The old firm is back.
On a blustery Friday night in Canberra, Quade Cooper and Will Genia turned the clock back to 2011, delivering the kind of commanding performance that not only helped the Rebels to a satisfying 34-27 win, but offers up potential implications for later in the year.
18-months out of top-flight rugby is a long time for a 31 year-old with a dicky knee, but the calm, professional resolve Cooper has shown throughout the pre-season effortlessly translated into his return to Super Rugby.
A comeback that has, in one fell swoop, confirmed the Rebels as genuine finals contenders, and restored Cooper’s position as a major talking point for Australian rugby fans.
In many respects, this was not the Cooper of old. Absent were the miracle plays and impromptu moves involving unsuspecting team-mates. Instead, there was control and poise, intelligent game management, crisp distribution and a willingness to play hard at the advantage line – all under the umbrella of a discernible team pattern.
There were surprises of course: two try-saving tackles on Tevita Kuridrani, at each end of the game, stopping the big man dead in his tracks. The technique may not have been text-book, but if it is true that defence is 95 per cent attitude then Cooper is clearly in a good place right now.
And, love him or hate him, this is surely a very good thing for Australian rugby.
Not by coincidence, the players to either side of Cooper were among the Rebels’ best; Genia combining sweetly while twice picking up close-in forward runners for tries, while inside centre Bill Meakes looked as assured and accurate as he ever has, at this level.
Up front, another Wallaby prospect impressed, No.8 Isi Naisarani’s insatiable thirst for work continually posing problems for his old side. As with Cooper, it is a sign of the Rebels ongoing development that the ‘wrecking ball’ carries of Amanaki Mafi have been replaced by a player no less effective as a ball carrier, but operating more in concert with his teammates and the team pattern.
The Brumbies were severely hampered by the early loss of David Pocock, and their own tactical uncertainty, struggling to find the right balance between an attacking, ball-in-hand mindset, and using the first-half wind to maintain field position.
Injuries and three lineouts aside, there was plenty for Brumbies fans to carry forward, not the least the full-on competitiveness of Lachie McCaffrey and Pete Samu, a rock-solid scrum, and their trademark lineout maul, which clearly lost none of its bite over summer.
The Super Rugby season got underway in Hamilton two hours earlier, with the impressively tenacious Highlanders somehow finding a way to eke out a 30-27 win against the Chiefs; a result that had seemed beyond them entering the final quarter.
After a 2018 season studded with uncertainly around TMO involvement, it only took a few minutes for concerns to resurface. New protocols have been adopted, including the introduction of ‘pods’ of officials staying together from match to match – aimed at building familiarity and providing for more seamless communication between them.
Another new protocol decrees that the TMO should overturn a referee’s decision only when the TMO has conclusive evidence to the contrary. Nice in theory, but perhaps TMO Aaron Paterson never got that memo, nor the one about fans imploring officials not to intervene to send players off for marginal, overly technical matters.
This column is as strident an advocate as any for the protection of players in the air, and from attacks to the head – indeed, the long term future of the game, with respect to junior participation and potentially crippling legal claims, depends on it.
But if Paterson saw Sio Parkinson fail to lower his body upon entering the tackle, and neglect to sufficiently engage his left arm in a wrapping motion, he must surely have also seen ball-carrier Brodie Retallick duck into the contact?
Parkinson got his tackle wrong, but not ‘red card wrong’. Yes, the law is the law, and if Parkinson’s sanction serves as a warning for all other players in the competition to tackle lower, then this is positive affirmation of World Rugby’s guidelines.
But TMO Paterson might also do well to consider how absolute laws only become good laws through common-sense interpretation and application.
At least the final result spared us from the ‘red cards ruin matches’ chorus, with focus directed instead to the Chiefs’ inability to close out a winning position. World Cup-winning hero Stephen Donald (sporting a Billy Bob Thornton/Karl Childers haircut), surrendered the initiative with a couple of poor errors, and the injection of Aaron Smith, and the Highlanders’ will to win, did the rest.
In a match studded with typically low, early-season moments, Waratah Alex Newsome sunk lowest when, in the run of play, he grabbed a stray Hurricanes boot and tossed it over the Brookvale sideline. Nick Phipps may not have been on the field, but his influence obviously looms large.
It was not all bad from the home team, Israel Folau’s high-speed pick-up, positioning and release for Curtis Rona’s try, a standout moment. But the Waratahs will rue this as an opportunity lost, Bernard Foley missing an eminently kickable penalty in the 78th minute, to leave the Hurricanes in front, 20-19.
The Blues’ Harry Plummer had a similar opportunity in Auckland, albeit from greater distance, his miss letting the Crusaders off the hook with a 24-22 win.
Winning matches without dominating is nothing unusual for the Crusaders, just as losing winnable matches is for the Blues. In the end it was two moments of pack dominance/submission that tilted things the Crusaders’ way, but long-suffering Blues fans have good reason to be encouraged, their team demonstrating, for long patches, that they are considerably improved.
Much seemed to be made of referee Nick Briant’s decision to green-light Crusaders’ winger Manasa Mataele’s action to knock down a Blues pass, to kill off a promising attacking raid, late in the match – the type of instance that is usually automatic yellow card territory.
It may be the minority view, but Briant’s assertion that Mataele commited no offence, was spot on. The law provides for sanction for a deliberate knock-on, yet Mataele attempted – and succeeded – to bat the ball backwards. Crude and ugly? Yes, but that’s still ‘play on’, every day of the week.
In steamy Singapore, the Sharks had too many Du Preez for the Sunwolves, coasting in by 45-10. Rene Ranger’s Asian sojourn looks to be over just as soon as it started, carried off with a serious knee injury. Coach Tony Brown has more pressing issues however – like finding a pack robust and strong enough to mix it at scrum and maul with the competition’s heavyweights.
The Bulls easily wiped the Stormers 40-3, which won’t do anything to quell stories of coaching discontent in Cape Town, while a fresh-looking Lions secured their first-ever win in Buenos Aries, 25-16 over a Jaguares side that lacked front-row presence and backline cohesion.
One of those things might be put down to typical first-match blues; the other one might potentially present a more serious problem.
Everyone involved in Super Rugby knows the extent to which travel is a factor. Perhaps nobody is tired in round one, nevertheless, for there to be only one home winner over the weekend (the Bulls), was quite remarkable.
Tipsters already struggling to rank the contenders and find a few winners just had another bucket of confusion tipped into the mix.