Sean Wainui scoring five tries on Saturday night – a Super Rugby record – was impressive enough, but it was what he said afterwards that was the real story.
Asked what lay ahead for him, Wainui said he was looking forward to playing provincial rugby for Bay of Plenty and was hopeful of a call-up next week for the Maori All Blacks. In other words, Wainui will spend his next few months in professionally run rugby programs, playing intense, high-level rugby, before enjoying an off-season ahead of next year’s Super Rugby competition.
What about Wainui’s equivalents in Australia? Players who are solid, talented professionals without being of genuine international standard? What is their rugby program for the rest of the year?
Without a domestic semi-professional competition there are three options: rest, club rugby or a contract in the northern hemisphere, none of which is likely to improve Australia’s lot in Super Rugby in 2022, whatever the format.
The right noises are being heard from Rugby Australia about the resurrection of such a competition, perhaps from 2023 and beyond, once private equity investment in Australian rugby can be secured. With Australia’s top two sides, the Reds and Brumbies, comprehensively outplayed on the weekend by Super Rugby Aotearoa’s bottom two sides, the Hurricanes and Highlanders, that day can’t come quickly enough if Australian teams are going to match the intensity and consistency of the best professional franchises.
Happily for Wallabies coach Dave Rennie focus will now shift away from ‘the gap’ to Australia’s top 38 players, where issues of comparative depth compared to nations like New Zealand and France are less pronounced.
Yesterday’s Wallabies squad announcement was met with the usual debate about players on the fringes of selection missing out or making the cut, Liam Wright, Trevor Hosea, Izack Rodda, Irae Simone among the former, and Rob Leota, Michael Wells, Andrew Kellaway and Lalakai Foketi among the latter.
With some players already knocked out of the equation because of injury – Tim Anstee, Suliasi Vunivalu and Jordan Petaia) – Izaia Perese has been named but is doubtful, while Ryan Lonergan has been included as temporary cover for Jake Gordon.
With the extent of any suspension still to be confirmed, Lachie Swinton was also included, with Rennie stating that while he was looking for Swinton to be “more accurate”, he wasn’t overly concerned that Swinton posed a potential liability for the Wallabies.
Over the next three weeks expect Rennie’s squad to hit the ground running with a focus on lineout execution, tackling efficiency, kicking (exit and general play) and a “dark side” intensity at the breakdown, all of which were noticeably poor in the Reds’ 43-14 loss in Wellington.
It was as if the Reds believed their superior scrum was all they needed to carry themselves to victory, although once the game was out of reach, even that withered away in line with the rest of their game.
Yes, they were hard done by when referee James Doleman in awarding the home side a penalty try, somehow got inside the mind of Bryce Hegarty and determined that Hegarty’s intent was to bat the ball over the dead-ball line instead of forcing it. That was as ungenerous as it was creative to assume that a full-speed, diving Ngani Laumape would have been able to securely force the same high bouncing ball.
But even with key decisions not falling their way, such was the Reds’ lack of cohesion and unwillingness to support each other in the tackle area, the overwhelming feeling was one of a side that has gone backwards since their Super Rugby AU win.
Unfortunately much the same conclusion can be drawn for the Brumbies, who fell away in the second half to lose 33-12 at home to the Highlanders.
Perhaps the seeds had been sown earlier in the week when the Highlanders manager phoned his Brumbies counterpart:
“What colour jumpers are you blokes wearing on Friday night?”
“White. What about you?”
“No worries. See you there!”
The best that can be said about this sorry farce was that referee Mike Fraser, in blue and orange, stood out like a Melburnian fleeing to Queensland.
The win was particularly sweet for the Highlanders, lifting them into a virtual final slot, which was confirmed less than 24 hours later. They are a side that has learnt where its strengths lie and how to play them, and they will go to Eden Park with plenty of momentum.
Their reward came at the expense of the Crusaders, who fell short of the 33-point winning margin against the Rebels required to lift them ahead on points differential. It’s a cruel competition where a side can remain undefeated and be sent packing, but such is the nature of compromised rugby competitions in a COVID world.
The Crusaders will perhaps reflect on not playing directly enough, and also the Rebels showing plenty with the ball, managing to score at regular enough intervals to keep the asking rate just out of the Crusaders’ reach.
Despite a string of losses, it has been a good three weeks for the Rebels, gaining confidence and rhythm off the back of much-improved go-forward and quick recycling. On one hand this feels like a wasted year; on the other, if a couple of judicious signings can be made to strengthen the back three, there is a sense of optimism about what next year holds.
There is also positivity around the prospects of the Force in 2022, who planted the seed of more game time for some talented Brumbies squad members and secured the returning Izack Rodda to bolster their list.
With 28-0 at halftime effectively securing the Blues home ground advantage for the final, the Force really knuckled down for the fight in the second half, showing what has become trademark grit and resilience to close things to 31-21 at the finish.
While nobody enjoys a second-half drop-off, this outcome was actually a silver lining for coach Leon McDonald, giving him far more to work with in the week leading up to a final than a 50-0 scoreline would have. If Tom Robinson is fit and Hoskins Sotutu continues his fine form, they will be very hard to toss next Saturday.
Not content with helping Wainui to his Super Rugby record, the Waratahs created one of their own, a 13th-straight loss underlying their season from hell. Problems around administration and list management have been discussed enough times they don’t bear repeating here, suffice to say that unless there are a couple of high-quality second rowers, backrowers and wingers about to be signed up, whoever lands the coaching gig for next year is still going to have their work cut out for them.
Other than Wainui’s effort, this match featured two major talking points: the red card issued to Swinton and a yellow card shown to Tupou Vaa’i for head-to-head contact with Waratahs flyhalf Will Harrison.
Vaa’i’s punishment was roundly pilloried, with the players clashing heads as they came into contact in a high-density situation. Interestingly, World Rugby’s laws and guidelines are at once helpfully instructive and confusingly contradictory when it comes to assessing the incident.
Law 9.20.b states that “a player must not make contact with an opponent above the line of the shoulders” and further emphasises that this includes head on head.
However, in providing the referees with a decision-making process to step through, referees are invited first to ask, “Has head contact occurred?”, and then “Was there foul play?”. If no foul play is determined, then it should be play on.
Further, the guidelines provide some ‘trigger words’ to apply to various high contact situations. Under ‘play on’ we find the terms ‘passive action’ and ‘involuntary collision’.
In summary, Vaa’i was potentially subject to sanction under law 9.20.b, but a more intuitive reading of the situation would have determined the matter an incidental head clash, passive and involuntary, with play allowed to continue.
Moving forward, if the threshold for high contact is to now be set at this level, the game is in for a tumultuous period ahead, as players, coaches, fans and media struggle to come to terms with any contact to the head – no matter if innocent or low grade – being vetoed.
A week late, but congratulations to the Dunedin Rugby Football Club, who last weekend celebrated their 150th anniversary at their Kettle Park clubrooms. Such events will become more commonplace in coming years, a reminder of how much rugby has changed in 150 years but also, when looking at the essence of the game, how much it has stayed the same.
The Dunedin clubhouse and fields are located on top of sand dunes at St Clair beach, exposed to the full brunt of southerlies whipping straight up from Antarctica. On the wrong night, training sessions would resemble tortuous SAS exercises, with icy sand pellets stinging the face, testing one’s commitment to both the club and the game.
For many, including this writer, plans to attend the event were scuttled by COVID. Nevertheless, many tales, tall and true, will have been recounted, involving Easter tournaments, illicit after-hours sessions behind closed curtains at the Beach Hotel and stories about celebrated New Zealand swimming coach and Dunedin rugby coach Duncan Laing.
Moving into a flat around the corner from Laing’s house proved useful for getting a lift to matches until one Saturday when I found him at his kitchen table, teatowel jammed into his collar as a napkin, tucking into a massive feed of mutton neck chop stew.
“Gary Cooper, my favourite,” he said, nodding towards the television. Larger than life in every sense, here was Laing in his element, with a top-of-the-table clash against University A, now less than an hour away, the furthest thing from his mind.
It was everything a pipsqueak 19-year-old, freshly promoted to the senior side, could do to get him to wriggle things along, hurry his lunch, forget the movie and get to the game, which we eventually did with barely 15 minutes to spare.
Aside from learning more about the history of Hollywood westerns than I ever cared to know, two memories stand out from that day: being so rushed and panicked I could hardly tie my bootlaces, and Laing calling the team together and nonchalantly delivering a last-minute pre-match team talk as if everything was perfectly normal.
Speaking of special rugby clubs, congratulations to Julian Savea, who this weekend joined Kurtley Beale in the club of backs who should never again be allowed to grace the scrum after his underwhelming effort packing down against the Reds on Friday night.
Reds halfback Tate McDermott must have thought all his Christmases had come at once, popping around the side of a five-metre scrum to find newly converted blindside flanker Savea, still with his head down, wondering if he should message Kurtley to see if he had his shoulder in the right position.
The gift seven points didn’t really help the Reds cause, but at least it provided some light relief on yet another tough weekend for Australian franchises.