Ask most rugby folk who is the best scrum-half in the world is, and the reply that comes out of their mouths with metronomic regularity is Highlanders and All Blacks No.9 Aaron Smith. But that may be changing, if TJ Perenara’s performance in the Reds vs Hurricanes match is a reliable measure.
Not only did TJ control the game with the excellence of his play, he was probably also the best referee on the field.
Angus Gardner is one of the best young officials around – I have no doubt he will go on to enjoy an illustrious career at the highest level – but in this game, both he and his support crew off the field (led by TMO Damien Mitchelmore) had an evening to forget.
There has been a lot of talk over the last week based around ‘equalisation’ – the need for Australian teams to equalise their talent levels to make the two expansion sides more productive, the need for Aussie franchises to be in a position to play their New Zealand counterparts on an equal footing – but on this occasion, the term took on an entirely different inflection.
The officiating crew turned a blind eye to incidents which have been recently highlighted in red by World Rugby.
Tackles above the shoulder line which can be classified as ‘reckless’, and tackling opponents in the air (typically under a high ball) now receive the same severe level of punitive action: a red or a yellow card.
At Suncorp Stadium, the decision-making cards tended to fall out heavily in favour of the home side.
I have to admit that I had not realised just how good a halfback Perenara has become. The Reds’ game opened my eyes to the true excellence of his play at No. 9:
The foundation – sound passing technique
Only one of Perenara’s 55 passes was off the mark. Like most scrum-halves from New Zealand, Perenara whips the ball away from a low position with the power of his wrists and forearms, and there is never an elaborate wind-up to increase the length of the delivery.
In the final clip, at 6:36, the objective of the Canes’ first-phase lineout play is a simple one. They want to achieve ‘overlapping shoulders’ between their #10 (Beauden Barrett) and the Reds’ defensive #10 (Jake McIntyre) in order to create space out wide for Julian Savea.
It is the speed and accuracy of Perenara’s delivery which takes the inside defender, George Smith, out of the game and gives Barrett that overlap when he goes to pass the ball at 6:37.
Two passes later and the Canes have what they want – Savea receiving the ball with time and space to build up some muzzle velocity against the last defender, Karmichael Hunt.
The add-ons – attacking the first defender
Perenara also identifies situations where the halfback can fix the first defender and create a domino effect outside him.
At 14:00, he sees that Sam Talakai is late into the open-side guard spot and that Rob Simmons is momentarily exposed. A couple of steps with square shoulders are all that is needed to encourage all the defenders outside Simmons (Taniela Tupou, and beyond him Samu Kerevi and Chris Kuridrani) to plant their feet.
When Brad Shields receives the ball at 14:06, all are late folding to the outside and McIntyre is left isolated in an impossible one-on-one with Savea.
Outstanding defensive reads
Perhaps the single most impressive aspect of Perenara’s game is his ability to read and anticipate the play a couple of steps ahead of time, both with ball in support, and without it in defence.
In my previous article on the England-Scotland game from the Six Nations, I observed England’s ability to exploit situations where the hooker was the first defender around the end at the lineout.
The Hurricanes, along with other New Zealand teams, defend differently, with the halfback as the ‘tail-gunner’ and the hooker in the tram-lines.
At 17:40, we can see what a difference this adjustment makes. Perenara rushes out aggressively at McIntyre as he throws the in-pass to Kuridrani and insert himself into the gap between passer and receiver.
At 23:02, Perenara has already anticipated the direction of the attack by scanning the Reds’ #9, Tuttle, and Hunt angling from right to left behind the set-piece. Perenara drops off five metres to the right and rushes out all the way past McIntyre and on to Kerevi to break up the play. But for a late hit by Ngani Laumape, this would have resulted in a third try for the Canes only 23 minutes into the match.
At 48:09, in the second period, Perenara again has McIntyre covered from the end of the lineout, then slips into the sweeping role behind the first ruck after the play goes past him. At 48:12, he is already anticipating the switch-back play with his right arm out, and Tuttle’s foot position confirms it shortly afterwards.
At 48:21, Perenara wins this mini-battle of the 9s conclusively, getting over the top of the ball before Reds’ support arrives to win the turnover. The Kiwi No.9 has been two steps ahead all through the sequence.
When they’re defending close to their own 22, the Hurricanes revert to a more orthodox set-up at lineout, with Perenara back in the tram-lines and the heavier forward defenders in midfield. When Kerevi makes a promising half-break and looks for inside support at 51:45, who is there to block the crucial pass to Taniela Tupou? None other than TJ Perenara.
Cover and support work
Perenara’s work-rate in cover defence and in support of the attacking break is prodigious.
At 39:44, he is already reading the break by Matt Proctor and ‘tacking’ to converge on him – at 39:52 he authors a decisive clean-out on one of the Reds’ danger-man in the tackle area, Hunt.
At 49:32 he is right at the top left-hand of the screen in defence as play moves away from him to the far sided-line, but by the time Eto Nabuli throws the errant pass inside, Perenara is there, having run 50-plus metres to dive on the ball in cover.
Scrum-halves have been trying to referee matches with their background commentary for as long as anyone can remember, and the ability to influence refereeing perception of the situations that arise on the field has become an important factor in the professional game.
The ongoing conversation between Gardner and Perenara was every bit as interesting as the Canes’ scrum-half’s involvement in actual play – and there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Perenara understands the laws at least as well as the ref.
At 36:08, the contact dilemma which dominated the England-Italy game (and agitated Eddie Jones no end after it) has been repeated.
Simmons steals the lineout ball, but as he goes to ground there are only Reds forwards involved in the ‘ruck’. All the Hurricanes are on their feet and out of contact, so as Perenara rightly calls out, there is “no ruck” and hence no offside line.
Despite that, Gardner asks the defenders to “stay on” and observe an offside line.
The “no ruck” disagreement was typical of the verbal fencing between Gardner and Perenara throughout the match, which led to the official reprimand at 38:54. Once again, it was the scrum-half who had the last word.
After his ‘try’ from the tapped penalty at 55:43 (see first reel) had been ruled out by the TMO for not touching the ball with his foot, Perenara reminded Gardner that he had given the Canes a penalty advantage previously.
It is amazing how quickly Perenara has moved on from the denied score and kept his mind fully focused on the game. Gilbert Enoka would indeed be proud of his ‘blue head’ clarity.
If Perenara had been given the chance to review some of the TMO’s decisions (or non-decisions) during the game, I’m fairly sure he would have extracted the same kind of admission of error he received from Gardner – who, to his credit, acknowledged his mistake and took it on the chin in the 56th minute.
Particularly odd were the incidents that the TMO ignored, and therefore, were not deemed important enough to review:
Firstly, Nabuli’s slap-down of the pass at 7:18 is a clear yellow card and penalty-try offence, with the Canes having an unmarked three-man overlap outside Laumape. Instead, Gardner failed to award even a penalty against the Reds, while Mitchelmore upstairs completely ignored the incident on review.
Secondly, the tackle in the air by Chris Kuridrani on Julian Savea at 36:19 is likewise a yellow-card offence, which went unpunished on the field and received no further review off it.
Ironically, Gardner himself had explained the rules of interpretation to Rod Kafer in this video interview less than a week earlier.
There is no realistic contest for the ball in the air, and hence by Gardner’s own interpretation, Kuridrani should have received a yellow card.
Thirdly, the final high tackle by Izaia Perese on Matt Proctor at 62:52 qualifies under the new ‘reckless’ ruling for head-high shots (and hence at least a yellow card) – if anything does. On this occasion, Gardner gives the penalty, but there is again no further review.
Finally, the two Reds’ tries at 28:04 and 33:52 curiously received no TMO review, even though both derived from, at best, border-line offloads by Scott Higginbotham. Perhaps these still images will help clarify the situation:
The first offload is perhaps, marginally forward. The second is definitely one metre forward, if not more. Both deserved and demanded a proper review by the TMO.
The issue of neutral officials will raise its head again after the Reds-Canes debacle, especially up in the TMO booth.
As Geoff Parkes pointed out in his excellent column earlier in the week, the Japanese referee Shuhei Kubo emerged from the Blues-Force game with flying colours, so perhaps Japan can become a fertile ground for growing neutral referees.
Queensland showed some resilience and their senior players stood up, but ultimately the closeness of the contest for the first 71 minutes owed as much to significant omissions by the officials as it did to the excellence of the Reds’ own play.
Meanwhile, TJ Perenara ran the game. Mostly he ran it by the superb quality of his vision and skills as a player, but sometimes he ran it by the accuracy of his law interpretations.
While the British and Irish Lions begin the debate over whether Ben Youngs or Conor Murray should be their Test halfback in New Zealand this summer, the host nation can be confident that they possess probably the two premier players in that position globally, in the shape of Perenara and Aaron Smith.
It is truly not an equal playing field.