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New Zealand rugby fans who have been agitating for over 30 years for the return of former All Blacks captain Buck Shelford finally had their wish granted when a fit looking Shelford delivered an Anzac Day remembrance ode to kick off week ten Super Rugby action.
The quality of the match didn’t do Shelford or the Anzac diggers justice however, the Highlanders always in control over a depleted Blues, closing out a 34-16 win that keeps them in touch with the three other heavyweight contenders in the New Zealand conference.
Notably, the result marked the Blues’ 15th straight loss against a New Zealand franchise which, if applied equally across all four Australian franchises, would equate to an astonishing 60 defeats, not the mere 35-deep trans-Tasman abyss the Australian teams now wallow in.
Friday night instead belonged to Ash Hewson, whose covering tackle on Queensland’s Samantha Treherne sent Australia’s Super W final into extra time, and penalty goal after the extra-time siren ensured an historic victory for New South Wales, 16-13.
If Queensland were unlucky – the final penalty was for diving through the ruck to tackle the halfback, who appeared to have picked the ball up – the result was fitting for Hewson, who has been a great servant of the fledgling sport and who must, with better reason than most, wish she was ten years younger, to allow her to enjoy the growth in women’s rugby that will surely accrue in coming years.
In the late fixture, both the Waratahs and Lions left points on the field in the first half, a number of inexplicable handling errors studding the match, not all of which could be put down to a dewy ball. Those errors always felt like they would come back to bite the Waratahs more, and so it proved, the home side failing for the first time ever in Super Rugby to trouble the scoreboard attendant.
Unsurprisingly, Lions hooker Malcolm Marx reigned supreme, typified by one turnover where a Michael Hooper cleanout tipped him over and onto his head, but still didn’t prevent him from snaffling the ball back onto his side of the ruck.
Season standout Taqele Naiyarovoro had a dreadful night, and Kurtley Beale paid the price for getting ahead of the ball on two defensive reads, clutching at air while the Lions scored behind him. The real difference between the sides however was the grunt the Lions forwards imposed on the Waratahs pack, complemented by some clever lineout variations in the second half.
On Saturday, the Crusaders were no more than workmanlike against the Sunwolves, the 33-11 winning margin reflective of an improved effort by the visitors as much as the damp conditions.
In Brisbane, the Chiefs killed the contest early, their speed of ball movement too much for the Reds who, despite trying manfully in the second half, and an impressively cool one-handed scrum feed by replacement halfback Moses Sorovi, were outclassed. Kudos to referee Jaco Peyper who must have suspected big trouble when Jonny Faauli flattened Caleb Timu in the middle of the park, but upon further inspection, didn’t panic and ruled the hit fair.
Little solace for Timu whose bones must still be rattling now!
It was a similar story for the Rebels in Pretoria – competing bravely in the second half but always looking a class below the Bulls, a side continuing to make progress under John Mitchell. After a good early run with injuries, the Rebels, already without Will Genia, finished the match without a hooker, and fresh concerns over Dane Haylett-Petty and Adam Coleman.
In Durban, the South African conference tightened even further, with the Sharks seeing off the Stormers 24-17. Damien Willemse was again impressive for the losers, but the higher work-rate of the Sharks pack and some nice touches by centre Lukhanyo Am told the difference.
It was thus left to the Brumbies to salvage Australian pride at home against the Jaguares, but some inexplicable tactics while a man up, too much focus on referee Angus Gardiner, and Henry Speight channelling Beale on defence meant that the best they could do was a late penalty to meekly claim a bonus point.
The Jaguares continue to impress as a far more professional, rounded and disciplined unit than in previous years. Their final try, to winger Emiliano Boffelli, was a beauty – never mind that Speight made a poor decision at the end, this was a wonderful example of players working into space, avoiding the contact that too many Australian players take by default, and letting the ball do the work.
This weekend illustrates how difficult it is for coaches to effect change and have this translated into immediate tangible success. There is an argument that by a number of measures, the Blues, Sunwolves, Rebels and Reds are all better this year compared to last, but they are all teams who remain some distance from competing for the title.
Unfortunately for them, internal measurements alone count for little because the better sides are not standing still. For example, players like Marx, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith and Pablo Matera have not clocked off, just as Scott Robertson has not lost his enthusiasm for coaching – he’s only just getting started. These are people in the ascendancy.
Another factor is that for sides expected to lose, it used to be possible in rugby for a coach to fully commit to a defensive game plan, motivate his players to the point where they all believed they were supermen and, with some luck and a good goal-kicker, eke out a 9-6 win.
However, today’s laws and evolution in the game have resulted in the ball being in play for significantly longer periods, and interpretations overwhelmingly favour the side in possession. Charlie Ngatai’s try for the Chiefs and Adriaan Strauss’ try for the Bulls against the Rebels were not the result of missed tackles or incompetent coaching, but simply the reward rugby now provides good attacking sides who build pressure and stick their passes.
In that sense, winning rugby is multi-dimensional. The challenge is to not only limit New Zealand sides and the Lions to under 30 points, (not six or nine), but also to conjure a way to score more than that many points themselves.
That’s a massive task for any coach, one that no matter the eagerness of Australian fans for their sides to start winning regularly, cannot reasonably be hoped to be turned around in the middle of a season, where injuries, match recovery, travel and managing tight schedules – rather than much-needed skills development – become the primary focus.
If that sounds like it’s making excuses for Brad Thorn, Dave Wessels, Dan McKellar, Tana Umaga, Jamie Joseph and others, it isn’t. Consider it instead recognition of the deeper factors at play, and the reality that significant and lasting change in an elite sporting competition can only be effected if all aspects – cultural, organisational, financial, environmental, personnel – are sufficiently resourced and are in harmony with each other.
To single the Reds out as an example, their back office has been dysfunctional for some time. Their governing body, Rugby Australia, is financially strained and heavily criticized on a daily basis. Their natural on-field talisman Will Genia has somehow ended up at another franchise.
In that context, is it realistic to expect that Brad Thorn, eight matches into his Super Rugby coaching career, should already have moulded a team of journeymen and youngsters to beat the Chiefs? With or without Quade Cooper? I’d suggest not.
Is it realistic to expect that win to come when the Chiefs return to Suncorp in two years’ time? Surely that is possible, but even so, is two years enough time to sufficiently improve the skills and the athleticism of the players at Thorn’s disposal, to strengthen his squad in the off-seasons, and to establish the consistency and winning habits that consistently successful franchises have? While Thorn is learning on the job himself?
Johan Ackermann achieved this at the Lions, partly because he chose to adopt a style of play that was easily defined – it was something that all his players could see and understand, even if it proved difficult initially for them to adopt. Thus Ackermann explained the process where he was forced to ride out the tough times in transition, and to keep adding and trimming players here and there in his search to find the personnel with the temperament and skill set to deliver his vision.
Despite his undoubted success, and the continuation this year under Swys de Bruin, note that the Lions too, are yet to win Super Rugby.
Irish rugby – at international level and this season with Leinster charging to what appears to be inevitable European Championship glory – has similarly managed to define what it wants to be, and has gone about patiently building towards that, piece by piece. The rewards for both planning and execution are now flowing, but it has been a long journey.
Change is indeed possible, but at this level where the quality of the opposition is high and the margins between winning and losing sides are magnified in an instant, any such change is almost certainly going to be very hard-earned and slow to achieve. Accordingly, expectations should be re-aligned to accept that improvement will be incremental and non-linear, and cannot be sensibly measured on a week-by-week basis.
None of which stops fans demanding their pound of flesh and wanting their side to be better, and that is fair enough. Australian (and Blues) fans are heartily sick of losing, they are frustrated by basic deficiencies in skills and set-piece execution, and it is understandably affecting the state of the game in those regions.
On the bright side, there is at least a contest looming that might just provide a first step on the pathway to redemption for Australian rugby.
The Brumbies get a crack at home next week against the Crusaders, but mark down Saturday fifth May, at the unusual venue of Brookvale Oval on Sydney’s northern beaches, as a more likely milestone in trans-Tasman terms.
The New Zealand franchises are all desperate not to become the first to fold and break the sequence, but there is a sense that Umaga has little control over what happens once his Blues side takes the field.
The Waratahs might have been well beaten by the Lions on Friday night, but this is a couple of divisions lighter, and they must surely fancy their chances here. Don’t break out the champagne just yet, that would be foolish, but right now, Australian rugby needs any win it can get.