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It’s the last weekend of Super Rugby for the next month, and thankfully, the competition is going to go into its recess with a bang. By my count, six of the eight games can have some kind of bearing on the race to the playoffs.
Here’s the talking points for Round 14.
Bolters galore, but not the one everyone expected
Broadly speaking, I like where Michael Cheika is going with this first Wallabies squad of the year. At the bottom of the Rugby World Cup cycle, 2016 needed to be a year of regeneration and of developing depth, and with ten uncapped players in a 39-man squad, he’s certainly started that phase in the right manner.
But in keeping 23 of the Rugby World Cup squad together, Cheika’s also placed a high value on incumbency and that’s also to be applauded. Indeed, I suspect some players named who perhaps aren’t in brilliant form are leading the appreciation of this move from the coach.
I wrote of the halfback situation in Australia back in February, and how that Nick Phipps aside, there really wasn’t a whole lot of even just Super Rugby experience floating around the state sides. Of then Brumbies’ no.2 no.9 Michael Dowsett, I wrote, “…frankly, I’ll be surprised if he’s still in front of Joe Powell as Tomas Cubelli’s second banana by April.”
I was rapt with Powell’s NRC last year, and even just last week on Brumbies TV I named Powell as the young player who had impressed me this season.
Not for one second did I think he was a chance of being named in a Wallabies squad!
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But I actually love that he has been. I love that Allan Alaalatoa and Dane Haylett-Petty and Eto Nabuli have been named. Most won’t see game time; most probably won’t survive the first cut down to 30 players. But they’ll get so much out of being in a Wallabies camp, and that shouldn’t be underestimated.
There was one notable ‘bolter’ omission. Reece Hodge might just be the unluckiest player in the country right now. It’s probably arguable if he’s ready for Test rugby, but his form in every position he’s played has been top shelf all season. With a definite lack of fit and available midfielders, I thought he’d be a decent chance of winning a spot.
And that’s not to say I’d have had him playing the First Test. He’s a long way from the finished product, and he’s not immune to making the odd wrong decision. But he’s hardly alone in that front, and the positives mostly outweigh the negatives.
The general thought around Hodge is that it’s a matter of when, not if, he’ll play for Australia. So why not put him on that path now when the opportunity’s clearly there? Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of time for Reece Hodge; he’s only played eight matches overall. But his name was not one I expected to see in the ‘notable omissions’ list.
Does the Wallabies announcement overshadow some important games?
The rumours were swirling this week that we might see a Wallabies squad named. It might be Sunday, it might be Friday; that part wasn’t really clear.
It might not have been overly clear to the ARU, either; the email alerting media to the announcement was only sent out at 8:15am AEST on Thursday. The team was announced shortly after Queensland and NSW respectively and hastily announced the immediate signings of Leroy Houston and Taqele Naiyaravoro around 1pm.
But here’s my question? Why did it have to happen before Sunday at all?
All discussion after the announcement, predictably, was about the Wallabies. There will only be more discussion today and across the weekend, and every game featuring an Australian team will now have a Wallabies squad angle to it.
What about Super Rugby Round 14? The competition is only three days away from taking a month-long recess, so why couldn’t it have had the spotlight for just three more days?
And what about the players? I spoke to Joe Powell on ABC Canberra on Thursday afternoon, and he said he was of course going to try and put the Wallabies aside for a few days and concentrate on the Sunwolves. And he has to say that publically, but how does a young player just ignore what must be a massive moment in his career? Luke Morahan hasn’t seen Wallabies kit since 2012; how does he ignore what he would obviously be feeling?
I know the team was always going to head into camp on the Sunshine Coast on Sunday afternoon, even with the Rebel and Force playing that afternoon, so why couldn’t the announcement have waited until then?
Seems a little strange to me. Self-interested, even. But that’s rugby for you…
Fantastic Friday: Sorry, Boss, I’ve got to finish early. Again…
Our fearless editor only a fortnight ago said the Highlanders-Crusaders game was one “we all need to leave work early for,” even if his reasoning wasn’t just about the game itself (“…so we can get a few into us before it kicks off,” he said – drink responsibly, obviously.)
That’s certainly the advice for this afternoon, too, with the replay of last year’s Final kicking the weekend off, followed by the all-important Waratahs-Chiefs. It’s almost a shame when the best games of the weekend are the first ones, because everything that follows is by definition a letdown.
But that’s our lot this weekend, and thus tonight shapes as a craft beer and corn chips night; the highest accolade I can bestow on a fixture of matches.
I found these two tips relatively easy, but that doesn’t mean I’m confident about getting them right. Both shape as cracking games, either way. Let’s hope they live up the hype.
(And yes, I know the Kings-Jaguares game is also on ‘today’. But you know, not where I am…)
Ooooh, my head hurts thinking about the Bulls. After I’d essentially dismissed them for 2016, they came good. Very good, in fact. Then, when I acknowledged their goodness and hinted that it might be time to consider the possibility that I might just have been somewhat un-right about them, they returned to type on their tour of Australia.
They did enough to beat the Stormers at Loftus last week, and though 62 per cent of more than 420 of you at the time of writing had voted for the Lions, the Bulls are a massive chance in the Highveldt derby.
And I can’t really think why they can’t win. I tipped the Lions, you’ll recall, but it wasn’t particularly confidently. The loss of Elton Jantjies could be as massive for the Lions and losing Kurtley Beale has been for the Waratahs.
The Bulls on the other hand are playing Bulls rugby pretty well, and as we know, they’re always tough to beat at home. And a win would be massive for the Africa 1 conference, with the Stormers expected to fall into top spot.
Call this tip-regret if you like; all I know is the headache is likely to hang around all weekend.
A tip of the hat this weekend to leading Super Rugby and International referee Craig Joubert, who will run out for his 100th Super Rugby match, in the Bulls-Lions derby in Pretoria.
Just the third whistle-blower to crack the ton, Joubert currently trails Steve Walsh (111 matches) and South African colleague Jonathan Kaplan (107). Given he’s ‘only’ 38, you’d think he’ll be top of the tree by this time next year.
But this got me thinking. We know what the players generally do to mark the milestones of their teammates, but how does it work for refs?
Will the touchies pause in the tunnel and let Joubert run out to the middle by himself?
Does he get the jersey embroidery treatment?
And can we get the celebratory hashtag trending?
Maybe. Either way, enjoy your rugby this weekend.