This was the type of weekend where the subject and title of this article changed several times, such was the array of extraordinary matches, upset results and noteworthy performances.
So much so that the Stormers leaving Dunedin 33-15 losers was no more or less than anyone expected, and barely warrants a mention in the context of the rest of the weekend. Save, that is, for one delightful phase when fans were left stunned in disbelief when Raymond Rhule downed Liam Squire one on one, only to find Rhule seconds later, basking in the glorious success of his tackle, letting Waisake Naholo slip by to set up a try to Aaron Smith.
Amongst all of the statistics thrown around in the wake of the Rebels’ 33-10 mauling of the Brumbies – three successive wins for the first time, runaway conference leaders, record margin against the Brumbies – coach Dave Wessels was quick to identify a more pertinent stat after the match.
In Super Rugby, the average win ratio for sides on a six-day turnaround is around 30 per cent. The Rebels not only beat these odds, but did so with long-distance travel from Japan included. And they did it by playing in an abrasive, physical manner that provided them ownership of the middle of the park.
Amanaki Mafi was irresistible all night, charging forward at every opportunity, with the impressive Matt Philip not far behind him. It was a similar tale in defence – not only the speed of the line, but the ferocity in contact that gave the Brumbies little to work with.
It was Will Genia who sniffed the knock-out in the 60th minute, kicking to a five-metre lineout before his captain could come in from centre to consider a shot at goal. It had the desired effect, a yellow card for dragging the maul down, then 14 quick points putting the result to bed.
Work-ons for the Rebels? Better attention to discipline at the start and Sefa Naivalu carrying the ball in the correct hand would just about see it out. With Adam Coleman back in business next week and Wessels telling me after the match that he plans to up the physicality and intensity at training this week for the travel-weary Waratahs, even more giddy heights await.
One hopes Brumbies captain Christian Lealiifano was merely trotting out rote clichés afterwards, about only needing to execute and finish off better, as if that is all that is needed to solve the Brumbies’ funk. How about winning the battle for the advantage line, and coming up with some variations on the lineout maul drive, which defences have clearly got wise to?
The Brumbies were good in patches but seem to be caught in transition between their long-entrenched structured method of play, and a new way, a problem coach Dan McKellar acknowledged post-match. At least they provided the evening’s humour, with replacement halfback Matt Lucas looking faintly ridiculous thinking he was David Warner.
A Vic Masters curtain-raiser for the ‘Bloody Slow Cup’ was a fantastic addition, proceedings only slightly dented by one of the Kiwis laying an old-fashioned coat-hanger on an Australian opponent – earning himself the rare embarrassment of a red card in a golden oldies match. This is a great group of rugby tragics going from strength to strength.
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Losing the combined experience of Ryan Crotty and Sam Whitelock in the opening phases was certainly not part of the Crusaders script, although the Hurricanes didn’t hang around to offer sympathy, running in four first-half tries, the best of them a jet-burning sizzler by Ben Lam.
For my ‘wow moment’ (number one) of the weekend, take a look at how TJ Perenara seizes a loose ball under some pressure and, in an instant, switches the point of the attack with a brilliant pass into space, that Beauden Barrett hits at full pace, thus creating the opportunity for Lam on the flank. Instinctive and sublime.
The real winning of the match, however, was the Hurricanes’ suffocating defence, forcing the Crusaders into a one-dimensional game that, despite a brave part-comeback, was never going to be sufficient to overcome a 21-point head start.
Doubters of Brad Thorn took a further step back into the shadows with the Reds notching their second win – this time over Super Rugby’s latest expansion franchise, Brazil, by 20-14. John Mitchell’s Brazilian Bulls started with two bright tries but thereafter it was far from ‘the beautiful game’ as the home side ground them out of the contest.
The Reds were impressive in many aspects. They didn’t panic after conceding an early lead, their control of the slippery ball was excellent, allowing them to dominate possession, and they competed at the breakdown as viciously as any side seen so far this season.
The Sharks and Sunwolves delivered a predictable scoreline, 50-22, in Durban, before one of the most remarkable, crazy games in recent memory unfolded in Johannesburg.
The Lions had their ensemble game flowing, punishing the Blues on turnovers, but somehow the Blues stayed within sight on the scoreboard before it started to rain tries at both ends. Just as the Blues edged within a score they looked to have lost it again at the death but, inexplicably, Lions winger Aphiwe Dyanti failed to correctly ground a loose ball over the goal-line, allowing the visitors one final attack.
Somehow they opened up space in behind the Lions defence, Michael Collins going close, before Murphy Taramai plunged over after the siren, for the winner.
This will prove to be a significant result for the Blues. Everyone is aware of their improvement, but they desperately needed a result to confirm this. That they kept their nerve, and played with a deal of skill to score five tries against a top tier side, will surely provide them with the confidence to go on with things from here.
Both Ioane brothers were outstanding, Akira impressing with brute physicality, and a higher work-rate and improved discipline over last season. He may well be in the process of finally fulfilling his undoubted potential. And if there’s still anyone prepared to accept the nonsense that Sonny Bill Williams is dialling it in, waiting to return to league, his second half was conclusive evidence otherwise.
Tana Umaga also got a twenty-minute cameo out of young fly-half Stephen Perofeta. For any Australian fans bemoaning the lack of local talent in the position, and who might not be aware of Perofeta, just five minutes was ample time to show that if he had an Australian passport, and the Wallabies were playing a Test match this weekend, he’d be named at flyhalf. A quality footballer.
The craziness and surprises didn’t end there however, the Jaguares blowing the Waratahs off the park in Buenos Aries with an incredible 26-0 start, full of invention, superb handling and support play.
This is exactly what Super Rugby demands from the Jaguares – all fifteen men on the park, and a beautiful balance between set-piece, driving play and fluid ball movement. Like the Blues, let’s hope this marks a significant turning point.
Talismatic hooker Agustin Creevy even had time to provide ‘wow moment’ number two, his tackle, release and pilfer in the 30th minute quite breathtaking.
The Jaguares were so good early that almost any side would have struggled to keep pace with them, and there was the customary brave Waratahs finish, but none of that will save coach Daryl Gibson from using up all of his credits from the first two games.
Clearly his side lacks presence, and while the return of Sekope Kepu will help, this is a pack that no other side, Sunwolves included, should fear. Defensive uncertainties resurfaced too, Curtis Rona briefly revisiting his 2017 Bledisloe Cup nightmare in midfield.
And why would any side plan to kick-off, have the winger chase, leap and tap the ball back, only to have nobody within shouting distance, trailing him to collect the tap? Surely the first kick-off of the match is too soon for any player to lose concentration and forget where he is supposed to be.
Ireland wrapped up the Six Nations a week ahead of schedule, and will now be favoured to complete a grand slam against England next week to ice the cake. Their 28-8 home win against Scotland was a great advertisement for rugby, Scotland’s free-flowing approach countered by Ireland’s command of the total game – abrasive up front, and finishing that was clinical and efficient when the opportunities came.
Scotland didn’t help themselves with three clear-cut try opportunities squandered by poor passing, but even so, the Irish still had their measure. And what a brilliant performance too from referee Wayne Barnes – accurate, controlled and crystal clear in his communication. Another match like that and 2007 will almost be forgotten!
Meanwhile, in Paris, France had one of their ‘we’re interested’ days, which was rather unfortunate for England who might have expected an easier time of it. The game really came to life only in the last 15 minutes – once England realised they were going to lose if they didn’t up the ante – but despite a couple of hare-brained, panicked moments, France held on in a thrilling finish, 22-16.
Eddie Jones certainly didn’t seem too anxious afterwards, pointing to more hard work for his side to squash any hint of complacency and some realignment around the breakdown, rather than any structural or personnel concerns. But it would be a surprise if Owen Farrell isn’t shifted into fly-half next week, and more of a surprise if a third loss on the trot doesn’t bring with it a change in sentiment from the UK press.
On such a busy weekend, mention of the inaugural round of the Buildcorp Super W competition risks accusations of tokenism, however the 40-minutes of the match I saw between New South Wales and Queensland was great value. The visitors had a slight class edge throughout – good enough for an 18-0 win – and with the remaining sides still at a more developmental stage, the two ‘big’ states will continue to provide the benchmark over the next two to three seasons.
The speed and width of the ball movement was impressive, and while it is far from the only measuring stick, it was evident that the play in this match far more closely resembled the professional men’s game than the earnest but ridiculously overhyped AFLW.