It was a sleepy start to Super Rugby’s Round 12. Commentator John Kirwan repeatedly referring to Blues fullback Melani “Nigh Nigh”, before Cheetahs winger Raymond Rhule was made groggy by a head clash.
A turnstile all night in defence, Rhule’s head injury assessment (HIA) would have been interesting.
“How many tackles have you made tonight Raymond?”
“Um… seven or eight?”
“Actually it’s none, you’re delusional, you can’t go back on.”
This match was like one of those old school Super Rugby games that were so derided in the northern hemisphere; low intensity, ‘your turn, my turn’ try scoring, and some of the worst ‘I’m not sticking my head in there’ maul defence from the Blues.
The Lion slept that night too in Canberra; at least for the first half when they were comprehensively outplayed by the home side. The trouble for the Brumbies, however, was they never translated their territorial and possession advantage into points, taking only a 3-0 lead into halftime.
A complete front-row change early in the second half seemed to re-energise the Lions, complemented by their excellent back-row really stepping into their work, with captain Warren Whiteley outstanding in contact.
At first glance, the only try of the game, a 70-metre runaway by Kwagga Smith, seemed a remarkable dash by a flanker, but of course those familiar with his work for the ‘Blitzbokke’ South African sevens side have seen this many times before.
It was an off night for the Lions. They lacked authority in the halves and were disrupted by the Brumbies, but they will be delighted to return home with three road wins and every chance of securing a treasured home run right through the finals.
Likewise, the Brumbies won’t be too disheartened. This was by no means a poor performance and they still lead the Australian conference. However, they badly need to rediscover the attacking mojo they showed against the Reds back in early April.
The heavyweight New Zealand clash between the Crusaders and the Hurricanes may not have delivered the silky tries many hoped for, but it certainly was full of enough intensity and tension to keep fans happy. The Crusaders were ultimately better organised and more efficient, posting a 20-12 win.
If anyone has underestimated the Crusaders this season – myself included – consider this match against the reigning champion was played on return from their South African tour, without their two best forwards, Keiran Read and Sam Whitelock.
Coach Scott Robertson doesn’t always front the camera like he’s about to appear on the final of Mastermind, but he has certainly tapped into a few hidden secrets and has his team totally united behind him and each other.
The continued absence of Dane Coles is starting to hurt the Hurricanes, who are missing his direct play, aggressive leadership and, most of all in this match, stability at the lineout. Their scrum too is a concern, and while they are a side that doesn’t need set piece dominance to win, they need to be far more convincing up front than they have been over the last couple of weeks.
In Melbourne, Reds’ coach Nick Stiles was delighted to secure a rare win away from home, although he needed to rely on a late try to his outstanding skipper, Samu Kerevi, to clinch the match in the 79th minute.
Incredibly, Kerevi revealed at the after-match press conference that he had no idea of the amount of time left to go in the match. Scary on one hand that a captain can be so unaware of the match situation, but on the other hand, as Kerevi himself noted: “No need for words from me, I’m just happy to lead with actions.” Indeed.
Scoring five tries to two, the Reds were certainly good for their victory. Kerevi, Eto Nabuli and Scott Higginbotham were afforded plenty of running room off the back of quality distribution from Quade Cooper.
But they only just fell in, after the Rebels mounted a determined second half comeback, drawing level in the final ten minutes after backing themselves more and feeding off the energy provided by Sean McMahon, who saw his first action since last November.
Winger Marika Koroibete was an enigma, running strongly with the ball, but inexplicably kicking the ball away twice when given a clear running opportunity from the back. It wasn’t just the poor option choice; his execution was awful, the second kick gifting Kerevi his first try.
For the second week running, the Highlanders escaped with a late victory, this time a diagonal 50-metre run from an otherwise invisible Malakai Fekitoa sealing the deal, 17-10 against the Bulls.
Before that, Matt Faddes provided the class, plucking the ball one handed on his way to a first-half try, then undid his good work by failing to cover a loose ball and presenting a try to Bulls fullback Warrick Gelant.
In what were very difficult, sloshy conditions, the Highlanders floundered in the second half, more than once not playing to the whistle and conceding huge amounts of territory to the Bulls as a result. Then, with the score at 10-10, Waisake Naholo was sent off in the 64th minute, for what was ugly looking contact with the shoulder, and it looked grim for the visitors.
But remember this was the Bulls, a side that doesn’t really know how to win. When Pierre Schoeman finally slithered over for what looked like their winning try, it was reversed because of a stupid ‘shoulder to the face’ clean out by RG Snyman, which also earned him a red card, and evened up the numbers again.
Talk about dumb and dumber.
It seems that everyone’s second team now is the Kings. They have made huge strides this year, and seem unaffected by the speculation and uncertainty about their potential exclusion from Super Rugby. Perhaps they know something the rest of us don’t?
This time, a late try to Pieter-Steyn de Wet secured what must rank as their best win, their first ever against another South African franchise, 35-32 against the Sharks.
The Jaguares and Force and finished off the round; passion meter high, skill level low.
The difference was that the Force lowered their error rate as their confidence improved in the second half, while the Jaguares kept on bumbling. The Jaguares’ promising start to 2017 is now a distant memory, and whatever happens from here, they are not yet a finals-worthy side.
The result was just reward for the Force, for whom winger Semisi Masarewa was a handful and No.8 Richard Hardwick inspirational, another NRC standout showing he can foot it on the big stage.
What their win has done is help spark up the Australian conference which provides local fans, ready to give it away because of the lack of success against New Zealand opposition, with a genuinely compelling focus for the rest of the home-and-away season.
The conference ladder now reads Brumbies 19 points, Reds 16, Waratahs, 14, Force 13, Rebels 8, with all sides having played ten matches, except the Reds who have played 11.
Having endured a horrible season on and off the pitch, the Rebels are now the first side out of business although it is probably worth noting that if their games against the Waratahs and Reds had finished two minutes sooner, the table would be looking very different.
The four remaining sides all have an interesting schedule ahead; a mix of South African, New Zealand and Argentine opposition, as well as a couple of crucial derby matches. Another factor is the enforced layoff for the June Test matches; three more rounds before a three-week gap and then two more rounds to finish.
Whatever form Super Rugby takes next season – and that is still far from certain – at least World Rugby has ensured that this momentum killing interruption won’t be repeated.
So how is it going to pan out? Which Australian franchise will emerge from the ruck and fly the flag in the finals, whether they deserve to be there or not?
Despite the narrowness of their lead, that three-point buffer is crucial for the Brumbies. It is hard to imagine any of the four sides winning more than three matches. Which means that if the Brumbies can win three, this should be enough to get them home.
They play, in order, the Kings (A), Jaguares (A), Rebels (H), Reds (A) and Chiefs (A). A good next three weeks, in what are all winnable games, might mean that even if they drop the last two, it may not matter.
But if the Brumbies only win two from their next three, then it’s game on for everyone, and the Reds versus Brumbies and Force versus Waratahs matches will become pivotal.
It’s been a tough season for Australian fans, with the ledger against New Zealand sides in particular hopelessly skewed. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t exciting times ahead; far from it.
The Australian conference still has a heartbeat. In fact, it’s very much sprung to life. All four remaining franchises have their destiny in their own hands, and all will fancy that they have a real chance of coming out on top.
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