Anyone thinking that Cyclone Cook may have helped even things up in Christchurch got it wrong.
The big wet only reinforced the gulf in skill and strength between the Crusaders and Sunwolves – the home team now last man standing in the unbeaten stakes.
The Reds hosted the Trekkies in a rare, fan-friendly Saturday afternoon time-slot in Brisbane, and an entertaining 12-try match resulted. Quade Cooper took an unusual option from a penalty 7m out from his own line, hoofing a kick across the field to where Karmichael Hunt was able to send Izaia Perese galloping away for his second try.
The Kings once again showed plenty of endeavor and skill in the second half, including Makazole Mapimpi gloriously turning Hunt inside out for a great try, but the Reds, led by a sterling effort from ‘old man river’ George Smith, were never really in danger of losing. It was a much needed win for Nick Styles’ men 47-34.
This column has given Fox Sports comments man Phil Kearns a rest over the last few weeks, but it was too good to last, Kearns describing an injured Kings player, rolling on the ground in obvious pain, as “soccer-ish”.
I guess it could have been worse; he could have described him as a “girl”, or maybe even “softer than a buffoon who believes that just because he has a microphone he’s entitled to talk nonsense.”
For the second week running the Blues came out on the wrong side of a cracking New Zealand derby, another intense and skillful contest where the difference between the sides was… you know who! The SANZAAR judiciary is owed a debt of thanks, not imposing further sanction on Beauden Barrett following his red card the week before. To do so would have robbed fans of seeing a young man in complete control of his running game, and adding plenty in defence for good measure.
As it happened, Barrett found himself in the naughty chair once again, although on second look, he appeared to be unlucky, making legal contact with an arm, rather than cynically slapping the ball down.
Jumping ahead to Bloemfontein, where Cheetahs fullback Clayton Blommetjies showed no ill effects from a giant bird crapping on his head, to spark an early 24-0 lead over the Chiefs. By halftime the Chiefs had got it back to 24-14, and by 60 minutes they eventually found the lead, courtesy of trademark interplay and backing up, where they eased home from there.
The heavyweight South African derby didn’t quite have the fizz expected, which was all down to the Lions muscling up in defence; ready and waiting to snuff the Stormers out time and time again, and keep the Newlands crowd subdued.
Despite – or perhaps because of – being up against elite locks Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit, Lions tall man Franco Mostert was irresistibly abrasive, in an inspired man of the match performance. The Stormers remain a good side but normal order has been restored in the republic; 29-16 to the Lions.
Paying the price for an unsuccessful tour, the Bulls pulled a very poor home crowd at Loftus. Perhaps the ‘stay-at-homes’ knew something, the Jaguares putting in their worst shift this year, starting the match with a kick-off out on the full and a penalty conceded from the scrum, and not getting a whole lot better, before losing 26-13.
Notable was Handre Pollard nonchalantly taking that 50m penalty back another five metres, to find better footing, before drilling it over with plenty to spare.
Superficially, the Rebels upset 19-17 victory over the Brumbies in Melbourne would appear to have come at the perfect time. It was a message from a squad determined to show that they belong in this league and are prepared to fight for their survival.
The truth is somewhat less dramatic. Coach Tony McGahan recounting how the playing group had only one discussion about off field matters early in the week, before putting it to bed and knuckling down to find a way to extend the good aspects of their play against the Chiefs and Waratahs into an 80-minute effort.
Even so, McGahan and captain Nick Stirzaker were flummoxed by their forward’s 78th minute scrum effort, which marked a massive turnaround on what had occurred throughout the match, and provided the penalty that Reece Hodge nailed to seal the win; both men having no idea where that scrum effort came from.
The Rebels were aided by a surprisingly sterile effort from the Brumbies who, after appearing to have turned a significant corner last week against the Reds, lacked the dash and daring to again find the same level of performance.
To only score one try when holding a two-man advantage for ten minutes, then a one man advantage for another ten, was as curious as it was disheartening for coach Steve Larkham who, post-match, pointed to a disjointed training week as something he needs to fix moving forward.
No, the significant play in the great Super Rugby stoush of 2017 was made, not by the Rebels players, but owner Andrew Cox, whose withering Friday night press release made a few things abundantly clear.
The Rebels aren’t going anywhere.
He isn’t going to sell the license back to the ARU only to have them shut down all of the great development work that is being done in Victorian rugby.
If there were any ARU concerns about the Rebels future in a reduced Australian Super Rugby presence, which their comments now seem to indicate, it would have been material to tell him before he purchased the license, not afterwards.
Prior to the stadium gates opening, Cox spent time on the field, mingling with the non-playing members of the Rebels squad. Here was a relaxed and happy man, joking with the guys, seemingly without a worry in the world. If Bill Pulver or Cameron Clyne had been looking on, they would have observed the exact opposite of someone under pressure and fed up with the situation, about to cower away.
In fact, the Rebels were blindsided by the ARU’s announcement last Monday, having previously received assurances that any issues around Super Rugby did not concern them. Club sources indicated to me on Saturday night that their belief is that the ARU tried to 1) sugar coat last Monday’s bad news announcement with some good, ie announcing that the Brumbies were in the clear, and 2) soften the blow for the Force by intimating that there was still a decision to be made and that it was a close run thing.
If so, that’s a highly flawed strategy, which has only resulted in the lawyers coming in and the ARU losing control of the agenda. Management 101 dictates that if you have bad news, get it out there and be done with it, and then get on to the next phase.
And also, to be sure of your ground before you start telling people they’re about to be fired!
The Rebels are totally confident of their position, in both a business and legal sense. Cox’s stake in the ground has made that much clear. And now, just for good measure, while they have a tough trip to South Africa coming up, it doesn’t hurt that they are working themselves back into a better place on the field as well.
All of which places things very much back in the Force’s hands. They too are not in any mood to disappear quietly, and there is a groundswell of emotion and tribal support with which to support their legal effort.
That there is still chatter around about the prospect of the Brumbies being merged with the Rebels – despite there being clear communication from the ARU that the Brumbies are secure in their own right – shows just how muddled the situation remains, and points to more difficult days ahead.