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The Wrap: Irrepressible Scots cap off weekend rugby feast

Scotland are on the up. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/Getty Images)
Expert
25th February, 2018
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3383 Reads

Observe any table of diners and you will identify a variety of eating strategies, everything from the indiscriminate hoovering of everything on the plate to selective avoidance of anything deemed to be too high in calories.

I’m one of those diners who likes to save the best bits until last – the crispy skin of a perfectly cooked Barramundi fillet, or the soft, sweet pleasure that is a mouthful of slow-cooked lamb neck.

And, on this kilojoule-heavy weekend of rugby, it was Scotland who were indeed the ‘best for last’, trouncing England 25-13 in a wonderful display at Murrayfield.

It all began way back on Friday night in Dunedin where if the commentators said the match was “high quality” twenty times it was only because it was. Aaron Smith was on his game early, once again showing how fast, wide and flat service from the base can put intense strain on the defensive line.

This was emphasized when the Blues were reduced to 14 men for ten crucial minutes, two strikes in this period proving the difference – although if he had been granted a second opportunity, Blues captain Augustine Pulu might have stretched harder to claim Rob Thomson’s chip kick in the 22 on the full, instead of checking his covering run to play Lotto with the bounce.

Pulu was also denied by a cruel bounce late in the match, the ball trickling out just ahead of a flying Rieko Ioane, who surely would have tied the match had Pulu’s kick stayed in.

Unlucky for the Blues, who remain winless at Forsyth Barr Stadium, but a reward also for a tenacious Highlanders side.

Brad Thorn proved to be a hands-on coach, out early setting up the cones for the Reds’ warm-up. Or was that because his assistants didn’t travel to Melbourne, such is the strain on the Reds’ finances funding the contracts of excommunicated players Quade Cooper and Karmichael Hunt?

After a nervous, dropsy and ill-disciplined start, it took 19 minutes for some rugby to break out, albeit an ‘accidental’ try to Duncan Paia’aua after a ball dislodged in a tackle fell into his lap. Next time Reece Hodge and Tom English will be well advised to play the whistle.

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Lukhan Tui’s ugly tackle on Will Genia meant the Reds were down to 13, setting Tui up to join his careless skipper Scott Higginbotham at the judiciary, and effectively killing off the contest before halftime.

Scott Higginbotham

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Genia was at the heart of everything, riding heavy contact from friend and foe, stealing the ball from the back of the Reds scrum, running sharply and uncannily finding space with intelligent kicking. Up front, Matt Philip was the best of the Force recruits, a high work-rate complementing his towering lineout leaping.

This was a night of firsts for the Rebels; a new team, a new coach, and Wallabies hooker Jordan Uelese incredibly making his debut Super Rugby start. Their seven tries was also a club record.

Afterwards, a contemplative Thorn talked about his side as if they are a two- to three-year project – happy with the effort of his players and the benefits of “exposing the young guys to the cauldron and letting them get in and have a go.”

Given his roster, his own relative inexperience as a coach, and all of the off-field missteps the Reds have subjected themselves to, Thorn’s is not an unreasonable position. Whether impatient fans with more immediate expectations see it that way remains to be seen.

A long season looms.

At least Reds fans will have some fun in assessing how Bjorn Borg makes the transition from tennis superstar to Reds replacement halfback.

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The Sunwolves rock-solid set piece had coach Jamie Joseph’s stamp all over it, and it wasn’t until the Brumbies stiffened up their defence in the second half that the game was made safe.

An eye test will be required this week for halfback Yutaka Nagare who mistook the goal-post padding for one of his teammates to gift Tevita Kuridrani a try at a crucial point in the game.

Problems also for the turf at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, where it seems the ubiquitous Nematode worm has taken a liking to sushi.

There seems to be an almost Barnaby-like obsession with how Damien McKenzie will adapt to flyhalf and, true to his personality and high-risk style, he finished the Chiefs match against the Crusaders with four try-assists – two for each side.

Waikato Chiefs' Damian McKenzie sets up a penalty kick during their Super Rugby semi-final match between the Canterbury Crusaders and Waikato Chiefs at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on July 29, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Marty MELVILLE

(Marty Melville/Getty Images)

This column will try hard to park the matter to the side for six weeks or so, and assess McKenzie once he’s had some time in the role. Which I acknowledge may be wishful thinking on my part.

A tightly contested match turned on a decision to award the Crusaders a penalty try and yellow card against flanker Lachlan Boshier for his high, goal-line tackle on Ryan Crotty.

The incident immediately polarised commentators and fans where, to the letter of the law, the decision seemed technically correct, but also prompted genuine questions about interpretation and how defenders are legally able to prevent diving or sliding players close to the try-line from scoring.

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Don’t be surprised to find this one consigned to the ‘too hard’ basket for now.

The other talking point was Mitch Hunt, who after his drop-goal heroics of last season probably thinks he can get away with anything on a Christchurch rugby field. Except for that moustache Mitch, you’re not getting away with that!

In Sydney, Israel Folau nonchalantly confirmed his status as the best ‘catcher’ in world rugby, as the Waratahs and Stormers collectively showed plenty of endeavour but somewhat less skill.

Midway through the second half, the Stormers were dominating the scrum and were more energetic in contact, and when Rob Simmons volunteered for a yellow card with a ridiculous lineout challenge, things looked bleak for the home side.

However, coach Daryl Gibson has been talking up his side’s fitness and resolve for a reason and, aided by a malfunctioning Stormers lineout, they hung in while a man down, then finished the stronger, snatching a 34-27 win with a try after the siren.

Of course, the final act had to belong to two maligned players, Ned Hanigan – against type – steamrolling over an opponent for the winning score, and Raymond Rhule – true to type – acting as his doormat.

Waratahs

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

After singling out South Africa’s wingers last week, the Lions’ Aphiwe Dyanti and Sylvian Mapuza scorched up the Ellis Park turf, proving too much for the Jaguares, despite their own livewire winger Baptista Delguy also grabbing a double, as the Lions won comfortably enough 47-27.

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One suspects that many fans would have enjoyed referee Jaco Peyper singling out Jaguares flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez and giving him a humiliating dressing-down on their behalf. Jaguares fans, however, might be less forgiving of Peyper ignoring a covering player in his haste to award a penalty try.

South African honours this week went to the Bulls who, under new coach John Mitchell, showed a liking for keeping the ball alive and backing up, to upset the Hurricanes 21-19.

Big man Lood de Jager seems to have found an agreeable home and locking partner in RG Snyman, the pair combining for a remarkable try. Loftus Versfeld once again looms as a testing venue for visiting sides to travel to.

Despite TJ Perenara being denied a try in a tight call, the Hurricanes will be disappointed with their effort, almost arrogant in the way they refused to respect possession and build pressure, instead too often impatiently seeking the low-percentage, miracle play.

With France chalking up an expected win against Italy by 34-17, Six Nations focus shifted to Aviva Stadium in Dublin, where Ireland stayed on track for a grand slam, edging Wales 37-27 in an intriguing contest.

Jacob Stockdale

(Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Ireland dominated possession and the flow of the game for long periods, but Wales stayed in sight of an unlikely victory with flanker Josh Navidi throwing the final pass for two second-half tries.

Their final desperate thrust came to naught, however, when Gareth Anscombe telegraphed a wide pass that Jacob Stockdale easily picked off to stroll in and seal the win.

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And so to the final offering of a wonderful weekend feast, the crispy Barramundi skin and juicy lamb neck, where Scotland recaptured the ferocious intensity they showed against New Zealand and Australia in November to stun England.

In a match of many highlights, their second try was a triumph of reward over risk, with a vastly improved Finn Russell throwing an outrageous pass into what looked like traffic, but hitting a flying Huw Jones who scarpered 70 metres to set up the finish for Sean Maitland on the other flank.

If it seemed that the impressive Jones’ day couldn’t get any better, it did, a thrilling 45m run securing his second try and a scarcely believable 22-6 half-time lead.

England legend Martin Johnson was one of many after the match who pointed to complacency in the England camp – which tends to undersell just how good Scotland were in making the play in the first half and then keeping their composure in the second to close out the win.

Where England’s game plan against Wales was right for the slippery conditions, against the daring and enthusiastic Scots it merely made them appear slow and ponderous. Eddie Jones graciously took the loss on the chin, but will perhaps need to reassess his big back-row – his pack looking unbalanced by comparison to the high work-rate of Scottish loosies Hamish Watson and John Barclay and hooker Stuart McInally.

With two rounds remaining, Ireland assumes the box seat at the head of the Six Nations table. But with a visit to Twickenham against a smarting England in store, and only Italy not a genuine winning chance on any given day, there will surely be more twists and turns to come yet.