Australian fans have good reason to be buoyed by the impressive composed displays at flyhalf this year by James O’Connor and Matt To’omua.
But yesterday it was a matter of sitting back and watching Richie Mo’unga take things to another level, his brilliance ultimately breaking a gallant Blues side into a 43-27 submission in the eagerly awaited top-of-the-table clash.
Nowhere was this better illustrated than by Mo’unga’s catch and pass in the 78th minute, putting Sevu Reece away for the final try of the match. The pace at which Mo’unga hit the ball and the angle and the precision of the pass rolling off his left hand was a moment of sheer class worth the price of admission or a Stan subscription on its own.
Coaches and administrators across New Zealand and Australia should right now be packaging up those few seconds and ensuring that every junior and schoolboy player receives a copy along with a message, “Learn to do that and then you can call yourself a rugby player”.
Never mind some outstanding defensive efforts or that a perfect nine shots at goal yielded Mo’unga a personal haul of 28 points. It’s the ability to break down solid defensive lines with a full array of skills that locks the crowds into Super Rugby.
His one major error was a missed touch-finder from a penalty, trying to chew off a couple of metres too many. Usually that’s an unforgivable offence, but on a day like this the mistake was massively outweighed by the positives.
Also experiencing the rapid, oscillating highs and lows of rugby was Blues replacement hooker Kurt Ekland, whose impressively decisive finish had the home side back in the match at 29-20 with 14 minutes still to play.
A minute later, with his side having won a penalty for a clumsy challenge at the restart, Eklund’s and the Blues’ day came crashing to earth, the hooker inexplicably deciding to teach Reece a lesson with a throw that may have impressed his Judo coach but not so TMO Brendan Pickerill.
Mo’unga rubbed salt in by gliding around Eklund for his try, but in Eklund’s defence, in that position, defending one-off the ruck, he wouldn’t have been the only player left grasping at thin air.
To their credit the Blues refused to die, and impressive replacement Tom Robertson sparked another try, but more ill-discipline, this time from Ofa Tu’ungafasi, and the Crusaders’ final breakout capped off a highly entertaining afternoon’s rugby.
The Blues pack dominated for long periods, and they should have lost the faith of no supporters for what was an honourable loss. But their review will show that when it was the Crusaders’ time in command they were slightly more precise and ruthless with the formation and shape of their maul and the speed of their recycle.
The game also featured a reprise of last week’s embarrassing captain’s challenge fail, this time Crusaders skipper Scott Barrett forced to burn his challenge to ask for a review of a dubious final pass from Caleb Clarke to Blake Gibson that surely the referee and TMO should have been examining as a matter of course.
It is hard to understand what is being achieved here. Why are the players being asked to do the officials’ work for them? And why, if the officials then get it wrong, as they certainly did last week and may have done this time, are the players then hit with double jeopardy, with both the decision and lost challenge going against them?
The other side of the captains challenge coin was evident in Brisbane when the Reds’ Hunter Paisami charged through a hole to score in the first half against the Force, collecting a forward pass from halfback Tate McDermott on the way.
Referee Damon Murphy not only blocked Force hooker Feleti Kaitu’u from tackling Paisami but in his unsuccessful attempt to prevent being knocked over he also failed to pick up the pass and ask for it to be checked. Australia has wisely avoided following New Zealand down the captains challenge black hole, but how Force captain Brynard Stander could have done with one right there.
The fact that those seven points turned out to be the difference between the two sides only makes the hurt more acute.
That said, as hard as the Force scrapped – they also played with more fluency than the previous week at home – they lacked the precision and scoring threats to ultimately cause the big upset.
To some the Reds’ string of narrow wins might appear to have an element of luck attached, but they have been developing into a confident and trusting defensive unit over the last two seasons, and anyone who comes to Brisbane wanting to win has to find a way to convert field position and pressure into points.
In Melbourne Jack Maddocks marked his return to AAMI Park by kicking off on the full. From there his night didn’t get any better, with the Rebels strangling the Waratahs out of the contest to lead by 33-0 after 66 minutes.
With both benches emptied the Waratahs scrambled enough players on the left edge to create a nice sweeping try for replacement Jeremy Williams, although coaches might want use this one as a lesson for all defending players, noting how Rebels fullback Tom Pincus, who is improving week by week, failed to take Williams to the ground in a draw and pass.
Pincus’s feet were fixed, he was beaten by the ball, and rather than turn and chase to try to catch up to a play he was never going to catch up to, he should have tackled Williams immediately as he passed, thus preventing him from being in position as a support runner to collect the infield pass and score.
There were lessons also from the final Waratahs try, with replacement halfback Henry Robertson, then facing forwards towards the Waratah’s try-line, clearly bouncing the ball on the ground before picking it up and dashing off.
TMO Brett Cronan had experienced a quiet night, and the thicket of seagulls that had descended upon the ground like vultures ready to pick on the Waratahs carcass may have obscured his view.
But the only positive thing that can be said about this decision was that it didn’t affect the result. There is a creakiness that has crept into some of the officiating on both sides of the Tasman, and hopefully the accuracy dial can be turned up a notch or two in coming weeks.
Talk immediately after the match centred on the Rebels ‘blowing’ a bonus point, but I’m not so certain this is justified. Matt To’omua and Reece Hodge were both kicking well, and Rebels fans should take comfort from how their side was able to clinically lock the opposition out of the game.
Most sides struggle to maintain momentum after the benches are cleared and, with three halfbacks on the field together, the Rebels were hardly primed to run rampant towards the end.
Further, at the risk of sounding controversial, while the Waratahs are struggling for presence in the middle row, breakdown and midfield, it is simply not a matter for any opposition to turn up and expect to score tries at will. The Waratahs are far from being a lost cause, and at no stage during this match did they roll over and make things a cakewalk for the Rebels.
Leading 26-7 at halftime, the Hurricanes looked hungry for the try-line and appeared to have things under control against the Chiefs, who were staring down the barrel of a 12th straight Super Rugby loss.
It was a misleading picture, however, with the Chiefs unable to build any sustained pressure due to referee Ben O’Keefe penalising them no fewer than five times in the half when in possession.
With that tidied up at halftime, the recovery began in earnest. Four tries and a stunning 28-3 second-half reversal later and the Chiefs had their win – a most deserved win too, with Damian McKenzie, Chase Tiatia and Brad Weber combining for what must be close to try of the season so far.
Particularly impressive was the way the Chiefs, having had all of the momentum, had it snatched away by Jordie Barrett’s monster penalty goal, giving the lead back to the Hurricanes 29-28. But with five minutes left the Chiefs kept their composure, the impressive duo of Sam Cane and Luke Jacobsen getting the job done 35-29.
And while we’re on creaky officiating, just how McKenzie was able to milk a whole two minutes 16 seconds off the clock in taking a final penalty shot for goal remains a complete mystery. Simply not good enough.
It was an after-the-siren penalty goal to halfback Elijah Pilz that decided the Australian national club rugby title at David Wilson-field in Brisbane, with the home side Easts Tigers getting up 14-13 over Gordon despite the visitors scoring two tries to one.
The match might have been played at the ‘wrong’ time of the year and the quality might not have always been there, but the enthusiasm of the home crowd and the tight scoreline made for great Saturday afternoon viewing.
You know rugby is on to a good thing when so many clubmen and fans are prepared to sacrifice so much beer in their rush and excitement to celebrate a famous victory.
There will have been many blue and gold hangovers slept off in Brisbane yesterday. The only shame will be if any of that resulted in people missing out on seeing Richie Mo’unga’s magic in Auckland.