Round 15 Super Rugby review
With the three week international break coming up and the announcement of the international squads over the weekend, this weekend’s games had a strong feeling of trial matches.
It was the weekend of derby matches and the quality of rugby on display was outstanding for two of the three nations.
First game was the Crusaders and Highlanders, or the South Island All Black trial. After their demolition of Auckland two weeks ago, the Crusaders were expected to face a much sterner test against the Highlanders.
Right from the start the Crusaders flew out the blocks and they looked like dominating again. But the Highlanders fought back strongly and the game looked likely to be a close encounter after the first 20 minutes.
Then the Crusaders slipped into top gear in devastating fashion and the Highlanders, who are not exactly a shabby side, were completely blown off the park 51-18. The All Black selectors in the stands must have been rubbing their hands in glee at some of the pure brilliance in this game.
The Highlanders now have a tough task to make the top six, with a home match against the Chiefs and an away match against the Reds to come. They might sneak in with a win and the bye but if they can win both they should sneak into the six.
The Crusaders are now a clear third and with their current form they are a big chance to make a play at the New Zealand conference. Their match against the Chiefs in Round 21 is shaping as an absolute blockbuster.
Next game was the Rebels and Brumbies. After watching the previous game, this was a major let down. The lack of skills and lack of flair from these two sides made this into a boring contest which was eventually won 27-19 by the Brumbies.
The Brumbies were a major disappointment here and their inability to score a bonus point victory against a half-strength Rebels side means it is still game on for the Australian Conference.
Next up was the North Island All Black trial, otherwise known as the Blues versus Chiefs and again, the selectors were treated to a ripper contest.
It must be something about having All Black selectors in the stands that gets the Blues to play good rugby because they produced their best game of the season. Renee Ranger was a stand out for the Blues as he had one of those rare games where he didn’t fumble the ball.
As well as the Blues played, they just came up short against an impressive Chiefs side 41-34. In the clash of the midfield, Sonny Bill Williams clearly had the better of Ma’a Nonu which come selection time for the Irish tests could be a big determining factor.
The Chiefs, with maximum points, slipped four points clear of the Stormers and still maintained a healthy seven point lead over the Crusaders.
The woeful Waratahs were next to play against the hurricanes. Despite tasting no success against the Waratahs for six years, the Hurricanes came out and gave the Waratahs a good old fashion spanking, winning 32-11 and securing the four try bonus.
This result gave the selectors in New Zealand even more to smile about and Robbie Deans left to contemplate how to field a competitive side from the rubbish on show from the Australian teams this week.
It was off to South Africa next. At the start of the weekend the prospect of three South African sides separated by three points looked on the cards. But that is not how things panned out.
The Lions played the Sharks in the first of two big South African derbies. Everyone pre match wrote the Lions off and were expecting the Sharks to notch up a bonus point win and make a run at the South African conference.
However the Lions didn’t read this script and came out and played unbelievable rugby in a devastating opening 40 minutes. They had notched a bonus point before halftime and destroyed one of the form sides of the competition 32-11 at the long break.
The Sharks, who looked completely shell shocked, went away at the long break and came back after halftime on fire.
Within five minutes they scored two tries and hauled the margin back to 32-25. After seven tries in the opening 45 minutes, the next 35 minutes turned into a desperate defensive effort.
The Sharks, despite being down by only 7 points with plenty of time left, turned down a number of kickable penalties, opting for the try instead. In hindsight they probably regret this now as they could have closed to within one point.
The Lions, who had scrambled so well in defence, eventually got opportunities of their own to kick penalties and they took them to run out 38-28 winners in one of the best victories ever by this franchise.
If they bring this effort to their final contests, they could throw a spanner in the works of some of the more fancied sides over there.
Because they failed to score a single point, they dropped out of the top six (replaced by the Hurricanes). Now, there are four sides are separated by one point vying for sixth spot.
The Bulls and the Stormers were next and despite being beaten everywhere and making 100 more tackles than the Bulls, the Stormers notched a 19-14 win against all the odds.
This game reminded me of the South Africa v Australia quarter final in so many ways.
The Bulls can only blame themselves for this loss. They had plenty of chances to win this contest and poor decision making and execution came back to haunt them in the end.
One of the key moments in this match was at the 63 minute mark. The Stormers lost a player with a yellow card and were lucky not to lose two as touch judges from both sides of the field reported card worthy offences.
The score was 14-9 to the Bulls. They had a penalty close to the posts which was a sitter for Steyn. Now, given the importance of the game, you would think they kick an eight point advantage and consolidate the next 10 minutes with a one player advantage.
In one of the most boneheaded decisions of the season, they chose to kick for touch and they lost the lineout. From there the Stormers held strong in defence.
About five minutes later Steyn attempted a drop kick and missed. Everyone who was watching the game asked “why the hell didn’t you kick the penalty earlier?”
From that miss, the Stormers kicked the ball up the other end of the field and they never looked back, first getting a penalty to get back to 14-12 and finally executing a brilliant backline move which saw Habana score under the posts in the dying minutes and snatch an unlikely 19-14 win.
Had Steyn kicked the penalty to make it 17-9 the Stormers mindset would have been completely different but the Bulls let them off the hook, gave them a sniff and they got burnt for it.
The Stormers now have a five point lead in the South Africa conference with home games to the Lions and Rebels among their three remaining games. They will need a major slip up to not take this conference.
The Bulls now find themselves on shaky ground. With a trip to the Sharks still to come, they could find themselves in the race for fifth/sixth spot after registering their third straight defeat.
This was an absolute brilliant round of rugby with some fantastic games. A couple of battlers in the Lions and Blues played their best games of the season. Some brilliant running rugby from the New Zealand and South African sides gave their supporters plenty to smile about with the internationals about to begin.
As for the Australians, the only positive thing that could be said about their three sides this weekend is that they didn’t get any injuries. They were the three worst sides of the round and played the most boring brand of rugby.
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