No matter what tinkering around the edges of laws is undertaken, one fundamental rugby truth remains the same: games are won and lost at the set piece.
This is not an article bemoaning too many scrum penalties and lineout maul tries. Individual and pack strength must remain a key component of the contest, lest the big boppers are turfed from the game and rugby becomes a game for a certain body type only. Nobody wants this.
This is an article, however, about nuance and balance and how, despite Rugby Australia’s initiative in introducing law variations to speed play up and create more spontaneity, seven of the 11 tries scored this weekend came from attacking lineouts.
Is that too many? As Bart Cummings once famously asked when informed by stewards that there were too many flies at his Randwick stables, “How many am I allowed?”.
‘As many as you like’ is the actual answer, and one of the reasons is that the throwing accuracy and successful completion rates appear to have improved this season. That’s a step forward for Australian rugby.
On the other hand, 64 per cent of try scoring coming via one source suggests that things aren’t quite as they should be.
Given that the lineout is such a productive weapon, it was interesting to watch the Rebels eschew that option altogether, opting instead for nine shots at goal from penalties.
It almost won them the game, with skipper Matt To’omua, who had an excellent match, missing an opportunity after the siren to carry his side to a famous victory in Brisbane, firing just left from 40 metres.
Three minutes earlier, impressive hooker Alex Mafi had scored his second try from a lineout variation to give the Reds the lead for the first time in the match, 23-21. The replay is instructive – Richard Hardwick, who had tackled like a demon all night, didn’t press forward, allowing Mafi to push into a half gap and through his tackle.
The other key defender, Josh Kemeny, was also too slow to fill the space, and once he reacted he was blocked out of the tackle by an unfortunately positioned referee, Jordan Way. On such small points big outcomes rest.
What this article is really about, however, is the Reds’ first try and the manner in which James O’Connor raced in and joined the driving maul and then slipped ahead of Mafi before acting as a blocker to open up the try-line for Mafi to dive over. Not to be outdone, Irae Simone did the same thing the following night, haring in to act as linebacker to clear a path for Lachlan Lonergan to score.
Upon seeking clarification yesterday, Rugby Australia referees bosses confirmed that the actions of both O’Connor and Simone were lawful. Law 16.7.b requires the attacking player who joins the maul to bind on the player with the ball. There is nothing stated in the laws that prevents him from sliding forward as part of the maul.
If the referees are not at fault, the law is.
With Rugby Australia and the referees working hard to deliver law variations and interpretations to open the game up, thereby allowing players to enter the maul in this way and effectively run obstruction, the further powering up already dominant lineout mauls is surely at cross purposes with this objective.
There’s already a strong argument that backs who don’t form part of the lineout shouldn’t be allowed to rush in and join a maul. This was not included as one of the 2021 law variations. If they are, the very least we can do is keep them bound behind the ball and not allow them to change bind or swim forward to provide a screen.
After all, referee Way saw fit to penalise both halfbacks for straying inside the ten metres before the lineout had been called over – actions that had no bearing on the play.
If the game is prepared to stamp out that technicality, why are we legalising blocking and not giving serious consideration to how this affects the balance of the game?
Of course there were other elements that the Rebels were in control of that could have swung things their way. Three muffed kick-off receipts, for example, which instantly took the gloss from points taken at the other end.
Crucially, with up to ten players from the starting 23 missing and the Rebels’ makeshift front five struggling to secure set piece possession, Joe Powell’s 70th-minute failure to force a long kick-off, erroneously believing it had to go dead, cost his side a free kick on halfway and a rare chance to mount an attack in the Reds half.
The other key play came in the 56th minute when Reds prop Feao Fotuaika was sent off for a cheap shot on Hardwick at a ruck, not because it left the Reds a man down but because it allowed for Taniela Tupou to return to the field – a net win for the Reds.
There was a sense early that the Reds might have got a bit ahead of themselves and were vulnerable to being frustrated out of the game by a committed and organised defence. A game plan hell-bent on running the Rebels off their feet showed disrespect for their opponent and the situation and overshot their own ability.
Tupou’s bizarre bench cameo for the cameras also spoke to a side with its mind not quite on the job. However – and winners are always grinners – the fact remains that the Reds were good enough to get the job done in the end, and in a sprint race of a competition they are already in a strong position.
Before we leave the Brisbane match, a word to the commentary team. Everyone is on board with measures to speed up play. But to imply that the Rebels’ Rhys Van Nek was somehow involved in a tactical ploy to try to slow proceedings down was poor form.
Van Nek had an obvious leg injury, and rugby must always allow injured players time to be treated and leave the field with dignity.
The Waratahs didn’t quite have their dignity stripped from them by the Brumbies, but it’s hard to find too many positives from a 61-10 hiding.
They did manage to scrape one try from an attacking lineout themselves, but conceding four rendered them impotent. Ironically their worst moment came not from a lineout but in allowing Nic White, straight after halftime when their minds should have been focused, to scramble through some awful defence from a scrum.
None of which is meant to downplay the quality of the Brumbies performance. The way Mac Hansen is going on the left wing suggests that Wallaby Tom Wright is no sure thing to walk straight back into the side when he returns from injury.
Simone and Len Ikatau are developing a potent combination in midfield, and so far we are seeing less play being directed through White at halfback, with the Brumbies all the more fluid as a result.
The Brumbies have always had the edge on other Australian franchises in efficiency, but this performance had a ruthless edge to it, which makes them all the more powerful. That should be enough to bring most of the 9322 fans back again next week – a healthy roll-up when taking into account the free-to-air coverage on Nine.
The attacking lineout also took centre stage in Dunedin, with the Highlanders repelled on more than half a dozen occasions by an impressive Crusaders defence.
This raised the age-old argument about the value of ‘taking the three’, although the Highlanders may be excused for turning to a maul that has paid dividends for them in the past.
It’s also worth pointing out that only a small bobble at a ruck, picked up by the assistant referee, was all that stood between the Highlanders and a 20-19 lead with 14 minutes left to play.
On reflection, the Highlanders might have thought more about who their opponent was. It is no coincidence that New Zealand and Australia’s two best sides, the Crusaders and the Brumbies, are also the best sides at preventing tries being scored against them from attacking lineouts.
The Highlanders’ strength is in their powerful, running loose forwards and the ability of Aaron Smith to shift the ball flat and at speed, close to the tryline, to hit players either running into gaps or one on one tackles close to the line. Just like the one-two punch by Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and Shannon Frizzell for their first try. That’s where they should have gone.
The match started with the Highlanders unveiling a new haka, ‘Hautoa Kia Toa’. Perhaps it was because of the enclosed stadium or because the students who had packed into ‘the zoo’ had no idea it was coming, but this was a wonderful way to kick off Super Rugby Aoteoroa.
For the Crusaders, Codie Taylor looks to be in great shape, while Sevu Reece, who has ground to make up to reclaim his All Blacks spot, was sharp and lively. His effort to stay in the field of play and to score in the 48th minute was outstanding, but did the match officials focus so intently on checking where his feet were that they didn’t notice the ball cutting the touch in-goal line?
And were these the same match officials who somehow determined that a second-half Jordie Barrett conversion in Wellington went outside the uprights when for all money it looked through?
Another player looking to step up a level to cement his All Blacks standing is Hurricanes hooker Asafo Aumua. Now 23, he’s been the next coming for a little while now, and the power and determination he showed to finish off the Hurricanes’ opening try was thrilling.
Less thrilling for Canes fans was the familiar issue of a stuttering engine room, which proved no match for the Blues’ power-packed bench that finished the game off comfortably.
There was a lot for Blues fans to like too about how – with Beauden Barrett now out of the way – Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta seem to be comfortably bedded in as first choice selections at Nos. 10 and 15. Both played with confidence and skill.
The Blues’ biggest issue at the moment is Auckland’s new COVID lockdown. I expect coach Leon McDonald was straight on the phone yesterday to Dave Wessels for the inside oil on how to manage a big squad forced at short notice into staying away from home for an extended period.
Perhaps they also took time to chat about the attacking lineout maul. The Blues conceded a second try to Aumua when the front half of the maul sheared off. McDonald will have been curious about how and why, just like he might have been curious about why Jonathan Ruru declined to put his body on the line in front of Aumua.
Wessels, meanwhile, has a couple of training sessions in which to unlock the secret to countering the Brumbies maul. That’s a tough enough proposition as it is. It shouldn’t be made any more difficult by allowing backs to run in and block ahead of the ball.