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Opinion

The Wrap: Goldilocks, Super Rugby and the three bears

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16th May, 2021
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Aren’t we rugby fans a fickle bunch?

“Too many scrums and scrum resets”, “Endless lineout maul tries”, “Too much kicking”, “Not enough ball-in-play time” and “Too many repetitive hit-ups against flat defensive lines” are some of the regular whinges heard.

With professional rugby squarely in the entertainment business, Rugby Australia openly acknowledged that rule variations introduced this year were motivated by the desire to meet public demand for open, running rugby with outcomes determined by tries.

So how is it that Friday night’s Super Rugby match between the Hurricanes and Waratahs, which yielded 17 tries, many of them sparkling, highly skilled team and individual efforts, immediately became such a lightning rod for derision?

The answer is that rugby fans are like Goldilocks, an historic fan of UK rugby from the 19th century, who found fame after one day after wandering into a house owned by three bears. For Goldilocks, a 9-6 slugfest is Papa Bear. Indigestible. Too hard.

A 17-try, 64-48 romp? That’s Mama Bear. Unsatisfying. Too soft.

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So what is it that Goldilocks and Super Rugby fans really want? It’s the best of both worlds. Matches with scorelines like 25-24 or 33-31, full of last-minute drama, arm wrestles, big hits, fast breaks and brilliant tries. Just not too many of them. Baby Bear. Just right.

Let’s be frank. There were some individual defensive efforts on Friday night that belied the meaning of the word “effort” – intensity-free jersey grabbing that would have had coaches of junior school sides tearing their hair out.

There was even a player who crossed the tryline virtually untouched who pulled off the almost impossible, single-handedly managing to prevent himself from grounding the ball. Given the context of the match it almost seems unfair to name him – but, okay, it was Jack Maddocks. Come on, mate. Surely you have to be better than that.

The players even managed to drag the referee down to their level. Nic Berry was not only missing a lineout throw that the catcher nearly had to pluck out of his halfback’s hands, but he then compounded the error by running a screen to allow Lachie Swinton a clear path to the tryline.

Not that any Hurricanes defenders seemed intent on stopping Swinton anyway. It was that kind of game.

But does Goldilocks actually have this correct? Don’t Hurricanes fans actually want to see more of the ball in Julian Savea’s hands, running hard and straight? Don’t Waratahs fans actually want to see more of Jake Gordon sniping in close, stopping defenders momentarily, creating a hole before popping a pass to a flying winger or running forward?

And players from both sides handling crisply and passing into space for teammates to run onto, and stepping past defenders rather than just mindlessly crashing into them?

Due to the fickle finger of fate dealing me a fortunate hand, I was not born a Waratahs fan. But if I was, I would have left the SCG on Friday night with a spring in my step and an eye to 2022.

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Everybody knew at the start of the season that this was a side in the process of bottoming out, one unlikely to win a match all season. In the process of franking that prediction, coach Rob Penney was sacrificed along the way, with the mood of general discontent also claiming NSWRU chairman Roger Davis, who will exit at the end of this month.

Forget the ten tries to the Hurricanes. The defence is fixable. Attitude, intensity, culture, trust in the man beside you – those are all things that can and will be welded together by whoever takes up the coaching role.

When you don’t have all of the right personnel, what is harder to piece together – just ask Dave Wessels and Shaun Berne – is a cohesive attack that blends hard running forwards with fast ball recycle and confident, deceptive and accurate backline play. The Waratahs don’t have all of that right now, but they are well on the way.

There has been much praise heaped upon flyhalf Ben Donaldson since his introduction to Super Rugby – fully deserved – but fans quick to write off Will Harrison should note how Donaldson’s progress has coincided with the return to full fitness of Gordon.

Much will come down to exactly the style of game Dave Rennie wants his Wallabies to play this year, but do not be surprised if it is Gordon – a man at the top of his form – who emerges from the ruck of candidates at halfback.

Jake Gordon kicks the ball

Jake Gordon. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Predictably, the 40-19 loss by the Reds to the Highlanders in Dunedin was painted by media as some kind of reality check for Australian rugby, with their championship side being put to the sword by one of New Zealand’s weaker sides.

A more accurate headline might have been, ‘Rugby side with championship hangover travels internationally on a short turnaround and fails to win against well-prepared opponent’. No surprises there.

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The Reds weren’t offering any excuses, not that they helped themselves, with halfback Kalani Thomas unfairly copping the blame for Angus Blyth getting in his way and conceding a try to Scott Gregory within 34 seconds.

Their other issue is a preoccupation with launching high bombs – supposedly contestable kicks – from within their 22 as some kind of alternative to more conventional, longer distance exit plays.

It didn’t help them in the AU final against the Brumbies, and it certainly didn’t help them here, merely inviting the Highlanders to keep the clamps on them for the majority of the match.

But with Liam Wright showing that he has come back well from a long-term injury and Suliasi Vunivalu finally showing his try-scoring capability, expect to see the Reds give a good account of themselves before this competition goes much farther.

Jona Nareki of the Highlanders runs with the ball.

(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Oh, by the way, while some sides are better than others, is there such a thing as a weak New Zealand side? One look at Aaron Smith hitting his winger off his left hand from half the width of the field away or trying to rein in the quicksilver Jona Nareki tells you all you need to know about the challenge in front of the Australian franchises.

A procession of messy scrums in the first quarter of the Crusaders versus Brumbies match seemed like a serving of karma for all those who bagged the SCG match, although thankfully a game broke out soon after, one that grew in quality throughout.

The usually proficient Brumbies fell down on some basics, Noah Lolesio twice kicking off on the full in the first half. Playing at No. 8, Rob Valetini spilled a couple of kick-offs and must have been scrummaging with his eyes closed, still head down and pushing when Richie Mo’unga had already stepped back into his space and was nearly over the goal line. That’s a work-on.

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The Brumbies closed to 19-17 entering the final quarter, but a Smith-like flat pass from replacement halfback Ereatara Enari for Cullen Grace took the home side to what looked like relative safety.

However, the Brumbies had other ideas. Tom Banks was all class in a long solo run to the line before the energetic Valetini slammed the ball down emphatically with time on the clock. Lolesio had kicked flawlessly from the tee all night but from out wide nudged the tying kick slightly left.

Heartbreak for the Brumbies, 31-29, but just how Goldilocks would have liked it.

Tom Wright charges forward.

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

There were no fairytales for the Rebels in Melbourne, outmuscled and outsped by an impressive Blues, who are intent on making the most of their ‘second chance’ after failing to make the final of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Playing within themselves in the first half, the Blues upped the ante in the second and were far too powerful for an undermanned Rebels pack that simply couldn’t provide any sort of regular, stable platform.

There was a noticeable gulf in speed too. The Blues fired tracer bullets at flyhalf Matt To’omua off the back of lineouts and scrums in what was a bit of a throwback to how rugby was played in the 1960s and 70s.

Despite the 50-3 score-line accurately reflecting the overall dominance, the Rebels were exceedingly unlucky not to go into halftime behind only 12-10, with referee Brendan Pickerill somehow believing that Adrian Choat cynically tackling Jordan Uelese a metre from the tryline from an offside position was worthy of a yellow card but not a penalty try.

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There were a handful of bright moments provided by a hard-running Rob Leota and the bullocking Cabous Eloff, but it is clear that the return of big men Pone Fa’amausili, Trevor Hosea and Isi Naisarani can’t come quickly enough if they are to prevent being bulldozed off the park by their remaining Kiwi opposition.

Rieko Ioane runs with the ball.

(Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

In Perth the Force let a golden chance for victory slip by, with Domingo Miotti failing to convert his own 80th minute try to leave the Chiefs ahead by 20-19.

For those who were there, the story of the match seemed to be the Chiefs at times playing without sufficient discipline and composure and the Force taking advantage of that to initially stay in the match and then finish over the top of them.

For those who weren’t there, the story of the match was, well, sitting in front of TV and computer screens filled with little circles and error messages and occasional bursts of rugby, where the same piece of action would be replayed over and over on loop.

That is, until midway through the second half, when the whole shooting match shit itself completely and sent everyone to bed wondering what had actually happened.

Nine/Stan have had a charmed run so far this year and have generated much goodwill off the back of their obvious enthusiasm for and investment in rugby. This, however, is a concerning development.

It didn’t take long to determine this was no personal issue about home download speeds; the issues were identical across a broad spectrum of viewers. Stan this week needs to get onto the front foot and reassure Rugby Australia and its own subscribers that this event was an unfortunate one-off and will not be repeated.

And not only reassure viewers but of course make absolutely sure that it knows why the failure occurred and can implement the necessary fixes and safeguards.

The irony was that this was a thrilling match right up Goldilocks’s alley. If only she’d been able to watch it.

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