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In this age of buzzwords and mangled language it has become trendy to describe bench players as ‘finishers’ – players whose responsibility it is to enter a game in the second half and lift momentum, and carry their team to victory.
I prefer the term ‘finisher’ to be applied to rugby’s wingmen, the gas and power merchants on the edges who convert half-openings into special tries, thrilling and delighting fans as they do so. And so it was this weekend, where the Hurricanes’ Vince Aso – who recently turned down an enticing offer from France because he still had things he wanted to achieve in New Zealand – led the way for the wingers to once again own the title ‘finisher’, reclaiming what is rightfully theirs.
The stage had been set in the first half with the impressive Ben Lam squeezing into the left corner despite heavy Highlander traffic and a worrying inability for the match officials to distinguish between red and orange boots.
But as impressive as Lam’s effort was, he was outdone by the astonishing Aso, flying through and over Ben Smith who applied what would have been, in normal circumstances, a great covering tackle.
In a match that was dominated by defence, the significance of a winger converting half-chances like this into points cannot be underplayed, just as the inability of Aso’s teammate Julian Savea to convert his early opportunity in last year’s third Test against the Lions potentially cost his side a series win.
The heroics in this match – which signalled the end of the Highlanders’ unbeaten run – weren’t limited to the wingers. Jordie Barrett’s role in Aso’s try was significant, and prop Ben May’s epic save at fullback to deny Tevita Li surely a career highlight.
The Stormers’ first try against the Reds showed the other side of the Raymond Rhule coin, the big Ghanaian creating an overlap out of nothing, before he found the try-line himself in the second half, in another quality finishing effort in heavy traffic.
The Reds had their own star finisher, Filipo Daugunu sprinting and swerving 97 metres to somehow give his side a final shot at victory in a game they had no business in winning. This was a classic honourable loss and, as if any more evidence was required, taking account of the Reds’ tortuous journey to Cape Town, it is obvious that coach Brad Thorn has this developing side in a good place.
Star finishing in Buenos Aries was provided by Emiliano Boffelli, yet another power winger able to impressively squeeze in at the corner, although the crucial score came when No.8 Javier Ortego Desio hit a hole and galloped away from the Lions’ cover defence to take the Jaguares’ lead out to 49-35.
It is as if the bipolar Jaguares exist solely to confound rugby tipsters, the majority having no idea which side is going to turn up on any given day. Scratch a little deeper, though, and it seems that sides like the Waratahs and Lions who take the Jaguares on in an open game leave themselves exposed to the Jaguares’ scoring power, courtesy of their ability to run, pass and support each other.
On the other hand, as evidenced by the Reds approach last week and, this week, the Lions discovering too late that they were better off playing against type through the pack, the Jaguares are vulnerable to a ‘Dad’s Army’ Lance Corporal Jones approach, “they don’t like it up ‘em.”
Nevertheless, the Jaguares’ improvement this season is important for the competition – more so if they can repeat the dose away from home.
The Lions won’t panic – this has been an unfruitful trip for them in the past – but more than a suspicion remains that they have peaked post-Ackermann. And when your most reliable, grittiest player in Kwagga Smith is bounced off by a small midfielder, then you just know that today isn’t your day.
There was plenty of eyebrow-raising in Tokyo, the match officials somehow conspiring to miss a blatant forward pass for the Sunwolves’ first try. Earlier, Sunwolves halfback Fumiaki Tanaka nearly had the eyebrows blasted off his face courtesy of a stinging falcon, the rebounding ball falling favourably for the Chiefs to set-up their opening try.
The Chiefs, affected more than most by injury, are slowly working their way into the competition, and while Damien McKenzie will have sterner tests, his ability to spark attacking raids from flyhalf signalled a positive step in his positional transformation.
The Sunwolves might be propping up the points table, but they are competition standouts for merchandising, a trawl through their catalogue rewarding shoppers with a mouth-watering treasure trove of options. Fancy a pair of fetching, arse-hugging wolf briefs? Or a giant teapot? Or a golden hand? The Sunwolves are your team.
More soberly, in light of the 61-10 result, Rod Kafer talked post-match about the integrity of Super Rugby and the need for all matches to be competitive, week on week. Remember that the rationale for SANZAAR’s broadcast partners insisting on reverting to 15 teams was exactly this.
Now in their third season, under-resourced at the start, the Sunwolves have been allowed a grace period, but it is important that significant, visible progress is made sooner than later. At the very least SANZAAR owes this to the rugby people of Western Australia, but also it is not only the integrity of the competition as identified by Kafer, but the financial worth of the competition, and the fortunes of the member unions which depends on it.
At least SANZAAR and Rugby Australia will be feeling some vindication with the Rebels atop the competition on 20 points and, despite their second-half capitulation to the Waratahs last week, carrying a very healthy points differential and having already scored more tries than over the whole of last season.
That those tries are starting to come in a variety of ways – an effective, dynamic lineout maul as well as from outside breaks – is a sign of a side that is quickly maturing, one that is realistically planning to go deep into this competition.
Coach Dave Wessels wasn’t overly concerned that other potential tries were left out on the park, happier instead to focus on the positives around creating those opportunities in the first place. He might, however, need to have a chat to winger Sefa Naivalu – now caught out twice in successive weeks carrying the ball in the ‘wrong’ hand – if Naivalu has any ambition to join Aso, Lam and Bofelli in the ‘star finisher’ ranks.
Another minor quibble was that on a few occasions the Rebels were guilty, once the initial bust was made, of throwing a wide pass straight to the wings when a regulation pass to the next supporting player would have taken the cover defence out of the equation.
Wessels also spoke about how the short five-day turnaround helped his side move on from Sydney and his own role in bringing a positive energy to the week; “I think I forgot a little bit how important it is for us to enjoy our rugby, that’s why we play.”
The Sharks’ tour has thus far proved less than enjoyable, their rugby bland and characterless, unbecoming of the talent at their disposal and well below pre-season expectations. They face another stern test this week against the Blues, who will be desperate to keep touch with the other New Zealand franchises.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson wouldn’t have minded that their 33-14 result against the Brazilian Bulls was a dismal affair – his side just needed to steady the ship with a win.
Bulls coach John Mitchell, however, would have been filthy with his side offering up some horrible goal-line defence, softer than Saharan butter, more porous than Steve Smith’s explanation for his side’s behaviour in Cape Town – if indeed such actions are explainable.
In this matter, if there is room for any sympathy for Cameron Bancroft, it is because he is not the first man to suffer the indignity of bringing himself into disrepute for what’s in his undies. At least he knows if those undies are subpoenaed as part of the investigation into his ball tampering, he can always pick up a new pair of wolf jocks straight off the Sunwolves’ website.