The Anzac Day round is always one filled with poignancy, and despite a young bugle boy struggling to hit the right notes in Christchurch, there were moving ceremonies held at all four matches across the weekend.
The only shame was that we weren’t blessed with a trans-Tasman match up; a situation that, depending on how events play out, will be rectified for next year’s round.
Not that anyone in Perth cared a jot, with the Force upsetting the previously unbeaten Reds, 30-27 to storm into the preliminary final next week, against the Brumbies.
Reds’ captain Liam Wright said straight after his side’s loss that “the Force deserve a lot of respect”, and he was clearly telling the truth.
Any side, under the pressure of playing for its first ever finals spot, seemingly down and out midway through the first half, having to battle through thirty minutes with 14 men, that is able to come back and score the winning try in the final minutes, is made of special stuff.
But the question that should have been put to Wright, is why, with the Force deserving of so much respect, was a gift three points under the posts to tie the match and send it to golden try, ignored? In favour of sending their smallest outside back on a crash ball, to be swallowed up by a mass of defenders?
It was easy to get caught up in the romance of the Force’s victory, and let’s be clear – who couldn’t love the reward that came for their commitment, determination and self-belief?
But starting with West Australia being sent into another Covid lockdown on Friday, there was so much confusion around, perhaps it was no surprise that the match should end as it did.
Pre-game, a Stan graphic told us how the Reds were “undefeated in six of the previous eight matches against the Force”. That made about as much sense as referee Damon Murphy somehow deducing that Domingo Miotti nudging the ball forward off his forearm didn’t constitute a knock on, before flying winger Julian Olowofela ran in the first of his three tries.
No matter the confusion, this match was all about the vibe. Even Stan’s best analyst, Morgan Turinui, got caught up in the craziness, noting that while Miotti had clearly knocked the ball on, he was happy to see a try awarded; seemingly speaking for many in implying that it was ok to apply different laws for the underdog.
It was also about the Force doing two other things outstandingly well. One was Tevita Kuridrani dispatching Hunter Paisami to the sheds to count how many ribs he had left after an inspirational mid-field tackle; an effort which visibly lifted his side and the sea of blue, in unison.
The other was to play the referee off a break at the scrum. Clearly under early pressure from the competition’s leading scrum, the Force front row managed to not only neutralise that threat, but squeeze three penalties out of Murphy without even having to scrummage.
After a season where, at times, they struggled to play a lot of rugby, the Force deserve their trip to Canberra next week because they went about things intelligently, getting the match played, for the most part, on their terms, and cleverly identifying space in behind the defensive line, where Olowofela was easily able to outrun James O’Connor for the go ahead score.
Reds’ fans meanwhile will find solace from the time-worn ‘it was the loss we needed to have’ explanation, although I’m not so sure that’s something I’d want to be hanging my hat on, heading into the grand final.
Their lineout looked more like the stuttering 2019 version, and their much-vaunted loose forward trio found their match in the hard-working Force combination.
And whoever their final opponent is, it might be an idea for the Reds to not only talk about showing respect for them and for the match situation, but to actually do so.
The Force getting the job done put the Rebels out of business, rendering their 36-25 win over the Waratahs moot, although as was obvious from the reaction of the players, any Super Rugby win is a win to be treasured.
As is their custom, the Rebels made things harder for themselves than they needed to be, with both Isi Naisarani and Pone Fa’amausili sailing too close to the wind with bone crunching defence, and in the process, earning the displeasure of referee Nic Berry.
It will be interesting to see what kind of vision is available to the judiciary, and whether or not it establishes – in both cases – that direct contact was made to the head, as opposed to the head being thrown back due to the force of the collision, or being a point of secondary contact.
Clearly, both players need to aim lower, to remove the element of risk to themselves and their opponent, but I’m yet to be convinced that fuzzy-framed, one-dimensional images are what we should be hanging people on.
It’s been a strange season for the Rebels, never able to put in a convincing 80-minute performance, and coming out on the wrong side of a string of match-defining moments.
With a solid set piece and tenacious defence, they will expect to acquit themselves well against the New Zealand sides, although better combinations and more fluidity in the backline will be needed.
As for the Waratahs, Angus Bell once again showed his mobility, and Izaia Perese took things up another level with elusive running and skilful offloads.
But the Rebels finishing them off with a classic ‘seven-man shove’ at the scrum, really summed up the Waratah’s season in one humiliating moment.
In Hamilton, there was high interest in the battle of the two form fullbacks, Jordie Barrett and Damian McKenzie. Barrett raised concern early, with some watchers concerned that he disrespected both animal activists and Anzacs by wearing, then not removing, a Daniel Boone-style, coonskin cap for the anthems.
Barrett delivered his customary penalty goal from his own side of halfway, but despite a valiant effort from the Hurricanes, it was McKenzie who buried them, nailing a final minute penalty to seal a 26-24 win.
The Chiefs have won their last five matches by six, three, three, one and two points respectively. McKenzie has been the final points-scorer and match winner in every single one of those matches.
He’s never been a first-choice All Black, and with the emergence of Will Jordan he will almost certainly continue to play sporadically, and as injury cover, utilising his versatility.
But regardless of what happens up the line, there can be no doubt that he currently owns Super Rugby Aoteoroa, and is one of the main reasons fans tune in, knowing that they are guaranteed high-quality entertainment.
The Hurricanes did plenty right, and could consider themselves unlucky not to close the match out, just as they fell short against the Crusaders. In part that was down to being exposed by the inexperience of their young halves, who lacked the composure and experience to take the options demanded by such a tight and tense situation.
Ruben Love and Cameron Roigard are talented players; they just need miles on the clock to adjust to the tempo and situations faced at this level.
It’s a scenario no different to that say of the Reds, where their coach Brad Thorn and many of this year’s well performing team suffered through three very tough seasons, copping some harsh outcomes while those rugby lessons were being absorbed.
One player who has raced through his apprenticeship is Will Jordan, whose two tries helped the Crusaders to a comfortable 29-6 win over the Blues, and ensured that the final will once again be played in Christchurch.
As has been the case in recent times, the Crusaders suffered through some flat patches, struggling to contain the Blues’ loose forwards, on both sides of the ball. But their superior cohesion and strike power, and Sam Whitelock’s work-rate, proved a telling difference.
They’re not unbeatable, but if I’m to bet against them in the final, it will be with someone else’s money.
After starting the season so powerfully, the Blues now have it all ahead of them, needing to beat the Chiefs with a bonus point, while preventing the Chiefs from getting a bonus point themselves.
Not impossible, but missing the presence of Patrick Tuipolotu and Tom Robinson, and without real authority in their halves, they don’t look like a winning proposition right at the minute. The sight of the excellent Dalton Papali’i hobbling at the end of the game wouldn’t have made Blues fans feel any better, either.
With finals action about to begin, followed by an eagerly awaited cross-over round, thoughts have swung towards the competition format for 2022; particularly with the anticipated introduction of the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika into Super Rugby.
With the Australian competition vastly improved and New Zealand’s always being of a high quality – not to mention the high number of close, exciting finishes in both – it would be a brave or foolish administrator who strays too far from the current model.
We may have got to this point by accident, but the existing Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa model is working. Mess with it at your peril.