Only two rounds into the 2019 Super Rugby season, decision time has arrived early for the Australian rugby public.
Battered into submission by three wretched years of sub-standard performances, do they maintain a negative mindset, stay away from games and continue to carp from the sideline?
Or do they hitch themselves to a bandwagon that is, at last, floating in on a changing tide, and start to fill up empty stadiums?
During these barren years, fans have been asking players for – among other things – more effort, purpose and intent, better fitness levels, enhanced tactical appreciation, better skill execution, and of course, results on the scoreboard.
Reds fans didn’t get all of those things in Dunedin, but they got enough to believe that they again have a side worth investing in. The Rebels showed their hand last week in Canberra – they are the real deal, particularly with Will Genia and Quade Cooper back in the halves.
The Brumbies? No strangers to winning big at home, they thrashed a hopelessly poorly prepared Hurricanes, 52-10, in the opening match of the 2016 season, the ‘Canes with their eye firmly on winning the final five months later.
But this 54-17 demolition of the Chiefs was on another level altogether, reward for a perfectly balanced performance that ticked all of the boxes listed above.
The signs were there early, the Brumbies electing not to drive and maul their first attacking lineout, but to run a nifty move aimed at catching the Chiefs by surprise. They didn’t score but their intent was clear, as was the confidence that spread throughout the team, via the hands of inspirational captain Christian Lealiifano.
If Cooper was convincingly sure and in control of his game last week, Lealiifano was imperious this, accepting the challenge of playing flat and square, passing beautifully and haring into gaps like a man far younger than his 31 years.
His pass and Tom Banks’ footwork for his first-half try was superb, but it was Chance Peni’s second try that took things to another level – finished off by willing support play, but started by Lealiifano spying a blindside opportunity from a scrum only five metres from his own line, and taking the game on.
It is hard to imagine that try being scored under previous Brumbies’ coaching regimes, where a rigid default option would have been to clear for touch. On that score alone, coach Dan McKellar showed exactly why the Brumbies recently chose to extend his contract by two years.
The Chiefs were out of sorts but it would be too convenient to say that they didn’t turn up and leave it at that. The Brumbies seized the initiative away from them, and never relented, going on with things in the second half, like a good side should.
Under Brad Thorn, the Reds are not as advanced in their team development as the Brumbies, but their performance in Dunedin confirmed that their overall momentum is forward.
While the Highlanders deservedly took a 36-31 win, the tenacious Reds worked their way to a 31-29 lead, helped by a curious touchline error by Ben Smith. They then seriously threatened to see things out.
In the wash-up, they will rue some aimless kicking, although this stemmed mostly from a lack of confidence to play from the back – something fans can expect to see change as the season progresses.
Not unrelated, fly-half Hamish Stewart spent limited time at first receiver and, while not to downplay the efforts of Bryce Hegarty, there was a lack of clarity around their roles.
Stewart is a developing playmaker, with a good boot. He and the Reds will benefit from him being given more opportunity to direct play and put his stamp on the game.
By contrast, Highlanders flyhalf Josh Ioane was heavily involved, twice throwing cool, accurate final passes for tries on the outside.
Reds captain Samu Kerevi nicely captured where the Reds are right now, striving for a ‘no excuses’ mindset, admitting that the term ‘young team’ is off limits, before going on to use the exact term himself, seconds later!
It was left to the Waratahs to drag the Australian chain, making heavy weather of their win against the Sunwolves by 31-30.
Despite pre-match talk warning of the dangers of getting drawn into an unstructured game by the Sunwolves, the Waratahs did exactly that.
Finishing a ten-minute sin-bin period 0-7 spoke to play that was often far too loose, indirect and tactically deficient.
The Waratahs were also troubled by the Sunwolves’ rushing defence, and the physicality of their ball runners – something they will need to address urgently in a competition where both are prevalent.
In the end, it was the urgency of Karmichael Hunt that saved the day for the Waratahs, Hunt alone in recognising the threat of a Hayden Parker drop goal, and doing just enough to disrupt what would have been the winning kick.
The Crusaders clicked through another gear this week, their first half against the Hurricanes totally dominant, and a reminder to all of the competition – as if one is needed – as to how high the bar is set.
The Hurricanes didn’t help themselves with a misfiring lineout, but competed well enough in the second half to suggest that their match next Friday, in Palmerston North, against the Brumbies, should be a ripper.
It was a similar tale for the Blues in Durban, playing themselves out of the game with a lacklustre first half, but showing more grit and some cohesion in the second, going down by 26-7.
If they are to take the next step that many think them capable of, they will need fly-half Otere Black to play with more conviction. So far, 2019 is the year of playmakers operating at pace, close to the advantage line; sitting back and shovelling the ball on is not enough to get the job done against today’s defences.
For their part the Sharks have already opened up a lead in what is already a topsy-turvy South Africa conference. Their all-round consistency looks like being a virtue at this early stage.
The remaining four sides all turned around last weeks’ results, a limp Bulls falling 27-12 to the Jaguares, and the Stormers scrapping hard at home to snatch a 19-17 win against the Lions, five crazy minutes after the final siren, where the Lions’ Marnus Schoeman was allowed to return to the field after serving only eight minutes in the sin bin.
Perhaps it was the second-half change in jerseys that did the trick for the Stormers, after another administrative ‘snafu’ rendered the first half a difficult watch. Progress is progress, but if there is anyone who can explain how a multi-coloured kit with spiders on it is superior to a traditional strip, I’m all ears.
Are the Stormers’ colours black with yellow? Or tangerine? Or ‘superhero’ red, white, yellow, grey and blue? Whatever happened to blue and white? You know, the colours that large sections of the crowd were wearing. Because that’s their traditional colours, one of the things they like to identify with.
The match in Buenos Aries seemed like it was played in slow motion, rather like Hugh Bladen’s commentary. Admittedly, steady rain throughout the match didn’t help, but in the end it was the Bulls’ ineptness and the discipline of the Jaguares defence that told the difference.
So to the much anticipated Six Nations epic slugfest in Cardiff, where Wales surged late to overcome England, by 21-13.
The result marked a tactical triumph for Warren Gatland over Eddie Jones, with Wales not only anticipating England’s kicking game, but defusing it, then turning it back on them, with Dan Biggar’s cross-kick for Josh Adams’ try the match-sealing score.
Wales are in the midst of a 12-match winning streak, having figured out how to play to their strengths and not beyond. They will get their opportunity for a grand slam in a couple of weeks, although Ireland will certainly have other ideas.
In the meantime, Australian fans now have the opportunity to determine where they stand. Will Super Rugby forever be the game ‘nobody cares for’ because it’s played against sides no-one gives a rats about, in the middle of the night?
Or are they being flushed out by Australia’s best players rapidly closing the conditioning gap, now condensed into four teams, with relatively new coaches now coming to grips with how to operate at this level, playing running rugby with positive intent?
Rogue ‘snotting’ incidents aside, rugby as an on-field ‘product’ is in great shape. There is equal delight seeing Izack Rodda being rewarded for following up a 80m break-out for a thrilling try, just as there is watching Alun-Wyn Jones out-muscle and out-graft the England pack on a bleak day in South Wales.
Australian sides too, are scoring tries. The Reds scored four in a losing effort to the Highlanders, as did the Brumbies in their first-round loss to the Rebels. Set pieces are in some instances strong, or at worst, are the equal of the competition.
It is true that Australian franchises are working off a low base. And the slow-starting Waratahs need to come to the party. And there will still be a snake or two for every ladder along the way; this remains a very tough competition, and there’s a long way to go before any trophies are won.
But if the first thing to be won is the respect and attention of fans, I’d suggest that enough has been done already.
It’s time for Australian rugby fans to come out from behind their keyboards, their pints of bitter, and glasses of whine, and get along and support Super Rugby.
Buy a membership, put a bum on a seat, forget about whatever it might be that you don’t like about the game, and remember again what it is that you do.
Disaffected fans who have been calling for a palace revolution might find, if they open their eyes, that the revolution has already started – on the field.