We’re getting into the business end of the AU and Aotearoa season and the stakes are getting serious.
We’ve got our first handful of teams getting knocked out and others still clinging on to a chance of finals footy. In a weekend of surprise wins and dead rubbers, handbags and red cards there is plenty to talk about.
So let’s get stuck in.
Should player power win out at the Rebels?
With another chance of Finals rugby gone missing, there will be more discussions about the state of the club and the future of Dave Wessels in the coaching role.
For some there is a growing frustration at the team and the coach not being able to deliver consistently high quality performances. Wessels has been at the helm for four years and many feel that he’s not moving the club forward.
If you look at the results over that period of time it would be hard to argue that there has been a huge amount of improvement and this season has seen a struggle to score tries and win tight games.
However, as more voices joined the crowd calling for change as the Rebels missed out on the AU Finals for 2021, club captain Matt To’omua made it clear that he and the squad backed the South African.
In the coach’s favour are the facts that he’s been missing some of his top talent for large parts of the season with Wallabies Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty and Isi Naisarani among the long term injured list. On top of that the Rebels have lost in the last minute of four games during this season.
Are those fair points or are they excuses? Rebels CEO Baden Stephenson has confirmed that Wessels will be the coach for the rest of the season but can you really see the Rebels doing better in the Trans Tasman league than in Super Rugby AU? Should Wessels have a future with the Rebels or do they need fresh ideas?
Trans Tasman rugby won’t be one sided in 2021
While the Tahs and Rebels have disappointed this year in the AU comp, the Reds and Brumbies have played some top quality rugby and the Force are really building some momentum.
In the Aotearoa comp meanwhile, the Canes, Blues and Highlanders have all really failed to find consistent winning ways.
In the past the Aussie teams have been easy fodder for Kiwis on the hunt for victory bonus points but 2021 is going to be different.
One of the key factors that will see the Aussie sides perform well once we reach the Trans Tasman point of the season is the relative strength in their halves. While the Reds, Force and Brumbies all have pairings at #9 and #10 who are playing well together, many of the Kiwi sides are struggling to establish high performing combos.
This has seen situations where teams with very talented back lines are just not scoring anywhere near as many tries as you’d expect – we’re looking at you Canes with your 18 tries from seven games!
How far can the Force go?
So let’s not get carried away but the Force are definitely going to win Super Rugby AU! Ok probably not. But the team from Western Australia have found some form at exactly the right time in the season with three wins from the past three rounds including Friday’s thrilling victory over the Reds.
Speaking of that win over their Queensland rivals, while the winning margin might have been just three points, it’s important to note that the Force managed to win against the best team in the comp despite giving away three yellow cards and 16 penalties.
That’s pretty impressive and one thing has been key in the Force’s wins this season – they’ve hung onto the ball and they’ve made it very difficult for the opposition to win.
Their overseas and local talent have bonded and are playing well together and the more experienced players are stepping up to lead the way, especially in key moments.
With exciting youngsters like speedster Jordan Olowofela starting to make a name for themselves and players like Kuridrani who are arguably fighting for their last chance of wearing the Wallabies’ jersey, they have the talent to really hurt teams out wide and with a gutsy pack they can also
What do you do with McKenzie?
Try and clone the guy! But while the scientists at New Zealand Rugby Union try and figure that one out, the challenge for the Chiefs is how to find the right way to play that gives McKenzie the ball when and where he can have the biggest impact, but not expect him to do everything.
Against the Hurricanes this past weekend Gatland played at #10 and McKenzie at full back but McKenzie joked about having to apologise to Gatland for the number of times he got in the flyhalf’s way. McKenzie just wants the ball so much and has played at first receiver plenty of times so he’s naturally drawn towards that position when the Chiefs are going forwards.
But if the Chiefs are going to stand a chance in both the Aotearoa and Trans Tasman competitions, then the team needs to find the right balance. If it works well then McKenzie will be that terrifying attacking threat who can crop up anywhere in the backline. If it goes wrong then plays will break down, balls will be dropped and opportunities wasted.
Ironically it might work best to let McKenzie have the #10 shirt and give Chase Tiatia the spot at full back. Yes you lose the impact of McKenzie popping up quite so freely wherever he sees a chance, but you do get the ball into his hands more often and right now that seems like a very good tactic.
Centres of attention in Australia
Dave Rennie should be looking at Super Rugby AU and licking his lips at the centres on display. Not only are there some exciting players in good form right now, there’s some really great pairings performing well together.
There haven’t been many highlights for the Tahs this season but Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese have looked good with ball in hand and have been so hard for defences to stop.
Friday saw an exciting battle between Hunter Paisami and Tevita Kuridrani until the latter hit the former with a brutal, legal tackle that led to him leaving the game but Paisami has been in fine form for the Reds and is becoming a well rounded, high quality player.
Then you’ve got Len Ikitau who is coming along nicely and, depending upon which way you lean, Jordan Petaia as well.
Those are some nice options to have at your fingertips as you look at creating a backline to take on the All Blacks later this year.
Some final small thoughts…
These aren’t large talking points but just things that cropped up over the weekend that are worth discussing.
Things only going to get worse for the Waratahs. eight man scrum getting monstered by the Rebels seven-man scrum summed up their season and their chances for the TT comp. They are going to get torn to pieces and it is very, very possible that 0 wins from seven matches becomes 0 wins from 12 matches.
Protecting players’ heads? I might well have missed this but did Max Douglas get an HIA check at any point during the Tahs game against the Rebels? The guy was the victim of two red card, head high big hits but at no point did it seem as though he was taken off the field for an HIA.
How badly did Isi Naisarani want to get sent off? The high tackle with force left Nic Berry with little choice other than reaching for the red card but just to make sure that he’d get a rest, the returning #8 decided to have a pop at a few of the Tahs pack.
He either had a total brain explosion or was so unused to the fitness requirements of a real match, that he decided this was the quickest way to get a sit down.
Reds won’t make the same mistake again – and by that I don’t mean going for the scrum instead of the shot at goal (although they won’t do that again either). The mistake was to give the crash ball to their smallest back and hope that it worked out. Silly boys.
The Blues look lost – this is probably an article all of its own but boy do the Auckland lads look lost. Over the past few weeks they’ve struggled in all sorts of areas and they don’t look like they know where to look for answers. No final for them.