Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU reached the halfway point of its regular season and in fitting fashion it was a table-topping clash between the 2 unbeaten teams in the competition as the Queensland Reds came to GIO Stadium.

The game couldn’t have started much worse for the Reds, as a series of penalties gave the Brumbies a lineout 5m from the Reds tryline just 5 minutes into the game. The Brumbies’ driving maul is one of the most deadly weapons in the game and it duly transported Folau Fainga’s over the line for the opening try. As a titanic battle continued, the Brumbies driving maul got another chance to shine and again transported Folau Fainga’a over for another try, before James O’Connor finally got the Reds on the scoreboard with a penalty.

The Reds came out firing after the break and number 8 Harry Wilson was put through a gap to score a try just minutes after the restart. Minutes later, Wilson was through another gap, and though he was stopped just short this time, his fellow back rower Angus Scott-Young took the ball the final few inches to put the Reds ahead for the first time in the game. O’Connor added another penalty and it looked like the Reds would get a huge victory, until a late penalty set the Brumbies up with another 5m lineout. Folau Fainga’a was off the pitch by this point, but his replacement Connal McInerney duly took the armchair ride over the line, but with the scores at 19-20, replacement Mack Hansen pulled the conversion wide, only to be given a lifeline at the death as the Brumbies won a penalty, which he duly dispatched to pull a 22-20 victory from the jaws of defeat.

Architects of their own defeat

The Reds have nobody to blame for this loss but themselves. If there is one team that you need to stay disciplined against, it’s the Brumbies, due to the danger of their driving maul. The Reds gave away a whopping 9 penalties and were lucky not to lose a man to the bin within just 6 minutes of the game starting. It massively impacted the Reds’ ability to get into the first half, as they found themselves continually pushed back deep into their own half and struggling to get possession. Meanwhile in the second half, the Reds managed to concede just 3 penalties (all in the last 10 minutes) and as a result they looked a much more dangerous team, able to play with ball in hand and express themselves.

More than that, though, when the Reds look back at this game, they will be absolutely kicking themselves as every point they conceded in this match came as a direct result of the penalties they conceded. Both of the first half’s tries and conversions came from penalties being kicked to the corner then driven over the line. Then, of those 3 second half penalties, the first was kicked to the corner and driven over, while the final one was kicked off the tee for the game-winner.

There is a chance that the final minutes of this game prove costly to the Reds’ playoff position. If so, they will be kicking themselves for their lack of discipline.

Give him the ball

The Brumbies have a number of top quality ball carriers in their ranks, including but not limited to Tevita Kuridrani, Irae Simone, Solomone Kata and Pete Samu, but the more ball carriers you have, the better, in order to create the space for the fliers on the pitch. For that reason, I want to see more from Rob Valentini.

Granted he is only 21 at the moment, so will surely improve over the next couple of years, but he is a big guy and they need to utilise that physicality. Right now, he appears to be held more as a defensive enforcer, but 44m from 9 carries (including 2 defenders beaten) in this match highlighted just how good he can be if they utilise him as a carrier.

With a new head coach, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto playing at lock and David Pocock retired, the back row spots for the Wallabies are wide open and as a young player who will be in his prime from RWC2023 through RWC2027 and an experienced veteran come RWC2031, this is the perfect time to consider making the youngster a regular in the squad and looking to add to his game.

Balls of steel

With the game looking certain to be a Reds victory, it looked like the scapegoat for the Brumbies loss was unfortunately going to be replacement fly half Mack Hansen. The 22-year-old (the eldest fly half to have featured for them in this competition by 3 months – talk about trusting in youth!) had the unenviable task of having to kick a potential game-winner with his first attempt at goal and pulled the kick wide. Then as the game ticked into the final minute of play, Hansen went for a 50/22 – understandable given the strength of their maul, but very risky – and got the kick completely wrong, gifting possession back to the Reds.

Thankfully for the Brumbies, poor game management from the Reds gave the Brumbies one more chance to win it, and at this point I have to give so much credit to Hansen. Those 2 poor kicks could have easily knocked his confidence, but he didn’t hesitate in pointing to the posts. Those 2 kicks could have put him off his rhythm, but instead he made corrections from his missed conversion and bisected the posts to win the game.

I couldn’t help be reminded of Jonny Wilkinson on that fateful night in Sydney in 2003, where the England fly half missed 4 drop goal attempts during the Rugby World Cup final, only to step up and kick the winning drop goal with just 26 seconds remaining with his weaker right foot! Now, I’m not saying that Hansen is the next Jonny Wilkinson (though if that ends up being the case you heard it here first), but it just highlighted how hard kickers must work to become experts at their craft, that in the moment they can put all those bad moments out of their mind and focus on the moment. That is dedication to one’s craft and this was a great moment to highlight it.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Crusaders

We’re entering the business end of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season with the beginning of Round 8, and it began with a trip to Waikato for the table-topping Crusaders to take on the winless Chiefs. The first half went according to the script for Chiefs matches in this tournament, with Tom Sanders and Will Jordan both crossing for tries in the opening 15 minutes. The Chiefs worked their way into the game and after a strong run by Pita Gus Sowakula, Lachlan Boshier crossed for a try, Damian McKenzie kicking the conversion and a penalty soon after to cut the deficit to 2. However with a minute left in the half, a deliberate knock-on from Shaun Stevenson saw him sent to the bin and allowed the Crusaders to kick to the corner, from which a catch and drive put captain Codie Taylor over to make it 10-17 at the break.

While the 3ʳᵈ quarter was one for the kickers – McKenzie kicking 3 penalties and Mo’unga 1 to keep a narrow lead – but the final quarter started in controversial fashion as Sevu Reece was awarded a try despite many thinking that Quinten Strange had knocked on in the build-up. The Chiefs continued to fight, but the Crusaders scored a 5ᵗʰ try through Leicester Fainga’anuku, before holding on to secure the double over Warren Gatland’s side with a 19-32 victory.

Wrong mentality

Warren Gatland is a hugely experienced coach, but right now I think that he is the wrong man to be leading the Chiefs. The former Wales head coach has spent the last 12 years coaching in the Northern Hemisphere and will be coaching the Lions on their tour of South Africa next year, and I can’t help but think that all this time away from New Zealand is proving costly now.

It was almost as if there were 2 different Chiefs teams taking part in this game. At times they ran the ball like you would expect from a New Zealand side and they looked dangerous. But then the Chiefs of every other week would return and they would start kicking possession away, usually with aimless kicks downfield that the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Will Jordan and George Bridge were only too happy to run back with interest. With a back line that includes Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, that’s a waste of their talent.

Watching this team, it feels like Gatland is trying to stick to the same gameplan he used with Wales of kicking downfield (but keeping the ball in play) and relying on his team’s superior fitness and dogged defence to get the win. Unfortunately, that is just inviting too much pressure from exceptionally skilled athletes and they just aren’t able to deal with it. It may be too late for this tournament, but I think that Gatland needs to look at changing up his tactics if he wants the Chiefs to have any success during his tenure.

Fijian force

One of the players to benefit most from the moments when the Chiefs played running rugby today was Pita Gus Sowakula. The Chiefs number 8 did not have the best of days in their opener against the Highlanders, but has quietly gone about his business since then. In this game, with the Chiefs playing a more open game at times, the Fijian came alive. Though he only managed 35 metres with the ball in hand, his 16 carries were extremely positive and played a huge role in putting his team on the front foot (such as for Boshier’s try) or getting the team out of jail (such as a defensive scrum 5m out, where he carried to the edge of the 22 to take the pressure off his kickers.

On this performance, I can certainly see why Fijian head coach Vern Cotter is interested in bringing Sowakula into the squad as in a team like that which looks to play running rugby, he will do a great job of giving them a strong a secure base to build off. Hopefully even if Warren Gatland doesn’t make big changes to his gameplan for their final game, he will look to use Sowakula as a carrier much more.

A grey area

Controversy reigned in this match regarding the awarding of Sevu Reece’s try to help the Crusaders pull away on the hour. And to be honest, I’m still not sure if I agree with the ruling or not.

Will Jordan broke through the Chiefs defence just inside the Chiefs 22 and offloaded to replacement lock Quinten Strange as he was snagged from behind. Strange juggled the ball, which went to ground and bounced up perfectly for the onrushing Sevu Reece, who took it beneath the posts. Referee Ben O’Keeffe went to the TMO and the two of them, along with the 2 assistant referees came to an agreement that there was no knock-on by Strange and that the try should stand.

Now, let’s try to break down what happened to the ball during this and the arguments for and against this being a try.

  • First things first, the ball ends up behind Strange but that is due to his momentum carrying him on. Relative to the field, the ball goes forwards – therefore, a knock-on.
  • However, the last touch from Strange is clearly a backwards swat at the ball, so though the ball itself has gone forwards, it has come backwards out of the hand – therefore not a knock-on. This is what the officials based their decision on, though the commentators chose to ignore this while they moaned about the decision.

This all comes down to a matter of physics, which led to a change in the interpretation of the laws. When a player passes the ball when standing still, it will go in the direction they pass. However, when they are running at speed, their momentum will also still be on the ball, which leads to the ball continuing to some degree in the direction the player was running as well as the direction they passed. For this reason, a player can legitimately pass backwards, but the ball still go forwards relative to the pitch.

This led to a change in the interpretation of forward passes that if the ball went forward it was still a legal pass as long as it came out of the hands backwards. By making his last touch a backwards swat, Strange effectively made it a pass that went to ground, so I can fully understand why the officials made the decision they did and would probably say they made the right call.

However, I think we all know that if a fumble like this happened in the middle of the pitch and not immediately preceding a try, this is getting called a knock-on 99% of the time, along with a number of other fumbles that seem to come backwards out of the hand. It is a grey area and I don’t know how to get around it without judging forward passes and knock-ons by the movement of the ball relative to the pitch without any account for momentum, which would force everyone to pass much deeper , making it much harder to hit the gap and take an offload to break through the defence.

What do you think? Would you have given the try?

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Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Rebels

The latest round of Super Rugby AU kicked off at Leichhardt Oval with a match that will go down in history. The last time the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels played each other in Super Rugby was in 2017, and they did so knowing that one of them would likely soon lose their place in Super Rugby. That ended up being the fate of the Force, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought them back into the top flight this season and they found themselves hosting their old rivals in Sydney in a match that will be remembered as having the first Super Time victory.

In a fiery affair, the Force took an early lead through a penalty from Jono Lance. The Rebels struggled with their discipline for much of the half and shortly after Isi Naisarani was sent to the bin, the Force took a catch and drive from 5 metres out and drove lock Fergus Lee-Warner over for the opening try. The Rebels quickly hit back and after winning a lineout deep in the Force 22, a clever move at the front of the lineout saw hooker Jordan Uelese score in the corner. As the half came to an end, Reece Hodge stepped up to nail a long-range penalty to take the teams into the break level at 10-10.

An early Rebels attack in the second half saw Jeremy Thrush sent to the bin, and after Frank Lomani found himself just entering touch before scoring a try, Matt To’omua opened the scoring with another penalty. Despite being a man down in the scrum, they held their own on halfway and a great piece of play from scrum half Nick Frisby put Jono Lance through, and some great draw-and-pass play from the fly half and fullback Jack McGregor put young winger Byron Ralston over in the corner, pushing him to the top of the try-scoring charts. A knock-on from replacement centre Henry Taefu on the edge of his 22 just after the restart proved costly as the Rebels kept hold of the ball and eventually replacement lock Matt Philip managed to spin his way through contact to cross under the posts. With both teams back to 15 men on the field, Lance hit another penalty to level the scores back up to 20-20. The game seemed to be heading for Super Time, but the Force had a chance to go ahead on 74 minutes, only for Lance to miss his first kick of the game, before Reece Hodge’s attempt at the death from 60ish metres dropped just short.

That meant the game entered Super Time for the second time in Super Rugby AU, and if the first was a boring affair between 2 teams scared to lose, this was anything but, as the Rebels won possession and immediately went on the attack, not even considering a drop goal when in range and seeing Isi Naisarani dot the ball over the line on his 50ᵗʰ Super Rugby appearance to win the game less than 2 minutes into the opening period 20-25.

Best yet

Last week, I noted how despite failing to get on the scoreboard, the Force put in a much improved performance. Well this week, they jumped up a couple of levels. Whether it was due to the recent history between the 2 teams, the change of personnel in some key positions, or just last week’s goose egg giving them a kick up the proverbial backside, this was suddenly not just a team that could be competitive for 80 minutes, but a team that could legitimately challenge and should come away feeling that they should have won.

Bringing in Richard Kahui and Chris Godwin at centre gave much more bite to the midfield – Godwin especially impressing with some great carries to put the Rebels on the back foot – but they were also joined by the now-expected carrying prowess of Henry Stowers and Brynard Stander, but also lock Lee-Warner and prop Chris Heiberg. On top of this, the team chemistry looked so much better, with Frisby looking much more comfortable on his 2ⁿᵈ start, while Jono Lance and Jack McGregor gave some variety to the distribution – including a lovely chip in the opening minutes from McGregor from within his own 22 that Richard Kahui only just failed to collect with nobody covering in behind. This team created space and exploited it.

Unfortunately, a wrong decision late on proved costly (more on that shortly) but what really killed the Force was their penalties. While the Rebels gave away a ridiculous 16 penalties, the Force failed to take full advantage, giving away 12 of their own. Uelese’s try came from the Rebels kicking a penalty to the corner, while Reece Hodge’s 5-iron of a right boot is always going to make teams pay if they give away a penalty anywhere in their half or around halfway. With only 4 games left, the Force need to continue with performances like this, but find a way to cut the penalty count right down.

A costly call

Let me start this section by making something very clear: having captained a social rugby 7s side for a couple of matches, I have the utmost respect for captains and the decisions they have to make in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, I think that Jeremy Thrush and the leadership made the wrong decision with the game on the line.

With just 6 minutes left and the score at 2020, the Force won a penalty just inside the Rebels 22 for driving too early at the lineout. The Force had won 15/17 lineouts and having just been penalised for an early drive, the Rebels would have had to be extra careful, so the smart call was to kick to the corner, take an extra minute or 2 off the clock and either drive over with the maul or keep the pressure on through the phases to either force themselves over the line or create the space to score out wide. Unfortunately, they chose to go for the kick at goal, Lance pulled his kick to the left and (after the Rebels missed their own chance to win in 80 minutes) the Force lost in Super Time.

It is a hard decision to make as the captain and I can’t help wonder if there were memories of last week where they turned down kicks at goal to go for the corner, only to be held out and end up scoreless. There is a huge risk/reward either way, but given the time on the clock, I sincerely think the better option was to take more time off the clock and go for the Rebels’ throats.

“Super” Time

Call me old fashioned, but what’s wrong with a draw in a round-robin tournament? This was the second time we got to see the “Super Time” trial implemented in Super Rugby AU, and I’m not warming to it at all. After the first time’s 2 5-minute snooze-fests, this time the game was over in 76 seconds, before the Force even managed to get any meaningful touch of the ball!

Golden Goal may work in low-scoring sports like football, but in a sport like rugby, there are too many ways to score that golden point. It’s a credit to the Rebels that they went for the try rather that looking for the drop goal the moment they got in range or trying to buy a penalty. I just can’t help wonder why they had to wait to have 5 minutes of Super Time in which to do this in, rather than kick to touch with their last minute penalty (they could have easily got it around the 22) and gone for the winning try or drop goal in regulation.

I know that we all want to see wins, but sometimes teams are just so closely matches a draw feels the right result. That the Force come away from this game with a record that will simply state 0 wins and 4 losses just doesn’t seem right. If you need to have extra time, get rid of golden point. But if you’re doing a round-robin tournament, results will even out over the year and there is no need for this until the playoffs.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Chiefs

After losing their last 2 games, the Blues returned to Eden Park to take on the Chiefs. With the Crusaders losing to the Hurricanes the day before, the Blues knew that a win would put them back in the hunt, and they got off to a great start just 6 minutes in when a slight of hand from Reiko Ioane and a brilliant line from Matt Duffie saw the fullback score from the first phase of a scrum with just 5 minutes gone. The Blues soon doubled their lead as captain Patrick Tuipulotu made it over the line, but the Chiefs soon pulled one back through flanker Lachlan Boshier, with Damian Mckenzie kicking the conversion to make it 14-7, a score which remained throughout the second quarter.

The Chiefs came out of the blocks quicker following the break and soon had their reward as a great move off a scrum down the blind side released Solomon Alaimalo to score – though he injured himself in the process. McKenzie kicked the conversion and added a penalty a few minutes later to put the team ahead for the first time in the match. The lead didn’t last long however, as Finlay Christie forced himself over for the go-ahead score on 55 minutes, with Beauden Barrett – starting at 10 for the first time in his Blues career following Otere Black’s late recovery from a neck injury – kicking his 3ʳᵈ conversion to make the score 21-7. Both teams continued to battle, but things didn’t look good for the Blues as they conceded a penalty 5 metres out in the middle of the pitch with 2 minutes left and lost Harry Plummer to the bin. However with the game on the line, Josh Goodhue managed to get over the ball on the line and won a crucial penalty, allowing the Blues to clear their lines and see out the final seconds in safety, before kicking the ball into touch to put them back to 2ⁿᵈ in the table.

Toeing the line

The Blues defence in this game was out to have an impact. The team were putting the pressure on the Chiefs right from the first minute, with Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Kurt Eklund, Tuipulotu, Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane all leading the way with double-digit tackles. It took a moment of great footwork from McKenzie to break through the defensive line and put the Blues on the back foot for Boshier’s try, while Alaimalo’s try came from a great move to effectively work the numbers down the blind side. With such dedicated defence like this, they won’t be easy to score against.

Except for one big problem. To have such an impact, they were playing so close to the line between what was legal and what was illegal. As a result, they finished the game with 14 penalties conceded, many for offside or defensive infringements at the breakdown as dominant tackles saw them end up on the wrong side of the ruck or the next player in went a little too far in trying to win the ball back. It was this accumulation of penalties that led to Harry Plummer’s yellow card for the team’s repeat infringements, and being a back down with a penalty where it was should have cost them the game (more on that later).

If the Blues can defend like this in the remaining games, they have a good chance of challenging for the title, but they need to be careful to stay on the right side of the officials or a better team will take advantage of the penalties.

Scrum success

The Blues’ scrum has been one of the most successful in the tournament, and it certainly looked it in this match. With some big bodies behind them, the Blues front row has done a great job of at least holding parity with their opponents, and often overpowering them. Ofa Tu’ungafasi looks in great form not just at the scrum but also around the park and had a great day against Reuben O’Neill. On the other side of the front row, Alex Hodgman appeared to struggle for almost the first time this tournament against All Black Nepo Laulala, but the coaches moved quickly, replacing him at the early signs that he was losing his duel and bringing on All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe, who immediately solidified that side of the scrum and got the Blues pack back on the front foot. Andit was clear that the Chiefs knew the Blues had the dominance there too.

With a 78ᵗʰ minute penalty being earned 5 minutes from the Blues try line in a central position, and with the Blues down a back following Plummer’s yellow card. The clear tactical decision is to go for a scrum, as it ties in the forwards and allows the backs to exploit the extra number. However such had been the performance of the Blues scrum, the Chiefs did not feel confident enough to call for the scrum, instead going for the tap-and-go and giving away the crucial penalty a few phases later.

As long as the Blues scrum can continue performing like this, they will remain in a strong position.

More of the same

It says it all really that when Josh Goodhue won that 79ᵗʰ minute penalty, my shock lasted just a couple of seconds. It’s a little harsh to say, but this was another typical Chiefs performance.

As with pretty much every match this season – last week’s loss to the Highlanders was an aberration – the Chiefs found themselves starting slowly and conceding 2 tries before they managed to score one of their own. Then once again with the game on the line in the final minutes, questionable decisions and not good enough play ended up costing them.

This is an horrific run from the Chiefs and it needs to be stopped soon. It says it all that from 5 matches, they have come away with 4 bonus points for losing by 7 or less. They are staying within games, but are failing to put together the 80 minute performance needed to turn these close defeats into wins. And with Warren Gatland taking the British and Irish Lions to South Africa in less than a year, I can’t help but wonder how much his mind is on the Chiefs and if any changes will be made any time soon.

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Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Brumbies

Following 2 matches on the road, the Western Force found themselves “home” at the Leichhardt Oval facing off against the Brumbies. It looked like it was going to be a long day for the Force as the Brumbies scored 2 long range tries within 7 minutes of the kickoff, finished by Tom Wright and Irae Simone. Things evened out after this though, and the score remained 0-12 until flanker Will Miller crossed soon after halftime. Replacement hooker Connal McInerney added the Brumbies’ 4ᵗʰ try from the back of a driving maul with 15 minutes remaining. The Force were unable to muster a point of their own but never gave up and held out in the final play after a 79ᵗʰ minute penalty set up one more Brumbies attack from close range, the game ending 0-24.

Outgunned

This was only the 2ⁿᵈ time that the Western Force had been nilled in Super Rugby, the other time coming against the Crusaders in 2007. In my opinion, it is a massive shame that this happened on the same weekend the Waratahs failed to turn up for their match. When the Brumbies took the ball the length of the field twice in the opening 7 minutes, I was worried that this was going to become a cricket score, but the Force reset and played a great game for the remaining 70+ minutes.

Unlike the ‘Tahs, the Force showed desire and competitiveness in all areas of the game, they just found themselves outmatched by a stronger opponent. Not only that, but they had chances to get back in the game with kickable penalties but backed themselves and went for the corner instead. In hindsight it was an error as the Brumbies pack was to strong so the chances were lost, whereas having 6-9 points on the board would have put pressure on the Brumbies.

Even more, they were hurt by the new laws, as their scrum had some strong moments but was denied a shot at the Brumbies from 5m out after being held up due to the law trials changing this to a drop-out, while the Brumbies managed to pull off 3 50/22 kicks to convert heavy pressure from the Force defence in the Brumbies half into a Brumbies lineout in a great position.

They didn’t even get the benefit of a proper home match, being based in Sydney for the tournament rather than their true home of Perth, thereby limiting any support from their fans.

The Force can understandably be disappointed with the result, but when it comes to the performance, they can hold their heads high.

Hope for the future

These opening weeks of Super Rugby AU have already hinted to a bright future for the Wallabies at fly half with the performances of Will Harrison and Noah Lolesio. Well with Lolesio out injured, another youngster got their first Super Rugby start in the form of Bayley Kuenzle.

Kuenzle didn’t look out of place at all in this match. He controlled the team well with a good balance of passes, runs and kicks in worsening conditions, making sure that the Brumbies played as much of the game as they could in the right areas of the pitch. He’ll be disappointed to have only kicked 2/4 conversions but that is something he can work on for next time. What really impressed me, though, was how he was not afraid to get in the thick of things, and happily found himself getting involved in the breakdown and tackle area to the point that he was actually mistaken for flanker Will Miller by the commentators.

With 3 such talented young fly halves coming through, the Wallabies’ future looks to be in good hands. It will be interesting to see how long the Brumbies can hold onto both Lolesio and Kuenzle, before one wants to move on for a regular starting job to compete for a shot in the green and gold.

Blast from the past

Those who remember the 2011 Rugby World Cup may have felt a familiarity at hearing the name of Richard Kahui. The former All Black became a regular starter for New Zealand on their way to winning the title, but has become somewhat of a forgotten figure as he has played in Japan for Toshiba Brave Lupus since 2013. Now aged 35, Kahui has signed onto the Force for Super Rugby AU, and made an immediate impact off the bench.

While he couldn’t single-handedly change the game, the Force defence got an extra little bite with him coming on at 13, while he was also able to have more of an impact on the attack than Marce Brache had been having – in fact, Brache appeared more involved on the wing with Kahui at 13 than he had at 13 himself! I wouldn’t be surprised to see him starting in the next round to see if he can help propel the team to a first tournament victory.

Even if his impact on the field is limited to cameos off the bench, his impact on the squad will be huge due to the experience he will be bringing to the squad. He is a World Cup winner, capped 18 times by one of the most successful teams in rugby. There is a mentality and inner strength that comes with being an All Black, and being around that is only going to benefit young players like Byron Ralston and Jack McGregor.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Hurricanes

Round 7 of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off in spectacular fashion as the Hurricanes came to Christchurch to take on the unbeaten Crusaders. After Jordie Barrett and Richie Mo’unga traded early penalties, a clever lineout move sent Mo’unga over for the opening try, but some poor control at a breakdown soon gave the Hurricanes a chance to hit back through Wes Goosen. George Bridge put the home team back ahead with one of the most fortunate tries you will ever see, but the ‘Canes quickly struck back again through Goosen, while 2 more penalties from Barrett gave the Hurricanes a 17-21 lead at the break.

Barrett and Mo’unga traded penalties again in the third quarter, before Peter Umaga-Jensen scored in the corner, only for replacement lock Quinten Strange to cross soon after for the Crusaders. Barrett extended the lead with another penalty 5 minutes from the end, but an incisive break from Mo’unga put Sevu Reece in the corner immediately after. Mo’unga missed the conversion, but the Crusaders had 1 more chance to win the game, holding onto the ball from the restart and finally working a break down the right wing. It looked like Will Jordan was about to speed away and break Hurricane hearts, but replacement scrum half Jamie Booth managed to snag him and Jordie Barrett was in over the ball quick to earn a penalty and confirm the 32-34 win, the Crusaders’ first loss at home in 4 years.

The perfect storm

The Hurricanes team that we have seen the last few weeks is almost unrecognisable from the team we saw in the opening weeks of the tournament! Jordie Barrett’s return from injury helped to unlock the team and now all the star players have got back to top form, creating a lethal attacking threat.

In players like Ngani Laumape, Ardie Savea, Asafo Aumua, the team has the ball carriers to keep them on the front foot, and while they are also dangerous in space, they also create it for other skilful players like Du’Plessis Kirifi, TJ Perenara, Barrett, Ben Lam, Vince Aso, Dane Coles and Chase Tiatia to exploit. With that much quality, it allows Jackson Garden-Bachop an armchair ride at first five-eighth.

Not only that, but the team is so versatile, especially in the back line, with Perenara’s ability to slot in at 10 as a game manager giving a chance for a scrum half and 2 other backs on the bench, while even many of the starters can shift to another position when substitutions are made – as shown today with Laumape and Umaga-Jense both having to be replaced due to injury. It just makes it less likely that they will get caught out by an enforced change, while also means that the attack can continue phase after phase despite one or 2 players being caught in a breakdown. And with so many weapons, even a solid defence like the Crusaders will struggle to deal with them!

If the Blues and Crusaders can carry on with this season’s form and the ‘Canes stay at this level, New Zealand Super Rugby will cement itself as the best rugby to watch… if it hasn’t already.

Masterful Mo’unga

The greatest travesty of this match is that Mo’unga’s missed conversion from out wide following Sevu Reece’s try ended up being what lost the Crusaders the game. The All Blacks fly half was in fantastic form once again and played a starring role all day. That his only miss from the tee proved key to the result should not count against him.

My closest friends in the rugby community have not spent much time watching Southern Hemisphere rugby, and when they have it’s usually just the big internationals, so when I spent the last couple of years telling them that I would pick Mo’unga at 10 over Beauden Barrett, they thought I was crazy. With one of them now getting his rugby fix by watching Super Rugby Aotearoa, he is beginning to understand my opinion, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree.

Under Steve Hansen, Mo’unga’s chances with the All Blacks were limited, and when he did play, it always felt like he was being limited to a game manager role while Aaron Smith and whoever was at fullback (Damian McKenzie or one of the Barretts) controlled the back line. At the Crusaders however, he is the general of the team, the game manager and the playmaker. He will sit back and put the team in the right areas of the pitch to come away with points, but he will also play a key role in so many of the tries, such as with his try today or his break to set up Sevu Reece. Against the Blues a few weeks back he lifted the team to a new level and he showed flashes of lifting the team late on when he collected a high ball, cut through the defence and kicked ahead, chasing it down and forcing the Hurricanes to take the ball over their line and dot it down.

If I’m building a squad and can pick any current players that I want, I’m building my team around Richie Mo’unga.

The race for number 2

Last week I wrote about how Asafo Aumua was in prime position to be the 3ʳᵈ hooker in the All Blacks squad. One week on and having discussed with my friend Phil, I now find myself considering if he should start.

First off, it feels like with Dane Coles’ getting older and having frequent issues with injuries, it is time to move on from him as the starter (both for the ‘Canes and All Blacks) and instead utilise his pace and experience off the bench with 20 minutes left. Further to that argument, Coles has had some issues with his throwing at the lineout, where Aumua has looked a little more secure, while Aumua also brings more physicality to the starting team to soften up the opponents, with little loss of pace.

So if we assume that he’s above Coles for the reasons above, how about Codie Taylor? Taylor has been the go-to backup for Coles for years and in recent years become legit competition for the starting spot. Like Coles, he is dangerous in space, while a high proportion of the All Blacks tight 5 has regularly been made up of his Crusaders teammates. At 29, he also has 1 more World Cup cycle in him. However, by the time the next World Cup arrives he will be past his prime, whereas Aumua would just be coming into his, while Taylor has again struggled recently at the lineout, with 2 throws today stolen (though Sam Whitelock did well to steal it right back as they played it off the top) and another 2 pinged as not straight.

At 23, with a new head coach in charge of the All Blacks and with the Rugby World Cup just over 3 years away, I think that this would be a great opportunity to establish Aumua as the starter for the national team, with the experience of Coles and Taylor backing him up. By the time the Rugby World Cup comes around, he could be near-unplayable.

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Rebels

Sydney Cricket Ground played host to the opening match of Super Rugby AU’s 4ᵗʰ round as the NSW Waratahs took on the Melbourne Rebels. The ‘Tahs would have been looking to get over the disappointment of losing to the Brumbies in the closing minutes a week earlier, and after Matt To’omua nailed an early penalty, Alex Newsome managed a crucial intercept when on the wrong side of an overlap and take the ball back for a try. After some more penalties from To’omua, Will Harrison kicked one of his own to put the Waratahs back ahead.

That was the closest they got to victory, though, as Ryan Louwrens managed to cross for a try while Michael Hooper was in the bin just before half time. Following the break it was a story of dominance by the Rebels, but with no reward until just minutes from the end when Marika Koroibete, on his 50ᵗʰ Super Rugby appearance, broke through the middle of a ruck and held off the defence to secure the victory while replacement Jed Holloway was in the bin. The Rebels held on through the final minutes to earn their first victory of the tournament, by a score of 10-29.

One to watch

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve really began to enjoy watching Rebels tighthead Pone Fa’amausili. The 23-year-old is still relatively new to rugby union after transferring to the Rebels U20s when things didn’t work out in a couple of NRL youth teams, but he is already looking like he could become a superstar in the coming years.

While there are moments where his inexperience shows, his league background means that he knows how to carry and use his 6’5, 130kg frame to devastating effect – you can see in the way he runs the league-style carrying into the line. In just 6 carries over 44 minutes, Fa’amausili made 41 metres and broke 4 tackles.He is becoming a key part of the Rebels attack in the first half as he is doing such a great job of putting the team on the front foot.

The one issue right now is that he can only manage 40-50 minutes, but it is clear that the team are working with him to improve in this area. Give it a few years and he could be one of the scariest props to face in professional rugby union. Right now, that title arguably goes to fellow Australian tighthead Taniela Tupou, and therein lies a great opportunity for the Wallabies. Tupou’s ability to last at least an hour and still be effective means that they could look to bring in Fa’amausili as his replacement now to have him gain experience within the national set-up, then after 55-60 minutes of teams being ran around and through by Tupou, they can replace him with Fa’amausili to run riot for the final 20 minutes.

Watch this space.

Worst performance of Super Rugby AU

Frankly, the performance from the Waratahs today was atrocious and the result is more about them being poor than the Rebels being good, highlighted by 18 of their points coming when the ‘Tahs were down to 14 men – including 6 points from the penalties that resulted in the yellow cards.

The discipline from the Waratahs was unbelievably bad, with players giving away stupid penalties and not learning from earlier in the match, leading to 2 yellow cards due to repeat offences by the team. But it can’t even be argued that they were fighting too hard, as the fight rarely looked there beyond a couple of last ditch tackles.

The game ended with the ‘Tahs making just 265 metres, compared to the Rebels’ 794. 44 runs compared to 122. They managed just 32% of possession in the game, even lower in the second half. There was no fight there and the penalties denied them any opportunity. Then defensively, they missed 29/168 tackle attempts (82.7% tackle completion). Against such a performance, the Rebels barely had to get out of 3ʳᵈ gear.

This is the risk of playing such a young team. They will have some great matches, but they will also have some where they will really struggle. The coaches and leaders on the pitch need to step up in this upcoming bye week to help the young players through the hard times, otherwise they could be in for a tough couple of weeks.

Bad spell

One player who really needs the bye week is Waratahs fullback Jack Maddocks. The 23-year-old is an amazing talent, but has really struggled in the last 2 weeks. More worryingly, you can see that his confidence is low, with a number of shots of him with his head down or shaking his head following mistakes.

A few weeks ago, I highlighted Shane Falco’s (Keanu Reeves) “Quicksand” speech from the movie The Replacements as a great metaphor for a bad game from Chiefs number 8 Pita Gus Sowakula. It also works perfectly here. Sometimes when you’re going through a bad spell you try to play through it and you just end up getting into an even worse position. In this game, Maddocks was clearly in his own head, and it was leading to him dropping high balls that he would usually take easily, while he also clearly hesitated at times before throwing a pass, putting his target in trouble.

The good news is that as a young player, he can bounce back from this, but he will need to be dealt with right over the bye week. And if he is still not right by the next match, then he should be taken out of the firing line. The next 2 weeks are where the coaches will earn their money.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Highlanders

Round 6 of Super Rugby Aotearoa concluded with the reverse of the tournament’s opening match as the Highlanders travelled to Hamilton to face off against the Chiefs. Warren Gatland’s men were 0-4 at the halfway point but found themselves building an early lead with tries through Lachlan Boshier and Anton Lienert-Brown. Rob Thompson found himself sent to the bin on 14 minutes for a high tackle and after Damian McKenzie kicked the resulting penalty for 3 points, the Chiefs took advantage of the extra man to score a 3ʳᵈ try through hooker Bradley Slater. he Highlanders finally began to muster a response after this and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u scored on the half hour mark to make the halftime score 24-7.

The Chiefs started the second half on fire and Bradley Slater crossed for his 2nd try just minutes after the restart, but things were soon to change drastically. Josh Ioane has been introduced at the break following his return from injury and a reshuffle of the back line soon resulted in Mitch Hunt breaking away out wide for a try. The Highlanders continued to claw themselves back into the game and a great example of support running by Aaron Smith saw the All Blacks halfback cross just before the hour mark, with Hunt converting to make the score 31-19. The clock appeared to be against the Highlanders, until Jona Nareki found a gap on 75 minutes and went 60 metres to score – Hunt converting – before a stupid penalty from the Chiefs pack as time expired allowed the Highlanders to kick the ball out 5m from the Chiefs’ try line. The catch and drive came from the Otago outfit and as the Chiefs committed extra defenders to hold them out, Aaron Smith took advantage of the space created to draw the only nearby defender and feed Sio Tomkinson to score under the posts and level the score, with Hunt kicking the conversion to seal a 31-33 comeback victory.

 

Winless

This last-gasp defeat to the Highlanders has left the Chiefs in a bad spot. They find themselves 0-5 in the competition and with their bye coming in Round 10, they have no break in which to regroup for a final push. They desperately need that break right now as they just can’t find a way to win. When you go 24-7 up, there should be no way that you collapse badly enough to lose, and yet that’s exactly what the Chiefs did.

When I look at the attacking stats, it’s no surprise that they lost. Boshier was the only player to make more than 5 metres (55 from 5 carries), while the starting wingers managed just 8 carries between them. It felt like the physicality of young lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi and control of Aaron Cruden (who was inexplicably left on the bench even as the game turned against them). But even worse was the way they handed the match to the Highlanders at the death. After Boshier won a penalty with a great jackal – one of a couple of key penalties he won in similar fashion late on – the Chefs cleared their line and set about securing the lineout with seconds left, only to be penalised for obstruction, allowing the Highlanders the possession and field position to win the game.

Next week, the Chiefs travel to a Blues team that will be looking to end a 2-game slide, before hosting the unbeaten Crusaders and travelling to a resurgent Hurricanes. Looking at that run-in, I struggle to see the Chiefs finishing with anything other than an 0-8 record.

T-M-Oh No!

While I don’t feel that the Chiefs deserved the victory on their 80 minute performance, things could have been very different but for a contentious disallowed try. With the score at 31-19 in the 65ᵗʰ minute, an overthrown lineout on halfway was recovered by the Chiefs and a couple of phases later Damian McKenzie crossed for a try beneath the posts. However, the try was chalked off after Mike Fraser referred to the TMO, who concluded that following the overthrown lineout, the ball went forward off Sam Cane’s knee and contacted Kaleb Trask, who was in front of him and therefore in an offside position, resulting in a Highlanders scrum on halfway.

While this was morally the right decision as had the officials picked up on it at the time, play would not have continued, but the issue comes from play continuing and the referee referring the try to the TMO. When the TMO is checking if a try can be allowed they can only look back over the last 2 phases, however there were 3 very clear rucks between the offence and the try, which means that the TMO should have awarded the try due to nothing in the final 2 phases that could merit disallowing the try.

Personally, I think that incidents like this should lead to a TMO process where the footage is actively rewound on screen so we can all clearly see how far back the footage has gone and make sure it is not taken beyond that second phase.

Back line balance

A few weeks ago, I suggested bringing in Bryn Gatland to help create a dual playmaker axis to help Mitch Hunt. While they didn’t ever do this, they went one step better this week with the return of Josh Ioane from injury.

Realising that things weren’t working well enough in the first half, Ioane was brought on at half time for Rob Thompson, prompting a reshuffle to the back line, with fullback Michael Collins filling in for Thompson at 13, Hunt dropping back to 15 and Ioane at first five-eighth. The impact was so positive and almost instant. Collins looked more dangerous at 13, where his distribution skills helped to exploit gaps in the defence, while Hunt’s extra freedom allowed him to really show of his running skills as he made breaks out wide to great effect.

With the performance in the second half, I think that the Highlanders may have hit on their ideal back line for the coming games. Aaron Smith is in wonderful form and is an easy pick at 9. Ioane will only get better at 10 the more he plays there following his injury. Sio Tomkinson is solid and reliable at 12, while Collins should remain at 13. Hunt should play at 15 t create the dual playmaker axis with Ioane, while the wings should be Jona Nareki – who made a key impact off the bench and has been one of the more consistent wingers – and (assuming Nehe Milner-Skudder is not fit) Josh McKay, who looked assured at 14 in this match and put some pressure on the defence with his impressive pace.

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Brumbies

Round 3 of Super Rugby AU completed at ANZ Stadium as the Waratahs hosted the Brumbies. The away team shot out of the blocks and took an early lead when Thomas Cusack crossed for the opening try after 5 minutes. 2 Will Harrison penalties put the Waratahs ahead and with Brumbies winger Andy Muirhead in the bin, they soon extended their lead with tries from Tom Horton and James Ramm, Harrison kicking both conversions. The Brumbies fought back after the half hour mark, however, and tries from Folau Fainga’a and Rob Valentini pulled them back to 20-17 by the break.

In the second half, points were at a premium. Harrison kicked another penalty to extend the lead to 6. Then with just minues left, a period of sustained pressure from the Brumbies saw replacement scrum half Issak Fines find a gap to cross under the posts, with Bayley Kuenzle – on just before half time for the injured Noah Lolesio – kicking the conversion to win the game 23-24.

Evolution is a long process

By the 3ʳᵈ round of Super Rugby Aotearoa, here was a clear improvement in team discipline as players adapted to the new interpretations by referees at the breakdown. Right now, I’m not seeing this same improvement in Australia. Andy Muirhead found himself sin binned just a quarter of the way through the match after referee Angus Gardner tired of a series of offside penalties in quick succession. It is not hard to stay onside at the breakdown, and while a couple of penalties due to players jumping the gun is understandable, the sheer number of penalties being given away was ridiculous and they are lucky that this didn’t end up costing them the match.

But it’s not just the offside that the teams seem to be struggling with. Michael Hooper is an elite openside flanker and a wily jackal, and yet time after time in this game I heard him conversing at the breakdown with Angus Gardner, appealing for a “Holding on” penalty only to be told that his jackal wasn’t valid as he was not supporting his own weight. Years of the laws being ignored has led to players struggling to adapt from not supporting their weight and just getting over the ball like a barnacle into supporting their weight and positively trying to lift the ball to affect the turnover.

If some of Australia’s best players are struggling to adapt to these new adaptations, the Wallabies could be in trouble when internationals return.

Lineout woes

The Brumbies’ driving maul off a lineout is one of the most dangerous weapons in rugby. There is only one problem: their lineout is far from perfect.

The Brumbies had a whopping 22 lineouts during the game, but only managed to win 14 of them (63%). The set pieces are such vital areas of the game, you know that there will be significant time spent on this area, so to only win 63% on your own throw (with such a high number of attempts) is woeful. With stats like that, you don’t deserve to be winning the game.

You have to imagine that either the same is happening in practice, in which case why is it not being addressed and improved. If this is only happening in the game, then the coaches need to find out what is stopping the team from performing the same in training. Either way, changes need to made quick, or the opposition will start to play a territory first game, kicking the ball out downfield in the expectation of being able to win the ball back at a number of their lineouts.

Play of the game

Without a doubt my favourite moment of the game was James Ramm’s 29ᵗʰ minute try. With a penalty around halfway, Will Harrison had the ball and it looked like he was going to put the ball in the corner over the nearside touchline. However as the Brumbies positioned themselves to react to this, he took a quick tap and instead kicked deep into the 22 on the far side of the pitch, allowing the ball to bounce into the hands of James Ramm, who had timed his run perfectly.

The reason I love this so much: it’s 2 young players who were not afraid to play want was in front of them and take a chance on something that probably isn’t guaranteed. A lineout in the Brumbies’ 22 was all-but guaranteed if they went to the corner, but instead, Harrison and Ramm saw a chance an went for the high risk/high reward option. That ball could have bounced anywhere in the moment but luck was on their side and it bounced up perfectly for the try.

I love seeing these moments of heads-up play and individuality so much. Too often these days rugby is just played by rote, with multi-phase planned moves to manipulate a defence in a certain way to complete the move as expected. Perhaps this heads-up rugby is why I enjoy watching Fiji and the All Blacks so much.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Blues

The second half of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off with the reverse fixtures from Round 1 and the Hurricanes hosting the Blues in Wellington. It was a match notable for Beauden Barrett’s return to Sky Stadium after leaving for the Blues, and home fans were ecstatic to see him beaten on the outside by Ngani Laumape just minutes into the match for the opening try. Barrett soon got the chance to laugh back as he slipped through a gap to score on 10 minutes. Another charge from Laumape saw Emoni Narawa sent to the bin, but the Blues emerged from this unscathed, before Dalton Papali’i was driven over at the other end. Reed Prinsep crossed for the Hurricanes’ 2ⁿᵈ try of the game and on the stroke of halftime, Jordie Barrett kicked a penalty to level the scores at 15-15.

The tries kept coming after halftime, with Dane Coles running a clever line to go over from short range just a few minutes into the half, but the Blues fought back and scored 2 more tries through Akira Ioane and Kurt Eklund. As the clock ticked into the final minutes it looks like the Blues were going to get back to winning ways, but a late lineout drive saw replacement hooker Asafo Aumua cross to level the scores, with Jordie Barrett nailing the conversion to seal a 29-27 victory and spoil his older brother’s return home.

He came in like a wrecking ball

I’ve noted a couple of times throughout the tournament how the Hurricanes appeared to be struggling to utilise Ngani Laumape, but appeared to be getting closer last week. Well this week, everything clipped. Laumape showed a surprising turn of pace on a couple of attacks out wide – beating Beauden Barrett around the outside just a couple of minutes in – and combined this well with his monstrous physicality to devastating effect.

The ‘Canes centre finished the game with 17 carries for 160 metres, with 4 clean breaks and 5 defenders beaten, and was unlucky not to get a second try shortly after his first as 3 men combined to stop him inches short, leading to Narawa’s yellow card when he refused to roll away. It genuinely felt like every time he got the ball he was making big yards to put the team on the front foot. Even defensively he had an impact, only making 3 tackles but with some of them coming in key moments as the ‘Canes fought to come from behind.

I always felt that leaving Laumape out of the Rugby World Cup squad was a mistake. If he can keep up this form, only an idiot would not bring him back into the squad.

Selection error?

While Laumape was virtually unstoppable in this match, I also think that he was helped by an error in selection from the Blues.

Harry Plummer at 12 creates a great playmaking axis with Otere Black and Beauden Barrett, but I was personally expecting the more defensively solid TJ Faiane to get the start. Even before we knew who the ‘Canes were playing at centre, you just have to look at their options – Laumape, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Billy Proctor and Vince Aso – to know that they will be coming with a physical approach. Then you have to account for players like Ardie Savea and Ben Lam… this is a physical Hurricanes team.

Now Plummer didn’t do bad, but he did only complete 8/10 tackles in his 45 minutes on the pitch, during which time Laumape ran riot. When Faiane took over at 12, Laumape’s impact on the game was lessened, but too late as he had already done the damage.

With the Chiefs visiting Eden Park next week, the coaches have a big decision to make at 12.

Flying Scotsman

If Scotland want to be successful in the coming years then I hope they are paying some serious attention to Finlay Christie. The 24-year-old was born in Peebles, Scotland, but moved to New Zealand when he was 7. Having previously played for the Chiefs and ‘Canes, he is onto his 3ʳᵈ Super Rugby franchise, but looks in a great position to cement a starting spot ahead of Sam Nock and Jonathan Ruru.

Christie controls the game so well, keeping a good tempo to the phases, and while his kicking game isn’t elite, I would argue that it is better than current Scottish internationals Ali Price and George Horne. But even more so, he is an accomplished defender, with this game highlighting his skills as he repeatedly snagged Ardie Savea and single-handedly stopped him carrying off the back of scrums, while he also put in a fine cover tackle on opposite number TJ Perenara. Watching him play, I’m confident that he could quickly establish himself in the Scottish XV if he were to move North.

But more than that, this game really highlighted to me a certain ability to just be a nuisance. This doesn’t surprise me too much given the time he spent playing at the Hurricanes as backup to TJ Perenara, who makes nuisance an art form. As well as causing issues for Savea picking up from the base of the scrum, Christie did a good job n the whole of blocking Perenara off from getting to his own number 8, while he also cheekily took his chance to reach over a ruck after Perenara picked up the ball in order to smack it out of his hands. He’s certainly on his way to becoming the type of scrum half that is hated by everyone but his own team, and that’s exactly what the Scots need.

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