This weekend was a real combination of good, bad and ugly rugby. There were redemption stories, unlikely wins and some really boring play.
Amongst it all there was, as always, plenty to talk about, so let’s get stuck in….
Tahs better but not because of Penney’s absence
Let’s be clear – the Tahs were better this weekend but a good 40 minutes in the second half in no way justifies the firing of Rob Penney.
It would be interesting to hear what was said in the sheds at halftime and you wouldn’t be surprised if it was something along the lines of “We owe this to Rob, lads.”
But the improved performance from the NSW side is not evidence that they are better off without Penney. Instead it shows how much they’ve missed Jake Gordon over the opening five matches. With their captain and scrumhalf back in action, the Tahs had much more direction and control about them.
Their set piece was better, their running game was a bit more direct although they did try and go wide too early in their sets but they looked better, and their discipline was good too.
Their defence is still an issue with 20 per cent of their tackles missed and 20 turnovers is always going to make things difficult, but the Tahs are so much better with some experience and leadership in a key position.
Makes you wonder what they could achieve with both Penney and Gordon?!
Side point – will we see Michael Cheika back at the Tahs sometime soon?
There’s been plenty of debate about who should and who will get the gig as coach of the NSW Waratahs. Michael Cheika made it very clear that he wouldn’t be applying for the job. So clear in fact that you wonder whether he might be protesting a bit too much!
Conspiracy theorists might read between the lines and feel that his comments that he didn’t think it was the right time for him to come back with the new Wallabies set up still fresh, might be interpreted as “If you can assure me that Rennie and Johnson will be gone, then I’m in and I’ll get you that trophy you want so badly.”
Maybe Cheika is thinking ahead a bit and feels that whoever takes on the job first is doomed to fail as the big issues that haunt the Tahs will still be very present. Maybe he’s thinking about a year or so down the line when another new coach is needed and he can return as the saviour of NSW and Australian rugby.
Highlanders find a very unusual blueprint to defeat the Crusaders
You’ve got to love Tony Brown. In the week that his team is facing the unbeatable Crusaders and staring down the wooden spoon, he makes the decision to ban six of his players, including stars Josh Ioane and Tomkinson.
His reward? A very rare win over the reigning champs and a place in club history.
The players that earned the win on Friday managed to execute a plan that many clubs have failed to time after time with one key aspect being that they held onto the ball well. The Crusaders have an excellent back three and talented ball players all over the park – but these guys struggle to be an attacking threat if they don’t have the ball to attack with in the first place. The Highlanders were able to dominate possession and they turned this into points.
Yes they scored three tries which is great but they also took shots at goal frequently, knowing the importance of keeping the scoreboard moving.
You might also assume that to beat the Crusaders you have to have a near perfect defence but in fact, the Highlanders missed over 20per cent of their tackles. But while they might have missed tackles, their defence was effective at two things – they made it really hard for the Crusaders to settle and find any rhythm by making sure the ball carrier was always under pressure, and they forced the champs to make an unusual number of errors – 22 by the end of the game.
So other teams take notice – the key to beating the Crusaders is to make a strong statement about club culture in the lead up to the game and then batsman the men in red and black with unrelenting pressure for 80 minutes. Simple!
So many stars, so little entertainment!
The Hurricanes match up against the Blues was a really difficult game to watch. There were so many stars on show and yet the game stuttered and stumbled along with an infuriating lack of creativity or attacking rugby on display.
At one point you couldn’t blame a couple of the wingers for just having a sit down, so small was the chance that they’d actually get to see the ball any time soon.
The Blues will be relieved that they picked up the win but they would be kidding themselves if they thought that they had got their season back on track with a performance like that.
Their set piece was poor – losing two out of six scrums and two out of eight line outs really isn’t good enough – and their ball retention was poor.
So many aimless passes were thrown and it’s not surprising that they turned the ball over 14 times in the game – worrying when they only had the ball for 44 per cent of the time.
The Canes though weren’t much better. They had a lot of ball and plenty of territory but created so so little time after time. Last week we were celebrating the impressive performance from Jordie Barrett where he scored all 30 points in the win over the Highlanders.
This week, fans should be concerned that in 160 minutes of rugby, the Hurricanes score sheet reads:
Jordie Barrett – 42 points
Rest of the entire Hurricanes squad – five points
The common factor? Both sides are without top quality halves. Whilst Japanese rugby is enjoying seeing the talents of TJ and Beauden, the Canes and Blues are really missing some direction and pace from their #9s and #10s.
Speaking of #9s, Dave Rennie must be happy
If a lack of scrumhalf talent is causing issues for Kiwi clubs, Super Rugby AU is seeing an exciting competition between its top four scrum halves.
This weekend saw Jake Gordon, Nic White, Tate McDermott and Joe Powell all playing and it was great to see the different styles out there as they all fight for a Wallabies starting place against France this July.
Both White and McDermott have caught the eye this year but as we all know, things are much easier when your pack is dominant and going forwards. Gordon has sadly been missing with injury for the past few rounds but he made a big difference to the Tahs this past weekend so let’s hope he has a strong final few games as that’s good for the comp as a whole.
One thing that did stand out is the difference in styles of play and in particular the passing v running skills of McDermott. He has been playing well this season and really has come on at the Reds. He’s more of a threat than ever before with ball in hand and his darting runs from behind the ruck are causing many defences problems. But his passing from the ground isn’t quite as crisp as the others.
McDermott often takes a step with the ball before releasing his pass and that can give defences a crucial bit of time to get up on the intended recipient. Watching Powell this weekend for example you can see that he gets his passes away to the likes of Matt To’omua without that step and gives his flyhalf a little bit of extra time.
So that raises an interesting question – who would you pick as your two match day scrum halves for the Wallabies and why?
Are we seeing some poor refereeing in New Zealand?
There has been little if any discussion in these weekly articles about the standard of refereeing in the comps this year.
There was a bit of debate about how often the refs were blowing the whistle in the early rounds for offside, but it was apparently a deliberate tactic from the officials to give the teams a sharp shock in rounds one and two in the belief that it would keep them honest for the rest of the tournament.
However there has been growing frustration with the referees in the Aotearoa comp and this past weekend threw up a few flash points.
In the opening minute of the Crusaders v Highlanders game the ref decided that an obstruction from a Highlanders’ winger was more serious than the foul play of Will Jordan tackling an opponent in the air.
Whilst obstruction can be penalised, it doesn’t feel like it trumps dangerous or foul play and Will Jordan got away with hitting an opponent in the air scott free.
Meanwhile, when the Blues took on the Canes, the Canes received two yellow cards, both of which drew debate. Du’Plessis Kirifi was sent to the naughty step for hitting Otere Black high at a ruck but in the replays it seemed pretty clear that Black was not involved in the ruck at all, was on his knees besides the breakdown and got hit to the side of the head. In today’s game, isn’t that a red?
Then when Aardie Savea got yellow carded and the Blues awarded a penalty try, there were many who were confused as to what the Canes skipper had done so wrong as he tried to stop the Blues driving maul getting over the try line. The ref felt that he’d deliberately brought the maul down but that wasn’t clear from initial replays and there had been no warning given from the ref previously.
Of course, there doesn’t have to be a warning but in plenty of other games this season, refs have gone out of their way to warn teams after they’ve already given away three or four penalties in the red zone.
So this is another question for the group – do you think the officials are getting it right or are we seeing few too many important mistakes?