Talking to a group of Melbourne Rebels players upon returning to our Wellington hotel on Saturday night, the sense of an opportunity missed was palpable.
They had pinned the Hurricanes down in a muscular second-half performance, scoring three tries in the process, but due to an awful defensive first quarter, and a late Quade Cooper miss, they were going home with no points.
Early on, there were echoes of the 71-6 humiliation of 2017, Beauden Barrett selectively directing play wide, around a confused Marika Koroibete, or through the middle, where Ngani Laumape and Asafo Aumua steamrollered Dane Haylett-Petty and Will Genia respectively.
That was as ugly as 26-0 gets, but for home fans, enjoying ‘family day’ despite a biting wind, that was to be the end of the fun, as the Rebels finally figured out how to apply pressure at the scrum, retain possession and force penalties.
Referee Stuart Berry obliged, to the tune of 12 to 3, but his repeated ‘next one goes to the bin’ warnings to the Hurricanes rang as hollow as a teenager promising to clean up his or her room. Both camps were unhappy, and his will be an awkward review.
The Rebels finally found their step through the efforts of Isi Naisarani and Matt Phillip, and Dave Wessels’ surprise tactic of playing a third prop off the bench paid instant dividends when a flying Pone Fa’amausili, all 130kgs of him playing as a loose forward, busted the line for Bill Meakes to finish.
But in the wash up, it was the Rebels inability to register any points late in the first half, after sustained pressure, that left them with too much ground to make up in the second.
Not to mention the uncanny strike power of the Hurricanes, who took full toll early, not waiting around for their opponent to get organised. At this stage they look a sure bet to finish second on the ladder – which is fourth in SANZAAR language – enough to guarantee them a home final.
Cooper’s miss from 22m may well prove critical in the tight Australian conference race. As well as costing a valuable ladder point, it also ensured the widest margin – ten points – on a weekend full of close, exciting matches that included two draws.
The so-called ‘straightforward’ Friday night matches proved anything but, with the Sharks almost pulling off a colossal upset against the Crusaders, and the Reds only just falling in against a Sunwolves side that was shrinking in numbers by the minute.
For the second time this season the Crusaders struggled against a side hell-bent on making the game a defensive arm-wrestle, executing on the tackle and kicking their goals. The Crusaders’ discipline fell away to such an extent that Curwin Bosch sliced over seven penalties, and might well have won the match had he not missed with two other opportunities.
In the end, the champions held their nerve to create enough space for Mitch Hunt to claim a 21-21 draw, but the Sharks left behind enough of a template to entice the rest of the competition into believing that they are still playing for something.
Anyone new to rugby looking at the coloured lines under the Sunwolves score on television would be excused in thinking that they were a team from Spain – such were the yellow and red bars.
Instead they represented some of the worst discipline seen in Super Rugby’s recent history – and that’s saying something after a couple of the Rebels’ performances this year.
In truth, referee Angus Gardner could have gone to his pocket even more times than he did, such was the player’s determination to Test him out, even after he warned them that he wasn’t about to back down.
In that context, the Reds’ defending in their 22 in the final minute, with a chance to lose the match to a converted try, spoke to their own cluelessness, and inability to create space and work the ball into it.
Nevertheless, 32-26 represents their fifth win, equal with the Rebels and Brumbies, and one ahead of the Waratahs.
It was all action under the roof in Dunedin, with the gutsy Chiefs somehow scrambling a 31-31 draw, after being 18 points adrift, midway through the second half.
Highlander’s coach Aaron Mauger expressed displeasure afterwards at his side’s ability to play exhilarating attacking rugby – Jackson Hemopo in particular in commanding form – but without the killer punch to put a winged opponent down for the count.
It’s become the hallmark of this Highlanders side, a tradition perhaps, not unlike the Selwyn College ballet, established back in 1928. The lads made for an entertaining sight at halftime, all tutus, red cheeks and whiskers, ahead of their regular feature slot at the upcoming Otago University Capping Concert.
Brumbies coach Dan McKellar must feel like Henry Winkler who, despite taking on other dramatic roles later in his career, could never shake off the one and only thing people know him for – being the Fonz.
The Brumbies are of course many things, not the least brave and resilient, enough to grind out a 26-21 win against the Blues after three tough weeks in Africa and South America.
But the Brumbies are now synonymous with the attacking line-out maul, another three scores added to Folau Fainga’a’s already impressive tally. While McKellar and his side would no doubt love to be running in free-flowing tries from their own half, they’ll take ‘Happy Days’ playing the Fonz any day.
The Blues started well, although a try to TJ Faiane heralded another breakdown in the TMO protocols. The final pass to Faiane was marginal, and referee Damon Murphy sent it upstairs as a ‘no-try’, thus requiring conclusive evidence to the contrary to change the decision.
TMO Ian Smith told him that the pass was not clearly forward, and asked him to reverse his decision and award a try. Although Smith’s conclusion about the pass was not unreasonable, it was irrelevant. Given Murphy’s initial ruling, Smith was entitled to overrule only if he deemed the pass to be clearly backwards.
Happily, there has been less angst this year about officials and 50/50 calls. You win some, you lose some. But none of that excuses officials falling down on a matter of simple process. TMO’s not only need a sharp pair of eyes, they need to listen to the referee as well.
The Waratahs fared better than many predicted in Pretoria, only an iffy scrum, Duane Vermeulen running 55m as if on soft sand, and a Michael Hooper fumble, seeing them fall short, by 28-21.
To finish off the round, the Jaguares continued on their winning run, 30-25 at home against the Stormers. Their month of truth awaits them however – in sight of a finals berth but probably needing to find two wins and a bonus point or two, on a very tough tour of New Zealand and Australia.
The rugby didn’t end there however, with the Australian Under 20 side winning the Oceania Championship with a landmark 24-0 thumping of New Zealand, on the Gold Coast.
The significance of this win lies with it being only the second time Australia has beaten the New Zealand Under 20s, and how the side contained an even sprinkling of players from all five main rugby states, including three from the current Melbourne Rebels playing group.
It’s too soon to be making space at Rugby Australia headquarters for return of the Bledisloe Cup on the evidence of just one junior match, but it’s an important indicator nevertheless – for both nations.
Meanwhile, with the Israel Folau code of conduct hearing transcending rugby to enter the maelstrom of mainstream media and public debate, it seems that all opportunity for rational consideration and discussion of the matter has passed.
The three-person panel will resume on Tuesday, they will eventually pass judgment and – whatever the decision – overreach and outrage (misinformed and mischievous) will no doubt continue to be the order of the day.
That is, until Folau inevitably assumes his status as a martyr for religious and free speech, while in the process lightening Rugby Australia’s pockets in a settlement to the tune of a couple of million dollars or so.
After which we – just might – all be free to again get on with the game.
In light of some people trying to frame the Folau matter in terms of a looming Pacific Islands player revolt, release of a study by Auckland University academics, Caleb Marsters and Dr Jermaima Tiatia-Seath into Pacific Island rugby and rugby league players and mental health, proved to be an unhelpful addition.
Striving to establish a link between PI players being valued for their physical attributes at the detriment of being overlooked for decision-making positions, Tiatia-Seath suggested that, “In Super Rugby we’re seeing a browning of first-fives, but still they aren’t getting as much game time as non-Pacific first-fives.”
Tiatia-Seath may well be no fan of Beauden Barrett, and that’s her perogative, but she might have done better to stop and consider the Pacific Island and Maori flyhalves who have graced New Zealand’s Super Rugby sides in recent years; Richie Mo’unga, Lima Sopoaga, Josh Ioane, Otere Black, Aaron Cruden, Ihaia West, Damian McKenzie, Marty McKenzie, Jackson Garden-Bachop and Stephen Perofeta among them.
Not content with planting one foot in her mouth, Tiatia-Seath followed straight up with the other one, claiming about Ardie Savea, “If he wasn’t Pacific he’d be getting a lot more exposure.”
At Westpac Stadium on Saturday, as the home side were announced individually to the crowd, the cheer for star player Barrett (twice World Rugby Player of the Year) was surpassed by only one raucous welcome – that for Savea. To suggest that the exalted standing Savea enjoys in Wellington would be even greater if he was white, is agenda-driven muckraking of the highest order.
It all just goes to show that the story is whatever you want the story to be.
No matter the string of close, exciting finishes this week in Super Rugby, no matter the Australian Under 20’s win over New Zealand, rugby’s image this week was reduced to a media pack camping out all day just for a chance of the ‘money shot’ of a black Audi entering and exiting Rugby Australia’s car park, complete with ‘the accused’ stashed away in the back.