As Rebels lock Matt Philip set himself for the final lineout of their match against the Highlanders, the intent in his eyes was clear and obvious.
His side was in front by 28-22, having dominated for large periods of the match, but there was the distinct sniff of a late Highlanders escape in the air, a scenario similar to how they had hijacked the Brumbies in Round 3 with a try after the final siren.
Determined to get front position on his opponent, Philip realised that he was actually too far forward and urgently pushed back a step and a half just before Liam Coltman made his throw. With a magnificent leap – after 80 minutes of graft no mind – Philip won a clean tap, replacement half Frank Lomani secured the ball, and the first-ever Rebels win in Dunedin was a reality.
Having had a brief taste of Wallabies action in 2017, Philip was gutted to find himself excluded from Michael Cheika’s World Cup plans last year. Instead of taking the easy options – sooking, or a contract in the northern hemisphere – Philip has resolved to catch the eye of Dave Rennie and win back his Test jersey.
Key was his involvement in the season-ending Barbarians matches where, along with fellow Rebels, Luke Jones, Angus Cottrell and Billy Meakes, he found himself pitched into an environment where two of the world’s leading coaches – Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland – provided mentoring and guidance.
The Barbarians delivered in spades for Philip, not only on-field against Test-quality opposition but also off-field, including ‘old school’ drinking and bonding sessions, unmatched in today’s professional environments.
Off the back of that it is clear Philip, about to turn 26, has grown into a valued leader at the Rebels. He was at the heart of their second-half pack domination of the Waratahs, has carried the ball strongly all season and leads Super Rugby in the number of lineout steals.
In a tense situation where many sides would have conceded the throw in favour of setting their defence carefully, Philip took responsibility to compete for the lineout. His execution was even more impressive.
The Rebels are still a long way from being a polished product. Handling errors and a mounting penalty count put paid to prospects of fluid, ball-in-hand play in the second half. But for as long as they play with this kind of purpose and energy and Matt To’omua continues to exit the defensive 22 with calm authority, they will go further in this competition than many first thought.
Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board for Aaron Mauger and the Highlanders. After four matches their lineout has yet to settle, and there is a class and experience gap between Aaron Smith and too many of his teammates.
Just like the Rebels, the Waratahs jumped out of the blocks against the Lions, Angus Bell showing the mobility, sure hands and maturity of a front-rower far more seasoned than his 19 years would suggest. Let’s not mess around with worrying about talking a young player up too soon or putting the kiss of death on Bell. He’s the real deal.
For long periods this match lacked quality but, paradoxically, the five tries scored by the Waratahs were all of high class. The 56th-minute team try to debutant James Ramm after the ball went through ten sets of hands in a sweeping movement from their defensive 22 was as good as any try seen this year.
Persuading fans from the north and east of Sydney to visit Parramatta remains a problem for the Tahs organisation, but full credit to the players and coaching team for a vastly improved effort and giving fans good reason to come out.
Improved was also the verdict on playmaker Will Harrison’s performance, relishing his first real opportunity with dry, front-foot ball. And how refreshing is it to see an Australian flyhalf not hidden in the defensive line but hitting opponents hard!
The Reds failed to make it an Aussie trifecta, falling 33-23 at home to the Sharks, who notched an impressive three wins from four on their marathon road trip. The Sharks competed at every breakdown, like a pack of hungry dogs fighting over a bone, and now, back in their own beds, their season is set up beautifully.
The Reds lineout maul defence is among the worst in Super Rugby, but it was their poor attacking lineout – four throws lost when in prime position in the first half alone – that took all of the wind from their sails.
There are issues too in the front row. Taniela Tupou can’t be expected to play big minutes every week, but Harry Hoopert (21) and Josh Nasser (20) look short of true Super Rugby quality at this early stage of their careers.
On the bright side, the Reds enjoyed their best period of the match between minutes 83 and 88, which is a bit like a golfer who has just sprayed his tee shot out of bounds nailing his provisional ball down the middle. Too little too late.
Henry Speight also enjoyed a busy night, taking on lead guitar and vocal duties for Wolfmother during the half-time break.
Things went to plan in Wellington – the Hurricanes 62-15 against the Sunwolves – however, they most definitely didn’t go to plan in Cape Town, where the Blues inflicted the first defeat on the Stormers in a massive 33-14 upset.
The damage was done early, the Blues skipping out to a 20-0 lead, then 27-14 at half-time, but it was the way the Blues balanced sure attack with confident, organised defence to shut the Stormers out the second half that impressed most.
Forgotten man Otere Black seems to have found his feet in Auckland, nailing a perfect seven from seven off the tee and controlling play superbly. It will be a cruel irony when the reason he left Wellington in search of more opportunity – Beauden Barrett – returns to claim his starting position.
Another impressive playmaker, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, had the ball on a string at times during his side’s convincing 39-24 win over cellar dwellers the Bulls. This match featured a number of impressive, sweeping tries, none better than the sight of big lock Guido Petti hitting the ball at pace in midfield and storming to a superb try.
A feature of Super Rugby this year – and the bane of tipsters – is the number of wins away from home. After five rounds the tally stands at 18 home wins against 15 away wins, which is even more noteworthy when you consider six of those home wins came in Round 1.
As mentioned, the Sharks have posted three wins on tour, and the Blues – yes, the Blues – have now won their three away games, including two in South Africa.
Other sides have enjoyed success, some of it unexpected. The Brumbies impressively put paid to the Chiefs in Hamilton a week after the Highlanders upset them at home. The Rebels win in Dunedin was their first ever, and while the Jaguares are no strangers to winning in South Africa, they still had to get the job done in Pretoria.
To borrow the words of Professor Julius Sumner Miller, ‘Why is it so?’.
Without empirical evidence we’re all guessing, but it would appear that in a post-World Cup year the exodus of a number of leading players to overseas leagues has had the effect of evening out the competition.
It will still take a brave man to tip against the Crusaders at home, and the Sunwolves look like no chance of joining the away winners, but everywhere in between is fertile territory for upset results away from home.
The Sunwolves are more than competitive at home but have suffered cruel luck with the Japanese government effectively shutting down competitive sport as a measure to counter the novel coronavirus. While the Rebels were authors of their own misfortune in Round 1, with Jones injuring his back on the flight home and not having been sighted since, they must be looking on with envy as fellow contenders for a final spot are spared the trip north to face the howling wolfpack.
Another factor is that Super Rugby franchises are now so professional, have the mechanics of touring down to a fine art and are so familiar with all of the stadia used that there are very few curve balls left to throw at them. Travelling teams can prepare for tour matches almost as if they are home matches.
It is a truism that performance improvement is seldom linear, so we can expect sides that appear to be on the up this year – the Blues and Sharks most notably – to still be bought undone at various stages. Similarly, sides on the decline or rebuilding – the Highlanders and the Waratahs, say – will almost certainly stud their season with unexpected wins.
And while ‘home town’ refereeing bias remains a hot topic for fans, basic win-loss data at least fails to support the notion that referees are unduly influencing the result of matches in favour of the home team.
The challenge for SANZAAR is the same faced by the franchises with their players – to balance the need to tighten the pool of referees used to ensure that only the very best officials are appointed with the need to develop new blood at the top level.
Next weekend the Rebels get the chance to avenge last year’s 33-30 defeat at the hands of the Lions, a match in which referee Egon Seconds caned the Rebels in the penalty count by an incredible 20-1.
With Seconds no longer on the panel, in a private moment coach Dave Wessels might joke about the opportunity to appoint a local Dewar Shield referee to help even the count a little bit and prevent another away team win.
In truth, he will be pointing again to Matt Philip and the rest of his forward pack, reminding them that Super Rugby matches are won through energy in defence, intensity at the breakdown and clinical execution at set piece, taking the referee out of the equation.