Week 13 proved lucky for the Brumbies and Rebels, who have opened up a gap at the top of the Australian conference with finals action only six weeks away.
The Rebels found the Reds more difficult to shake second time around, the Queensland line-out keen to make amends for the toweling they received in their Round 7 loss.
But with the Reds losing on-field leaders Samu Kerevi and Scott Higginbotham to the sin bin, the Melbourne outfit posted tries in each of those periods to ensure an important 30-24 win.
If it wasn’t entirely pretty, the Rebels could take heart from their improved energy over 80 minutes, typified by the efforts of both starting props early in the second half.
First, Jermaine Ainsley raced back 50 metres to help defuse a dangerous situation, then moments later, Tetera Faulkner raced forwards 50 metres after a scrum, to be the final player in support of a bust by Reece Hodge, to score a memorable try.
The Rebels were also well served by the high work rate of Matt Philip and a fine all-round performance by captain Dane Haylett-Petty. Anyone would think that the Wallabies fullback jersey was up for grabs.
There were some nervy moments in the final quarter, Will Genia overplaying his hand after Quade Cooper was concussed in an attempt to tackle Kerevi, after stopping him effectively on two previous occasions.
Interestingly, Cooper was utilised on the front line in defence – not as a ploy to out-muscle Kerevi, but because the Rebels – anticipating a long kicking game from the Reds – wanted their three best runners in position to run the ball back.
The Reds got great value from the back as well. Replacement fullback Isaac Lucas impressed not for the first time this year. His interchange with Taniela Tupou to create a try in confined space was pure class.
The Reds’ improvement this year is obvious. They have bothered all sides with their tenacity, yet putting too many eggs in the Kerevi basket is not sufficient against the better defensive sides.
In the opening match, desperate goal-line defence and superior finishing power ensured a 22-12 win to the Hurricanes over a plucky Blues outfit in what was a willing, physical encounter. With that win comes a stranglehold on a home final.
The Blues’ season looks cooked – a disappointing outcome for fans hoping for a rare finals visit, but the prognosis remains positive.
No team wins Super Rugby matches just because they want to. Rather, it requires a whole raft of factors to be aligned, the steady building of experience within the group, and development of a winning habit.
The Crusaders were quickly back on the wagon, scooting to an easy 45-13 win over the Bulls at Loftus.
Somehow the Bulls forgot everything you’re not supposed to do against good New Zealand sides – kick aimlessly long and run up in a ragged, uneven defensive line – so they were shredded to pieces on multiple occasions.
It is not unheard of for the All Black selectors to pick a bolter on the wing in a World Cup year, and Sevu Reece is making every post a winner in 2019. His hat trick was impressive for the variety of skills on display.
It could have all been so different.
Late last year, with Reece contracted to Connacht for the 2018/19 UK season and on John McKee’s radar for Fiji for the World Cup, his contract was torn up after he was involved in a domestic violence incident in Hamilton.
Instead he finds himself offered a lifeline, and potentially an opportunity to test the mantra that better people make better All Blacks.
Both the Highlanders and the Chiefs remain in finals contention after their hard-fought wins, 32-27 over the Jaguares and 29-23 over the Sharks respectively.
The Jaguares’ youngsters showed plenty, but they fell foul of referee Ben O’Keeffe late in the game, allowing the home side to close the game out more comfortably than what their patchy performance may have deserved.
In Hamilton, it took the Sharks a long time to engineer the arm wrestle they desired, and once they got what they wanted, they edged ahead in the final quarter with all of the momentum their way.
But two minutes of Chiefs magic – including Brad Weber’s second try directly from a kick-off plus the long arm of Tyler Ardron – got them home.
In the wash-up, Fox Rugby’s Greg Martin pointed his finger towards nepotism as the cause of the Sharks’ failing.
Instead, the cause of their woes is a skills and ball-handling deficiency in their pod forwards, as well as the inability of their backs to run straight, commit defenders and create space for their outside flyers.
For the first 60 minutes, the Lions-Waratahs match was a comedic farce. The Lions simply refused to exit their 22 in a conventional way, and both sides were reluctant to employ players in cover defence.
Such was the madness, if Waratahs lock Rob Simmons had been required to undergo an HIA, the exchange might have been something like this.
Doctor: “Did you make a scything 35-metre run through the centre of the ground in the first half to score a try untouched?”
Simmons: “No, I’m not capable of doing that.”
Doctor: “Absolutely. OK, you’re good to go back on.”
Because the score remained close throughout, the match developed some intensity and tension in the final quarter, and was all the better for it. The home side eventually squeaked home, 29-28.
How much that was due to the assistance of referee Egon Seconds can’t be quantified, but the penalty count of 11-2 to the Lions – added to the 20-1 count in the Rebels vs Lions match – speaks to the legacy of former Lions coach Johan Ackerman.
A deeply religious man, Ackerman successfully instilled a culture whereby the Lions’ playing group are not mortal rugby players at all, but winged angels.
In a year mostly free of refereeing controversy, this was not a good weekend for SANZAAR, with Seconds and O’Keeffe accused of refereeing one side only. But to assume this might be because of bias is another thing altogether, as are demands to use neutral referees for all Super Rugby matches.
If, at their reviews, Seconds and O’Keeffe are found to have got too many things wrong, by all means turf them back to club rugby for a week or two, or get them back into intensive schooling.
But do it because their refereeing performance is deemed not up to standard, not because of what’s on their passport.
The round finished on Sunday in Canberra, with the Brumbies far too organised and professional for an outgunned Sunwolves, running out comfortable 33-0 winners.
Two factors stood out for the home side: five tries run in from distance with Folau Fainga’a drawing a rare blank on the scoreboard, and efficient defence which kept the Sunwolves scoreless, a rare feat in Super Rugby.
The much anticipated heavyweight championship of Europe was decided with Saracens emerging after a fierce physical battle played at Test match intensity, 20-10 victors over Leinster.
The match was of high interest to Southern Hemisphere fans for a number of reasons, including a powerhouse performance by Springboks prop Vincent Koch, and another showing at the top level by impressive ex-Waratah Will Skelton.
But it was another Saracens star, Billy Vunipola, who reminded us of the inextricable link rugby maintains across hemispheres – not because of his imposing performance, but because of the boos that came his way from the crowd in response to his support of Israel Folau.
It is fascinating that while no player in Super Rugby has been publicly castigated in a match for either supporting or opposing Folau – as should be the case – this is clearly not true on the other side of the world.
Here’s hoping the panel conducting the code of conduct hearing bring down their sanction this week and that the matter is allowed to move along more quickly.
In the meantime, with hell a central location in this whole sorry saga, it was no surprise to find fire and brimstone at the forefront of the arguments framing Folau’s plight in terms of religious oppression.
Never one to embrace nuance or subtlety, Alan Jones went full-on flamethrower in his weekly column in Friday’s The Australian, writing: “And all this began when the world watched as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burnt, while a firestorm engulfed a gifted young man for articulating everything that is symbolised by the great cathedral.”
Folau as Joan of Arc, anyone?
More like the little boy who played with matches.