for the posts).

Gordon has taken 36 shots at goal and missed nine of them, which is just too many (31%) which ties him with Ben Donaldson for accuracy.

Just like Tom Lynagh (70% for goal) these young field generals have made big plays in general. But Test kickers have to think of 85% as par. Noah Lolesio (88% over 34 attempts) and Tane Edmed (86% in 46 attempts) are the only Test-standard kickers in Australia.

2. Drua Inaccuracy

One of the best aspects of this season is the increase of Fijian Drua matches in Fiji. The spectacle is unlike any other in rugby: joyous and wild and good-hearted and full and loud.

It has translated into results, too. A daytime win away in Fiji is nigh impossible, as the Waratahs found out, winning, and then losing their match three times, it seemed. The Drua are set to qualify if they can tighten their defence.

But imagine what the table might look like if the Drua had managed to be carded four times (the most common total for teams) rather than nine (three red, six yellow)?

A card a game is one of the few ways to ensure trouble in the win-loss column. Almost every other bad statistic can be overcome.

The good news is this type of inaccurate play can be fixed, and faster than a weak scrum.

It starts with no excuses and honesty in the dressing room. Stop blaming referees and tuck in.

3. Attendances

Reported Australian crowds in 2024 range between about 7,000 (Perth) and 10,000 (for ‘Super’ Round), up to 17,000 or so (Brisbane). Go back to 2004 and double all those numbers for low, medium and high (42,000 at Suncorp, 34,000 at the Old Sydney Football Stadium, and 22,584 at GIO). With the rugby of a high quality and four Aussie teams clearly better than two Kiwi teams at the moment with all to play for, as a new Wallaby coach opens his mind to selections,

Bungendore’s own Sam Windsor is playing for the Seattle Seawolves in the MLR and has scored more points than any other player in the young league. Seattle routinely sells out its games. The New England Free Jacks do too, with every weekend for home games seemingly accompanied by a festival. For example, last weekend was “Free Jacks Mixtape: Metal and Mauls” with an IPA fest on the side.

When the Free Jacks played Windsor’s old club, the Houston SaberCats, two weeks ago, the SaberCats stadium built in 2019 for $15 million (US) sold out (4,000). Former Force back and LA-born Capetonian Marcel Brache has invited me to attend Heyneke Meyer-coached Houston vs San Diego this week, and besides the match itself, I hope to chat with their marketing department to understand what they are doing right. The San Diego Legion’s highest attendance was 11,423 (in 2023) and a steady rise in crowds has allowed them to make strategic partnerships which fund growth.

With a century’s head start, and regular opponents which include many of last year’s World Cup finallists, Australia’s Super Rugby Pacific stadia should by all rights be two or three times as full as those in a league begun in 2018 in a land where very few know the difference between League and Union.

The marketing of Super Rugby Pacific is being done by better by podcasts than official organs.

4. Is Ben O’Keeffe the Only One in a Rush?

We can argue till the cow bells stop clanging in Hamilton about how non-stop rugby should be, whether fatigue is truly conducive to spectacle or just induces sloppiness, and if regular stops allow for better action by the big athletes of our sport, but one thing is certain: nobody really enjoys caterpillar rucks or long pauses for a scrumhalf to think.

Sadly, only O’Keeffe, who seems about the most composed referee going now, has insisted on a 3-2-1 count, often skipping two. Perhaps I have missed others, but this is an important point because continual battle for possession is put in timeout whilst the No. 9 fidgets with his foot.

5. Waratahs’ Results do Not Match Quality

Any time we dig into statistics, a reader rightly brings up the ultimate one: points for and against.

The Waratahs have only won twice; maybe they wish they could play these Crusaders every week. But their point differential, which has a sneaky way of imposing itself on the W-L record by the end, would put them seventh on the table instead of ninth. Their set pieces are strong, ball retention is brilliant courtesy of big cleaners arriving on time and are not getting carded.

Game mismanagement, injury, and a few ill-timed misses by kickers with superb overall stats have caused an unflattering record, but it only takes a bounce here and a hop there and the Tahs are nipping at the Reds’ heels.

A tight five of Hayden Thompson-Stringer, Julian Heaven, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Hugh Sinclair, and Miles Amatosero is not going to strike fear into the Chiefs opposite numbers (Aidan Ross, Samisoni Taukei’aho, George Dyer, Jimmy Tupou, Tupou Vaa’i) this weekend, but the NSW loose trio of Lachlan Swinton, Charlie Gamble, and Ned Hanigan, with Jed Holloway and Langi Gleeson on the bench, is stout.

Backline players Jake Gordon, Tane Edmed, Lalakai Foketi, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Max Jorgensen, Will Harrison, and Izaia Perese are not bad players.

Tane Edmed. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The results simply do not make sense, unless we get into game plan and locker room ethos.


1. The New Chief

What will Jack Mesley bring to Super Rugby Pacific as inaugural CEO?

Mesley was A-Leagues chief commercial officer. This is the right disciplinary direction to go: what ails the competition is far more about commerce than rugby quality, with lagging attendance and TV deals up for negotiation in 2026 and beyond, and League determined to jump bigger into New Zealand.

We have no idea what Mesley will bring besides freshness (he is young and not a veteran rugby man). It has been reported there were 290 applicants, which is 289 more than the Wallabies looked at for head coach last year.

2. How does the Rugby Australia-Rebels War End?

Civil wars are a bloody bitch. The battle over professional rugby in Victoria has the fog of war.

One gets the feeling the whole truth will never come out and we will be like spectators at the Australian Open in Melbourne: turning from side to side, sweaty, and by the end, hoping an Aussie wins.

3. How many Hyperbolic Kurtley Beale Articles will be Published in 2024?

We do not know but the over-under is 95, which is also the number of Wallaby caps won by the 2011 John Eales Medal winner. One thing is for sure: he will given too much credit and too much blame for his team’s accomplishments.

4. What are Joe Schmidt, Laurie Fisher and Geoff Parling Looking For?

This is what all the players on the bubble are wondering: will the Wallabies try to play a higher form of ball control red zone holding pattern or will it be intricate starter plays for three phases then kick-chase or set piece power focused or a reload-counter and how do I fit into that?

5. What will we all do When the Crusaders Go on a Six Game Streak, get in and Win Again?

It ain’t over, til it’s over.

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