What should be clear to most Super Rugby fans is that when the trans-Tasman competition reaches its grand final it will almost certainly feature the Reds and Crusaders.
While in recent years we may have written the Reds off in such a game, if this is the final we get, then it will be a hard-fought victory for whoever manages to triumph. Based on the trajectories of both teams, it is looking like the Reds may be favourites for this encounter.
This weekend in front of 22,000 fans at Suncorp Stadium we witnessed not just the coming of age of the Reds but the coming of age of James O’Connor. With eight minutes to go and needing to score at least a penalty, O’Connor had the vision to set up a high kick to a waiting Tom Banks, who was then hammered by Filipo Daugunu from the scrum. The Reds won the penalty.
O’Connor stepped up as the captain and took the shot, which ended up being the game-winning score. While not quite a John Eales moment in extra time with the Bledisloe on the line, this was still a huge kick. Realistically this game set up the final hosting rights, almost guaranteeing the winner a home final. This was a championship kick and O’Connor dealt with the pressure easily.
What stood out in this game was the calmness and confidence that O’Connor showed and how that fed into the team around him. When asked about his decision-making process when it came to taking a penalty or going for a lineout and a try, he responded with, “No thought process, I just feel it and go for it”. This reflects a level of engagement with the team and flow of the game – that intrinsic feeling you get when you’re connected with the team around you.
He also showed a level of maturity when at the 32-minute mark the Reds were fighting back and needed to score. A knock-on was reviewed and ruled in favour of the Brumbies, and O’Connor accepted it and walked away. This acceptance of referee decisions is paramount in building a good relationship with the ref. It’s something certain Wallabies captains could learn from.
Leadership involves hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are easy to measure – they are the outputs you generate. What you generally can’t measure are the soft skills, which are more about how you do things. They are often qualitative measures, not quantitative. Organisations across the world are very poor at identifying and rewarding those with strong soft skills.
O’Connor has soft skills, or as someone else put it recently, ‘human skills’. Often this is linked to high emotional intelligence, and given the hell O’Connor has gone through in his career, his return and redemption, he is in a unique position to guide this young team. I think Brad Thorn is a lot craftier than many people give him credit for.
O’Connor’s journey from teenage Wallabies star to disgraced exile and now his return must all help him connect to his team – especially this squad, with so many young players. O’Connor can certainly relate and provide help and guidance off the field for how to deal with life and footy at the same time.
His belief and calm help the Reds – even when they were behind for the entire match they never looked like they were chasing the game. They kept their composure and relied on their processes and structures to stay in touch with a resolute Brumbies team.
When their time came they had the courage to execute some big plays. Angus Scott-Young winning a penalty in the 72nd minute, O’Connor’s high kicking to Banks on the 73rd minute, Daugunu committing and timing his hit on Banks to the second his toes touched some grass, Taniela Tupou going on enough of an angle to split the Brumbies front row in the scrum but not enough to be called for it and, finally, O’Connor slotting the ensuing penalty.
In contrast, the game in Wellington between the highly ranked Crusaders and lowly Hurricanes did not go to script. The bounce back from the red and black machine simply did not happen. Granted, they were not nearly as error-prone as they were last week, but they did not take control of the game, which allowed the Hurricanes to mount scoreboard pressure, just as the Chiefs did a week earlier.
For the second week in a row we have seen the Crusaders fail to absorb that pressure and respond in a coherent way. The secret to beating the Crusaders is not really a secret anymore – keep the ball in hand. Do not kick it and give their back three a chance to run it back. Do not drop it and give them a scrum. Take the points on offer. If you do opt for the lineout, make damn sure it counts.
The Hurricanes followed this script reasonably well and were in it for 80 minutes. Unfortunately the decision-making and execution deserted them in the golden point extra time. With the option to go with the wind or into it, the replacement captain opted to go into it. With a tailwind the kick-off went deep, and then some poor decision-making led to a charge down. There was a lack of understanding that even if they had swallowed Richie Mo’unga in a ruck, David Havili is just as capable of slotting the required drop goal. Game over.
With the blueprint so clear and with the strength of the Reds forward pack – led by a rampaging Taniela Tupou when he isn’t off pretending to be a winger – and with O’Connor running the backline, it is hard to see the Reds being written off as perhaps they once would have been.
This is especially so when you consider that Jordan Petaia is looking more at home in the No. 14 jumper. He kicked a terrific 50-22 and then on the ensuing play caught a high cross-field kick to bag the try. For someone who badly needed a confidence hit, hopefully this was it.
I’m not going to say Petaia is the X factor, but he has the ability to pull off pieces of brilliance, like a 50-22 out of nowhere, that can change the game.
The biggest thing to watch in the next few weeks as both competitions wind up is the trajectory of both teams. The Reds seem to be rising, while the Crusaders seem to be fatigued by the constant target on their backs.
It goes against every fibre in my being to back anyone against the Crusaders, but if the final does end up being these two sides, I expect the Reds to be favourites.
This prediction isn’t based on them meeting today but when the big final rolls around. By then the Crusaders need to have fixed how they react to pressure, because you can safely bet that the Reds will have the skills and mindset, along with the correct tactics, to take them down.