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Five things: Lesson Aussie rugby can learn from Kiwis - and why next month will determine whether SR gap has closed

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15th April, 2024
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The theory is that Australia is closing the gap with their trans-Tasman neighbours in Super Rugby.

The evidence is five wins from 12 matches – a 41.67 per cent win rate – which is a stark improvement on the six victories from 30 encounters last year.

Yet four of those five wins have come against the Crusaders and Highlanders, with the Reds’ round-three win over the Chiefs the only one against New Zealand’s top three sides in 2024.

The rise comes after Will Harrison’s laser-like boot saw the Waratah seal a stunning win over the Crusaders in Sydney on Friday night, before the Rebels were too good for the Highlanders 24 hours later in Melbourne.

But unless Australia can get the lion’s share of results over the next three weeks, it won’t count for much, particularly with finals, home finals especially, at stake.

It won’t be easy.

The Waratahs celebrate with Will Harrison of the Waratahs after he kicked the winning field goal in golden point during the round eight Super Rugby Pacific match between NSW Waratahs and Crusaders at Allianz Stadium, on April 12, 2024, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Waratahs beat the Crusaders for the second time in 2024 to help Australia post another important win over New Zealand opposition. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Australia’s front-runners, the Brumbies, will take on the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday evening, before hosting the unbeaten Hurricanes a week later.

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After winning three on the trot against opposition outside the top six, the Rebels will find out if they’re contenders or pretenders over the next month as they take on the Crusaders, Blues, Reds and Chiefs.

The Reds will likely be without Tate McDermott and possibly Fraser McReight for their first of three matches against New Zealand opposition, starting with the Highlanders on Friday. It gets trickier from there.

The Force take on the Crusaders and Highlanders, before hosting the Chiefs to round out a tricky three-week period, while the Waratahs’ take on the Chiefs and Hurricanes after the bye.

It’s over the next three weeks that names will be written down and rubbed out by Joe Schmidt ahead of July’s Tests against Wales and Georgia.

HAS SCHMIDT FOUND HIMSELF A 12?

Hitherto, Schmidt would have been most concerned by the options presenting themselves at inside centre.

While several players are making a fist of it at fly-half, outside centre, and the back three, the lack of international-ready options at inside centre is troubling.

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With Samu Kerevi hardly setting the world alight in Japan, and Rugby Australia keen to look in their backyard before heading overseas in any case, Schmidt would have been particularly pleased to see Lalakai Foketi deliver a composed performance against the Crusaders.

Although Hunter Paisami was one of the Reds’ best during their ugly loss to Moana Pasifika, Foketi was a calming influence on the Waratahs.

The execution of his core skills stood out.

The Crusaders targeted Foketi’s corner from kick restarts and the Wallabies midfielder managed to get length and accuracy from his boot.

He also managed to free up space for his outside backs, which is something both the Waratahs and Wallabies have struggled with over the past 12 months.

The Roar understands Schmidt is interested in a ball-playing option at inside centre and Foketi fits the bill at present.

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IS KISS FALLING INTO RENNIE TRAP?

Along with Dave Rennie’s poor winning percentage with the Wallabies, the former national coach’s continual chopping and changing in the halves didn’t help convince his employers that he was the right man to continue coaching Australia through to the World Cup.

Some will say it was about building depth, but the longer Rennie’s reign went on, the more he looked overseas at fly-half.

Younger players like Noah Lolesio often went from first-choice fly-half to out of the squad altogether.

Similarly, at halfback, Rennie used three different No.9s to start his fateful last campaign as Wallabies coach.

The issue in all of that is that it denied the Wallabies cohesion, with the continual shuffling of decks not helping the consistency of the national side.

Les Kiss has got to be careful about falling into the same trap.

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Tom Lynagh was rotated out of the Reds’ team for their match against Moana Pasifika as Les Kiss tried to give his young 10 a breather. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Although Tom Lynagh has been his preferred option at fly-half, the recently turned 21-year-old was missing from the side’s team sheet against Moana Pasifika.

A fortnight earlier it was Harry McLaughlin-Phillips, 20, who was out of the squad altogether, as Kiss tried to give his rising playmaker a spell to recharge his battery in his first season.

On both occasions, Kiss went with the jack of all trades Lawson Creighton on the bench, but once again the versatile back struggled. For the second straight match he kicked dead in goal and it gave the opposition a crucial scrum back in his half.

The Reds have now lost their past three matches and have a difficult five-week stretch ahead of them. The pressure is now firmly on Kiss’ side to turn it around.

THE LESSON AUSTRALIAN RUGBY CAN LEARN FROM ‘CANES HOOKER

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When Asafo Aumua burst onto the scene in 2016, the rising New Zealand hooker appeared destined for stardom.

In much the same way as Taniela Tupou, the tackle-busting hooker stormed over the top of his rivals and dominated the under 20s world championship a year later.

It led to his surprise call-up to the national side, where he would pull on the All Blacks jersey in a couple of non-official Tests in late 2017.

Yet, the best part of a decade on, it’s only now that the 26-year-old is starting to live up to the expectation.

Aumua was destructive for the Hurricanes in their mauling of the Chiefs on Saturday. His sheer power was a huge factor in their New Zealand derby win.

It’s a lesson that Australian rugby officials can learn about the development of players, particularly forwards.

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Case in point are rising forwards Lachie Swinton and Ned Hanigan, who are playing some of their best rugby after several seasons of ups and down which came off the back of playing international rugby early on in their careers.

Unfortunately, Swinton is off to France at season’s end while Hanigan is weighing up his future in Australia.

Nonetheless, it goes to show that forwards often take years to develop and blossom.

REBELS HAVE BOXED RUGBY AUSTRALIA INTO A CORNER

It seems inevitable that there are a few twists and turns to come, but the Rebels playing group is at least playing their part in trying to convince the decision-makers that they deserve to stay in the competition.

Midway through the year and they are in fourth place and on the cusp of a maiden finals series.

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That says plenty about their character and the current leadership because their season could quite easily have spiralled out of control.

As such, given their position on the standings, it would be harder to win the court of public opinion if there was to be any move against the Rebels in the coming weeks.

Christy Doran’s Australian Super Rugby team of the week:

Hayden Thompson-Stringer, Julian Heaven, Taniela Tupou, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Ned Hanigan, Lachie Swinton, Charlie Gamble, Vaiolini Ekuasi, Ryan Louwrens, Carter Gordon, Darby Lancaster, Lalakai Foketi, Filipo Daugunu, Triston Reily, Andrew Kellaway

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