On the weekend commentator Greg Clark made an obvious point during the Brumbies v Rebels game; Australia derbies are mistake-riddled. This comment came after a period where both teams were struggling to hold on to the ball, and conceding repeated penalties. This dour affair was even more disheartening where compared with the Crusaders demolition of the Highlanders a couple of hours before, which produced probably the try of the tournament.
As the international season draws near commentators and fans are becoming concerned about the contrast of skill level between local derbies here and abroad. There’s no doubt that all Australian teams have produced moments of brilliance, but that brilliance goes missing when they play each other. If these performances are seen during the Rugby Championship it will be a long season for the Wallabies.
Lack of basic skills and junior development are mentioned when these games are discussed. It is true that in some cases these fundamentals may be lacking when compared to our South African and Kiwi rivals, but this alone doesn’t explain these lacklustre matches.
Rather, it is the conference system that plays a huge part. When a team defeats another in their conference, they get the four points and deny the other team four. With these games effectively worth eight points, the bonus point incentive (only one point) loses its appeal. What’s the point of risking 8 points for a measly one?
In all likelihood there will be only one Australian team in the finals, so wildcard spots and the necessary bonus point to get into the top six is pointless for Aussie teams. The only option is to win the conference and deny other local teams that opportunity. This means that every local derby is effectively a final – and a final means finals footy – invariably a dour grind where each side is simply intent on not making errors. The Brumbies and Reds are capable of brilliance but there’s no point playing entertaining rugby if you lose the conference.
In the coming weeks South African and New Zealand derbies will be more entertaining because their teams are fighting for three wildcard spots. These different styles of play don’t mean that Australian teams lack skills, it just means that they’re at a different stage of the competition. Of course these games are tough to watch for all supporters, but that doesn’t mean they should be worried. The bright side is that these players are learning how to play in close contests where everything is on the line – Something that could come in handy when they’re trying to regain the Bledisloe later this year.