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The Wrap: The Super Rugby cream rises to the top

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9th June, 2019
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Forget about which teams are going to battle their way into the playoffs next week. None of them are good enough to cause any difficulty for the top four sides.

While the also-rans were busy missing opportunities to confirm their finals spot on the weekend, in the process keeping fans in the dark about who might make up positions 5-8, each of the top four sides won emphatically. It is they who rightly should command attention over the coming weeks.

The Crusaders have had more muddling days this year than last, but Saturday was not one of them, running the Rebels ragged to the tune of 66-0, on a perfect night for running rugby in Christchurch.

This was a masterful display full of pace and purpose, willingness to keep the ball alive and constantly shift the point of attack, mixed with composure on defence, on the few occasions the Rebels threatened their line.

Four of the Crusaders’ ten tries came from kicks – not speculators or dropped catches, but from Richie Mo’unga identifying where the space was and delivering the ball with precision to his flying back three.

In the first half the Rebels defended too narrowly, with Dane Haylett-Petty and Jack Maddocks embarrassed by having the ball sail over their heads.

In the second half, after the Rebels spread wider to counter this, Mo’unga instead flopped a Phil Mickleson-like wedge over the advancing first line, to where the space now was – for the same result.

Failing to counter Mo’unga’s kicking game was one thing, and matching the Crusaders’ backs for pace another, but the Rebels’ problems started with allowing the Crusaders’ ball carriers to get their shoulders through the initial contact – either to effect an offload, or to create fast, front-foot ball for the excellent Bryn Hall to work off.

Bryn Hall

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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Without a mechanism to slow the Crusaders’ ball down, the Rebels consigned themselves to chasing tail all night. There was also a strange decision to play on after the first-half siren, despite being pinned down in their defensive half.

There’s nothing wrong with backing oneself and having a crack, or maintaining pressure in the attacking half to perhaps eke out a bonus penalty, but it makes no sense at all to play on merely to hand possession back with a shallow kick around halfway.

19-0 at halftime was bad enough. 26-0 was a gift the Crusaders didn’t need.

The Rebels will be over the shame of the score-line already, and be rightly focused on beating the Chiefs to claim their first finals appearance.

But they now have a lot of ground to make up with a scornful and disbelieving Australian rugby public.

What remains to be said about the second-ranked Jaguares that hasn’t been said in recent weeks? A number of potential banana-skin games on tour were negotiated with ease, as was their return home, where in other years the combined effects of travel fatigue and the weight of expectation would have proved too much.

The Jaguares never allowed the Sharks a sniff, their 34-7 win in front of an excellent crowd, ensuring that local public interest will remain high through a final tune-up next week against the Sunwolves, before dealing to the unlucky seventh place finisher the following week.

The Sharks matched them across almost all statistical measures, save for the lineout, which has been a consistent area of strength for the Jaguares this year.

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Oh, and one other important aspect which statistics don’t always capture – the strike-power and individual skill to convert half opportunities into tries, illustrated this week by the beautiful, evasive running of fullback Emiliano Boffelli.

Team three of the ‘fab four’ are the Brumbies, who spared Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson the selection blowtorch this week, by dispatching the home side 35-24, in a performance far more emphatic than the score-line suggests.

The Brumbies’ first half was, dare I say it, Crusaders-like in the way they constantly probed and stretched the Waratahs’ defence, operating at all times with aggression and pace, and with plenty of variation in their means of attack.

It was the sign of a side that has got on top of understanding its game, individual players sure about what their role is and confident in their teammates to perform theirs. All with a set-piece that is second to none in this competition.

That they have got to this point without their best player, David Pocock, is testament to the hard work put in by Dan McKellar and his coaching team, and their finals opponent – the team that ultimately finishes sixth – faces a very difficult task ahead in Canberra.

Scott Sio

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

The fourth and last of the teams to secure a home final is the Hurricanes – actually in second place, but please don’t get me started on that needless anomaly again.

Perennial finals contenders, the Hurricanes have often been found wanting sufficient steel in their pack to carry them right through, despite having a backline other Super Rugby coaches would die for.

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While this 2019 pack might be no Saracens, there is an aggressive and combative edge about them that should be delighting their fans, particularly at the business end of the season.

In successive weeks the Hurricanes have taken on the Sharks and Lions away from home, and matched, then exceeded them, in the forward exchanges. 37-17 was a true reflection of the difference between the sides.

And it didn’t hurt too that coach John Plumtree had a couple of handy bench players to call on – the cream certainly rising to the top when Ardie Savea and Dane Coles came on, their aggression and class taking the game to another level.

Ngani Laumape isn’t proving any easier to tackle either, so add the team that finishes fifth and who has to visit Wellington to the list of those likely to be disappointed in a fortnight’s time.

On Friday night, there was a noticeable class drop in Brisbane, the Reds and Blues muddling their way through a match that for long periods, neither seemed to want to win.

In the end it was Scott Higginbotham who turned back time, scorching the sidelines for two tries, enough to nose the Reds ahead 29-28.

Captain Samu Kerevi was having none of the emotional ‘final match at Suncorp’ talk afterwards, although just who is going to provide the attacking point of difference next year is indeed something for Reds’ fans to ponder during the off-season.

In a season chock-full of quality performances, here was Kerevi at his imperious best – always a handful for the defence with his running and offloading – and he must surely now have the Wallabies 12 jersey locked away for safe keeping.

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Kerevi also never fails to deliver post-match. Already the world record holder for the number of times using ‘the boys’ in a sentence, Kerevi here, without a hint of a piss-take, described the Blues as “one of the best teams in the world.”

That’s a head-scratcher up there with Dr Justin Marshall’s latest mis-diagnosis, declaring that Ryan Crotty was “down again, looks like it’s the same wrist”, when even a cursory glance at his monitor would have revealed Crotty in the hands of a trainer attending to his neck, after he had fallen awkwardly in a tackle.

Earlier in Dunedin, the Bulls scraped another two points from their tour, doing enough to edge them to 36 points, and near comfort in terms of a finals slot.

Needing the win more, it was the Highlanders who were most disappointed with the 24-24 draw; reflective of a season where patches of brilliant ensemble play have been too often interspersed with insufficient respect for possession and a propensity to yield soft tries.

On several occasions they fell victim to ‘tip-on’ disease – a low-percentage play that can look fantastic when it comes off, but is almost always an inferior option to catching, committing the defender and passing into the space created.

The only cream associated with the Israel Folau matter is flowing the way of lawyers and PR hacks, now part of ‘Team Folau’ in his battle against Rugby Australia.

Israel Folau

(Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

For the rest of us, that cream has turned decidedly sour, public discourse descending to new lows following the announcement last Thursday that Folau was taking Rugby Australia to court with respect to his termination, and seeking unspecified damages, the quantum said to be in the vicinity of $10m.

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Potential bankruptcy for Rugby Australia might make for a juicy headline, but is simply no more than wishful thinking on the part of those would rather see the game ruined than contribute anything positive to the sport.

The injection of self-serving politicians into the debate, seeking to use Folau as a stalking horse for a religious freedom agenda, also adds nothing constructive.

Now NSW Senator Mark Latham last week referenced Folau, Raelene Castle and Qantas to claim that “seventy five years ago young men from across the free world stormed the beaches of Normandy… to fight for the freedom of all mankind,” before adding that now “we’re fighting dictatorial companies who purchase control of sporting codes.”

I’m happy for anyone to explain below how such nonsensical overreach does anything other than embarrass further those who once campaigned for Latham to become Prime Minister of Australia.

It didn’t stop there. Alan Jones used his regular ‘bash Rugby Australia’ column on Friday to make the bizarre claim that Rugby Australia was “spending money we haven’t got, wasting it on massively expensive lawyers to prosecute, alienate and humiliate our best player.”

Prosecute? You don’t need a law degree to understand that Rugby Australia is the defendant in Folau’s legal action, nor to understand that it was Folau, not they, who initiated the whole affair.

And just to add to the mix, 3AW Melbourne radio talkback host Tom Elliot joined the fray on Friday afternoon, eager to pillory Rugby Australia for denying Folau his right to religious expression, by exposing them as “hypocrites” in allowing a player he named as “Lotu Talu”, to continue to play despite facing a drunk driving conviction.

It is hard to know what a concerted PR campaign for Folau will achieve. Battle lines have long been drawn, and it is unlikely that from here, people will be encouraged from one side across to the other. In any event, the matter now rests with the court – it matters not a jot which way public opinion is swayed.

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Two possible purposes are to position Folau as a martyr, and to damage Rugby Australia, financially and/or just for the sake of it. Par for the course for Jones, but something that Folau said he would never do, and for which – whatever the legal outcome – he will rightly stand condemned.

Israel Folau Australia Rugby Union Championship Bledisloe Cup Wallabies 2017

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

All of which reinforces why Rugby Australia are so desperate to avoid a drawn-out court hearing. Not because they fear losing, but because with politicians, the wider public and mass media all drawn into the debate, all perspective and rationality has flown out the window.

That is why Rugby Australia was right to release a bland, non-defensive statement in response to complaints made by Folau on Saturday that detail relating to his hearing had been leaked to The Daily Telegraph.

Now that Folau has forced their hand legally, they are under no obligation to him or the public to engage any further via e-mail or through the media.

The best Rugby Australia can hope for in the meantime, is for the Brumbies to go deep into the Super Rugby finals. And on the evidence of what we’ve seen in recent weeks, you’d have to think, why not?