Super Rugby Round 10 review: Bernard Foley Wallabies first choice?

Both the Australian and African conferences were turned upside down again this week with two big upsets in Round 10. The Brumbies put up one of the most incredible defensive efforts to shut out the Stormers in Cape Town, while the Reds shocked the Sharks in Durban for their first win in the South African city in 15 years.

Elsewhere there were wins for the Highlanders, Lions, Waratahs and Hurricanes.

Read on for some of the big talking points from Round 10.


Foley still Wallabies first choice flyhalf?

For weeks Bernard Foley has been under pressure to produce a quality performance that would cement his place as Michael Cheika's first choice fly-half. Despite some early wobbles on Saturday night, his second-half showing could be the clincher for the incumbent No. 10.

With plenty of stars playing for a World Cup spot, it was Foley and Quade Cooper who garnered much of the attention and were under the microscope of public opinion. Their first clash in two years, and considered an audition for the Wallabies No.10 jersey, the match was far from gripping, but it was clear the game did more harm than good for Cooper's World Cup aspirations.

Both players clearly felt the pressure of the situation -- Cooper returning to his hot-and-cold ways, while Foley struggled with the Tahs' new game plan without Israel Folau -- and the match suffered because of it. Dropped pill and with over 60 kicks made, it was a true slogfest, especially in the opening 40 minutes.

But a reinvigorated Foley, alongside experienced heads Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper, stood up to produce an inspiring turnaround that saw Waratahs playmaker score 16 unanswered points for the crucial comeback win.

It was never going to be an easy game for Foley or the Waratahs, with Folau's standing down certainly weighing on his teammates' minds, while the Rebels had been the best Aussie side all season.

Forced into several positional changes - Beale to fullback and Karmichael Hunt to inside centre - the Tahs' went with a new game plan in Folau's absence. While Foley still produced the odd up and under, the backline looked confused and rudderless at times in the opening half, and Foley himself ran hot and cold. But he was clearly up to the fight against Cooper, stepping up in the halftime break to turn the tables around.

"We had a game plan and it sort of wasn't really working," Michael Hooper said following the game. "So I'm really happy, particularly with Bernard and KB, some of our leaders there in the backline and how those guys went about their business at halftime.

"The direction they gave the whole team to come out there in the second half and get the job done. I sat back at the end of the game and thought that's a real step up from some of the backline leaders, and really impressive for them to get a good control of the game and deliver for everyone."

With 100 percent accuracy from the kicking tee, Foley clawed back the 13-point deficit. Beale was energised at fullback, looking strong under the high ball, while he sliced apart the Rebels defence on several occasions. But it was Foley's 58th minute try that clinched the game for the Tahs.

Chasing down a overthrown lineout ball, Foley showed more hunger to beat Cooper to the ball and raced away for the try, running over 50 metres and leaving Marika Koroibete in his wake. It was the perfect example of Foley's determination.

In contrast, for the second week in a row Cooper was quiet compared to earlier in the season. Put under pressure, Cooper folded again, as has been his issue in the past, and when the Rebels needed direction - they gave away eight consecutive penalties in the final 40 - he was absent.

Elsewhere, in a turbulent week for Australian rugby, Aussie teams stood up above the distraction to breathe life into the limp Australian conference. Both the Reds and Brumbies produced rare wins on in Africa, with the Reds winning in Durban for the first time in 15 years, while the Brumbies made a whopping 239 tackles to revitalise their season.

With the Rebels suffering back-to-back losses and heading into a bye, the Aussie conference race will only heat up in the coming weeks. Just four points separate the Tahs from the Rebels who sit on 24 points, while the Brumbies are close by on 19 and the Reds just one point further on 18.


Can New Zealand contenders please stand up?

The Crusaders have proven week after week they're the clear front-runners for the 2019 Super Rugby title, dropping just one game this season against the Waratahs, while producing some of the best attacking rugby seen this year. But who in New Zealand will step up to close the gap on the leaders and give them some competition?

The Crusaders sat out Round 10 with their first bye week of the year, providing the perfect opportunity for their conference rivals to reduce the margin, but with the Hurricanes made to work in Tokyo and the Chiefs and Blues looking uninspiring, it looks like the Crusaders first with daylight second in the New Zealand conference.

While the Canes were pushed by the Sunwolves -- battling a 13-point halftime deficit -- they're one side that inspires the most confidence heading into the backend of the season. With their 29-23 victory they move to 27 points, seven points shy of the Crusaders, keeping them second on the table.

As is the nature of the tournament this year, it would hardly have been surprising if the Canes were to have dropped the game in Tokyo. Every side, bar the Crusaders, has shown they're vulnerable and haven't truly taken a foothold in the competition. Without several of their frontline All Blacks, the Hurricanes struggled against the Sunwolves' frenetic game style and came close to becoming another victim of cellar-dwellers.

The Chiefs and the Blues, meanwhile, failed to impress, while the Highlanders scored their first win in five games - granted it was against the Blues, who have never won at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

The Lions had the Chiefs number from the outset. Moving Elton Jantjies to inside centre outside fly-half Gianni Lombard, the Chiefs clearly had no idea what to make of the duel playmakers on the park, and quickly saw the points added to the scoreboard as they headed into the break 20-0. It wasn't until the Lions' forwards ran out of gas that the Chiefs came into the game and brought some respectability to the scoreline.

Their performances this season have been a mix of the absolute triumphs; their 56-20 demolition of the Bulls in Pretoria; mixed with the absolute lows of a five-week losing stretch that included a 57-28 loss to the Crusaders, a 30-15 loss to the Sunwolves and a 54-17 loss to the Brumbies.

The Blues meanwhile were brought straight back down to earth with a thud when the Highlanders took them to task. Touted as legitimate title contenders just weeks ago, their poor form on the road demonstrated just how bad they can be. Yet to win away from home this season - and winless in Dunedin in six years - the Blues' poor away form has made a long-awaited return to the playoffs that much tougher.

Their scrum was dismantled, while they lacked the spark to take on the Highlanders in the second period, and extended their losing run to Kiwi opposition away from home to a whopping 23 straight games.

The Blues have a bye this week and then travel to Canberra to take on a revitalised Brumbies side before returning to their fortress at Eden Park. With the Brumbies on the rise and the Blues slowly sinking, the finals may be fading into the distance for the Auckland-based outfit.


Simple game not so simple in Africa

Simple game, rugby.

Except when it isn't.

Just ask the Stormers, who returned from Australia to Cape Town having trumped Melbourne Rebels in Round 9 with their best performance of the season - an impressive humbling of the Australian Conference table toppers - only for their very simple game plan to fall down as they lost 19-17 to the Brumbies despite dominating all meaningful stats categories except two: tries and score.

Coach Robbie Fleck backed stand-in captain Steven Kitshoff and Siya Kolisi after they eschewed kickable penalty goals, only for the team to fail with their set scrum or lineout moves, but three points in the bag as reward for dominance have always been more valuable than four more potential points for a converted try - particularly in an arm-wrestle in which your team's ability to execute the most basic skills is being called into question once again.

Simple, really.

Just ask the Sharks, who have suffered consecutive deserved home losses to the Jaguares and Queensland since humbling the Lions in Johannesburg -- leaving coach Robert du Preez able to say after their defeat by the Reds on Saturday only that: "You can't fault them for effort today. We created a lot of opportunities, and I think we just couldn't execute them... There is a positive feeling in the change room and it's a big step up from last week."

Find us either a perplexed or thinking emoji, right now; talented and balanced squad, the Sharks, but we're now wondering what went right in Jozi rather than what went wrong subsequently in Durban, although that answer likely isn't found so simply.

And ask the Lions.

The Johannesburg-based team arrived in Hamilton to face the Chiefs at FMG Stadium after their poor consecutive defeats by the Sharks and the Brumbies, to be boosted by the return of Warren Whitely and Kwagga Smith only to be hit by news that coach Swys de Bruin and assistant coach Joey Mongalo had returned home - de Bruin to attend to "personal issues" and Mongalo to face a Code of Conduct disciplinary process having been found guilty by an Australian court of sexual assault while the Lions were on tour in Australia last year.

SARugbymag.co.za suggested over the weekend that: "De Bruin has had to contend with outside influence and interference, which compromised and undermined his control over proceedings. It came to a breaking point this week, and ultimately led to his abrupt departure from the squad in the midst of an untenable situation."

Not so simple.

De Bruin said promptly upon his return to South Africa that he could "guarantee you there has been no breakdown in the relationship between me and anyone in the team or at the union, there has been no interference, no one has prescribed to me what to do, and no pressure has been put on me".

"This is a personal matter and I am receiving professional help for it," iol.co.za quoted De Bruin as saying but rumours and innuendo will likely continue to swirl given both the original non-selection of star players Malcolm Marx and Elton Jantjies to face the Chiefs and also the different game plan rolled out in Hamilton.

Marx and Jantjies were both originally named among the replacements - note, they were benched not rested and rotated as per Springboks Rugby World Cup protocols - but then ran on for kick off to play hugely influential roles in their respective 80-minute appearances.

Ivan van Rooyen, the Lions' team's strength and conditioning coach, who is now de facto head coach in de Bruin's absence, said that Marx and Jantjies had been promoted to the starting XV because the team needed them to get them off to a good start after the off-field distraction, but - honestly and seriously -- who knows much as we have to take him at face value.

Marx now heads for a Springboks-mandated rest while the Lions head to Christchurch to face the nine-time champion Crusaders, who defeated the Lions in the past two finals and are fresh off the bye. One is left to wonder whether Jantjies would have been on the plane with Marx had Gianni Lombard not sustained a tour-ending knee injury shortly after halftime in Hamilton. Surely the Lions need their best players against the best team in the competition, but that's for another week.

Were the Lions galvanised by adversity in Hamilton?

Perhaps, although the selection for the first time this season of Whiteley, Smith and Cyle Brink as a backrow unit - each have been absent due to injuries - was likely more influential; also the inspirational leadership of Whiteley, while the selection of Jantjies at No. 12 outside Lombard offered a genuine "second five-eighth" playmaking threat giving the Chiefs something new to ponder. Certainly the hosts didn't come to terms with the Lions' loosies until the visiting forwards' tanks began to empty around the hour mark, and the twin-playmaking puzzle remained unsolved.

The Lions' game plan was even more telling.

The three-time runners-up have been criticised widely this season for trying to play expansively without ever having laid a platform, and for lacking intensity in their defensive line; hence before Saturday that had both scored and conceded 29 tries.

But this performance featured Lombard and Jantjies, in particular, both kicking from their own territory to relieve pressure, whereas in previous games the Lions have paid full price for their stubborn refusal to do anything but play with ball in hand even on the back foot in their own 22.

Jantjies notably ran to seek contact in the defensive line, and that's key, much as pundits might suggest it was due more to his selection at 12 rather than 10, because the Lions deployed him as a twin playmaker rather than as an inside centre instructed to straighten the attack. He ran 12 times for 23 metres in the No. 12 jumper against the Chiefs, having run just 25 times in his previous eight games as a fly-half this season. Lombard, at 10, also ran eight times in his 44 minutes, compared with 19 in 134 minutes in five appearances previously this season, to suggest a change in attacking direction.

Most notable of all, however, was the fact that the Lions kicked penalties in the 10th and 30th minutes to claim a 6-0 reward for absolute dominance of possession and territory; both kicks we taken as a first-choice decision to claim reward for destroying the Chiefs' scrum; only when Angus Taavao-Matau, a tighthead playing as loosehead, was mauled for a third time at the set piece did the Lions kick for an attacking lineout, from which the visitors' tighthead, Carlu Sadie, scored a try that he deserved for his personal destruction of his opponent at the scrum.

The Lions played a simple game: they put destructive emphasis on the set-pieces, then ran hard and strong to get over and dominate the gainline before thinking about going wide; on the other side of the ball, they hit hard and often with an offensive defence that's been absent for most, if not all, of their previous eight fixtures. The Lions still led 20-0 on the hour mark, and the game became a contest only when their forwards tired visibly from around 60 minutes, after which the Chiefs scored three excellent tries and threatened to complete the comeback before Jantjies dropped a goal in the 80th minute.

So, pick your best available players, and follow a sensible game plan that plays to the strength of those same players; trust those players to execute skills, and expect the on-field leader to take points when they're on offer; defend with commitment and intensity; in a competition in which games are mostly decided by the finest margins, that is often a recipe for four competition points or more.

"The guys really put their body on the line defensively," van Rooyen said.

"There was a clear plan from the senior players, I think they stuck to that tonight."

Simple, really.