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The Wrap: ‘World’s best provincial rugby competition’ delivers a superb Super Round

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Expert
3rd March, 2024
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Increasingly, we find ourselves barraged by spin masquerading as news and information. Sorting the wholesome from the devious, the truth from the fiction, has become an increasingly difficult and tiresome task.

Just this weekend, Australian golf legend Greg Norman was again insisting that “LIV Golf was launched to create new opportunities for players and fans that drive this sport forward in exciting ways.” If filling your boots with Saudi cash is “exciting”, then sure, why not?

The NRL was at it too; take your pick of statements from officials extrapolating a play for a share of the lucrative US sports gambling market into world domination for rugby league. Conquer Vegas one day, Port Moresby the next.

Closer to home, ex-Wallaby hooker Phil Kearns, taking a swipe at states reluctant to embrace Rugby Australia’s push for centralisation, helpfully informed rugby fans that “New South Wales were open-minded enough and wise enough to go down the (centralisation) path they’ve gone there.”

Open-minded? If hastily burying your own Rebels-esque debt into a catch-all Rugby Australia bucket called ‘rugby operations’, for it never to see the light of day, and for everyone involved to keep tight-lipped about the quantum of that debt, and to what extent that impacts upon Rugby Australia’s decision making with respect to the future of all Australian rugby, then sure, let’s call that that open-minded. Other descriptors might be disingenuous and opaque.

At least there was nothing cynical about the way ex-Wallaby fullback Greg Martin claimed that “Magic Round (sic) is stupid” and would be attended by “zero Australians”. That’s more your Nathan Hauritz, gun-barrel-straight, kind of spin; can we stop pretending that anyone outside of Queensland and New South Wales cares about rugby?

So, what to make of Thursday’s media update from event organiser and promoter TEG Live, ahead of the weekend’s Super Round?

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“Super Rugby Pacific is the world’s best provincial rugby competition, featuring 12 teams from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the Pacific, delivered as a joint venture partnership between Rugby AU and New Zealand Rugby.”

More on that ‘world’s best’ claim later. In the meantime, players from all 12 franchises did their best to live up to that, with 58 tries scored across six highly entertaining matches.

Cam Roigard of the Hurricanes celebrates scoring a try during the round two Super Rugby Pacific match between Hurricanes and Queensland Reds at AAMI Park, on March 03, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

The first two of those tries were triggered by bombed kick-off receipts. As ever, get the basics right and rugby becomes a far more profitable pursuit for those seeking success.

Wayward goal-kicking aside, the Highlanders were the better team for 40 minutes against the Blues, although the 41st would prove to be their nemesis; Stephen Perofeta, oblivious to pressure behind his own posts, embarking on an audacious after-the-siren run, that not only produced a try 105 metres away to Mark Telea, but reduced the Highlanders to 14 men.

Like all good New Zealand sides do, the Blues also scored immediately on the other side of half-time. That, essentially, was the game; 37-29 to the Blues and a frustrating but an honourable loss for the improving Highlanders.

The Force made all the running early against the Rebels, who once again lacked conviction at line-out. But where a five metre attacking scrum after the half-time siren had come up blank against the Brumbies the week before, this time the Rebels showed enough patience for Carter Gordon to put the excellent Andrew Kellaway in, and they were back in the match.

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By the last quarter, the home side had found rhythm and flow to their attack, enough to post 29 unanswered points and run away with it, 48-34. The Force weren’t bad at all, but were impeded by depth issues in the front row and a dislike for AAMI Stadium which has seen them ship 171 points in their last three visits.

The beautiful weather continued into Saturday where Moana Pasifika survived a period down to 13 men, to hold out the fast-finishing Fijian Drua, 39-36.

At times, this resembled one of those matches which both sides seemed determined to find a way to lose, typified by replacement Drua halfback, Simione Kuruvoli, when his side was offered a final opportunity with a penalty after the siren, opting for a quick tap and run, while no fewer than four of his teammates lay on the ground injured or with cramp.

With spectacularly bombed tries the order of the day, the crowd was kept highly entertained, especially by flying wingers Viliami Fine (Moana Pasifika) and Epeli Momo (Drua).

The 2024 season got its first major upset on Saturday night with the Waratahs’ energy and enthusiasm knocking the Crusaders right off their stride. Do not adjust your set; 37-24 was an entirely fair reflection.

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Hugh Sinclair of the Waratahs celebrates a try during the round two Super Rugby Pacific match between Crusaders and NSW Waratahs at AAMI Park, on March 02, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

As a result of the Waratahs breakdown and tackle pressure, the Crusaders’ young halves struggled throughout; no better example than halfback Noah Hotham not watching the clock at the end of the first half, meekly kicking the ball into touch with only 20 seconds remaining, with his side down to 14 men.

The Waratahs didn’t need a second invitation, an authoritative Tane Edmed sending Harry Wilson in for a 23-10 half-time lead, which they never relinquished.

Just to rub salt into the Crusaders’ wounds, the match finished on a rare play; replacement hooker Quentin McDonald pinged for a baulk, killing off any chance of a losing bonus point.

For new coach Rob Penney, the loss would have carried extra sting. On the other hand, at least we can now be spared the nonsense that was Darren Coleman hunting season. Seriously, who’d be a coach?

Sunday’s weather delivered as well, setting things up nicely for a rampant Chiefs’ performance, and a 46-12 win, that at times resembled the direction shifts and quick transfers of seven’s rugby.

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs on the way to scoring a try during the round two Super Rugby Pacific match between Chiefs and ACT Brumbies at AAMI Park, on March 03, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

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The Brumbies’ only bright spot came from what has become Corey Toole’s trademark chip and chase. This play also provided a lesson for young players; watch how Chiefs’ winger Liam Coombes-Fabling tried to shadow and run Toole off his line instead of going for the ball, and deservedly came up empty-handed.

It goes without saying that Damian McKenzie is a class above at Super Rugby level, and while Brumbies fans will feel angry at what looks on the surface to be a limp, intensity-free defensive effort, the Chiefs’ attacking waves were relentless.

It all started at the collision and breakdown, and that’s really the key to a Chiefs team who, at this early stage, look to be the competition’s testing material. For all the brilliance their backline showed, their pack is as abrasive and willing to fight for the front foot as any.

The final match, between the Reds and the Hurricanes, developed from a scrappy affair in the first half, into a thrilling 33-33 finish, before six minutes of ‘Super Time’ ended with replacement prop Pasilio Tosi, plunging over for the deciding try.

It was a cruel outcome for the Reds, who led for long stages of the match, and who might have felt they did enough to win.

The clash between halfbacks Tate McDermott and Cam Roigard was worth the price of admission alone, while in a hot field of dashing loose forwards over the three days, the speed and thrust of Brayden Iose stood out.

With the weekend largely free of controversial moments, it was wholly disappointing to see Jordan Petaia exhibiting Cat 1 symptoms after being collected by Jordie Barrett’s shoulder, being allowed to play on for three minutes before finally being removed from the field.

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Rugby can talk all it likes about action on concussion, but to witness this kind of breakdown in process and common sense shows that there is still a long way to go actually walk the talk.

So, what of the question posed earlier; is Super Rugby Pacific the world’s best provincial rugby competition?

Perhaps the more pertinent question is, ‘is it the best competition it can be?’ The answer to that is most certainly no; a function of years of inadequate promotion, subscription TV deals and two parents in New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia, more concerned about their Test programs.

Yet, as it has so often done, the rugby on display across the weekend soared above those impediments. Anyone complaining about rugby being boring, too kick-happy, or dominated by TMOs, simply wasn’t watching.

Yes, there will be the usual complaints from purists and pedants about the high scoring being the result of ‘poor defence’, but here’s the thing; those low-scoring matches of the amateur era were more about attackers not having the skills or conditioning to apply the same kind of pressure modern defenders face.

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To finish, some random observations from the weekend.

New Zealand TV commentator John Kirwan looked for all money like he’d strolled in off the set of Antiques Roadshow.

Any time 58 tries are scored, some of them are going to be rippers. With apologies to Damian McKenzie, my vote for the best goes to Waratahs winger Triston Reilly.

Standing next to each other in the Crusaders’ defensive line, it was striking to see how identical the body profiles of centre Levi Aumua and prop Fletcher Newell are.

AAMI’s famed seagulls were late arriving, but when they did, on Saturday night, they came in Alfred Hitchcock-like numbers.

Somebody in the Hurricanes’ camp really should own up to hiding a tea bag in replacement halfback Jordi Viljoen’s hair.

Joe Schmidt chose to play spoilsport, hiding away in a private box, not daring to venture into the crowd with a list of names open in his notebook.

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New Wallabies Head Coach Joe Schmidt speaks to media during a Rugby Australia media opportunity at Allianz Stadium on January 19, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

While nobody can spin this event into a full stadium heaving with unbridled excitement, for the first time in three iterations, it felt like Super Round was really starting to become something.

Who knows, if Australian rugby can survive its current financial crisis, and Super Rugby its identity crisis, the new commission may just have something to work with.

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