So, what are the main takeaways from the opening weekend of the future of Super Rugby, or who knows what it will be called next year?
47 tries across the five games at an average of nearly ten a match, well and truly eclipsing the weekly averages of both the AU and Aotearoa competitions, suggests that defence was a bit optional, and in the case of at least 120 minutes of two games in particular, that was certainly the case.
But each game also produced a number of key lessons that will need to be addressed. In some cases, they need addressing immediately. Of course, one does not simply learn a lesson these days. No. These days, ‘learnings’ become ‘work-ons’, action items to be ticked off. Maybe with a KPI attached.
Lessons, learnings, work-ons, whatever. Here’s a collection of whatever they’re called from the weekend.
The Queensland Reds have rightly been praised for the way they’ve built squad depth this season, and it’s been on show for most of the year. They lose Liam Wright for a large chunk of the year, and they can drop someone in behind. They’re rotated front rowers most of the year, even when playing Taniela Tupou for 80 minutes regularly.
Hunter Paisami was and is a big loss, but there’s Josh Flook ready to go and other outside backs that can be shuffled into the 23.
But James O’Connor failing an HIA quickly exposed the lack of succession planning for the Reds at flyhalf. Yes, Bryce Hegarty came forward from fullback to fill the role, and he did keep the team moving on the field. But it became pretty apparent pretty quickly that Hegarty had neither trained a lot at no.10 this year, nor had the rest of the team done a lot of work on playing under someone other than O’Connor.
When you take a look around the other four teams, you see the error in this. The Waratahs have been very well served by Ben Donaldson coming into the side for his good mate Will Harrison; so good, in fact, that he rightly held his place last week with Harrison fit again.
If Harrison does return at 10 this week, Donaldson could easily slot back in at fullback, where the two have a bit of history playing together. Tane Edmed has been getting his time off the bench through the year as well.
The Western Force still don’t appear to have worked out who their preferred option at 10 is, with Jake McIntyre coming back in this week despite Domingo Miotti finishing the AU campaign. Jono Lance remains in the mix as well. The Brumbies are just as well served with Bayley Kuenzle and Reesjan Pasitoa getting game time behind Noah Lolesio. Even the Rebels are trying to get Carter Gordon some crucial game time in recent weeks.
Queensland have been caught a bit short, and that lack of exposure was on show in Dunedin. Hegarty wouldn’t even be in top five reasons they lost to the Highlanders, and there’s no doubt they will be better this week for the run, even if O’Connor doesn’t get through the return to play protocols.
Many thought Paisami or Tupou to be the most important player in a Reds jersey. But it’s pretty clear it has always been O’Connor.
I mentioned Donaldson going back to fullback for the Waratahs, and it’s interesting to read already that they may contemplate calling Michael Hooper back early, now that his Top League duties in Japan have been completed. Certainly, you’d expect some degree of change after Friday night’s entertaining loss.
In some post-match social media discussion, I made the point that the 64-48 scoreline represented a game that was best not viewed with an eye on the missed tackles column on the stats sheet. The first half a dozen tries for the game all featured attempts that wouldn’t even qualify for the missed tackle numbers, such was the distance between ball-carrier and ‘tackler’.
Even now, I use that term loosely.
But, late on Sunday, I did take a peek at the stats sheet, and yes indeed, this was a game best not viewed via the missed tackle column. 57, to answer your question!
It wasn’t entirely surprising, given the Waratahs had the worst defensive record in AU by some distance, and the Hurricanes were a converted try off having the worst record in Aotearoa, too. The worry for the Waratahs at least, and specifically their coaches, is that the man in charge of their defence for the last two seasons is Jason Gilmore, the same man said to be in the box seat to take on the Tahs’ head coach full time, worldwide search notwithstanding.
Defence is said to be one area of the game which can see rapid improvements in a short period of time. The question for the Waratahs players is going to be whether their attitude allows them to make the necessary changes before they head to Auckland.
Another week, another heartbreaker for the Brumbies, but they have probably emerged from the weekend with the most upside of the Australian sides.
The big improvement for me, even without giving the game full attention live with a family function on around me, was that you could see the lessons learned (learnings worked on) from close losses suffered in recent times.
When they had the chance to build pressure on the Crusaders’ line, they did. But they did it with patience and with purpose, knowing that their patience would be rewarded eventually as long as they could maintain that possession and keep building that pressure.
It was clever work to suck the Crusaders’ defenders into the middle of the field and then exploit the space out wide, and it was just as clever to throw the long ball for Tom Wright to then tee up Rob Valetini on the inside line.
The reaction of both Dan McKellar and Laurie Fisher in the box told you all you needed to know about the Brumbies’ preps last week. And I suspect they’ll get their reward with an away win in New Zealand soon enough.
But perhaps the biggest learning of the weekend will be for Stan Sport, a learning that perhaps they’ve still – incredibly – not fully grasped. While rugby fans were left to ponder the great conundrum – if Domingo Miotti missed a conversion to win a game and nobody saw it, is that still recorded as a loss? – Stan Sport weren’t just failing on the platform front across multiple games, but failing horrendously on the PR and customer support front.
A new streaming platform having issues is perhaps not overly surprising. In hindsight, perhaps the surprise is it hasn’t happened already. Further, I have no doubt they’re working feverishly behind the scenes to resolve them ahead of this weekend.
But to make no public statement at all in the days following, well that’s about as a big as failures get in this space.
Stan Sport’s social channels initially kept reposting the same “intermittent error” replies as it was happening, and on Sunday morning reverted to “we’ll keep you posted” when asked about replays being fixed and viewable. But from early afternoon Sunday right through until the point I submitted this last night, Stan Sport haven’t posted or tweeted a thing.
Not a mea culpa, not a “sorry for the inconvenience”, not a “we’re working hard to ensure there won’t be a repeat next weekend”. Nothing.
The days following a major failure represent the best opportunity to get on the front foot and rebuild the rapidly eroding goodwill they’d built up through the season.
People are generally pretty reasonable. They know new products hurriedly put together within a matter of months are going to have teething problems. They expect there probably will be failures along the way.
But they shouldn’t have to put up with radio silence as a crisis management method after such a failure.
The risk Stan Sport run this weekend is if they say nothing all week and there’s issues again in the Hurricanes-Rebels game on Friday evening, then the comments and the criticisms will be significantly more scathing. People will be entitled to ask for refunds, and they should get them.
A front-foot charm offensive on Sunday and Monday would have gone to great lengths to show customers they weren’t being forgotten but instead, Stan Sport stayed mute.
It’s a truly curious way to endeth the lesson – sorry, endeth the learning.