Team man at 10 the key to success
There's a confidence bordering on cockiness from the two best No 10s in the New Zealand game at the moment, and that enabled their Super Rugby teams to thrive in the latest round.
It was no coincidence, then, that the Chiefs of Aaron Cruden and the Hurricanes of Beauden Barrett put in the two most impressive performances of the weekend from a Kiwi perspective.
It's great to see Cruden in such confident form, not just handling the captaincy responsibilities but thriving on them.
The Chiefs were able to lift their pace and intensity a level against the Stormers because their first five transferred forward dominance into attacking opportunity.
Barrett played a special game for the Canes too. He sparked many of their best moments with his confidence, assertiveness and individual skill.
He was audacious - and that's what you want from your 10. They need to be cocky on the field and humble off it.
The halfback is not going to change - they're cocky all the time. But the 10 needs to be a team man, because you want him to be the boss.
It's where the challenge lies for the Blues and Crusaders. They've got guys who have every right to be less confident than Cruden and Barrett - because of the experienced leaders in the group - and that results in their teams lacking assertiveness.
Chris Noakes and Simon Hickey are both reasonably new at the Blues and neither yet feel like they're 'the man'. It's the same at the Crusaders. Even though they've got two or three guys who can play there, no one's stamped his mark just yet.
You need your 10 making decisions and backing themselves to turn those decisions into opportunities.
Look at the Sharks who, along with the Chiefs, have been the most impressive side through the opening month.
They've effectively got two playmakers in Patrick Lambie and Francois Steyn, and they both have that swagger that transfers into strong team performances.
Steyn has developed into a consistent, complete player, and he's an ideal complement to the less physically imposing Lambie. Steyn is big. I played with him at Racing Metro in Paris, and I was struck by what a big unit is.
He's got a thumping big boot, and when he wants the ball he'll demand it. Having someone who can belt the ball 70 metres or bang a penalty over from his own half gives a team a lot of confidence, and puts doubt in the mind of the opposition.
The Highlanders face a similar challenge. If Lima Sopoaga can bring that confidence it will help Aaron Smith's game. He struggled last year because it didn't look like he was getting a lot of voice from 10.
I played a lot of footy with Justin Marshall, and I was in his ear the whole time. He knew I was just giving him a default option. My role was to let him know where I was and where I wanted the ball.
You need that understanding. If Marshy wasn't hearing where I was it made it tough for him, and he'd rightly give me a kick up the bum for it.
The French talk about the 'ax' in rugby, which is the axis down the centre of a team - the 2, 8, 9, 10 and 15. The theory is if these guys are playing well and being confident as decision-makers it goes a long way to your team performing well.
If you look around Super Rugby, the teams playing the best rugby have confident, strong operators in those axis positions.
Clearly I'm biased when it comes to the influence of a No 10, but your halfback needs the 10 to be the eyes and mouth of the team.
A confident 10 allows the 9 to be reactive and take opportunities as they present, rather than constantly go looking to spark the attack. He always knows where his 10 is to clear the ball to, but he is ready to pounce when an opening presents.
The Sharks have a very good axis, and not coincidentally they're runaway competition leaders. In Bismarck du Plessis and Ryan Kankowski they've got great experience at hooker and No 8, and their guys at 9-10-15 all play their roles very well.
The other thing the Hurricanes did well was go the same way, same way, and keep attacking that way till they were ready to change the point of attack if needed rather than pre-plan a sweep back down the blind side.
It was a big part of why they were able to open up the Cheetahs so much. They went where they wanted to go, kept going there and then their key decision-makers were able to pick their moments to change direction.
Going the same way makes it difficult for the defence to continually fill in their defensive line, and allows attackers to get excited about the possibility of carrying the ball instead of wondering if they're in the right place within the structure.
Three observations from the weekend:
1 TMO moan, part II: There are still too many patently wrong decisions from upstairs. I'd rather a ref made a bad call on the field rather than go to the bozos in the booth and it take two or three minutes for them to get it wrong anyway. Where's the accountability for these guys? The yellow card decision on Willie Le Roux was a disgrace.
2 Refs need to give the attacking team an advantage, and get defenders' hands off the ball at ruck time. In the old days there was almost a one-second rule where defenders had to allow the attacker to play the ball, and I reckon they should look at that again. The rules now help the defending team slow down the attacking team's ball, which hinders continuity and makes for a stop-start game
3 Don't under-estimate the strength of the Aussie conference. It's going to be a tough one to win, with the Reds, Brumbies and Waratahs all pretty even, and the Force and Rebels capable of knocking over anyone on their day. The team that comes through is going to be travelling pretty well.