The Waratahs clash with the Melbourne Rebels was the last game of Round 5, and it was a round of intriguing results. Upsets, close calls and standout individual performances were the order of the round.
So… who shone? Who failed? And who’s making headlines this weekend?
Here are five things we learned from Round 5.
The Bulls have left eight points in the Tasman
Travelling on the road is always a good test of a side’s mettle. For the Bulls, they would’ve come on their tour of New Zealand and Australia with some confidence after their Round 2 victory over the Hurricanes.
That confidence has been shut down however, by two close losses in games they could’ve, and probably should’ve, won. Against the Reds, they were dominant in the first half, before fading late to hand Brad Thorn’s men a gritty win.
Their game against the Chiefs was probably the game of the round, and again for John Mitchell’s side, it was a case of “what could have been.”
An unusually attacking oriented game plan was working wonders against the Chiefs, and the Bulls held a 28-14 lead at oranges.
After the break, however, they went back to a more conservative style of play, trying to protect their lead, and that is so many sides kryptonite against counter-attacking NZ outfits. Duly, the Chiefs scored 28 unanswered points to win by 13.
The Bulls have proven they’re a danger team, and they have genuine weapons in fullback Warren Gelant and outside centre Jesse Kriel, but they need to learn to close out games or they’ll finish further South on the ladder than they’d like.
The Sunwolves are not the easy beats of yesteryear
If you looked at the Super Rugby ladder, this statement would make little sense. The Sunwolves are last in the Australian conference, with zero wins from four starts.
They also have a point difference of -57 in that period. However, they are a completely different outfit from their previous super rugby campaigns.
One need not look further than their heroic efforts against the Brumbies in Round 2, or against the Lions last night to realise that.
A two-point loss to last year’s finalists, in Johannesburg – is a performance that almost no other team in the competition can boast about having.
Even more remarkable was that in the corresponding fixture last season, the Lions piled on 94 points against a hapless Sunwolves side.
So, what is the root of this seismic shift? Their line speed is impressive. While not the biggest side in the competition, time and time again they rushed the Lions attack, and shut Elton Jantjies down at first receiver.
They have recruited well in the off-season and have a core group of players in Ryoto Nakamura, Ed Quirk and Will Tupou who play with a level of energy and passion that is consistently pushing teams to the brink.
Yes, they won’t feature at the pointy end of the competition – but they will cause at least one major upset this season.
Could their upcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand be the scene of one? We shall see.
Dan McKellar flipped the coin – and called correctly
A horribly misfiring Brumbies side needed a change, and coach Dan McKellar swung the axe ahead of their fixture with the Sharks this weekend.
Kyle Godwin was dumped from the 23-man squad, with Christian Lealifano shifting to inside centre to allow Wharenui Hawera to start at five-eighth.
Chance Peni and Tom Banks were dropped for Andrew Muirhead and Lausii Taliauli, while Folau Fa’aingaa came into the front row for Josh Mann-Rea.
In the back row, Tom Cusack started after a superb NRC campaign, and Blake Enever replaced the injured Sam Carter.
With a completely new-look side running out at GIO Stadium against the dynamic Sharks, no-one really knew what to expect.
80 minutes later, and a lot of the concerns surrounding the Brumbies recent form was put to bed. Hawera and Lealifano combined beautifully in the midfield – and there was certainly more direction in their attack.
Cusack, Enever and Isa Naisarani carried hard, and Joe Powell had his best game of the 2018 season.
While there were still errors, and they probably should’ve won by more; this was a much improved performance from McKellar’s men.
Tom Decent from the Sydney Morning Herald noted this week that the Brumbies were paying $14 to win the Australian conference.
With four of their next five games at home – it’s probably worth a lobster or two.
Brad Thorn is allergic to losing
It’s remarkable what momentum and a collective never-say-die attitude can do to the long-term prospects of a rugby outfit.
Brad Thorn made national headlines when he dumped Nic Frisby and Quade Cooper before the season kicked off, and he attracted even more critics after their first-round drubbing at the hands of the Melbourne Rebels.
Since then, the Reds have won three straight games for the first time since 2013, and they’re making a habit of squeezing the life out of their opposition with a previously unsighted defensive tenacity and pressure.
Their forward pack looks unremarkable on paper, but is kicking goals where it counts. New hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa has been one of the finds of the tournament, and is a rock at lineout time.
Veteran prop JP Smith is like a battle-hardened father to young counterparts Taniela Tupou and Sef Fa’Agase.
In the backs, Filipo Daugunu and Aiden Toua are genuine speedsters; while journeyman Jono Lance is the no-nonsense rudder who gets things done. Like any good team, the test will be how they go over the length of the season – but the early signs are supremely positive.
The Tahs burst the Rebels bubble
At 20-3 in favour of the Melbourne Rebels with three minutes to play in the first half, you’d be forgiven for thinking two things.
1) The Rebels are streets ahead of the rest of the Australian conference.
2) The Waratahs are incredibly frustrating to watch
What happened in the next 20 minutes was nothing short of remarkable. The Tahs scored 38 unanswered points, including tries to Curtis Rona, Mitch Short, Rob Simmons, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Bryce Hegarty, as the Rebels let the floodgates open.
For the first time this season, Dave Wessels’ men were tested – both in attack and defence. The ease with which the Rebels were getting over the gain line in recent weeks was gone as the Tahs threw throngs of people into the breakdown to slow down the ball Will Genia was getting at the base of the ruck. Gone was the Rebels side that attacked at will, as the Tahs did a Rebels, to the Rebels!
Matt Phillip scored a try in the 63rd minute to give the Melbourne side a sniff – but Bernard Foley’s 73rd minute penalty put the game out of reach – in the process taking his personal tally to 19 for the afternoon.
Naiyaravoro finished off a stellar performance, scoring his double in the 80th minute with an outstanding run down the left edge, bumping off three defenders in the process.
A 51-27 win to the Waratahs a scoreline befitting the immense attacking effort that the NSW side showed in a blistering 25 minute period either side of half time.