On Saturday night in Brisbane the Reds and Brumbies delivered what is becoming routine for Australia’s two best rugby sides: another nailbiting thriller.
Not only that, but it was the kind of epic contest that fans crave, the Brumbies blowing the Reds away early with sheer physical intent and the Reds digging in, using their power-packed scrum to firstly catch up and then to squeeze ahead 24-22 in the final minutes.
Not that this adequately tells the story of the helter-skelter final stanza, with the Reds panicking at the restart, Filipo Daugunu choosing not to clear, loading pressure on to Bryce Hegarty, whose hurried, floaty exit invited the Brumbies back in for a final chance to steal the match.
There were opportunities for a close-range drop goal attempt but nobody willing to put their hand up. Then came an iffy turnover that led to Daugunu, obviously not aware that time had expired, hoofing the ball down towards halfway instead of dribbling it over the sideline to end the match.
It was another invitation generously gifted, but this time the Brumbies never seriously threatened, and the Reds had their win – and a home grand final – in the bag.
Despite winning seven matches on the bounce, this season hasn’t been a walk in the park for the Reds. Three matches have been won by two points, another by seven – and on the run of play all could just as easily have been lost.
But there comes a point where good luck gives way to good management – no matter how fine the margins – and nobody can deny that this Reds side has a swagger about them and exudes a sense that this is their time.
On another night, against different opposition, the ferocity of the Brumbies’ physical approach would have been enough to secure the points. With Rob Valetini prominent, there was an almost frightening willingness to confront the Reds head-on with and without the ball.
The tactic came unstuck only because dominance at the maul and collision wasn’t carried over to the scrum, and field position was lost to a series of penalties that rewarded the Reds, just as it had at their last meeting in Canberra.
Such was the opening assault, the Reds were knocked completely off their game, halfback Tate McDermott struggling to locate his flyhalf and losing his timing and connection with his forward runners. McDermott never really recovered – his service ponderous by comparison to Nic White – although to James O’Connor’s credit, he worked his way back into the match and was instrumental in the Reds’ fightback.
The Reds also found winners out wide, with Josh Flook proving a more than adequate replacement for Hunter Paisami by bursting through Andy Muirhead for a crucial score and with Jordan Petaia sitting all of his critics on their arse as convincingly as Taniela Tupou did Irae Simone.
Unimpressive as Petaia has been this season, his early breakout performances demanded that it was always a matter of when he would make his presence felt, not if. Shifting back to the wing was part of that; having the mental fortitude to come out and impose himself on the match was another.
With a home final locked up and the prospect of a bumper crowd at Suncorp hoping to relive their 2011 triumph, perhaps the biggest challenge from here for the Reds is to navigate the next four weeks until the final. By the time it is played the Reds will have played only twice in a month, sitting out a bye and the second-versus-third playoff.
That’s the horse racing equivalent of missing a lead-up run before the Melbourne Cup – not impossible but certainly not ideal.
What to make, then, of the difference between the high-quality fare served up by these two sides on Saturday night and the Rebels and Force on Friday in Melbourne?
The obvious similarity was the frenetic after-the-siren finish, with one side desperately hammering away inside the opposition’s 22 in an effort to overcome a two-point deficit. Force fullback Jack McGregor even played the Daugunu role, inexplicably failing to find touch after the siren.
Unlike Suncorp, however, this was a frustrating match, certainly for Rebels fans and neutrals but also, I suspect, for Force fans who, while thankful for the win, would love to see their side win more ball and do something with it.
Typical of Rebels-Force encounters, the Force were not quite good enough to create opportunities, and the Rebels, with 65 per cent possession, were not quite good enough to take advantage of theirs.
Having enjoyed a strong season so far, Matt To’omua’s option-taking was askew, twice throwing the ball long and wide to the sideline, when more direct attack might have been a better bet. Ditto Pone Fa’amausili, whose huge bust up the centre set up the Rebels’ best try-scoring opportunity, but instead of putting flying halfback Joe Powell away for the try, he too inexplicably selected a wider option, who was swallowed up by the cover.
This season the Rebels have often elected to kick for goal instead of the corner. The irony this time was that when they twice chose this option they failed to secure their lineout, which only salted the wound when the Force went to their lineout maul in the 76th minute and came up with the winning try to Tim Anstee.
The Force struggled all night to exit their half, credit in part to the Rebels’ pressure, but it was their own tenacious defence that kept them in touch throughout and ultimately got them a deserved win. They return to Perth with a finals berth within sniffing distance, although with both sides still to play the Waratahs and with the bonus points potentially a factor, they are slightly behind the Rebels at this stage.
The Rebels, meanwhile, already skinny for backline depth, are now without Reece Hodge, out for an anticipated 12 weeks following an ugly-looking leg injury on the final play of the game.
On reflection, both Rebels and Brumbies fans will be wondering what their sides might have done differently in the frantic final stanzas. The template for this, which has stood for 18 and a half years, is the way England won the World Cup final in Sydney in 2003.
Everybody in the stadium knew a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal was coming, but England had rehearsed for the moment and knew that setting up for such a drop kick required more than routine hit-ups and a deep pass into the pocket.
Despite the Rebels carrying the ball into the Force’s 22 during the final sequence, Hodge took his kick from 38 metres out – an unlikely task. To win the World Cup it was halfback Matt Dawson who seized the initiative, not only dummying and scrambling the extra metres needed to put Wilkinson into point-blank range but also providing front-foot ball in the process.
On Sunday it was Richie Mo’unga who did the same job for the Crusaders, penetrating towards the posts to allow David Havili a clean shot to win the match from close distance.
Miracle drop goals like Mitch Hunt’s 2017 effort in Christchurch are the rare exception. No matter that minds and bodies are exhausted after 80 minutes, the set-up needs to be executed with daring and precision, with deep penetration towards the goal line, otherwise the shot isn’t worth taking.
Both sides might also reflect on the habit referees have of putting the whistle away at the end lest they be accused of determining the outcome through a penalty. In the case of the Brumbies, there was a clear case against Liam Wright flicking the ball out of a ruck while lying on the ground, which referee Nic Berry seemed to deem as a penalty before pulling his arm back in and calling play on.
It was a similar story in Melbourne, where both Angus Wagner and Jack McGregor looked to have played the ball in the ruck and slowed down the Rebels’ recycle – offences that almost certainly would have drawn penalties earlier in the match but were waved on by Damon Murphy.
To their credit, neither Dan McKellar nor Dave Wessels were offering up excuses. They both know their sides had ample opportunity to put their matches to bed. But remember how last week the Brumbies’ Tom Cusack was rightly penalised and sin-binned for a last-minute offence?
The referees have some work to do in this regard to ensure consistency of law application throughout, from the first minute to the last. And if a penalty happens to decide a game, so be it.
Both New Zealand matches were thrillers, ‘golden point’ getting a thorough workout before the Chiefs and Crusaders prevailed. One thing to jump out was that the five-minute break before the final restart is too long. All four sides and the crowd were ready for action well before time, and the momentum of the moment was slightly lost.
There was a delightful try in Dunedin – James Lentjes selling Brad Webber down the Taieri River with an outrageous dummy off a lineout variation – but the Chiefs this season are made of steely stuff and were well deserving of their third victory.
Both sides fell foul of the aforementioned dodgy drop-goal set-up, with both Damian McKenzie and Josh Ioane opting for low percentage options before McKenzie was able to seal matters from the tee.
The Chiefs were also denied an earlier penalty shot from a handy position, with the impressive Luke Jacobsen completing a breakdown steal that inadvertently nullified the opportunity for a penalty for the tackled player holding on.
It’s an interesting law anomaly. Nobody wants to see the game stopped every time a jackal merely places his hands on the ball without intent to rip and steal it. But because Jacobsen did so well and actually stole possession, the outcome was a worse one for his side.
The 30-27 loss to the Crusaders effectively put paid to the Hurricanes’ finals chances, yet they are a better side than their 1-5 record suggests, not least because Ardie Savea in the form he was in is worth something like two and a half mere mortal players.
His absence in the final stages due to injury proved costly in more ways than one, with stand-in captain James Blackwell, after being forced to accept the kick-off from the Crusaders, inexplicably opting to play into the wind.
It was a decision impossible to fathom. Crusaders skipper Scott Barrett looked over towards his brother Jordie, a threat from 65 metres with the wind at his back, and then back at Blackwell thinking all his Christmases had arrived at once.
Over the last fortnight the Crusaders pack has lacked a little of their customary authority, but they remain in the box seat for a home final. Who their opponent will be remains up for grabs, and the return to the stage of the Blues next week will be eagerly anticipated by all.