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Opinion

The Wrap: Super Rugby AU and Aotearoa anxiously hovering on the bubble

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4th April, 2021
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In recent times it feels like there have been many watershed moments for Australian and New Zealand rugby. Tomorrow, with the anticipated announcement of a trans-Tasman travel bubble potentially giving the green light to a cross-over Super Rugby round, is one of those moments.

The competition that only Australia wanted last year, but would now be warmly welcomed by both nations, is hanging by a thread. And if anything has been learned during this pandemic, it is that political leaders make decisions purely for political – sorry, based on the evidence of the health experts – reasons.

Should the stars align, and Prime Minister Ardern is accommodating, both New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia are ready to swing into action, with a plan to deliver six weeks of trans-Tasman action.

Should it all prove a bridge too far, then the appetising autumn menu will be torn up, and it will be back to dining on reheated leftovers. That’s much better than going hungry to be sure, but more of the same is an option that is not the choice of administrators, broadcasters, players and fans on both sides of the ditch.

Coaches too. After his side’s impressive 44-19 win in Melbourne, Reds coach Brad Thorn echoed the thoughts of Dave Rennie a week earlier, pointing out that if there is no cross-over competition, it will represent two years of no exposure for his young players to the New Zealand style of rugby.

Reds coach Brad Thorn

Reds coach Brad Thorn. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Forget about historic win-loss records and the respective strength and depth of rugby on both sides of the ditch. As enjoyable as each competition is on its own merits, development is stunted if players are not exposed to new kinds of adversity, unfamiliar pressure and different styles of play and refereeing.

For every blinkered fan in Australia waving goodbye and good riddance to South Africa and Argentina from Super Rugby, there is an astute coach and player lamenting the loss of lessons learned the hard way and all of the things that made them better players and coaches as a result.

For now, perhaps forever, there is no winding back that clock, but the reunification of Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa is a bare minimum, if both nations aren’t to suffer at the hand of the law of diminishing returns.

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Reflecting on the past season and a half, it is fair to say that some of the initial Covid-busting buzz has gone from the New Zealand competition, while the overall quality of rugby on the Australian side has improved. In that sense – and without matters being tested on the field – there has been some movement towards the centre, from both sides.

Each competition, in their own way, offers rugby fans plenty – and players too. The Roar has this week been made aware of high profile, overseas-based Australian players suffering serious buyer’s remorse, locked down in towns where English is an afterthought, at clubs where skills coaching and personal development is not at the same level as back home, who would gladly wind back the clock to be back at home, playing Super Rugby.

And even more so if Australian and New Zealand teams can start playing each other again. Heck, it’s even worth all the tiresome ‘Kiwi sides will just thrash all of the Aussie sides’ comments re-starting, just to be able to move rugby forward.

Jacinda, just in case you’re reading, I know you’ve got a few things on your plate, and you’re very keen to keep everybody safe, but just get on with it, please.

Getting on with it in a hurry in Melbourne were the Reds, who effectively killed the Rebels off within 16 minutes, racing to a 24-0 lead.

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Rebels’ errors that on another night might have been swept under the carpet, were punished mercilessly, with Hamish Stewart’s pinpoint kick making the first try, Stewart and Hunter Paisami setting up and picking off Reece Hodge for the second, and a bad miss by Pone Fa’amausili on James O’Connor opening up the third.

One thing the Rebels aren’t are a ‘catch up from behind’ kind of side, although their effort to claw back to 24-14 by halftime was full of merit. Halfback Frank Lomani was a revelation on the wing, and Trevor Hosea put in a manful shift at lineout and in the midfield, also showing delightful, soft hands to create space for Michael Wells’ 66th minute try.

But that was as good as it got for the home side, and it wasn’t half enough. Thorn was delighted post-match at how his side not only delivered the points he knows the side has in them, but continued to pressure the Rebels into mistakes and penalties.

It was telling to watch the dual red headgear brigade of Harry Wilson and Fraser McReight complement each other’s work in the second half, and with Liam Wright still to return, the Reds are rightful favourite at this stage, for a home final.

Bryce Hegarty of the Reds celebrates after his team's victory

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The Brumbies of course will have plenty to say about that, although the less said about their stuttering 24-22 win over the Waratahs in Sydney, the better. To be fair, the side that finished this match was far from Dan McKellar’s best, although that is to take nothing away from the home side who, against all expectations, went close to forcing the match into super time.

In fact, had replacement Charlie Gamble not got a case of the dreaded white-line fever with three minutes to play, and planted the ball in a position where Will Harrison would almost certainly have tied things up, ICAC would have been swarming all over betting sheets for the match, looking for the source of ‘the fix’.

Facing the final play with 13 men against 15, the Brumbies played it smart, compressing their defensive line, knowing that if they were to concede a try, it would only be in the corner. The Tahs took the bait, executed perfectly, but left too much work for Harrison.

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At least the match not going into extra time spared viewers any more of the unsubtle Stan/Nine push to have Michael Cheika installed as the next Waratahs’ coach.

Whatever one thinks of Cheika as a coach (his record speaks for itself), or a commentator (frequently insightful), there is something distinctly uncomfortable about him panning Rob Penney on a Stan rugby special ‘Where to now for the Waratahs’, only to then have Nine’s own newspapers tout him as the replacement, and his fellow panel members jump in boots and all to spruik him as the man for the job.

If Josh Ioane is to go on and add more Tests to his solitary appearance for the All Blacks, he may well look back on this weekend as pivotal, with events offering up some harsh but valuable lessons.

First, the time honoured ‘never give a sucker an even break’. With Ioane stood down when a late-night party at his house caught the attention of neighbours, police and Highlander’s officials, Mitch Hunt was handed the reins at 10, and put in the kind of skilled, disciplined performance that will keep him there for the foreseeable future.

Secondly, whatever team commitment has been made in-house about when and where to drink during the season, it is never a good look to go long, hard and public the night of a loss. To fans, a few quiet beers in celebration a win is relatable and forgivable. After securing bottom place on the ladder, the same behaviour looks more like an attitude problem.

Thirdly – and this is the big one in terms of Ioane’s rugby development – he missed out on a rare, valuable experience. When the final whistle sounds on an ‘against the odds’ or ‘underdog’ win, every player who has shed skin and spilt blood realises, in that very instant, that this is the moment they play the game for.

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Instead of taking a huge step forward in confidence and status by lowering Richie Mo’unga’s colours and cementing into his DNA, being part of the 23 that got the job done in Christchurch, Ioane was relegated to bystander. It’s his choice where he takes it next.

Wins in Christchurch by visiting teams are rare, but this one – by a commanding 33-12 – bore many similarities to the Hurricanes triumph last year. Central was the application of defensive pressure, not just through applying line speed, but tackling efficiency that gave the Crusaders’ runners no leeway.

A common misnomer is that sides enter a game with either a defensive or positive mindset, but not both. Here, as good as the Highlanders’ defence was, they played positively with the ball, recycling quickly and making good decisions about when to run the ball out of their 22, and when to kick for territory.

As the points mounted, and the Crusaders failed to find go-forward and fast ball at the ruck, their star attackers, Mo’unga and Will Jordan, got caught out playing catch-up rugby when – as captain Scott Barrett noted post-match – more respect for the ball was warranted.

Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders runs through to score a try

Richie Mo’unga. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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The ball wasn’t shown a huge amount of respect either in Auckland, with the Blues muddling their way to a 27-17 win over the Hurricanes. For long periods, the visitors looked the more purposeful with the ball, and having survived two ten-minute stretches without their premier loose forwards, would have felt right in the game at the half.

The Blues bench was slightly the stronger however, giving the underrated Tom Robinson a 100per cent record as captain, and doing their finals prospects no harm in the process.

Harm was done however to the reputation of commentators, in this case a pair of legends, Christian Cullen and Sir John Kirwan, who insisted that the Hurricanes had been hard done by with the awarding of a first-half penalty try against them, and the subsequent sin-binning of Ardie Savea.

Duly noting that Savea had made his way through the middle of the law – quite legally – what the commentators failed to grasp that no matter where Savea was stationed, or how he got there, no player is entitled to deliberately bring down a maul. Which is exactly what Savea did, in order to prevent a try being scored.

This was one the match officials got dead right, but instead of them being heralded, viewers were provided with reinforcement that whistle-happy, dim-witted officials are ruining rugby.

Is it too much to ask broadcasters to hire ‘expert’ commentators who actually know rugby’s laws? Or, if they insist upon using people in these roles because of their reputation as players, is it too much to ask those individuals, having been handed the task, to sit down for an hour or so and familiarise themselves with the law book?

And, while they’re at it, familiarise themselves with the chapter in the manual that reads, ‘In case you haven’t heard, it’s 2021 and here’s a list of accents you mocked at school that can no longer be used on live TV’?

If we are going to have a trans-Tasman travel bubble and play some rugby, it would be nice to have that serve as a trigger for broadcasters to up their game too.

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