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The Wrap: Rugby shuts down… am I ever going to see your face again?

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Expert
15th March, 2020
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The 1976 tender lament written by Doc Neeson and Rick and John Brewster for The Angels, nicely sums up the despair and hope for all involved in rugby as the effects of the COVID-19 virus bite deeply into all aspects of society.

Without you near me
I got no place to go
Wait at the bar
Maybe you might show
Am I ever gonna see your face again?
Am I ever gonna see your face again?

With the situation rapidly changing for authorities and the wider population, one of the few certainties to emerge is that the degree of uncertainty about the extent of the spread of the virus renders moot, all speculation about how and when sporting competitions might resume.

Quite simply, nobody knows what is going to happen. Not Prime Ministers, not health experts (whose accounts, theories and proposed solutions differ wildly), and certainly not SANZAAR.

By suspending Super Rugby indefinitely – the only possible decision open to them – SANZAAR has effectively bought itself time. Time to let events play out, time to accommodate the restrictions bought in the New Zealand government and whatever other measures that may or may not be implemented in Australia, Argentina, South Africa and Japan, and time to assess whatever realistic options (if any) might be open to them after that.

So many questions will, for now, remain unanswered. Have we seen the last of the Sunwolves in Super Rugby; their growing, enthusiastic fan base in Japan left to wither on the vine?

Is it all over for accomplished and respected Fox Sports commentator Greg Clark and Super Rugby? To what extent does a sustained period without live sporting content represent another killer blow for the ailing Foxtel? Or conversely, does it trigger a rethink as to the value of its rugby subscriber base, and bring Foxtel back to the negotiating table with Rugby Australia?

Garth April Sunwolves

Have we seen the last of the Sunwolves? (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Or, if Super Rugby resumes after a lengthy hiatus, potentially within borders, how will fans deal with what will inevitably be a hopelessly compromised, ‘unfair’ points table?

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COVID-19 is of course serious business. For those infected, for those living in fear of being infected, and for those impacted financially – large businesses, small businesses, casual employees and yes, already cash-starved rugby administrations – these are indeed worrying times.

Usually, sport plays an important role in helping society lift itself out of the gloom that follows a major catastrophe. It is a vehicle around which people band together, initially to distract themselves from whatever tragedy has been inflicted, then to collectively draw inspiration from human endeavour on the sports field.

But with COVID-19 so all-encompassing, that possibility has been withdrawn. Without sport to rally around, how capable is our society of riding out this storm and, at some future point, resuming normal patterns of life, in an orderly, agreeable manner?

So far, on evidence tendered from the battleground our supermarket aisles have become, unlikely. And without wall-to-wall rugby matches serving as a convenient exemption from engaging in activities with the rest of the family, how many of us are now forced to venture into the uncharted waters of having to spend meaningful time with our better halves?

Will demographers point to a corresponding spike in the birth rate in 9-10 months’ time? Or a rapid escalation in the divorce rate?

So, what did we learn this weekend? That not even Twiggy Forrest can buy his way out of COVID-19 – the grand opening of Global Rapid Rugby could only have come at a worse time had it been scheduled for next weekend.

Mark Nawaqanitawase on the run

How will the coronavirus impact Australian rugby – now and in the future? (AAP Image/Chris Symes)

We also learned how some people are just born unlucky. Tom Hanks has now been through AIDS, being lost on a deserted island and COVID-19. And to rub salt in, he is now stuck on the Gold Coast for another two weeks.

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On the bright side, if we are going to be without rugby for a while, we were lucky enough to sign out with some highly entertaining matches.

Not having won in Hamilton since 2009, it was a grand effort by the Hurricanes to overturn a ten-point margin to overcome the Chiefs.

At 24-24 both sides had a lengthy spell of possession in the final five minutes. Both defences manned up, but with the ball, the Chiefs looked directionless, while the Hurricanes were far better organised. And that was the game.

The match featured two interesting and contentious refereeing calls, the second a critical moment when – playing a man down – Jordie Barrett leapt and prevented a penalty touch-finder from Aaron Cruden from going into touch, inside the Hurricanes’ defensive 22.

Barrett knew the law, as did referee Jaco Peyper. He was entitled to jump from outside the field of play, to bat the ball back in while in mid-air, and land back in the field of play.

Jordie Barrett of the Hurricanes talks to his teammates

Jordie Barrett is now the man for the Hurricanes. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Regardless, this law doesn’t feel right. The ball was out (it crossed the plane of the touchline), Barrett was out, yet it was in. Cricket has this law right, where the catcher/fielder is required to start from inside the field of play.

The other contentious play came immediately after half-time, where Barrett appeared to score after a kick through, but the officials ruled no-try, deeming that Damien McKenzie retained simultaneous possession throughout.

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It initially looked a harsh call on Barrett, who appeared to have a more convincing grip on the ball, but the law doesn’t provide for ‘majority ownership’. Rather it states that a try will be awarded to the player who “is first to ground the ball in the opponents’ in-goal.”

The key word is “first”. If one concurs that both players had possession of the ball at the same time as it was grounded, then Jaco Peyper also got this decision right.

Speaking of Barrett and McKenzie, both contenders for an All Blacks No 15 jersey – if and when there is an international season – this was a comprehensive win on points to the far more assured Barrett.

The Blues did what they needed to do against the Lions, as did the Crusaders against the Sunwolves, while the Sharks saw off the Stormers 24-14 in what was an unmemorable match in Durban.

Far more entertaining was the Reds’ 41-point turnaround against the Bulls, in Brisbane, where an early 17-point deficit was wiped into irrelevance by a commanding, final 50-minute, performance.

The Reds’ goalkicking woes continued to haunt them – the Bulls targeting the out-of-position Bryce Hegarty – but once they found their confidence and the passes began to stick, there was no stopping the home side.

There are valid qualifiers about the Bulls’ pack and their ability to compete over 80 minutes, but this was a highly enjoyable affair, with both sides endeavouring to keep the ball alive.

The Reds’ second try, to Issac Lucas, came after a series of offloads by players backing up the ball carrier, and was as good as any scored by an Australian franchise this year. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto’s try after half-time was up there too; the soft, fast hands of Taniela Tupou a standout.

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Taniela Tupou of the Reds

Taniela Tupou of the Reds. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Tupou has now played over 230 of the last possible 240 minutes – unheard of for a prop in today’s rugby. His enforced rest is well deserved.

And before too many people jump on the Scott Malolua bandwagon, just remember that this column was promoting him as the Reds’ best halfback last season. That is not to knock Tate McDermott, who has added bulk and has been rewarded this year for good backing up and quick thinking.

But the core role of a halfback is to clear the ball swiftly and accurately, and Malolua excels in this regard. He is also, as he proved on Saturday night, no slouch as a runner.

It was left to the Brumbies and Waratahs to rule a line on Super Rugby – and professional rugby everywhere – with the 47-14 score-line accurately reflective of the gap in class between the two sides.

The speedy Brumbies outside backs enjoyed the dry, sunny afternoon conditions, while the pack scrapped hard on defence, when the Waratahs challenged their line in the second half.

The Waratahs’ endeavour was better than last week, but poor discipline eventually fed into a scoreboard deficit, and the stark outcome of once again being held scoreless after half-time.

There can be no doubt that players and coaches from all sides will find the break tough going – everyone wants to play rugby. But if there is one group who might find the layoff a blessing, it might be the Waratahs fans.

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And so it is that our attention necessarily shifts away from sport to important medical and commercial implications. It is to be hoped that when we eventually return to the game, all participants will do so in a healthy physical and financial state.