These might not have been matches from the ages, but there was enough high quality rugby played in front pulsating, near-full houses in Dunedin and Auckland to demonstrate that there is life as we knew it post-COVID-19.
This weekend was about far more than two rugby matches. The pre-match acknowledgement of the work performed by essential services during the enforced lockdown morphed into spontaneous and moving celebration of a return to life far closer to normal than what might have been anticipated a couple of months ago.
Events also hammered home the considerable differences between New Zealand and Australia. Both in terms of where the two countries sit with respect to the pandemic, and in matters rugby.
The Highlanders were fastest out of the blocks in Dunedin, with lock Josh Dixon dominating the air, their superbly efficient lineout the foundation for two early tries.
The Chiefs’ 27th minute reply to Sean Wainui was a demonstration of the intent of the new breakdown law interpretation. When you combine width with speed of recycle and accuracy of distribution, compressed defences stand to be exposed.
The Chiefs looked more like a side returning after a long lay-off, yet they worked themselves back into the match to such an extent that their clinical set-up for Damian McKenzie’s drop goal found them ahead by two points with only two minutes remaining.
But instead of closing the match down, the ball was spilled on a carry from the kick-off. And while the Highlanders’ set-up wasn’t as impressive as the Chiefs’, Bryn Gatland’s 40-metre strike certainly was. The Highlanders won 28-27, and drew first blood in what will surely be a very tight competition.
To compound the Chiefs’ misery, there is uncertainty around how much longer they will be based in Hamilton. With a statue of British naval captain John Hamilton removed from the city square last week, moves are afoot to rename the city.
Visiting teams who have long complained that Hamilton is the most boring of all stops on the Super Rugby circuit might feel heartened by the prospect of visiting Kirikiriroa instead.
It was fantastic to see the stands full at Eden Park, and the crowd will surely have gone home happy with a 30-20 victory.
As much as it was a delight to see the Blues’ outside backs Rieko Ioane, Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke full of running, this match was also won (and lost) at the lineout, with the Blues efficient on their own ball, and never letting the Hurricanes settle on theirs.
Dane Coles may have had his frustrations throwing in, but he wound back the clock on the end of brilliant passes from Vince Aso and Wes Goosen, charging 30 metres to the corner in a wonderfully determined run and finish.
The Hurricanes kindly invited Beauden Barrett to join in their celebration, but Barrett – who mostly played within himself – took it all in good spirit, seemingly knowing that he would have the last laugh.
There were hints earlier in the Super Rugby season, but it is now official – this is not the same, flaky Blues side fans have become so accustomed to in recent years.
Led by a pink-haired Patrick Tuipulotu, All Blacks replacement Dalton Papalii and impressive number eight Hoskins Sotutu, the Blues’ pack dominated contact and the breakdown in the second half and once a break was established they never looked like giving away the ascendancy.
There is room for improvement at halfback, where Sam Nock was at times too measured and over-cautious, but this is a team starting to go places. Not all of the 43,000 who attended will come back, but those who do can expect to be well rewarded.
There will be some blowback about the high penalty count in both matches, but there are two important points to be made. Law variations and new interpretations have been implemented to make the game cleaner and faster. What is important here is that referees don’t bottle it and ease off.
Penalty counts will drop and desired outcomes will take effect once players realise that they will continue to be penalised if they don’t respect the offside line, or clean out from the side.
The other important point is that a lot of frustration around penalties is because fans (and players) often don’t know why they are awarded. Both Mike Fraser and Paul Williams (especially) were clear in their explanations, and in almost all cases, it was obvious what the transgressions were.
Williams and his assistants also looked to deal quickly with two foul play incidents that led to yellow cards for the Highlanders’ Jona Nareki and Vilimoni Koroi. No multiple replays and repeating each other’s words; just a couple of looks, make a decision and get on with it. Highly commendable.
As it happened, the yellow cards were another dent in the ‘cards ruin matches’ argument – the Highlanders were seemingly untroubled by spending 20 minutes a man down.
Other winning moments? It was great to see crowds back on the field after both matches, although three arrests for pitch invasion in Dunedin suggests that there are still enough idiots around who will unfortunately spoil things for everyone else.
With Australian franchises and fans looking on with interest and anticipation, what were the takeaways for Australian rugby?
Ever since the All Blacks wrested back the Bledisloe Cup in 2003, New Zealand rugby has, for the most part, dominated Australia, on-field and off. And as the dual scourges of COVID-19 and rugby’s civil war bit hard in 2020, never has the gulf been starker.
Highlanders CEO Roger Clark set the tone in the lead-up to the match, saying: “We will be ready to put on a show”.
In different hands, that could be taken to mean flamethrowers before the match (Global Rapid Rugby), the Pal Superdogs at halftime (1980s cricket), or cranking up Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline at every break in play (2010s ad nauseam).
What Clark was actually referring to was the sport itself. In Australia, the game is considered by many to be dead or dying. At Forsyth Barr Stadium, the game is considered to be an opportunity for players to dazzle and entertain fans.
How often do Australian rugby fans come away from a local derby excited by the two sides having put on a show? There’s the first challenge right there, for all of the participants in Super Rugby AU.
There are some smart and well intentioned people working hard on identifying and implementing law variations to try to make the game more appealing. Any outcome that delivers a better spectacle without tearing at the fabric of the game is worth pursuing.
But one lesson Australian rugby must take from this round of Super Rugby Aotearoa is that tinkering with the laws is neither here nor there. What really counts – what has always counted – is the skill and attitude of the players to express themselves and put on a show, regardless of the laws.
The pursuit of more speed for speed’s sake should also be treated with caution.
This weekend demonstrated how the set piece remains the cornerstone of rugby. Better execution at lineout was the winning of the match for the Highlanders and the Blues. This is as it should be.
Fans wanting endless tap and run and de-emphasis on rugby’s strength elements should be courteously re-directed to the Rugby Sevens circuit. Balance is what is required.
In this respect, the happiest man in Australia this morning might well be Brumbies coach Dan McKellar, whose lineout unit is further advanced than the other Australian franchises.
There are now three frustrating weeks ahead for Australian rugby.
Rugby Australia cannot be justly criticised for scheduling the restart of the professional game on July 3. In the midst of heavy internal restructure, in a fast-changing health and social environment, facing complications in navigating different COVID-safe regulations in different states, this was an entirely different situation than what faced NZ rugby.
And with the bullish Peter V’landys and the NRL hell bent on paving the way for a return to sport, it also made perfect sense to let COVID-safe protocols be established on the NRL’s coin, and to frame Super Rugby AU’s competition accordingly.
There was also the matter of who was going to pay for it all – time needed for old sailing buddies interim CEO Rob Clarke and Foxtel’s Patrick Delany to – dare I say it – get things back on an even keel.
The kick-off of Super Rugby Aotearoa proved helpful – it would have been unthinkable for a content-starved Foxtel to not broadcast the start of the New Zealand competition, so this became a useful deadline of sorts for both parties to come to agreement for this segment, at least.
But now that things have gone so swimmingly across the Tasman, and that the NRL and AFL are back, all of a sudden, the start date of July 3 looks a couple of weeks too distant.
Spare a thought for the players and coaches who have attended countless training sessions this year for very little on-field action.
Last Thursday, The Australian ran with the headline, ‘Foxtel TV deal is rugby’s saviour’; amusing and ironic, given the same newspaper’s repeated attacks on Rugby Australia. Head of Fox Sports Peter Campbell, under questioning about Fox Sports’ commitment to rugby, had already confirmed that they would be the home of rugby union in 2020.
For this weekend, and for the next fortnight, Super Rugby Aotearoa is rugby’s saviour. Rugby is back where it belongs – on the pitch and out of the hands of letter writers.
Next weekend already can’t come quickly enough.