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The Wrap: Super Rugby finals contenders scramble to avoid finishing eighth

The Rebels have a tough assignment this round. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Expert
8th July, 2018
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Last week, I interviewed a woman of Chinese heritage for a new position and was instantly drawn to the mobile phone number on her CV.

It contained more eights than the footy gear in Kieran Read’s wardrobe, reflective of the popularity of the number in Chinese culture, and the lengths that some people go to associate themselves with the fortune and good luck it brings.

It is fair to assume then, that there is no Chinese influence at the Rebels, Brumbies and Sharks, with all three sides spurning a golden opportunity to snare the eighth playoff position ahead of the finals.

In this competition, the eighth place-getter is ‘rewarded’ with a trip to Christchurch to play the Crusaders. This prospect is rather like a condemned prisoner on the gallows asking the hangman to hold off for five minutes to allow him a final cigarette. Simply delaying the inevitable.

With only one round remaining, the Rebels hold on to that poisoned chalice, and have never been out of a play-off spot for the length of the competition. On that basis, it would be cruel for them to stumble at the death, but it is also fair to say that they have been the authors of their own recent misfortune, failing to cement victories that were well within their grasp.

Dave Wessels Super Rugby 2017

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Despite making significant advances, it is clear that they have yet to bed down a style of play that is instinctively understood and executed by all players. Against the Reds, as for the Waratahs the week before, there was lack of clarity as to their best point of attack – was it to keep punching up the guts, offloading and supporting in close, or to go around the outside?

This is nothing unusual for a side so early in its development, and also reflects the absence of their best player and decision maker – Will Genia – and the lack of a fly-half with sufficient game-management experience.

The same problem can be ascribed to the Reds, although because they have the best scrum in Australia, they are far from the basket case that some fans believe they are or want them to be.

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The Brumbies at least made a decent fist of their attempt to snare eighth spot, their improved handling and continuity bringing them back into the contest against a Chiefs side that retains explosive scoring power.

Tom Banks again showed why he deserved his Wallaby squad selection although, rather like the overall result, his best wasn’t quite as good as the Chiefs’ best. Damien McKenzie lit up Hamilton in the 30th minute by jetting into space, throwing a ‘behind the back’ pass to a supporting player, getting hammered for his trouble, bouncing back to his feet, regaining position to take another pass at pace before streaking away again to score a superb try. 24-19 Chiefs.

It was thus left open for the Sharks to continue their late-season run towards eighth spot, but they too faltered, well held by a more enterprising and deserving Stormers side in Cape Town, by 27-16.

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Most impressive was Stormers’ debut fly-half Josh Stander, who assertively cleared his defensive area, kicked well for goal and varied his play shrewdly. As if Australia’s bare fly-half cupboard doesn’t need any more highlighting, consider that the obviously capable Stander, third-string this year at the Stormers, is aged 24, and already has four years of first-class experience with the Blue Bulls under his belt.

If Rugby Australia officials are worth their salt, they will right now be scouring though Stander’s family records desperately trying to uncover a hitherto unknown Australian grandparent.

So if none of the Rebels, Brumbies and Sharks want to claim eighth spot, who will win it by default? Another three blanks next weekend will see it retained by the Rebels, but with the Jaguares reacquainting themselves with their fragile side in Pretoria, perhaps the Sharks look the most likely at this stage.

It all happened too easily for the Jaguares, racing the clock early to a 19-0 lead. But what looked like a Jaguares rout soon turned into a world of hurt and confusion, the Bulls’ 43-34 win more comfortable than what it might appear on paper.

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The Hurricanes looked better for the return of Vaea Fifita and English import Brad Shields to their starting pack, with Ngani Laumape a four-try beneficiary. Just as well Rieko and Akira Ioane announced their intention to re-sign with the Blues during the week – without them they remain nothing to get enthused over.

The Sydney match started predictably with commentator Phil Kearns imploring Israel Folau to keep jumping and “don’t worry about what the IRB says, just do your job.”

Israel Folau flies high

(AAP Image/Craig Golding)

Not for Kearns the minor detail that the IRB hasn’t been in effect since 2014 – which is about where his comments belong – nor the fact that at no stage has World Rugby made any decision that prevents Folau from jumping and competing for the ball.

Less predictable was Sunwolves fly-half Hayden Parker hooking a conversion attempt across the face of goal like a weekend golf hacker, not the sharp-shooter who had nailed 38 consecutive shots at goal before this one. He would go on to begin his next streak with a superb sideline conversion in the second half.

That kick was the result of Sunwolves winger Akihito Yamada breaking out a goose-step before skinning (and embarrassing) Folau on the outside to race away and score. Yamada also scored a spectacular first-half try when Bernard Foley showed that he had learned nothing from Kurtley Beale at Twickenham last year – just because you want a rugby ball to bounce out doesn’t mean that it actually will.

77-25 is as comprehensive as it gets, and there was much to like about the support play of the Waratahs’ forwards as the game opened up in the second half. But tougher tests – and ultimate judgment of the Tah’s season – await them.

The round began in Christchurch, marking the return to rugby for Read who – for a bloke who hasn’t played top level rugby for seven months – made a fair impression of a rugby player. The match was won early, Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall throwing a couple of excellent scoring passes before Scott Barrett finished off a great team try after the half-time siren.

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CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 29: Kieran Read of the Crusaders looks on during the Super Rugby Semi Final match between the Crusaders and the Chiefs at AMI Stadium on July 29, 2017 in Christchurch, New Zealand.

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

There were also plenty of talking points late, Ben Smith, ignoring the fact that his side was 23 points down in the 76th minute, chasing down Manasa Mataele as if a World Cup final was hanging in the balance.

Man of the moment Wyatt Crockett played spoilsport, declining a shot at goal from a last-minute penalty, despite an adoring crowd baying for him to tee it up. I guess one thing you learn after 200 Super Rugby matches is not to let your ambition get ahead of your ability.

Despite this 45-22 loss and a few slow weeks, the Highlanders have too many classy players not to make an impact during the finals. Losing three tries to five against a side as good as these Crusaders is no disgrace.

At this stage however, anything other than Scott Robertson and his men claiming yet another title on the fourth of August would be a major surprise.

Referee rage continued, Rasta Rasivhenge this time finding himself in the firing line for missing an apparent touch on the ball by Chiefs’ lock Tyler Ardron that may have allowed a final opportunity for the Brumbies to push for a win.

Talking points abounded. What would be the point of the Brumbies pumping themselves up with a famous last-minute victory anyway, when Hamilton is consistently voted by visiting sports teams as the most boring sporting city with nothing to do at night?

Rasivhenge had controlled the match confidently, was one metre away and was secure in his (non) decision. But what about the TMO, why didn’t he get involved? Fox Sports’ Stephen Hoiles was incredulous; “I find it really frustrating that we’ve got the technology, we all saw it but we can’t use it.”

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Note that this is the same Stephen Hoiles who said, not five minutes later; “the last thing we want is a World Cup ruined by TMOs and stoppages.”

To be fair to Hoiles, his frustration is understandable, and he reflects what seems to be a widely held view, that TMOs are too intrusive and inconsistent.

But Hoiles and fans can’t have it both ways. The same people who want the TMO to stay out of things also want the TMO to get involved when it suits them; naturally in situations that go against ‘their’ team.

What if the same incident occurred in the third minute of the match, would anyone seriously consider the TMO involve himself then? It might feel that the stakes are higher in the 80th minute than the third minute, but the reality is that each minute carries the same value.

So we have a situation where TMOs are being criticised for inconsistency, from people who are inconsistent in their criticism. Good luck to World Rugby picking a way through that maze.

Then again we could just leave it to the referee, accept how – as in all sports – the odd decision will go against our side, and get on with the game.

Rob Simmons yellow card

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The matter of red cards ‘ruining’ rugby also got another airing with Semisi Masirewa sent packing by Federico Anselmi for a dangerous tackle on Bernard Foley. As a result, the Sunwolves’ competitive first half dissolved into fresh air.

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The push to introduce a new card sanction system so as to keep 15 players on the field and not ‘ruin’ matches is – to borrow a phrase my grandmother was fond of using – all arse about face.

There are no circumstances where it is acceptable for players to be attacked to the head or dropped into the ground head-first. It essential that a severe deterrent against this remains in place, to help shape player behaviour and to ensure that these types of incident are infrequent.

Why should changes to the lawbook be sought because a small minority of players can’t play within existing laws? Masirewa is not a dirty player but he had no business going anywhere near Foley after he had passed the ball, let alone tip him up like he did.

Surely it makes more sense to direct anger at Masirewa instead, and demand that he and others get with the program, and change their behaviour?

It is also interesting to note, in the wake of a nasty incident involving GWS forward Jeremy Cameron, a renewed push in some quarters for the AFL to introduce an automatic send-off, that debate trending in the opposite direction to rugby.

Perhaps what all of this shows is that sport, as in general society, can construct all of the rules and sanctions it likes, but as long as there are people prepared to operate outside of those laws, there will always be grief and dissatisfaction.

Finally this week, congratulations to the Seattle Seawolves, coming from behind to claim the inaugural Major League Rugby title, over the Glendale Raptors, by 23-19, in San Diego. This caps of a hugely successful debut year for a competition that is soundly conceived and well placed for sensible expansion and success in coming years.