March already and Round 4 has been and gone! There are some new patterns evolving (Sunwolves being consistently competitive) and some of the same old stories (Crusaders unbeatable). Either way, there’s plenty to talk about.
All Blacks stars struggling for form
It’s not exactly time for the alarm bells yet but Steve Hansen will have been watching carefully his All Blacks as they kick off the season.
His main focus might well have been more on whether any of them picked up an injury but the form of two players in particular might have caught his eye.
Against the Hurricanes on Friday, Aaron Smith was well below his usual standards. What made this even more interesting was the fact that his opposition scrum-half was his All Black under study TJ Perenara. In fact, not just that but Perenara had a very good game while Smith was average.
Hansen might also have noticed both the terrible form of the Chiefs and the inability of Damian McKenzie to guide his team to a win in the No.10 jersey.
Last year saw McKenzie spent most of the season as fly-half having shifted from full back. There were plenty of questions about whether he could handle the role change and if he’d make himself the backup to Beauden Barrett at the international level.
He wasn’t flawless for sure but he did impress many people and found a way to balance his natural attacking flair with a more measured approach.
However this year he’s been well below those standards. He hasn’t torn any teams to pieces with his pace and open play running, and he hasn’t been able to take control of his team and guide them around.
For the rest of the world it’s worth remembering that even if both of these stars dropped off completely, then the All Blacks would replace them with names like Perenara, Mo’unga or Barrett (Jordie). So it’s no time to rejoice for everyone else!
Chiefs could be in real trouble
Speaking of the Chiefs, things went from bad to worse this week. In Round 3 they stumbled against the Sunwolves and this week they got hammered by the Crusaders.
They conceded nine tries inside 69 minutes and up until the 72nd minute they had only scored twice. What’s worse is that they just looked missing in action. They missed about 25 per cent of their tackles and made almost 10 handling errors.
They are going up against the Hurricanes next week and then have to play the in-form Bulls away in the round after that. It is very, very easy to see that the Chiefs are going to be “played six, lost six” and there will be no way back from that.
They need to figure out what is going wrong and quickly. From the games so far they are really struggling in defence and need to get their systems working to force errors from the other side.
The Chiefs attack hasn’t clicked yet but it will – that’s only going to matter though if they can stop teams scoring so many points against them.
Sunwolves don’t deserve to be canned
There were some rumours this week that SANZAAR are talking about cutting the Sunwolves with the South African officials apparently behind the push.
The story is that South Africa are eager to get a bigger percentage of the competition monies to support their own struggling financials.
Of course these are just rumours at the moment but it’s definitely true that the competition has been fighting hard to find a structure that works and is financially rewarding.
Now of course the competition is more important than any one side but it would be such a huge shame to see the Sunwolves chopped in 2020 when it feels like they are genuinely finding form and confidence.
Off the back of the Rugby World Cup this year you’d hope that rugby will be at its most popular ever which is surely a time to double down and support the club game even more, not pull the franchise entirely.
Rebels – same, same but different
Last year the Rebels made an impressive start and piled on both the wins and the points. However that was their high point and they ended up falling back into the pack and missing out on finals rugby.
This year they’ve started well again with three wins from three but there’s something different about the men from Melbourne.
This weekend they played the Brumbies again and were behind as the Canberra team impressed in the opening stages of the match.
However the Rebels fought back and picked up the win, despite receiving two yellow cards, conceding a penalty try and being 16 points behind at the halfway point.
To fight back from that sort of first half is a really impressive performance. Yes it was the Brumbies – a side who has a primary strike weapon who can’t sidestep a goal post (yes Tevita Kuridrani, we’re looking at you!) – but these types of wins are crucial for a side that wants to make its first finals.
One of the stand out moments of the match was when Will Genia screamed at his own forwards for a poor ruck that gave the Brumbies the ball back. That intensity and expectation of his teammates to do better was great to see and bodes well for 2019.
State of Origin Union style works
It might not have the intensity or build up as the League State of Origin, but seeing the Tahs and Reds go head to head at the SCG was really great.
The game itself was entertaining and the Reds will be disappointed as they really shot themselves in the foot, over and over. Without the silly errors they could have won this game.
It was a shame that the SCG pitch wasn’t quite up to the occasion. It cut up far too much and needed some serious attention by the ground crew.
But on the flip side the Reds looked fantastic in their maroon jerseys and I’ll make the same point I did last year after this game – they should play in that kit all the time.
While the Tahs won, it’s worth noting that they are still having some issues finding a rhythm this season.
One key area that seemed off was their back three. They played Kurtley Beale at full back against the Reds but both he and the back three as a whole were shown to have some poor positional sense a couple of times.
A couple of times Beale pushed up into the defensive line but no one was covering behind him and the Reds took advantage a few times including when Sefa Naivalu picked up a nice kick from Bryce Hegarty.
But the gritty nature of the SCG surface was matched by the gritty nature of the Tahs and their victory should give them some confidence as they head into a series of games where they will be predicting they can win almost all of them (Brumbies, Sunwolves and Blues).
Jaguares loss doesn’t mean it was a bad day for them
Yes the Jags got their road trip off to a poor start against the Lions. They conceded almost 50 points against a young Lions side and despite a valiant come back that saw them score 26 points in the final 30 minutes of the game, they lost and their defence took an absolute pounding.
However, they should take plenty of positives from this match.
Only four of the team that beat the Blues last week started against the Lions. That’s a massive change and would have had huge impacts upon combinations, set moves, defensive communication and overall cohesion.
So the fact that they let in seven tries, while not something to repeat, is not altogether surprising.
The fact that they kept running hard and managed to score six tries of their own is something to celebrate and the critical experience that coach Gonzalo Quesada has started to embed within his squad should return great value later in the season.
If Quesada continues with this approach for this tour then he could well have a squad with plenty of minutes under their belt as they hit the crucial middle part of the season.