Three rounds into the new Super Rugby Pacific season, it feels like things are falling into their natural place and every team can pretty much can beat anyone.
The Chiefs and Brumbies remain the only unbeaten sides after the first three weeks, and just one win now separates third from tenth on the table.
At the other end, the Highlanders are in real spot at the moment, while Moana Pasifika suffered their second last-gasp bonus-point loss in three weeks.
I’m not sure the bounce of the ball will help the southerners at the moment, but Moana will be surely surveying their training base intently for black cats and broken mirrors.
138 tries have been scored but only 36 came in Round 3, as five of the six games produced losing bonus points.
Defences have tightened up as they get used to the law variations in place to speed the game up, and the fatigue factor is real.
After writing after Round 1 that perceptions of improved ball-in-play time are more important than any actual ball-in-play improvements (which I’ll argue is still true), a couple of conversations since then have left me with an understanding that there has been improvement.
The improvements in Australia haven’t quite been as dramatic as in New Zealand, where one game pushed 41 minutes in the opening round. But the big difference is total elapsed time games are finishing within, which already is upwards of 15 minutes earlier than last year.
I was on the field doing my first post-match interviews for ABC Sport around 9:20pm on Saturday night and we were throwing back to our host studio by 9:35pm, bang on two hours after kick-off.
We’re certainly seeing games open up in the last half an hour – witness James O’Connor’s bench impact the last two weeks – but fatigue is affecting discipline, too. Of the 32 cards handed out in 2023, 19 come from or around the 45-minute-mark in games. All four red cards have come in this same period as well.
Of the Australian teams, the Brumbies continue to enjoy their near-perfect start to the season, and I can only say ‘near perfect’ because aside from the aforementioned hapless Highlanders, the ACT side is that only other team in the comp yet to record a bonus point!
The Stephen Larkham influence – and I’ll go into a little more detail on this next week – is bearing fruit, and the subtle tweaks he has made on the Dan McKellar model are becoming clearer with each hit out. The major change has them playing more off 10 this season, which has seen Jack Debreczeni earn strong reviews in the first two rounds, and Noah Lolesio produce one of his best games in probably 12 months on Saturday against Queensland.
The set piece platform remains strong, as does the breakdown presence, which is exactly what we’ve come to expect of Brumbies sides over the years. Still, it’s great to see them playing with width and taking advantage of the genuine speed they have on their flanks.
On the other side of that contest, the form of O’Connor for the Reds has been so spectacular in the last two games that they’re left with a real selection conundrum, starting with the Fijian Drua game this Sunday in Brisbane.
The obvious move should be to just start O’Connor, but could they actually be weakening their finishing strength by doing that? Tom Lynagh has enjoyed a solid and perfectly serviceable start to his professional career over the first three games, but it’s no slight on him at all to say he’s not yet capable of sparking the attack late in games the way O’Connor has.
I don’t know how you have that conversation with O’Connor, for what it’s worth, but the way the game is now geared it is making more and more sense to have your best players on the field when games are being decided.
Still, the Queenslanders only need to look south to find the ideal blueprint for how they bring Lynagh up to speed in the professional environment. And they only need to remember how Jake McIntyre, Sam Greene and Duncan Paia’aua were pumped up and spat out in recent years – and even Mack Mason before them – to see the errors of pushing young Queensland flyhalves too far, too soon.
The NSW Waratahs Women take on Force and the Tahs men battle the Chiefs in an enthralling double-header on Friday, 24 March at Allianz Stadium.
Melbourne this year are benefitting hugely from Carter Gordon’s progression, and it’s actually hard to quantify how much better a player he is now than just 12 months ago.
The Rebels started him at 10 initially, and then played him off bench as Matt To’omua’s experience was preferred to steer the team through the grind of the season. Gordon then took that learning experience and guided Wests to a Hospitals Cup premiership in Brisbane, and now looks the comfortable and confident player we’re all enjoying watching.
If the only thing to be down on is his choice of barber, then that’s not a bad scenario at all.
Gordon was instrumental in in the Rebels’ win over New South Wales on Friday night, but his team also got a harsh but quick lesson in how fine the margins have become in Super Rugby this season.
As Geoff Parkes mentioned yesterday, the Waratahs finding that 81st minute try and Tane Edmed’s sideline conversion represented a two bonus-point turnaround on the final result, which was the difference between the Rebels finishing the weekend inside the top eight and not.
They should remain annoyed about it, just as they’re right to be miffed that NSW somehow managed to leave the Weary Dunlop Shield in Sydney, rather than have one of only a handful of challenge cups on offer among the Australian teams on hand for the post-match presentation.
My understanding is the Waratahs just clean forgot to take it to Melbourne, leaving the Rebels post-match plans to fade to nothing.
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The Brumbies showed the benefits of a post-match presentation, with the Bob Templeton Cup handed over from Queensland on Saturday night, immediately followed by the ACT side belting out their victory song on the field, surrounded by fans who’d only minutes earlier been allowed onto the playing surface.
It’s something they’ve never done before and has become an instant social media hit, and I know they’re already working on repeating it as often as possible – which won’t be all the time, when the stadium needs to do their quick switch over for Canberra Raiders games, as will be the case this weekend coming.
But simple engagement like this can have huge impacts for clubs, and all for a relatively small investment and a simple agreement between teams.
Fans remember this kind of thing long after they’ve left the stadium, which is why it’s crucial that little things like packing an annual trophy for an away trip are given the respect they deserve.