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The Wrap: Wallaby's brain fade that cost the Tahs, con job worthy of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

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Expert
24th March, 2024
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Friday night’s two Super Rugby matches were remarkably similar; the two losers, the Melbourne Rebels and Moana Pasifika, doing good things on attack, but because of skill errors, breakdown deficiencies and ineffective first-up tackling, providing far too much leeway for the opposition attack.

Compared to other, more attractive grounds, Palmerston North’s Central Energy Trust Arena, its playing surface ringed by a dirt speedway track, resembles the brother in The Corrs. And, befitting the speedway environment, the scoreboard was racing at speed in the first half; the Hurricanes out to a 33-0 lead without expending a lot of effort.

What appeals about the Hurricanes this year is their balance. Always a contender, they have in the past been let down by one key area of weakness; say in the tight five, or discipline or goal-kicking.

This year, it feels like all bases are covered, including squad depth, with talented players like Aiden Morgan, Harry Godfrey and James O’Reilly relishing a rare chance to start. And what side wouldn’t relish the luxury of being able to call in vastly experienced players like TJ Perenara and Brad Shields?

For the fourth time in five matches the Rebels got run over early. After enjoying the opening phase of the match on attack, their next meaningful possession didn’t come until the 15th minute, where they immediately conceded a breakdown penalty in the attacking half.

Their first red zone attack didn’t come until the 35th minute, where the ball was spilled on first phase, and it wasn’t until the 38th minute until the Rebels were able to mount multiple phases in the attacking 22; from which Angelo Smith scored.

The speed at which the game is currently being played means that no side can concede large chunks of territory and possession, for long periods like that, and not expect to be loaded up with fatigue and points against.

Rebels players look on in disappointment during the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between Hurricanes and Melbourne Rebels at Central Energy Trust Arena, on March 22, 2024, in Palmerston North, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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First-up tackling and increased competitiveness at the breakdown are essential, if both the Rebels and Moana Pasifika are to be genuine finals contenders. But even more so, they must eliminate the simple handling and skill execution errors while in possession, that serve as pressure valve releases, which prevent them from building and loading the same kind of stress back onto their opponent.

The Rebels duly finished 28-54 down to the Canes, with a special mention for Carter Gordon, who played with far more assurance than any playmaker in a side shedding 54 points has a right to. Moana Pasifika meanwhile, fared even worse, 21-60 away to the Brumbies.

For their part, the Brumbies looked the most convincing they have all season, connecting nicely between forwards and backs, and throwing in a couple of thrilling breakout tries for good measure.

It feels like it’s written into Fijian constitutional law that every Drua home match must be filled with high drama. Saturday afternoon’s 39-36 win over the Waratahs was right up there with the best of them.

Battling their way through stifling heat and humidity, the Waratahs will rue Tane Edmed slamming what would have been the winning drop goal into the crossbar in extra time, but I suspect they will identify a first-half gift try to Frank Lomani at a line-out, as a key, preventable failing.

Quite what Angus Bell was doing standing still, pointing at space while Lomani got busy scoring, one will never know. Lomani also got his trademark wide pass working for Iosefo Masi’s third try and, out to 26-10 at half-time, the Drua looked to be well on the way to a resounding victory.

But the Waratahs had brought their own set of line-out tricks, scoring four smart tries from that set piece themselves and, at 36-36, both sides had ground themselves into submission.

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Tane Edmed of the NSW Waratahs passes the ball during the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between Fijian Drua and NSW Waratahs at Churchill Park, on March 23, 2024, in Lautoka, Fiji. (Photo by Pita Simpson/Getty Images)

Tane Edmed of the NSW Waratahs passes the ball during the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between Fijian Drua and NSW Waratahs at Churchill Park, on March 23, 2024, in Lautoka, Fiji. (Photo by Pita Simpson/Getty Images)

It wasn’t just the players who were cooked; match caller Greg Clark annointing the match a draw, before belatedly realising the teams weren’t headed to the showers after all. I suspect a draw remains the popular option amongst fans, with extra-time applying only for finals, but for better (the Drua) or worse (the Waratahs) to extra-time it went.

Inexplicably, Drua replacement halfback Peni Matawalu offered himself up for a yellow card by needlessly slapping an opponent in the head, which set Edmed up for the drop goal that wasn’t.

Allowed his opportunity at the other end, Kemu Valetini showed how it was done, and the Lautoka crowd was once again left to celebrate all that is wonderful about Super Rugby, with everyone else left grasping to understand how that simple, cynicism-free attitude towards the game can’t be transplanted into the Australian and New Zealand environments.

The Chiefs did it easy early in Hamilton, up 21-0 at half-time, and 28-0 after 54 minutes against the Highlanders. The visitors weren’t helped by losing Tanielu Tele’a, who was sent off for an untidy, reckless, high cleanout on Josh Ioane.

While matters were handled well enough by the match officials, once again the question must be asked why the player suffering direct contact to the head – described by the TMO as being of “a high level of danger” – wasn’t automatically removed from the field and required to undergo an HIA?

The Highlanders are nothing if not tenacious, managing to claw back to 21-28, and having multiple phases inside the attacking 22 after the siren, with a chance to send a second consecutive match into extra time. Alas for them, it wasn’t to be.

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The Blues’ 26-6 win over the Crusaders in Auckland was all about the redemption of Stephen Perofeta. Coming off what might kindly be called a ‘muddled’ performance against the Waratahs last week, Perofeta demonstrated strength of character and no little skill, kicking six from six off the tee and running strongly all night.

At 9-6, the match was tight at half-time, but the Blues went full Michael Caine and ‘blew the bloody doors off’ straight after the break, when Willi Heinz was in the sin bin. It really should have been more, with multiple chances spurned, but coach Vern Cotter will be much more pleased this week with the power and clinical accuracy of his pack.

As for the Crusaders, there’s not really a lot to say other than they’re working hard but, with the players at their disposal, aren’t quite good enough for the better teams in the competition. Things don’t get any easier, with the Chiefs due in Christchurch on Friday night.

Another favourite Michael Caine film is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where Caine plays conman Lawrence Jamieson, in the process impersonating, to hilarious effect, psychiatrist Dr Emil Schaffhausen.

The final match of the round, in Perth, was a con job to match the best of Caine’s Jamieson; the Force conning the Reds into believing they simply had to turn up to win, and the Reds conning themselves into believing the hype that they were the competition benchmark.

In any event, the 40-31 win to the Force was a result nobody saw coming; not just the scoreline, but the comprehensive manner in which the way the home side not only disrupted the Reds’ fast recycle game but, with centre Hamish Stewart playing an important role, created and clinically finished off their own opportunities.

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Nic White of the Force passes the ball during the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between Western Force and Queensland Reds at HBF Park, on March 23, 2024, in Perth, Australia. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

Nic White of the Force passes the ball during the round five Super Rugby Pacific match between Western Force and Queensland Reds at HBF Park, on March 23, 2024, in Perth, Australia. (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

The match also featured one of the more remarkable tries of the season; Harry Wilson fumbling a kick-off receipt like a hot potato, straight into the arms of an advancing Bayley Kuenzle.

So, where does all of that leave us after five completed rounds? There is just one team, the impressive Hurricanes, at the top, undefeated; three teams, the Chiefs, Brumbies and the Blues, with only one loss, and everyone else falling in behind from there.

The Crusaders? File under stone motherless. At least for now, and perhaps next week as well.

Stone motherless, lonely and self-reflective is also where much of the world’s press and social media commentators should be this week, after revelations from Catherine, Princess of Wales, that she is suffering from, and is in the midst of treatment for, a form of cancer.

There’s an argument to be made that if Buckingham Palace officials had been more forthcoming about the princess’ absence from public duties, there wouldn’t have been room provided for all of the wild, conspiratorial theories to fester.

There’s a stronger argument that an absence of factual information is never an excuse for people to fill in the blanks with speculative and hurtful nonsense.

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One eye-opening element of the Rebels’ saga in 2024 has been the propensity for rugby fans – almost all of them secure in their anonymity – to jump into the debate with hard-formed opinions that have clearly been forged without any knowledge of the actual facts.

If there does happen to be people today, who are feeling a wee bit sheepish about firing off half-cocked about Kate Middleton, might the same apply to those whose so-called understanding and commentary around the Rebels situation is equally ill-founded.

The daily news cycle and access to social media and a keyboard provides all of us with the ability to learn things quickly and shape our thoughts and opinions almost instantaneously.

It does not guarantee that the source information is true, or represents all sides of an issue. As has been demonstrated so vividly this week, sometimes the wise choice is to wait for events to run their course before passing comment.

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