The Super Rugby seasons are properly up and running now, and there is a lot to like.
The domestic focus in these early stages means we’re getting local derbies week in, week out, and it’s a lot of fun.
This weekend saw some fantastic matches – some with blowout scores, others with hardly a try to mention, but all of them with plenty to get excited about.
Let’s get stuck into some of the key talking points.
Sacking Rob Penney would make things worse for the Tahs
Unfortunately it was another rough weekend for Tahs players and fans. In fact it was arguably their roughest of the competition so far – and that’s saying something.
In the losses to the Reds and Brumbies the scorelines made for hard reading, but those opponents are the two best sides in the competition. In the loss to the Force, the Tahs were at home, were up against one of the weaker sides and had a man advantage for 15 minutes.
The sounds of disappointment were quickly replaced by a tense post-match interview for Penney, and who can blame him for giving some terse answers to questions about his future.
But blaming Rob Penney is as foolish as thinking that getting rid of him will make things better for the New South Wales team.
The Tahs are in this mess because of decisions made at senior levels over a number of years. From roster management to fitness standards to financials, there have been a number of missteps from those in charge in Sydney that have dealt Penney a tough hand.
Is Penney the right man for the Tahs in the long term? I’m not sure yet. But to get rid of him now will only make things worse.
Canes missing TJ more than Beauden
Being beaten by the Crusaders is hardly cause for concern, but in losing this weekend against the men from Christchurch there are some voices of worry coming from the Hurricanes faithful.
On paper they have some scary talent, especially in their backs. Their centre pairing of Peter Umaga-Jensen and Ngani Laumape should be among the best in both competitions, and with talents like Jordie Barrett and Julian Savea in the back three the Canes should be raining points on the opposition.
Unfortunately they haven’t. The performances have been lacklustre. They lost their warm-up games as well as the opening two rounds of the competition proper and are looking out of sorts. Against the Crusaders they lost their way, and despite all the talent in the midfield and out wide, they never got the ball out to these stars.
Of course the Crusaders are hard to play against, but the Canes are a good side and should be better.
Over the past few seasons the Canes have lost both Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara, but it’s the No. 9 that they are missing most. Without his drive and influence, both the forwards and backs are missing something, and it’s really showing.
Players of the round
There were plenty of players who put in a good shift this weekend and some who had genuine matchwinning moments. But there were two in particular who really stood out: Jona Nareki from the Highlanders and Tim Anstee from the Force.
Nareki scored a stunning hat-trick of tries against the Chiefs and set another up and was a problem all game long for the opposition defence. He’s not as big as many wingers – he’s just 1.75 metres tall and 80 kilograms compared to the likes of Julian Savea, who stands at 1.92 metres tall and 108 kilograms – but that doesn’t let them stop him from having an impact all over the pitch.
With his ball-handling skills, flat-out speed and footwork, he’s an attacking handful. Add to that the fact he’s a decent kicker who can use his big left foot to get the Highlanders out of trouble and he becomes a rounded weapon.
The All Blacks winger stocks are pretty healthy at the moment, so a call-up to the black jersey won’t be on the immediate horizon, but if he can keep playing like this week in, week out, the Highlanders will become a much scarier proposition.
Tim Anstee has an international sevens pedigree just like Nareki, and that was clear in the Force’s game against the Tahs. The tall back-rower used his pace and passing skills to break through gaps in the Tahs defence and set up a try.
He looked perfectly at ease. He might not have quite the weight of some of the bigger back-rowers at the top of the game, but anyone who can take a big shot from Lachlan Swinton, keep hold of the ball and have the awareness to dive over the line to score is a player worth keeping an eye on.
As the Force look to blend their experienced older guard with their young guns, Anstee will be key. He was also the player connected to the most bizarre commentary line this weekend – as he stretched out his long arm to score his try, one of the Stan crew cried out, “He’s stuffing it like a turkey!”. Last time anyone accepts an invite to Christmas dinner round his place!
Of course these are memorable performances from just one game, but if these two can keep up this standard of play for their teams across the rest of the season, they both could do some real damage to opponents.
Rebels fans not sure whether to be excited or worried
The Melbourne Rebels have lost both of their opening games and have had their hearts broken twice with the closeness of the misses.
The good news is that they’ve been moments away from beating the two top teams in the Australian competition, and if just a couple of small things had gone their way, we could be sitting here with them on a perfect record. They’ve played with a great spirit and found ways to score points even when they haven’t been able to unlock defences with any consistency.
They’ve played away from home both rounds so far and had a pretty disrupted opening few weeks thanks to needing to leave Melbourne quick smart when COVID restrictions hit. They’ve also got some of the better talent due to return soon, which should make them a better side.
The downside is that they have let two very winnable games get away from them and are yet to score a try in 160 minutes of Super Rugby. Not a single one. This is a concern. Yes, they have played to their game plan very well, and that is commendable – they are not trying to be something that they just don’t have the players for – but they aren’t going to win many games if they can’t find a way to cross the white line.
They are up against the Force in the next round in a game that could really be crucial for both sides as they map out their seasons. The Rebels need to make sure they win, and if they can do so with two or three tries on the scoreboard, then so much the better.
But for now Rebels fans should be feeling optimistic and good about their team so far. For many seasons the Rebels have struggled to have some real grit about them, and they seem to have found some. Having a mean defence and being hard to beat is a really good couple of traits, and the Rebels should make sure they do not lose them over the coming weeks.
What do the Chiefs need to do?
If the loss against the Highlanders was viewed in isolation, the Chiefs would be frustrated but not overly concerned. They had the lead and were looking good before being torn up by a great individual performance from Nareki that was freakish.
However, these games are not in isolation, and the Chiefs are on a very bad run of form. If you include last season, this was their tenth loss. They are in trouble.
The stats tell an interesting story and could convince you that the team is playing well and just having some bad luck. They dominated possession, ran for more metres, made more clean breaks, beat twice as many defenders and offloaded successfully twice as much. Their set piece was pretty good and their discipline wasn’t too bad.
So what happened? Well, the Chiefs continue to suffer from making mistakes at key moments and then not being able to stop the opposition from taking advantage. Whether it be poor handling or poorly executed kicks, the Chiefs are often the causes of their own downfall, and it keeps happening.
There is some hope for the Chiefs. Those positive statistics above from their game this weekend are often the situation in their games, and these are the building blocks that victories can be built upon.
They also have some options that they can explore to find the winning formula. Damian McKenzie can be brought to No. 10, for example, to offer some more experience than the young Bryn Gatland, who had a tough game against the Highlanders. McKenzie’s combination of experience and creative flair could help the Chiefs turn the positive foundations into some wins, and that confidence would do wonders for the whole team.
Sam Cane and his forwards don’t need to change a whole lot, but they do need to cut out the silly errors and make sure their set piece stays efficient. Their second row is a little light on experience but their line out has been working okay so far, and they’ll get better with more game time.
But a win has to come soon otherwise morale could sink even further, and that’s going to make everything that little bit harder.
Oh, and one last thing
What was that Highlanders away kit all about? Please, never again!