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The Wrap: Ackermann bets the house on red, comes up black

It's time to cut South Africa from Super Rugby. (AAP Image/SNPA, Ross Setford)
Expert
17th July, 2016
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2051 Reads

Two weeks ago the Hurricanes were in danger of missing the Super Rugby playoffs altogether.

Now, after winning on the road in Sydney and Christchurch, they have finished top of the heap and, courtesy of the largesse of Lions coach Johan Ackermann, are set for home ground advantage right through to the grand final for the second successive year.

More on Ackermann later, the high roller who went all-in on his red-shirted squad, only to come up black; in every sense of the word.

Earlier, a few true believers thought that the Waratahs went to Auckland playing for their finals lives, but their team played as if they knew what everyone else knew; relying on the Force to win meant that their goose was already cooked.

While they outscored the Blues 2-1 on penalty tries, they were 2-4 on standard tries, and it was one they didn’t get – Israel Folau emphatically rejected by Melani Nanai right on halftime – which proved telling. Sometimes a simple draw and pass is the way to go Izzy.

Prominent in the Blues resurgence has been Steven Luatua who, having seen Elliot Dixon and Liam Squire glide by in the All Black’s pecking order, clearly still has something to offer the black jersey. His work-rate is high, ball running strong and his physicality bettered only by the superb Jerome Kaino.

You don’t need to be a genius to work out that with this degree of improvement, and some massive ‘ins’, the Blues are going to be a formidable prospect next season. Let’s hope the often fickle and complacent Auckland public get off their sofas and start filling Eden Park again.

Turning an 85-point thrashing into an away 31-28 win is no mean achievement – even it was against the Reds – so full credit to the Rebels and coach Tony McGahan for ending their season with a seventh win, a franchise best.

Sean McMahon, outstanding all season, saved some of his very best for last, busting through early for tries to Tom English and himself, although Chris Kuridrani and Andrew Ready are in no danger of being mistaken for Kaino based on their defensive efforts.

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The irony for Michael Cheika is that the better McMahon plays – let’s not forget he was Australia’s standout in the third Test against England – with Michael Hooper maintaining his high standards and David Pocock returning from injury, he creates more problems for selection than he solves.

The other, forgotten flanker, Liam Gill, the ‘Matt Todd of Australian rugby’, was the Reds’ best, as he so often is. If the Reds had maintained their second half direct running and pick and go game, they would have won, but if trying to bring their backs into the game was noble, it was also foolish. They simply don’t have the alignment and skills to win matches at this level.

An unexpected gold star this week for commentator Greg Martin whose exasperated “when will these guys ever learn?” reaction to the Rebels’ Paul Asquith taking Duncan Paia’aua out in the air, hit the spot.

The doghouse unfortunately for referee Will Houston and TMO Georg Ayoub, who somehow conspired to ignore the law and allow Asquith to stay on the field. To stamp out dangerous and reckless play, every single opportunity to reinforce the correct message to players must be taken.

Kings Park, Durban saw the Sharks skip quickly to a 14-0 lead against the Sunwolves, but there was no prospect of a blowout, the Sunwolves too tenacious and the Sharks too, well… mediocre. They now travel to Wellington and, on this evidence, look like finals canon-fodder.

For the Sunwolves, to borrow a line from reality TV, their 2016 Super Rugby journey ends here. I wonder how many of Super Rugby’s detractors actually saw them play? Indeed, they delivered some of the competition’s genuine highlights; robbed at the death against the Stormers, and irresistible in victory against the Jaguares, in front of an adoring, howling home crowd.

The competition is better for their inclusion and coaches Mark Hammett, Filo Tiatia and Nathan Mauger, despite not provided with the same full deck as other franchises, come away from this year with great credit.

Favoured at home against the Hurricanes, the Crusaders lost Sam Whitelock (virus) and Andy Ellis (calf) before their match, and Nemani Nadolo too, in the first half. Sensing vulnerability, and knowing a bonus point win would top the New Zealand conference, this was the right time for the Canes to be bold.

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They were, and they were duly rewarded.

Vaea Fifita was once again busy, and replacement Loni Uhila enjoyed by far his best game at this level, comprehensively relegating Taniela Tupou to also-ran in the competition for best Round 17 front-rower with ‘Tongan’ in their nickname.

In truth, the Hurricanes will feel like they have won the lottery by finishing on top. Not as fluid as last year, they have learned to scrap and they, more than any other side, have noticeably improved over the course of the competition, timing their run into the finals perfectly.

As expected, the Highlanders and Chiefs left nothing in the tank, Test match atmosphere and intensity permeating throughout Forsyth Barr Stadium. In the end, the match followed a familiar script of recent times, the high speed Chiefs looking a million dollars, but eventually out-ground and outwitted by a Highlanders team worthy of champion status.

Despite the obvious attacking skills and intent of both sides to move the ball, what stood out most was the quality and ferocity of the defence, Chiefs captain Sam Cane bouncing back from his Sydney disappointment with a physically imposing performance.

It was the type of match where having just one player off the pace would be crucial and, unfortunately for the Chiefs, it was Seta Tamanivalu whose skills and composure deserted him at the worst possible time. Throw in Tom Sanders getting his clean out of Ben Smith wrong and there’s your game right there.

By contrast, as clichéd as it sounds, the Dunedin crowd feasted once more on combination of Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith, all of them superb. Note how, after one early Damien McKenzie incursion, they kicked far less than in recent times, almost certainly designed to give the smiling young assassin nothing to work with.

Indeed, Sopoaga’s game management and instinct to know exactly when best to kick, pass or run continues to mark him as a truly elite player. If there was good fortune in the ball popping backwards from Matt Faddes’ grip for the final try, there was no luck at all about the way Sopoaga scooped it up, twisted over and then nailed the conversion from the sideline.

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On the downside, this pulsating match ended in sudden anti-climax for Australian viewers, unable to soak in the immediate post-match vibe, due to an indecently hasty cross to a discussion about the Waratahs, Force and Brumbies.

Rather like enjoying a bottle of ’94 Grange Hermitage and following it up with a Ribena chaser.

After all of the angst surrounding last weeks’ record-making run of losses for Australian Super Rugby sides, the statistically-minded might note that New Zealand franchises pulled back from 5/5 wins last week to 3/5 this weekend.

Imagine your superannuation fund losing 40% of its value over one weekend? Or having two of your five adorable children turn into hormonal, feral monsters overnight?

Of course, that only demonstrates how statistics can be twisted; Kiwi fans will actually be delighted that next weeks’ quarter final draw has no local derbies and provides the possibility of all New Zealand semi-finals.

The Brumbies confirmed their finals place, not because they were any good, but because they had a very strong scrum, and Kyle Godwin didn’t push back hard enough so he could chase from behind Dane Haylett-Petty’s kick.

You could sense the Brumbies were trying hard, but they still seem constrained by structure, and it is hard to see them doing enough next week against the Highlanders to progress further.

For their part, the Force continued their late-season improvement, Ben Tapuai winning this week’s Tongan Thor lookalike contest, as he put in the big steps on his way to the Force’s only try.

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Time for a wee confession; not only did I elect to sleep through the two late games from South Africa, I also didn’t even pick them up later on tape. As a result, I’ll admit to feeling a little unclean, but hey, if it’s good enough for the people of Port Elizabeth to give up on watching the Kings after Round 1, I reckon it’s fair enough for me to pull the pin in Round 17.

The Stormers have had a good month, and move on to host the Crusaders in Cape Town, right to believe that they are in with a good shout. Indeed, both South African quarter-finals shape as epic contests.

The Cheetahs finished their season on four wins; about where everyone expected, whereas the Bulls probably did better than most predictions, managing nine wins and a draw, missing the play-offs by a single point.

To be fair, their draw was against the team who pipped them for the last spot, the Sharks, and only came when Sharks kicker Joe Pietersen missed a point-blank penalty goal after the siren, back in Round 3.

There are words to describe how the Jaguares played in the first half against the Lions, none of which can be re-printed here. Mercifully, they somehow conspired to play rugby in the second half and, aided by the Lions getting on the wrong side of referee Rohan Hoffman, and a power scrum reminiscent of the Pumas of old, edged beyond the eight-point winning margin craved by Hurricanes fans.

The Jaguares adaptation to Super Rugby has been at times painful and highly visible. All rugby fans will hope that they are able to conduct an honest review and come back again next year in far better shape, on and off the field.

Which leaves the final word for Ackermann, Lions coach and no Kenny Rogers in the gambling stakes. Rugby, as in life, is full of what if’s and maybes, but you’d be hard pressed to find any rugby fan who believes that a full-strength Lions side would not have comfortably beaten the Jaguares yesterday.

Ackermann’s trade-off is that his ‘A’ team, a number of whom were also involved in the recent Test series against Ireland, will strip fresh and keen next Saturday against the Crusaders.

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But this dice roll felt wrong from the start. If the Hurricanes keep winning the Lions will have to win the title in Wellington, which is surely far too high a price to pay for giving his players, professional athletes that they are, a week off.