After all the sky-is-falling discussion after the Rebels and Reds played out ‘The Draw We’d Rather Forget’ in Round 2, it was great – nay, bloody fantastic – to see Super Rugby AU dish up two really, really enjoyable games across the weekend for Round 3.
Queensland and the Western Force played a match on Friday night that will easily rate among the top handful of Australian derbies over the four or five seasons, maybe even longer. A stonking try-for-try tussle that produced a point a minute to halftime, yet was built on solid set piece from both sides of the ledger and a breakdown contest where accuracy was required and rewarded in both attack and defence.
New South Wales and the Brumbies followed suit with a Hume Highway clash befitting their rivalry, and though the Brumbies have now won their last five ‘Tah Week’ derbies in Sydney, the away team has still only won this match ten times in 25 seasons. Form or favouritism has never really mattered in these days, and so was the case on Saturday night, and the Waratahs were rightly miffed at letting an upset slip away after carrying the ascendency for long periods of the match.
It’s this point that might have provided the biggest and best takeaway from the weekend. All four teams had good reason to be satisfied with their performance, yet all four were quick to point out deficiencies that can’t be allowed to continue. All four sides showed a hunger and drive in the immediate reaction that can only help lift the bar higher as the competition progresses.
With more than a bit of trans-Tasman posturing going on the background, this was absolutely the weekend where Super Rugby AU stood up and showed its quality. And the Melbourne Rebels, watching from afar on the bye weekend will similarly know that they too have plenty of work to maintain pace with their counterparts.
The Waratahs are as good a place to start as any, who were visibly hurt on fulltime after Brumbies scrumhalf Issak Fines slipped through some tired defenders three minutes from time. The ‘Tahs had been the better side for upwards of 65 minutes and probably deserved more than the losing bonus point they took away.
Brumbies coach Dan McKellar knew it, offering post-match “The Tahs were very good tonight. Good young side, I take my hat off to them. You feel for them a little bit to be honest”.
But New South Wales skipper Rob Simmons was having none of it.
“We need to find a way. There has to be some resilience there to show up again next week,” he said in the press-conference after the loss.
“We’re on that (upward) trajectory, but we’ve got to find a way. We’ve got to win. Can’t just keep saying, ‘oh, that was good’. We lost a game. Do what you can to find it, but we need to get a win.”
Simmons’ expression as he spoke the words “that was good” told us everything we need to know about the Waratahs at the moment. They know they’re an inexperienced team. They know they’re littered with exciting talent. But they’re now done with the platitudes and want to get on with winning games. It was genuinely great to see a captain lay down the ‘this is no longer good enough’ benchmark.
And the Tahs thought – as most people watching the game did, I suspect – that they’d done enough to beat a Brumbies side that few thought they’d get even remotely close to. The pain they felt in the aftermath of the loss will be of massive benefit going forward. Good luck to the Rebels this Friday night.
The Brumbies, too, were quick to admit their set piece failings. A stat sheet of 14 turnovers conceded, eight lineouts lost, and two scrums lost doesn’t read very well in a four-tries-to-two win.
Allan Ala’alatoa was quick to praise Simmons and Ned Hanigan’s defensive lineout work, whereby the time Darcy Swain was replaced midway through the second-half, Simmons and Hanigan were just stationing themselves in front of and behind Murray Douglas and competing for everything. To pinch the classic line from Anchorman, “Sixty per cent of the time, it worked every time”.
McKellar was pretty blunt: “We know it’s an area we’ve got to get better. It’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on, and yeah, it’s been a little bit rusty.”
Rusty and suddenly short on resources. With locks Caderyn Neville and Nick Frost still sidelined, and Blake Enever leaving before the resumption, the Brumbies are left with Douglas and Swain as their only specialist lineout jumpers.
And until the repatriated Ben Hyne, Neville, or Frost return to the matchday 23, or more faith is put in calling throws to their numerous backrow options, then Douglas and Swain will continue to be targeted. Simmons and Hanigan delivered the current blueprint to nullifying the Brumbies’ strength.
And the Force won’t be short of options to have a crack at this on Saturday night. Former All Black Jeremy Thrush was outstanding against the Reds on Friday night, and knows a thing or two about causing trouble at set piece.
The Force scored some outstanding tries in this match, but it was just as impressive the way they fought back in the last ten minutes to bring the margin back to four points. This was the Western Australians putting the rest of the competition on notice; we’re not laying down to anyone. And while their performances have surprised plenty, that doesn’t apply internally.
“We’re actually quite disappointed we haven’t come away with the wins. We’ve done enough in patches, but we’ve just got to pull it together for a little bit longer,” Force captain Ian Prior said on Friday night.
“We’re here to win games, we’re not here to just compete.”
I absolutely agree with Geoff’s point yesterday; I reckon the Force break the drought in the next three games.
Which all leads into Queensland, who currently lead the competition after three rounds and yet to drop a game. But in saying that, the acknowledgement comes that they did their best to lose against the Rebels, and made it tougher in the closing stages than perhaps it might’ve been against the Force on Friday.
“I just think, they’re Queenslanders, these boys. They just love to fight, simple as that. They love the jersey, love Queensland, and they’ll do anything for it,” Reds skipper Liam Wright proposed. His coach had slightly different ideas, particularly around their late game management.
“It’s something that we need to continually learn, and the wisdom of getting through that game and managing that game,” Brad Thorn suggested, in that glass-half-empty outlook coaches use in press conferences.
“A couple of years ago, I would’ve been pumped just to get the win. Now in those games, I’m pleased for the lads, and it gives us those points, but there’s a lot to do if we want to challenge for the back end.”
It all adds up to really good signs on the domestic front.
There’s plenty of discussion, but no-one really knows what form competition or competitions will take next year.
But what this weekend just gone has just shown, is that there is plenty of hunger to make the Australian game as good as it can be.