We’ve reached or are reaching the halfway points in this first part of the season, so this week feels like a good opportunity to discuss both the talking points from the weekend’s matches – and there were some beauties – and the state of the competition in general.
There’s lots to talk about, so let’s get stuck in.
What a way to break a losing streak!
The Chiefs broke their 11-match losing streak with an incredible comeback that surprised fans almost as much as it did the Hurricanes players who were left wondering what on earth had just happened.
There were two interesting aspects that stood out in this final 25 minutes from the Chiefs side of things. First of all what an impact Chase Tiatia had – he scored the first try in this period, played a crucial part in the next one and was generally just a threat that the Canes struggled to cope with. He came on in the 52nd minute and, as well as the above impacts, he also ran for more metres than Jordie Barrett and he had five fewer runs.
The second aspect that caught the eye was when Sam Cane opted to go for an attacking lineout from a penalty instead of taking the three points. We talked last week about the importance of good decision-making. Last week that saw James O’Connor going for posts instead of the riskier, bigger prize of the try. But in this game Cane knew that his lineout was performing well and that a try at that point was crucial to turn the momentum on the Canes. Boy was he right.
All Blacks fullback isn’t a Barrett-only debate
Speaking of the Chiefs comeback against the Canes, Damian McKenzie was on fire and reminded everyone that the battle for the All Blacks No. 15 jersey isn’t an all-Barrett affair. McKenzie was busy all night, like he always is, and racked up more metres than anyone else in the game. He was involved in so many of the good things the Chiefs did in attack and was reliable off the kicking tee too.
He also did a great job of assisting the inexperienced Kaleb Trask at first receiver – this was crucial as the youngster had a bit of a tough night with a couple of howlers.
McKenzie wasn’t perfect by any means – he gave away three turnovers and two penalties – but his positives far, far outweighed any negatives on the night.
Jordie Barrett wasn’t bad, to be fair, but there’s something exciting that McKenzie brings that makes him worth having in a side. Yes, Jordie has a howitzer for a boot and can knock over penalties from 50 metres, which is a nice weapon to have up your sleeve. But McKenzie scares defences and his running ability in open play is a joy to behold.
Where do the Tahs start?
We’re not going to go into the details of the loss to the Rebels from this weekend – we all know they lost another one and are really struggling. So instead of piling on, let’s think about where they need to start to turn this series from hell around.
They have been poor in attack this season with a combination of a lack of creativity and accuracy proving frustrating for fans and players alike. But scoring more points isn’t where the men from NSW need to start. The two things that are really going to save their season is their defence and their scrum.
Obviously conceding fewer points is a good thing but, more than that, creating a solid defence is all about building trust, understanding and a bond between players. It’s as much about mentality as anything else, and improving their defence would be a huge step forward. They are missing on average 15 per cent of their tackles so far this season, which isn’t terrible, but these missed tackles are leading to far too many points as a result, and that has to stop.
Up front their scrum is a mess. They’ve lost just under 25 per cent of their scrums this season – by far the worst record for a pack in both competitions. Again, having a solid scrum is obviously important for many reasons, but one of the big ones is morale. Seeing your own pack get monstered is hugely demoralising, and you are literally and figuratively on the back foot.
The Tahs need to become a really difficult team to break down. They need to become comfortable without the ball for long periods of time, create a defensive system that is actually a proactive weapon and be mean in the set piece.
Tough week shows Ardie needs some help with the leadership
Let’s be clear, Ardie Savea is a really good player, and he’s in some good form at the moment. But in Saturday’s shock loss to the Chiefs one of the weaker parts of his game was highlighted – his leadership.
Again, he’s not a bad leader, and many would argue that his performances set a very high standard for his teammates to learn from and follow. But on Saturday the Canes didn’t need any incredible attacking feat or huge hits to spark them into action. They needed to get hold of the ball and hold it for decent passages of the final 20 minutes. They needed calm and control.
In fact this was one of the main insights for the Canes from the loss against the Chiefs. They are really missing their leaders. Key voices who they are used to having around in Dan Coles (injured) and TJ Perenara (tearing it up in Japan) were not there on Saturday, and Savea wasn’t able to get his team to do the basics.
Maybe it’s not just Savea – maybe this is a sign of a lack of leadership across the Canes in general – but it has cost them dearly this weekend.
State of the nation
So we’re around the halfway mark for each competition, and while we’re all loving having rugby back on our screens after the horror of the off-season, what have you made of the season so far? Here are some sub talking points to get the debate started.
The Kiwi competition is boring
The eventual winner of Super Rugby Aotearoa is – drum roll – the Crusaders. There’s no mystery there, and while they are an incredible team to watch and deserve the win without a doubt, the fact that they are so much better than the rest of the comp does make it, well, boring as a competition.
The Aussie competition is awesome
There is a proper title race on as the Reds and the Brumbies battle it out, and the Rebels are actually competitive and can’t be regarded as a simple victory. This is making the Super Rugby AU comp much more exciting than its trans-Tasman rival.
The gap between Aussie teams and Kiwi teams won’t be as great as before
The Reds and the Brumbies will be properly competitive once the two comps go head to head, and the Rebels won’t be walkovers either. The Canes and the Chiefs will struggle and the Highlanders will stumble on the road as well. The Crusaders will win the whole thing, sure, but the Aussie clubs will put up a lot more resistance this time.
There are loads of young flyhalves
Will Harrison for the Tahs, Otere Black for the Blues, Orbyn Leger for the Canes and Kaleb Trask for the Chiefs were all on display this weekend with an average age of 23, and that’s not including the rested 21-year-old Noah Lolesio. Are any of these future successful internationals? Time will tell.
We’ve heard the ref’s whistle more than we’d like
Penalty numbers seem to have been up in the opening few rounds, but let’s hope that this has been a deliberate tactic to get teams in line and that the second half of the competitions will see less blowing from the men in the middle.
What do you think? Are the competitions living up to expectations for you? What do you think have been the big talking points of the season so far?