A superb kick by Western Force captain Kyle Godwin, converted into an 80th minute try by a flying Julian Olowofela, must have felt like a dagger to the heart of the bonus-point-seeking Crusaders.
But by the end of the weekend, with the result in Canberra falling their way, surgeons had deemed it to be no more than a flesh wound.
As a result, with one round remaining, odds have now shortened on a Blues versus Crusaders final to Super Rugby’s fledgling Trans-Tasman competition.
Of their resting players, it was the no-nonsense work rate of Sam Whitelock that the Crusaders missed the most, stuttering their way to a 29-21 win. That scoreline, closer than most predictions, was also due in large part to the Force playing a lot of the rugby, and having the better of the second half, more evidence that even if the win/loss tally doesn’t reflect it, the gap between the two sets of franchises has closed somewhat over the last month.
In Brisbane, the Reds had a lot of things to overcome: the loss of key backs James O’Connor and Bryce Hegarty, and the powerful, heavy-grinding bulldozer that is the Blues’ forward pack. Getting out to 31-14, the Caterpillar men always seemed to have enough in reserve, despite the Reds never relenting, and the final score closing to 31-24.
For the home side, most impressive was the sustained effort and intensity of players like Hunter Paisami and rock music royalty, Angus Scott-Young. While more finesse would be welcome, the Reds will go to Wellington next week believing that a second competition win is possible.
Their comeback featured a 48th minute close-in try to Brandon Paenga-Amosa, that had the whiff of a knock-on all over it, the ball spilling forward from a ruck immediately prior to Paenga-Amosa taking possession.
For a knock-on to occur the ball must, in the first instance, be propelled forward from the hand or arm. In this case the ball clearly came out backwards from the hand of Ryan Smith, and while it subsequently rolled forward, referee Mike Fraser, who had a strong match, was right to rule play on.
It was business as usual for the Waratahs in Dunedin, where some promising ball movement was undermined by sieve-like defence, particularly in first-phase situations within their own 22.
With squad depth severely tested by injury, there were excuses to be made, but after 12 straight losses, conceding a whopping 70 tries along the way, the end of this wretched season can’t come quickly enough.
The Highlanders meanwhile stayed in the race for the finals, but will be under no false illusions, knowing that they face a far sterner physical test next week in Canberra.
Indeed, Brumbies coach Dan McKellar proved to be a man of his word after promising that his side would compete hard at the breakdown and collision areas against the Hurricanes. With Ardie Savea never one to back away from a breakdown scrap, this highly competitive slugfest was a breath of fresh air after the low-intensity fare served up beforehand in Dunedin.
As he has done all year, Rob Valetini provided great energy on both sides of the ball, with Henry Stowers barely a step behind. After a series of matches punctuated by Australian sides dancing to the tune of the New Zealand franchises, it was fascinating to see the Brumbies take the ascendancy, dragging the Hurricanes into a street fight, and seeing it through the whole 80 minutes to close out a narrow 12-10 win.
It could have been two points more, with Len Ikitau doing all the hard work to break through for his 52nd minute try, only to commit the cardinal sin of focusing on his dive instead of the business of running around towards the posts to improve the angle for his kicker.
It could also have been less, with Jordie Barrett missing three penalties – one from a very handy position – any one of which would have given the visitors the win. In such a tight contest, that was really the winning and losing of the match, although the Hurricanes have a genuine grievance over the manner in which a 73rd minute try to Alex Fidow – the only time in the match where they managed to breach the Brumbies’ centre-field defence – was disallowed.
Forget for a moment arguments over whether Ardie Savea knocked the ball on or not. Every match is full of subjective or 50/50 calls, which flow for and against every side. Such is rugby’s beautiful imperfection.
But rugby also has black and white, absolute matters of law that are not open to interpretation, such as protocols for use of the TMO. In try-scoring situations, referees and TMOs are permitted to review play back to the previous stoppage, in this example, a penalty awarded to the Hurricanes.
Savea’s fumble occurred before the penalty. The match officials simply had no business looking at it. As for claims that the penalty wouldn’t have been awarded if the knock-on had been blown? Sure, but where do you stop? Would play have been in that part of the field if any other matter – say a dubious lineout throw, or a contentious scrum penalty – been ruled differently upon review?
One cannot take the view that justice was done for the Brumbies without accepting that the officials can and should stop play to review all potentially contentious decisions.
Not a couple of hours earlier, the Highlanders versus Waratahs match was halted, and players and fans were robbed of two minutes of their lives, waiting for a TMO review of something that proved to be nothing at all. Is this a blueprint of how we wish rugby to be played?
Surely not. Restricting TMO use to instances of serious foul play and try-scoring movements is the limit of intrusion that rugby – which has at its heart dynamic and continuous movement – must allow.
By the way, if the Hurricanes learned anything from the weekend’s events, it is the value of TJ Perenara to their franchise. You can bet your house that had Perenara been on the field, he would have been right in referee Paul Williams’ ear, reminding him of the law, and Fidow’s try would have stood.
The Rebels succumbed to the disappointment of not being able to visit Hamilton by letting the Chiefs skip away to a 19-point lead in the first quarter. Yet by halftime, scrum issues had been turned around to such an extent that they went into the break unexpectedly locked up at 19-19.
A class edge saw the Chiefs able to convert more of their second-half opportunities to run out 36-26 winners, leaving the Rebels to ponder yet another ‘what could have been’ match.
Four lineouts lost or spoiled in their attacking 22, and too many soft penalties given away for high tackles, stunted the Rebels’ ability to sustain pressure and in turn, transferred pressure back onto themselves. No matter the effort and intent, attention to detail and skill execution to enable ball retention in the attacking zone are paramount at this level.
Commentator Drew Mitchell was quick to contrast the improved showing of the Rebels in the last two weeks, scoring eight tries, with their early season accumulation of penalty goals, and simplistically sheet this home to a change in coaching philosophy.
In truth, it’s much easier to play cohesive attacking rugby with front-foot ball. The Rebels have struggled to recycle the ball quickly all year, and have lacked the punchy ball runners, back and forward, to bend the advantage line to create meaningful space. Here, Isi Naisarani made an impressive 17 carries, most of them effective, and demonstrated just how much his presence was missing earlier in the season.
Regular readers of this column will know how Alan Jones’ weekly utterings, featured in The Australian every Friday, are a regular source of bewilderment and amusement. In keeping with some of the weekend’s unusual and unexpected events, it was as if Halley’s Comet had arrived 40 years early, to discover Jones writing with rare clarity about the unsatisfactory situation that has arisen in Sydney club rugby.
A cabal of northern beaches and eastern suburbs clubs, deigning themselves perpetually Shute Shield worthy, are in the process of seeking to impose participation criteria that will effectively force the Penrith, Parramatta and West Harbour clubs to withdraw from the competition or merge.
For anyone whose vision extends no further than ring-fencing an exclusive semi-professional competition, geographically centred around Sydney’s money belt, the proposed changes make perfect sense.
For others with a wider view, taking a budding nursery of players in Sydney’s western suburbs and effectively telling them to move east, or go and play rugby league, borders on criminal.
No-one begrudges any rugby club looking after its own players, members and finances. But for a handful of clubs to routinely pick the eyes out of the talent in the western Sydney clubs, entice them across the city, then demand of those clubs that they meet cutely constructed on-field and off-field performance benchmarks or face exclusion is a bit too rich.
At the core of the issue is the same problem that has beset Australian rugby for years – certainly since the advent of professionalism – which continues to hamstring progress today: that is the conflict between the aspiration of the Shute Shield clubs to be Australia’s elite domestic rugby competition versus the desire to clearly delineate professional and amateur/club rugby and to develop and grow pathways into professional rugby beyond this one competition.
Jones has it right when he says in The Australian: “whatever else may come to pass under a ‘professional’ game, clubs should not be allowed to pay their players”, and “Rugby Australia must step in here with the NSW Rugby Union to find a solution to growing our game in Western Sydney.”
Rugby Australia is largely impotent because it doesn’t have the money to fund a national domestic professional or semi-professional competition, such as the recent NRC.
Further, Sydney club rugby has, since 1874, been Australia’s predominant rugby competition, and source of elite players. With rugby struggling for traction, the Shute Shield is popular, and despite distaste over the selfish insularity of clubs drunk on their own self-importance, Rugby Australia cannot afford to be adversarial.
On the other hand, these clubs, through their actions, have shown that they have no regard for changing demographics nor any willingness to be part of a wider solution for the development of Sydney, New South Wales and Australian rugby.
This is the same parochialism that former Rugby Australia CEO Bill Pulver famously declined to feed, saying that he wouldn’t allocate scarce funds to clubs for them to “piss it up against a wall”, or bid against each other for players.
Dancing with the devil is never an attractive proposition. But neither is the NSW Rugby Union and Rugby Australia passively staring into the ‘too hard basket’ while allowing rugby in western Sydney to wither.