Offering Brumbies coach Dan McKellar the opportunity to single out the area of play he was most satisfied with, from his side’s comprehensive 38-28 win against the Chiefs, he immediately zeroed in on the physicality his side brought and maintained throughout Saturday night’s match in Hamilton.
There were many options to choose from: the Brumbies excelling at set piece, defence, kicking, ball handling and game management.
But, speaking exclusively to The Roar yesterday, McKellar was in no doubt: “The thing about playing the New Zealand sides, is you know you have to win the physical contact. We did that, and in the end, that domination helped us control the match.”
It wasn’t all one-way, a storming try to Pita-Gus Sowakula bringing the Chiefs back to within seven points, but as McKellar noted, “There are always going to be periods where the opposition gets a run of possession or put some points on. But what I really liked was how our leaders stayed calm and composed, the messaging was clear, and we never went away from our game plan or dropped off in our physicality.”
Given that emphasis, the conversation naturally gravitated to the performance of Rob Valetini; “Yeah, his physicality offers us a key point of difference. But it’s also his high work rate, he’s really turning into a world class player,” McKellar said.
Over the years the Brumbies have produced many outstanding loose forwards: David Pocock, George Smith and Owen Finegan among the names that roll easily off the tongue. But it’s hard to imagine a loose forward combination that complements each other as well as this current one does.
“Pete Samu brings the skill set of a centre, and Jahrome Brown is as tough as nails, so yes, it’s a luxury to have those three guys operating together,” McKellar agreed. “The three of them are good mates, they spend a lot of time together and that’s really showing in the work they do off the field and on the pitch.”
But even with a top-two spot and home finals action beckoning, McKellar isn’t getting ahead of things. “We’ve got three tough matches left, against some very good sides, and we need to keep bringing that same level of intensity and physicality, or we’ll be found out,” he concluded.
For their part, the Chiefs had few answers to a well-thought-out kicking game from Nic White and Ryan Lonergan that pinned them to the sidelines, and on a greasy night, they lacked the ball handling efficiency and clinical control of the Brumbies.
They remain favoured for a home quarter-final, but have some work to do – and will need Brodie Retallick back, and firing – if they are to trouble the current top three.
In normal circumstances, had the Rebels been offered 28 points against the Blues at Eden Park, they would gladly have taken it. But this was no normal occasion. Once the Blues realised there was a game on, they piled on a lazy 71 points, including 11 tries, rendering the Rebels’ four tries insignificant.
Incredibly, as well beaten as the Rebels were, the 43-point margin represented a four-point improvement on last year’s 50-3 drubbing. Which just goes to show, you can always find a half-full glass somewhere, if you look hard enough.
Three images stood out from an incredible opening half, where the Rebels jumped to a shock 14-point lead within four minutes, before the Blues replied with 47 points of their own.
First, there was Blues coach Leon MacDonald, in disbelief at conceding two tries before he’d hardly sat down; second, the smile on Mark Telea’s face, moments after his spectacular somersault and touchdown; and third, the cut to Rebels’ youngster Daniel Maiava, looking on from the bench at the carnage, contemplating his turn under the cosh.
In today’s rugby, post-contact metres are a key metric. Fail to stop runners at the gain line and you’re in for a long night, forever back-pedalling, unable to slow the speed of recycle, or pressure an opponent into handling errors. Conceding seven tries in one half of football is one indicator; another is that the Rebels never fed a single scrum in the whole of the first half.
The other side of that coin is that the Blues had the night out they knew was lurking in their locker somewhere. Teammates elbowed each other out of the way dashing to be the next man in support, passes stuck, and twice they went the distance directly from kick-off.
Tougher tests await the Blues, but confidence has been restored.
Moana Pasifika were another side to jump to an early lead – 17-0 against the Waratahs – only to find themselves run down by a better seasoned, more organised opponent. There wasn’t a lot in it; Moana Pasifika had an opportunity to snatch the game late, but their set piece isn’t yet robust enough for this level, and the Waratahs’ defensive wall held fast.
Here were two sides at different stages in their development cycle. This was a match that last year, the Waratahs would surely have lost, or next year, Moana Pasifika will likely win.
One winner was Waratahs winger Dylan Pietsch, whose second half try was justice for having an earlier effort ruled out by the TMO, due to an opponent placing a foot on the sideline in the lead-up. The TMO was 100 per cent correct, and in a sport where there is constant conjecture over subjective calls, it is nonsense to suggest that a blind eye be turned when the ball is objectively over the sideline.
That said, it’s a tough pill to swallow when a try is rubbed out, not for the try scorer or a teammate being in touch, but an opponent!
That non-try featured some spectacular work by centre Izaia Perese, whose sparkling running throughout was a reminder of the dominance he showed in schoolboy rugby and the NRC. About to turn 25, if Perese can refine his game a wee bit more – choose when to let the ball do the work rather than seek to impose himself in contact at every opportunity – he may well add to the Test cap he earned last year in Scotland.
Another winner was Moana Pasifika flyhalf Christian Lealiifano, who became the seventh player in Super Rugby history to score 1000 points. There isn’t a more popular or respected player in the game, and it’s a shame that only a small crowd was on hand to bear witness.
It is clear that more introspection and deeper thought needs to be applied around the sheer economics of asking the same community to effectively support three teams (Blues, Moana Pasifika and the NZ Warriors), and also scheduling Moana Pasifika home matches on a Saturday afternoon, clashing with club rugby.
Things have turned south rather quickly in Brisbane, the Reds faltering 27-19 to a resurgent Highlanders.
It’s very easy to look towards Taniela Tupou and James O’Connor and pinpoint their absence as the reason for the Reds’ alarming decline, but the harsh truth is that the Reds are being exposed for over-reliance on their two stars.
With their regular source of scrum penalties dried up, and Tupou’s running threat absent, their pack struggled to assert themselves, particularly after Harry Wilson knocked himself out in just failing to score what would have been a spectacular try.
Makeshift flyhalf Lawson Creighton, is a talented and capable footballer, but that’s not the same thing as him being ready for such an unfamiliar role, expected to steer a Super Rugby side around the park.
What is interesting about the Highlanders is that their style of play has predominantly been built around the speed of ball movement from the base of the ruck, via Aaron Smith. While Smith is by no means ready for the scrap heap, transition at halfback to the talented Folau Fakatava – a different type of player – is on in earnest.
It was Fakatava’s injection that took the match away from the Reds. Far be it for me to give any player the kiss of death, but while Fakatava has a long way to go before he can be judged alongside Toulouse halfback Antoine Dupont, in terms of his playing style, he is certainly cut from the same cloth.
Also worth a shout was flanker Billy Harmon; maligned last year for his brain fade in calling a captain’s challenge on his own foul play, but who was constructively high-octane throughout, in the process shading the Reds’ Fraser McReight.
The match from Perth delivered not only a commanding return to form for the Crusaders, but eye-popping comments, firstly from Stan’s Justin Harrison who, striving for ‘word of the week’, got things 180 degrees wrong by insisting that the Crusaders had a “dearth of All Blacks”.
Harrison was outdone however at halftime, when Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, talking about his Western Force side, told viewers that “this is a team on the cusp of greatness”.
Those at home who hadn’t fallen off their sofas immediately reached for their dictionaries to double-check the meaning of “cusp” and “greatness”, although, to be fair, Twiggy did appear to be in high spirits, and his delivery was less a grave, Churchillian statement of fact, and more a call for supporters to keep the faith and stay the distance.
It was the Force’s misfortune to catch the Crusaders on the rebound, and 53-15 felt like a harsh return for their graft. The Crusaders – who have famously stumbled before in Perth – will be delighted to have got Cullen Grace operating effectively in a Kieran Read type of role, and got good minutes into some of their academy youngsters.
There isn’t a better-balanced runner in world rugby than Will Jordan, whose three tries, matching left-winger Leicester Fainga’anuku, seemed effortless. There’s no substitute for the combination of pace and a nose for where the ball is or might be, and at this stage, Jordan must surely have front-running for the All Blacks 15 jersey.
Being a losing captain is never easy and one felt yesterday for the Fijian Drua’s Meli Derenalagi, literally left “speechless” after his side was wiped by the Hurricanes, 67-5 in Wellington.
As down as they will feel, the Drua’s immediate task is to clear this result from their consciousness, and quickly regain a positive focus for their historic first match against Moana Pasifika on Saturday, in Sydney.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, rejoin the mid-table ruck, and are still an outside chance for a home semi-final, albeit needing other results to go their way. They maintained their shape and fluidity throughout, and it was a joy to watch young backs like Aidan Morgan, Salesi Rayasi and Josh Moorby run and pass with such freedom.
After last weekend’s series of close matches, three blow-out results might have raised questions again about the balance of the competition. But it doesn’t actually feel like that.
The Waratahs winning for the seventh time this year has them firmly in the mix. But whatever else happens to the other Australian teams, it is the Brumbies – emerging as a genuine contender for the title – who have shifted that emphasis away from weekly evaluation of conference versus conference.
All three leading teams made emphatic statements over the weekend. The competition for the title is alive and well.