The 2014 Super Rugby season came to a fantastic climax as Bernard Foley kicked a last minute penalty to earn the Waratahs a one point victory over the Crusaders in Sydney at ANZ Stadium.
After 125 games the 2014 Super Rugby came down to a single point in the final minute of Super Rugby's Grand final. The penalty kick that won it also came down to the finest of margins as it snuck over the crossbar.
The last seven Super Rugby titles have now been won by the team that was playing at home. The last away team to win in the final was the Bulls when they beat the Sharks in 2007 but even then they were still playing on South African soil.
The 2014 Super Rugby season again showed us just how important it is to finish first at the end of the regular season and to be playing at home in the play offs.
So Super Rugby is finished for another year and we move on to the Rugby Championship. Here we take a look back at the season, it's highs and it's lows.
High Point: The Super Rugby final. The 2014 Super Rugby Grand final was arguably one of the best yet. There was a record crowd of 61,823 and it kept everyone on their seats until the finish.
Low Point : SANZAR's announcement that from 2016 there will be a new even more confusing Super Rugby format where even more teams miss out on playing each other in a year. Fans overwhelmingly want a strength vs strength format where everyone plays everyone but this appears to have been lost on the organisers who have come up with a format that is even more confusing than the current one.
Campaign: The Waratahs won every game at home this season and they also won a few games away in 2014. They played in some of the best games in this year's Tournament. Highlights include their amazing win against the Chiefs after being 24-7 down at one stage. The Final was also a fine game of Rugby. They finished on top of the Super Rugby standings and broke countless records along the way. One of which is their 10 game unbeaten streak at home. Can they keep it going.
Best Performance: The game in where they ensured top spot in their Conference. A 39-8 win over the Brumbies.
Worst Performance: Their defeat in Durban to the Sharks (10-34). Their handling and kicking was very poor.
Best players: Bernard Foley (10), Jacques Potgieter (5), Michael Hooper (7), Kurtley Beale (12,15), Adam Ashley-Cooper (13) and Israel Folau (15).
Conclusion: The Waratahs have promised so much over the last 19 years but under Michael Cheika they are playing an exciting brand of rugby and are deserved champions. Their title victory is a great boost for Australian Rugby who have a mammoth task in 2 weeks time.
Campaign: The Crusaders do at times take some time get out of the blocks, at this was the case this season. After mixed results they hit their straps in South Africa. That was followed by mostly wins with the only slip being against a 14 man Sharks side. The Final could of gone either way, yet it didn't go their way.
Best Performance: Their win in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs (52-31), scoring 6 tries.
Worst Performance: Lost their way in Auckland. Leading 17-3 against the Blues, conceded 20 points in about 15 minutes and ended up losing 24-35.
Best players: Richie McCaw (6,7), Matt Todd (7), Kieran Read (8), Colin Slade (10), Nemani Nadolo (11) and Israel Dagg (15).
Conclusion: The Crusaders slow start which cost them dearly. Had they started winning earlier they could well have been playing the final at home. It took time, yet when they started firing, they were brilliant. The Crusaders are always in the play-off's but once against failed to finish it off. Expect them to be in the play-off's again in 2015, perhaps they need a home final to actually go on and win it.
Campaign: This was their best chance yet. They had a Currie Cup winning team, a world cup winning coach and a dream draw. They only lost 2 of their opening 9 games within South Africa. To be successful and have a realistic chance of reaching the play-off's, South African teams need to collect about 8 points abroad, preferably 10. The Sharks collected 13 and won 3 out of 4 on Tour. They did so much right but then it fell apart.
Best Performance: Their unthinkable win against the Crusaders (30-25) who had hit form themselves by then. It was a historic win, as it was their first ever in Christchurch and the first time any African side had beaten the Crusaders in New Zealand since 2001. What made it even better was that they played most of the game with 14 men, in fact at one time they were limited to 13.
Worst Performance: Their defeat to the Highlanders (18-32) just before they left for their Tour.
Best players: Bismarck du Plessis (2), Tendai Mtawarira (1), Jannie du Plessis (3), Willem Alberts (4,7), Marcell Coetzee (6), Cobus Reinach (9), Frans Steyn (10, 12) and Lwazi Mvovo (11, 15).
Conclusion: The Sharks led the overall conference for much of the Tournament, yet defeats to the Stormers and Cheetahs knocked them off and lowered them to third. Their entire game revolves around field position but they had very little of it in their semi-final against the Crusaders.
Campaign: After a defeat in their first game against the Reds, in appeared that perhaps Jake White had left a gaping whole. They turned it around and followed up the opening loss with 4 wins on the trot. After that they won a few and lost a few. It was a bit here and they until they got to the end of the season where they really started to look good. Unfortunately they had to play the tournament winners and were well beaten.
Best Performance: Turned over much Chiefs ball and applied serious penetration in the second half to win 42-23.
Worst Performance: Their defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria (23-44).
Best players: Nic White (9), Matt Toomua (10), Pat McCabe (12) and Jesse Mogg (15).
Conclusion: The Brumbies had a new coach under Steven Larkham and for his first year in charge it was probably an acceptable campaign. They reached the play-off's which was probably their goal. It was a step backwards as they reached the final last year. The Brumbies forward pack is fair, but they lack genuine stars in the pack, as they certainly have enough stars in the backs. A number of players and even the Director of Rugby Laurie Fisher has left so 2015 will be another building year.
Campaign: Not as good as their previous 2 seasons. They started the season well enough with 3 wins. In South Africa performed 2 "Houdini Acts" against the Bulls and Cheetahs respectively. In both those games they seem dead and buried, yet amazingly managed to claw-out a draw. Just before the Test window lost heavily to the Hurricanes away and at home to the Waratahs.
Best Performance: Despite that at times the game was scrappy, the Chiefs ran in 5 tries to win 36-10 against the Stormers in Cape Town.
Worst Performance: The game which appeared to have sunk their play-off chances. They had better stats than the Hurricanes but lost hugely where it mattered (8-45).
Best players: Ben Tameifuna (3), Brodie Retallick (5), Liam Messam (6), Tanerau Latimer (6,7), Sam Cane (7), Aaron Cruden (10) and Tim Nanai-Williams (14,15).
Conclusion: So certainly a huge disappointment after what has been 2 momentous years for the Chiefs. They came close to beating the Brumbies in their play-off game, and had the Brumbies not shot out to a 22-3 lead, the Chiefs might of edged them and they went down 30-32. The real problem was that they lost games which had been expected to win such as their matches against Highlanders at home and the Western Force away.
Campaign: The Highlanders never seemed to completely put it together. It was hot and then cold. They never seem to string 4 good performances in a row. Sides didn't know what opposition would pitch. When they got on the run though they were very good, and surprisingly sides didn't want to tighten up against them. They won in controversial circumstances against the Lions at home, yet took care of sides like the Hurricanes and Chiefs at home.
Best Performance: Their shock win over the Sharks in Durban (34-18).
Worst Performance: Their shock defeat to the Western Force at home (29-31). Despite the fact that the visitors were limited to 13 men for the final 8 minutes, the Highlanders could not wipe out the deficit.
Best players: Aaron Smith (9), Ben Smith (15), Hayden Parker (10), Lima Sopoaga (10), Malakai Fekitoa (13), Richard Buckman (14) and.Nasi Manu (8)
Conclusion: Lost in the play-off's to the Sharks in Durban. Yet a much better display than last season's 14th position. They are arguably in a similar position to the Hurricanes, lots of depth and talent at the back, yet not much in front.
Campaign: Suffered 3 defeats in their opening games but then came good against the Cheetahs. Won most of their games after that and when they did lose, the score line was narrow in most cases. In 2012 they missed the play-off's by a single point, they emulated this in 2014. If pin-pointing a game they would look to their defeat to the Waratahs, a game they lost 30-39 in Sydney, yet at one stage were leading 24-7.
Best Performance: Their thrashing bonus point win against the defending Champions at the time (45-8).
Worst Performance: Suffered hugely against the Sharks pack (9-27). It was also a terrible way to start any campaign, as it was their opening match.
Best players: Jack Lam (7), Victor Vito (8), TJ Perenara (9), Beauden Barrett (10), Julian Savea (11), Conrad Smith (13) and Andre Taylor (15).
Conclusion: This is the end of the road for Mark Hammett. Hammett has been in charge since 2011 and under him the Hurricanes have a 46.88% success rate. Under new staff it might be a better a Hurricanes' campaign next year.Their biggest problem could be the lack of a good tight-five.
Campaign: Started slowly and picked up their first win in game 3. That was followed by 2 more wins against sides who qualified for the play-off's. Going into the June Test Window a play-off position was a reality, yet defeat at home to the Blues made sure that the Force would just miss the boat.
Best Performance: A huge upset (Chiefs), where defensive won the fixture (18-15).
Worst Performance: Eighteen opening minutes of brilliance by the Blues left the Force wondering what might of been (14-40).
Best players: Matt Hodgson (7), Ben McCalman (8), Sias Ebersohn (10) and Nick Cummins (11).
Conclusion: Only missed the top 6 by 2 points. Also comfortably their best campaign in the conference phase of the Tournament. Michael Foley and Co. must take a great deal of credit as he hasn't got a lot to work with in terms of internationals.
Campaign: Started with 2 defeats, but then turned it around and won four in a row. The main reason why their fortunes changed so drastically was the return of Jacques-Louis Potgieter, a pivot of quality. On the road in Australia and New Zealand they lost all 4 games, but earned a bonus point from each fixture. With 3 rounds to go they were still in the race for that illusive 6th position, yet defeat to the Lions ended all hope.
Best Performance: Their outing against the Brumbies who over the past 2 years they have struggled against. The Brumbies had no response for the Bulls power and precision of milking every chance that came their way (44-23). There may have been an extra measure of revenge in this match as the Brumbies beat the Bulls in the play offs in Pretoria in 2013.
Worst Performance: Their opener against the Sharks. In Durban the Bulls just did everything wrong (16-31).
Best players: Victor Matfield (5), Paul Willemse (4) and Jan Serfontein (12).
Conclusion: The Bulls did a great deal better than many expected they would. Victor Matfield in particular surpassed just about everyone's expectations. Once again they were very hard to beat in Pretoria, and the inclusion of Victor Matfield brought a calming influence that was needed in team which is so young and lacking in experience.
Campaign: Produced very much the same as last season. The Blues actually went through phases in terms of results. They won 2 in row, and then lost 3 in row. Did the same with 3 consecutive wins followed shortly by 3 consecutive defeats. John Kirwan was still hopeful of reaching the play-off's after the June Test Window, yet a defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch ended any chance of achieving that. They ended an almost two wait for an away victory.
Best Performance: The magnificent come-back against the Crusaders. Trailing 3-17 they hit form and scored 26 unanswered points in a period of about 15 minutes and won 35-24.
Worst Performance: Their loss in Wellington to the Hurricanes (20-39).
Best players: Jerome Kaino (6,8), Steven Luatua (6,8), Luke Braid (7) and Ma'a Nonu (12).
Conclusion: Overall ended 10th in the Combined Conference as in 2013 but then that was also last in the New Zealand Conference. They have many youngsters coming through, and that was evident in the Junior RWC. However until those players mature, it will continue to be a case of boys against men. The Benji Marshall experiment was an absolute failure and they should have backed Simon Hickey and Ihaia West from the start.
Campaign: Started the season with a last minute winning drop goal by Marnitz Boshoff to beat the Cheetahs. Boshoff was even better against the Stormers (34-10) at Ellis Park. They beat the Blues 39-36 and the Reds (23-20) in controversial circumstances. The wheels came off against the Crusaders at home (7-28) and after that it went very wobbly on the road as the Lions lost 6 in a row. They finished by winning their final 3 games all at home.
Best Performance: Their final performance against the Cheetahs, scoring 8 tries and winning 60-25.
Worst Performance: Their poor outing in Sydney against the Waratahs, going down 13-41 in Sydney.
Best players: Marnitz Boshoff (10,15), Schalk van der Merwe (1), Robbie Coetzee (2), Julian Redelinghuys (3), Jaco Kriel (6), Warren Whiteley (8)and Faf de Klerk (9).
Conclusion: The Lions were one of the most difficult sides to beat at home, yet away from home only collected only a single win. The Front-Row was good as was the Back-Row, and the Half-Backs. So there is something to work with for next season for this is a young side. The Lions were fortunate to beat the Blues and Reds but by the end of the season they had built up some real team spirit and played some genuinely good rugby. It's fair to say that the Lions achieved a great deal more than they were expected too.
Campaign: Due to their poor Tour record down-under, after round 7 the Stormers chance of reaching the play-offs was over. Just like last season they picked up some good wins after the Tour, but that helps very little. They only played well at home in wet conditions in which the opposition are not too accustomed to.
Best Performance: Their win in the wet against the Cheetahs (33-0), collected a bonus point and prevented the Cheetahs from scoring.
Worst Performance: Their opener against the Lions. Despite dominating the possession and territory stakes, looked very disjoined at Ellis Park and suffered a first ever loss at the venue (34-10).
Best players: Nizaam Carr (6), Schalk Burger (7), Duane Vermeulen (8) and Damian de Allende (12).
Conclusion: This side was ravaged with injuries, yet they fail to hold on to their young talent (Handre Pollard). In general their play is just very poor at times.
Campaign: They got off to an away win against the Brumbies, but away to the Waratahs were well beaten. Lost both games in South Africa but followed that up with 3 straight wins in Queensland. Had mixed results after that and never threatened to qualify for the play-off's.
Best Performance: Their win in Melbourne against the bottom table Rebels (36-20), and this without 2 of their evergreen stars.
Worst Performance: A match where the Crusaders achieved a string of records (29-57). The biggest undoing on that Sunday was the Reds tactical kicking.
Best players: Rob Simmons (4), Will Genia (9) and Quade Cooper (10).
Conclusion: Genia and Cooper are two players that the Reds rely on heavily but they were unable to deliver. Genia's form has dropped so far that he didn't not even make the cut for the Wallaby squad for the June Test Window, Cooper missed out due to injury and with the sort of form that Bernard Foley is producing, he might find it very hard the to get a start in the Rugby Championship. The drop in form after Ewen McKenzie's exit is alarming and Richard Graham is no longer a popular choice with the fans.
Campaign: Lost in the final minute of play against the Lions, yet bounced back a week later at the same venue to defeat the Bulls. On Tour down-under scored an average of 26 points a game and failed to win any of the four along without a single bonus point. Back in Bloemfontein squandered a huge half-time lead again the Chiefs (34-10) and allowed the Chiefs to force a draw (their second "Houdini Act" in a week). They did pick up wins against sides like the Brumbies and Sharks, but then lost to a side like the Western Force at home.
Best Performance: Their entertaining game against the Stormers, bagging a bonus point and winning 35-22.
Worst Performance: Their defeat to the same side as above, at a very wet Newlands (0-33).
Best players: Adriaan Strauss (2). Heinrich Brussouw (6) and Willie le Roux (11,15).
Conclusion: The Cheetahs achieved what they normally do in the Tournament, which is very little. Yes they reached the play offs last year but that was their one and only time in the knock out matches. Their back-line was held together by Robert Ebersohn and his absence was evident. The Cheetahs now rely too heavily Willie le Roux to spark something and if he doesn't fire the Cheetahs have nothing. The back-row that was so good last season hardly ever played together due to constant injuries. The Cheetahs don't struggle too much to score tries but they let too many in. Naka Drotske needs to focus more on defence and call in a big name specialist.
Campaign: They started a week later than everyone else, yet produced one their best ever performances against the Cheetahs. Despite kicking-off in such fine style too many changes were made for their next fixture in Perth and they paid the price. After that the Rebels lost 3 in a row, yet managed to upset the Brumbies at home. Lost both games narrowly in New Zealand and that was followed up by a win over the Western Force. Won only 1 (Reds) of their last 5 fixtures.
Best Performance: The Rebels first ever win over the Bloemfontein franchise (35-14). The score actually flatters the Cheetahs as the ball was turned over 23 times and the Rebels recorded 15 clean line breaks.
Worst Performance: Six changes blew up in the Rebels' face (7-32) and a blitzkrieg by the Western Force sunk any chances of carrying on after the great start they had had. The Rebels looked disjointed in the game.
Best players: Jason Woodward (15), Shota Horie (2), Scott Higginbotham (8) and Luke Burgess (9).
Conclusion: They won 4 fixtures and have yet to record a win outside of Australia. The Rebels relied on Jason Woodward for lot of their points and he has now left. If a player from Japan can be one of your best players, it demonstrates how little you have to work with. It's the second time they hold bottom spot in the entire conference log.
SUPER XV Team of the season
15. Willie le Roux - CHE/ Ben Smith - HIG
14.Nemani Nadolo - CRU
13. Conrad Smith - HUR
12. Kurtley Beale - WAR
11. Julian Savea - HUR
10. Bernard Foley - WAR
9. Aaron Smith - HIG
8. Kieran Read - CRU
7. Michael Hooper - WAR
6. Steven Luatua - BLU
5. Brodie Retallick - CHI
4. Rob Simmons - RED
3. Owen Franks - CRU
2. Bismarck du Plessis - SHA
1. Tendai Mtawarira - SHA
16. Colin Slade - CRU
17. Israel Folau - WAR
18. Ben Tameifuna - CHI
19. Victor Matfield - BUL
20. Nic White - BRU
21. Richard Buckman - HIG
22. Dane Coles - HUR
23. Benn Robinson - WAR
By Duncan Damon/SportsDM