Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU Final: Brumbies v Reds

12 weeks of Super Rugby AU action came to an end in Canberra today with the final, between the table-topping Brumbies and the Queensland Reds, who finished 2ⁿᵈ in the round-robin standings before defeating the Rebels in last weekend’s Qualifying Final.

After Noah Lolesio and James O’Connor traded early penalties, the Brumbies drew first blood as their ever-dangerous lineout drive managed to get Folau Fainga’a over the line for the opening try, with Lolesio kicking the extras. The Brumbies continued to pile on the pressure, and when Lolesio managed to draw the attention of 4 defenders in the 26ᵗʰ minute, his offload to Andy Muirhead gave the winger a clear gap to go through and he was able to ride the challenges of Taniela Tupou and Filipo Daugunu to make it across the line. It looked like the Brumbies were going to dominate the game, but Jordan Petaia found a gap in broken play just after the half hour mark and exploited it to full effect, going clear through before offloading to supporting number 8 Harry Wilson to cross for the try. O’Connor kicked the conversion and a penalty at the end of the half to make the score at the break 15-13.

The Brumbies struck first after the break, after a quick tap penalty from Muirhead put the Reds defence on the back foot, allowing Tom Banks to cross as the ball was spread wide, with Lolesio adding the extras, before adding a drop goal with the very next attack. Things went from bad to worse for the Reds, who had lost Petaia and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto to injury in the opening minutes of the half, as Filipo Daugunu was sent to the bin from the restart for a tip tackle on Lachlan McCaffrey, and Lolesio used this time to get the Brumbies in the Reds half and score another 3 pints off the tee. With the Reds back to a full complement, O’Connor kicked a penalty to bring the deficit back to within 2 converted tries, before Tate McDermott slipped his way inside the Brumbies 22. The scrum half was dragged down just short of the line and lost control of the ball, but TMO reviews showed that it went backwards, before being kicked over the line by a defender tackling Liam Wright and eventually dotted down by Angus Blyth for the try. O’Connor nailed the conversion, but any further attempts by the Reds to score were thwarted and the Brumbies held on to secure the 28-23 win and become the first Super Rugby AU Champions.

Indisciplined

When the Reds lost to the Brumbies earlier in the competition, it was their awful discipline that proved costly. In their win in the reverse fixture 2 weeks ago, the Reds kept their discipline and controlled the game. The Reds came into the final the least-penalised team in the competition, but quickly found themselves getting on the wrong side of Angus Gardner.

While it didn’t directly cost them in quite the same way as that previous loss, the ill discipline was still costly today, as it made it so hard for the team to create any pressure on the Brumbies as they could not get any consistent time inside the Brumbies half until they improved their discipline in the final quarter, while the penalties simply allowed the Brumbies to kick into the Reds 22 and put the pressure on.

What made this even more disappointing for the Reds is just how avoidable many of these penalties were. Tip tackles, high tackles and taking the man in the air were all stupid penalties, while Hamish Stewart also gave away a penalty for being lazy and not retreating to the hind foot as the Brumbies driving maul surged forwards.

It’s not as if the Brumbies were too disciplined themselves either, especially at the scrum, and if the Reds had been just a little more disciplined, the game was there to be won.

 Welcome return

The big talking point ahead of the match was the Brumbies’ decision to start Noah Lolesio at fly half in his first action since 18ᵗʰ July, where he picked an injury. Looking back on the match, it’s fair to say the risk paid off.

While Bayley Kuenzle has done a good job of stepping into the void following Lolesio’s injury, he plays more like a 12 than a 10, so getting Lolesio back in really helped the structure of the attack. It is no surprise that Tevita Kuridrani looked much more dangerous today with Lolesio pulling the strings, while his range of passes and kicks really opened the game up for the Brumbies.

Having been named as 1 of 4 fly halves in Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, how much will the youngster play? I envision that he’s currently ahead of Will Harrison, but it will depend on how much focus Rennie puts on development over results during this tournament. Personally, I can see James O’Connor and Matt To’omua getting the majority of the minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lolesio get some decent time against Argentina.

Injured again

Jordan Petaia is a fantastic talent and I’ve absolutely loved watching him in Super Rugby AU. There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one: the poor lad just can’t seem to stay fit. This latest injury came as he scythed through the Brumbies defence at the half hour mark. He was clean through and it looked like he would make it to the line, but appeared to feel a twinge in his groin and took the safe option of offloading to Harry Wilson, who crossed for the try. While Petaia played on, he did not return to the pitch following the halftime break.

Petaia has an incredible set of ball skills to go with great pace, power and elusiveness. I just can’t help but worry right now that he is set to join the list of players like James Simpson-Daniel – incredible talents who consistently find themselves missing time through injury, stopping them reaching the heights they should.

Personally, I feel that Petaia would benefit from being rested during the Rugby Championship even if he is fit, to ensure that he is 100% back to full fitness rather than just match-fit. The last thing we want is for such a great young talent to be lost from the game too soon.

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Western Force

Super Saturday in the Southern Hemisphere kicked off in Newcastle as the Melbourne Rebels took on the Western Force at McDonald Jones Stadium in the opening match of Super Rugby AU’s 10ᵗʰ round.

With Round 10 being the final round of the round-robin format, this was the Force’s last chance to avoid an 0-8 whitewash in their return to Super Rugby, while the Rebels knew that a win by at least 4 points (or a bonus point win) was required to enter next weekend’s Qualifying Final at the expense of the Waratahs.

After Ian Prior opened the scoring off the tee, the Rebels got the opening try through Tom Pincus, only for Henry Taefu to put the Force back ahead just minutes later. A pair of penalties from Matt To’omua put the Rebels back ahead, before Trevor Hosea charged down an attempted box kick from Prior, which prop Cameron Orr collected and spread with a lovely wide pass to Reece Hodge to score in the corner. With a danger of the game getting away from the Force, Andrew Ready managed to cross at the back of a driving maul on the stroke of half time, to make the score 20-13.

The second half started like the first ended, with Ready crashing over for a try off the back of a driving maul, with Prior kicking the conversion and a penalty 11 minutes later to regain the lead, while the Rebels were left to rue Isi Naisarani pouncing off the back of a driving maul a bit too early and being stopped short of the line. With Pincus sent to the bin for a deliberate knock-on, Brynard Stander powered over the line and Prior converted to give the Force a 10-point lead. Things were beginning to look bad for the Rebels, but a moment of great interplay from Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge and Marika Koroibete down the right wing saw the fullback score on his return from injury. With the Rebels now only 3 points down, it felt like momentum was once again turning in their favour as Byron Ralston was sent to the sin bin as he took out the jumper in the air at the restart. And so began the siege of the Force’s try line as the Rebels looked to take control and score the converted try that would see them continue in the competition. Marika Koroibete thought he had scored, only for the try to be disallowed for a forward pass. With both Pincus and Ralston back on, the pressure intensified and Fergus Lee-Warner was sent to the bin with 6 minutes remaining.

What followed must have taken years off the lives of Rebels and Waratahs fans alike. Cabous Eloff thought he had scored the winning try, but was disallowed by the TMO – their 3ʳᵈ disallowed try of the game. Matt Philip became disallowed try number 4 and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one at this point thinking that the Force were about to hold on for the unlikeliest of wins. With just 90 seconds remaining, a call went up from the Rebels that replacement hooker Efitusi Ma’afu had dotted down over the line and it was up the the TMO again, who ruled that the ball had been grounded short. However, as Angus Gardner had not immediately blown the whistle, he allowed the footage to continue and with no clear knock-on or illegal act from the Rebels, the ball came to Cabous Eloff, who dotted down over the line while most players had already stopped thinking Ma’afu had scored. With the try awarded just to the right of the posts, it was an easy but high-pressure kick for To’omua, but he successfully bisected the posts as time ran out to secure a 34-30 victory and ensure the Rebels’ Super Rugby AU campaign lasts at least anther week.

Costly cards

While it feels harsh to pin the blame for this loss on anyone, I can’t help feel that the yellow cards to Byron Ralston and Fergus Lee-Warner proved costly. With just 20 minutes left, the Force found themselves with a 1-man advantage for the next 6 minutes. Instead, Ralston’s yellow levelled the numbers and gave the Rebels territory just as momentum appeared to be shifting back to them following Dane Haylett-Petty’s try. Granted no points were scored while Ralston was in the bin, but it went a long way to heaping the pressure on the Force that they eventually couldn’t withstand.

By far the more stupid yellow card, though, was that of Fergus Lee-Warner. The flanker was having a great game, but made a stupid decision to cynically – and obviously – play the ball while on the floor at the breakdown. As such a physical player, he was a big loss to the defensive line, who now knew they were at a numerical disadvantage so would probably end up leaving a gap somewhere if the Rebels attacked well. It’s not as if the illegal act was even required there to save a try (i.e. taking one for the team) as the defence was set quicker than the attack at that breakdown, still with a bit of distance to go to the line. There is every chance that the Rebels would have scored in those remaining 6 minutes, but losing Lee-Warner made things much harder for them, while also being a bad way for the player to end an impressive season.

Uncertain Future

Right now, things are very up in the air as to the future of Super Rugby. However one thing is for certain: the Western Force have proved that they deserve a spot in whatever regional competition the Australian sides end up playing in. They were not meant to play n Super Rugby this year and had very little time to put together a side capable of competing, and yet managed to do exactly that.

I expect that a lot of the players on short-term contracts will not remain with the club, but if they can build around young Australian talent like Jack McGregor, Bryron Ralston, Kane Koteca and Fergus Lee-Warner and convince some of these players like Brynard Stander, Henry Taefu and Henry Stowers to stay with the club, then they have a chance of remaining competitive.

The important thing is not to expect immediate results from them. Being cut from Super Rugby will have hared them beyond the 1ˢᵗ XV as the best Academy talent will have gone elsewhere too. It may take a few seasons for them to build a team capable of winning games. It may take longer for them to build a squad capable of finishing in the top half of any standings, but that time must be allowed to them, so that we can truly see a force of rugby in Western Australia again.

Midfield mayhem

The Rebels may have advanced to the Qualifying Final, but they look far from the quality of the Reds and Brumbies. I can’t help feel that part of their issue has been the lack of consistency in midfield (fly half and the centres).

Yes, the Reds have changed things up quite a bit there, but that has generally been due to injuries, so there has still been some degree of consistency from week to week, while the Brumbies have generally stuck to the same handful of players, again with injuries often causing the changes to the starting trio.

In contrast, the Rebels spent the first half of the tournament with Matt To’omua at 10 before trying a tactical change by moving him out to 12 and bringing in Andrew Deegan, before going back to the original plan in this final round after deciding the Deegan experiment hadn’t worked. Specialist centres Bill Meakes and Campbell Magnay have been in and out of the XV, which will have impacted their ability to get any consistency, while you have also seen Andrew Kellaway and Reece Hodge play outside centre, wing and fullback – is it any real wonder why Kellaway looked out of form in this competition with the constant chopping and changing?

While I understand some degree of rotation and tactical selection is necessary, if we are rarely seeing the same trio play together, it’s going to be so hard for them to build any real semblance of chemistry. And when it comes to the tight games, that chemistry makes a big difference as you naturally know where your teammate will be, allowing you to trust your teammates more and focus on your own game.

Right now, I think this lack of consistent selection in the Rebels midfield is going to prove costly against a Reds team that is going from strength to strength.

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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 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 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: Chiefs v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Hurricanes

A weekend of rugby came to an end with the Hurricanes’ trip to Hamilton to face off against the Chiefs. The ‘Canes were welcoming back Jordie Barrett from injury and he made an almost immediate impact as he spread the ball wide for Kobus van Wyk to score the opening try just 5 minutes in. Barrett and McKenzie traded penalties, before a Dane Coles intercept set up Du’Plessis Kirifi to score a couple of phases later, while Barrett put an exclamation point on the first half by nailing a penalty from about 60 metres out to send the teams into the break with the score at 3-20.

McKenzie kicked another penalty early in the second half, but a Jamie Booth break put van Wyk over in the corner again to extend the lead. Then around the hour, the Chiefs began to put more sustained pressure on their opponents and with 15 minutes left, Damian McKenzie’s quick-tap penalty looked set to end in a try, but he was snagged by Scott Scrafton – only just back on following a yellow card – before he had retreated the 10 metres, resulting in a penalty try and an early shower for the second row. With the game back on, the final 15 minutes became an open affair and Lachlan Boshier crossed with a couple of minutes left to bring the Chiefs in bonus point range, but McKenzie missed the conversion and the Chiefs were unable to mount another successful attack, eventually going down 18-25.

A welcome return

“The ‘Canes will be hoping Barrett’s back soon to help utilise the back line to its fullest.” – Hurricanes v Crusaders

Jordie Barrett made his return to the Hurricanes lineup this week and it’s impossible to argue that he didn’t improve the team. Jackson Garden-Bachop has played well but not utilised the back line by taking the ball to the line often enough. With Barrett now at 15, it created that same dual playmaker axis that we have seen the Chiefs and Blues using, which immediately helped the team. Players like Dane Coles, Ardie Savea and Peter Umaga-Jensen were released through the midfield to devastating effect, while Barrett’s wide pass for van Wyk’s opener was effective even if it wasn’t pretty.

But Barrett did more than just that. He is an incredible athlete and strong runner as well as a talented playmaker, giving him multiple ways to take on his opponent and put the ‘Canes on the front foot. But his biggest weapon of all was his monster boot. Whether it was kicks to touch, a drop goal attempt from close to halfway or his penalty that was (when you consider the angle) probably about 60 metres out, he was so accurate from such long range. Straight away this gives his team an advantage, as any penalties close to the Hurricanes 10m line can be kicked into a great attacking position, any close to halfway or within the opponent’s half are a legitimate opportunity to keep the scoreboard ticking over, and any loose clearance kicks without an effective chase could also end in a long range drop goal.

The only issue with his return is that putting him at fullback comes at the expense of Chase Tiatia, who has been one of their more dangerous runners in the opening rounds. They could try moving Barrett to fly half and having Garden-Bachop enter the fray later in the game (which is surely better than a part-time stand-off like Perenara), but I think the success in this game came in part from the dual playmakers as opposed to just having Barrett there. it would be tough to have Barrett play a similar role from the wing, but with Tiatia playing more of a prototypical fullback role, potentially he could be utilised on the wing while Barrett stays at 15, which would create a dangerous counterattacking duo for any wayward kicks.

What will the ‘Canes do? Only time will tell.

2 strikes, you’re off!

It’s not very often that you see a player sent off in a rugby match after receiving 2 yellow cards, but that was the fate that befell Hurricanes lock Scott Scrafton in this game. The lock was initially yellow carded by referee Ben O’Keeffe for repeated offences in the lineout, and then minutes after coming on did not retreat far enough back to be legal when stopping Damian McKenzie from scoring at a quick-tap penalty.

Now the commentary team did not seem happy with Ben O’Keeffe’s decision – neither did the ‘Canes players, which is no surprise – but I think that O’Keeffe was spot on in his decision, though you could tell even he wasn’t happy about having to show Scrafton a red card. Scrafton was penalised at least 3 times at the lineout, which is criminal, and should have adapted his game after the first one or 2 penalties. Repeat offending is always going to end in a yellow and an experienced lock like Scrafton (who is the team’s key lineout operator) should know to adapt the way he is playing in order to get on the right side of the officials. Then, for the second yellow, there is no argument. Scrafton was clearly never onside (back behind the try line), McKenzie took the penalty legally and Scrafton tackled him from an illegal position which clearly stopped the scoring of a try. The penalty try was completely justified and (unfortunately, in my opinion) the laws state that a penalty try is an automatic yellow card, though I would argue that even if it wasn’t denying a legitimate attack by not being back 10 metres at a penalty would usually also be a yellow card offence.

Now it’s only fair to also comment on the decision to only give a penalty against Sam Cane about 5 minutes before the red card. Yes, the contact was late. Yes, the contact was with the shoulder and not the arm. However, the slow-mo replays made the incident look so much worse and re-watching the incident live showed that the incident was something and nothing – in fact Dane Coles did worse to Beauden Barrett off the ball in the opening round and everybody just had a laugh about that!

Power pairs

It’s been something on my mind for a while, but this round of matches really cemented for me just how much quality the New Zealand franchises have at scrum half. Aaron Smith reminded everyone yesterday of his quality, while today, both starting scrum halves TJ Perenara and Brad Weber put in strong performances and their replacements Jamie Booth and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi managed to have positive impacts on the match.

Looking at all of the New Zealand franchise squads, they all have such strong 1-2 punches at scrum half. Jamie Booth has looked incredible coming off the bench and attacking tiring defences when Perenara has moved to stand-off. I’ve already mentioned how I think that Tahuriorangi could benefit from a move to get more regular starts and challenge for the All Blacks squad. Sam Nock has improved by the week but hasn’t seemed at quite the same level as many of the other starters (he could work great as Weber’s back-up if the Blues and Chiefs could arrange a swap, though), but Finlay Christie has then done a great job of upping the tempo from the bench and the Scottish selectors should be talking with him. The Crusaders may not have a big name at halfback, but Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond are great talents and Drummond especially gets the quick ball coming. The fact that Kayne Hammington is left to last is not so much a judgement of his talent, but more just the fact that with Aaron Smith leading the team, he plays so infrequently compared to many of his fellow scrum halves.

When you look at the quality of those 10 names and compare to the top 10 available for any other country (assuming Finlay Christie is not picked up by the Scots), do many other countries come close to such a level of talent? None immediately come to mind.

feat rugby super rugby aotearoa logo white

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

With coronavirus fears causing Ireland’s game against Italy to be postponed, Round 4 of the Six Nations eventually kicked off at Twickenham with England’s match against Wales. Anthony Watson gave England an early lead, which was added to by Elliot Daly and the boot of Owen Farrell, the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar keeping Wales just in it for a 20-9 halftime score. Wales hit back immediately after the break with a try from Justin Tipuric, but a try for Manu Tuilagi helped England pull away, before the centre’s late red card and a yellow for Ellis Genge gave Wales a 2-man advantage, which allowed them to have the final say through tries for Dan Biggar and Tipuric again to come away with a losing bonus point, the 33-30 final score earning England the Triple Crown.

 

England

England may go down as the victors, but they came so close to shooting themselves in the foot with their poor discipline. A game between these two nations is always going to be a tetchy affair, but there were moments that England took things too far. Captain Owen Farrell saw him penalised on his own line for an unnecessary shove that sparked a brawl and was potentially lucky to not be penalised again shortly later for shoving over Dan Biggar while chasing a kick, while Joe Marler may find himself in hot water for trying to get to know Alun Wyn Jones a little too well during one scuffle. Then with less than 10 minutes left, Ellis Genge was yellow carded for persistent offending from the team and Manu Tuilagi was given a red card for a high shot on George North, which almost cost England the game as Wales scored 14 points in the final 5 minutes. Had they had another 5 minutes, I can’t help but feel that their numerical advantage would have seen them come away with the win.

10 penalties is too many for a team to give away if they want to win a game, England need to buck up their ideas if they want to improve their chances of success in the big games.

Wales

When I asked my friend Gez (a Wales fan who has contributed on some previous posts) what he thought of Wales’ performance, I got the following reply:

So we can score against 13 and can’t defend wide, narrow or against hard runners, that’s what we’ve learned here

While I fully agree that the defensive set-up needs looking at as it is allowing teams to get around them too easily, I think that Wales’ current situation needs remembering. They have just had a change in coaches so will take a moment to adapt to a new playing style, but came into this match missing a number of players who have played key roles in the team recently: Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, Tomas Francis, Josh Adams and Rhys Patchell. They also had Josh Navidi, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar (who I question if he as really even 95% fit) playing having recently returned from injury and had Jake Ball and Dillon Lewis go off injured during the game and Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Aaron Shingler finish the game in varying degrees of fitness. Further to that, there were other players like Owen Lane and Willis Haloholo out injured, who could have positively impacted the team.

Given that injury list, it is hard to look into Wales performance too much right now. Yes, big improvements are needed quickly if Wales want to start winning more, but it is important to not make any snap reactions now. Having a key partnership like hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies return (or even have Halaholo covering for one of these players) with a fully fit Josh Navidi in the back row will immediately make the middle of the park feel ore secure against big runners like a Manu Tuilagi, giving a better platform to build the defence off. If the issues persist with a team much closer to the ideal XV, then change will be needed.


My standout players

Manu Tuilagi‘s game may have ended on a negative, but his hard carrying helped put England on the front foot, while Anthony Watson looked great on his return from injury. Ben Youngs also put in one of his best performances in recent years, controlling the game and exploiting a number of gaps around the breakdown.

It was harder to pick out for Wales in a largely disappointing performance, but Josh Navidi clearly had a positive impact on his return from injury and lasted the full 80 minutes, while his return also appeared to free up Justin Tipuric to have more impact in the loose. Finally, a mention for Dan Biggar, who completed the full 80 minutes despite not appearing to be fully fit after his injury last weekend and did everything he could to keep Wales in the game, though it did feel like somewhat of a kick in the teeth to keep Jarrod Evans on the bench.

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

Talking with one of my mates at work the other week, we both found ourselves feeling a bit of a disconnect in our interest for Premiership Rugby this season, despite competing against each other in fantasy rugby. I thought about that a bit over the next few days and realised that it’s not just the Premiership, I’m feeling some degree of apathy to rugby in general. Obviously not enough to stop me wanting to write about it, but enough that I’m finding myself less interested in watching everything I can over recent months.

But what’s causing this? Is it that I have reached rugby saturation due to the World Cup filling most of the usual break? Considering I’ve been known to watch 8 or 9 matches in a weekend and want to watch more, I don’t think it’s that. Is it Gloucester’s struggles this season? Well I’m used to that. Is it the frustration of watching players in the form of their life being ignored by Eddie Jones for players who don’t know the position? Potentially a little bit, but my apathy goes beyond England and the Premiership. Is it the absolute shambles of Sarries finally being found guilty of systematic cheating for years and the punishment that still doesn’t feel like it’s been dealt with right? Again, I think it’s had an impact, but my feelings go well beyond the Premiership.

Then watching the games the last few weeks, it hit me: I’m sick of watching every game get ruined by poor officiating. Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I have incredible respect for the officials and this is not an attack at them, more a point that officiating has reached a terrible level and things need to change soon in order to save the sport that I love.

What do I mean when I talk about the poor officiating? I’m not railing about seatbelt tackles being the softest of penalties, because I understand why the rules are how they are. It’s not even the prospective changes to the laws coming in, though I’m strongly against some of them. It’s the fact that officials are routinely ignoring even blatant offences, which is having a negative impact on the competitiveness of a game.

Let’s look at some examples. CJ Stander avoided punishment for taking the law into his own hands against England by striking Owen Farrell with an open hand multiple times after Farrell tried holding him in a ruck. Generally, retaliation will see the penalty reversed, while Law 9.12: “A player must not strike an opponent with the hand, arm or fist, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee(s)” suggests that Stander was lucky to stay on the pitch, meanwhile Dragons’ Lloyd Fairbrother and Glasgow’s Oli Kebble were both yellow carded on the same weekend for a similar flare-up. Clear cases here of different referees treating the game different and not sticking to the laws of the game. And sometime’s it’s the same referee’s interpretation changing. In Round 2 of the Six Nations, Romain Ntamack’s try against Italy came off the back of Romain Taofifenua winning a penalty at the breakdown, despite Gaël Fickou making no attempt to roll after making the tackle, something that the referee had been quick to pick up earlier in the game. The breakdown is the wild west, with jackals winning penalties despite not supporting their weight and illegal cleanouts coming in form all directions except through the gate. Players are suffering serious injuries due to this, but Ben Ryan’s calls to start refereeing the breakdown correctly fall on deaf ears – cos we all know a 50-20 kick will benefit the game more than effectively-refereed breakdowns (note the sarcasm!).

Of course, it’s not just the referee in the middle, they have an AR on each touchline and a TMO to help them make the right decisions, but so much still gets missed. James Ryan appears to have somehow avoided a citing for the most ridiculous of cleanouts against England, where he basically torpedoed himself into England players twice in one breakdown, very clearly going against Law 15.12: “Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck.” In Gloucester’s recent loss to Exeter, the TMO rightly picked up a clear neck roll by Franco Mostert, which ended a promising Gloucester attack, but a later attack by Exeter was allowed to continue, with an equally clear neck roll from one of their players ignored. Gerbrandt Grobler found himself being called for a knock on as he stretched for the try line, but it was clear that the fumble was caused by an impact from Sam Simmonds, who had tucked his arm into his body and caused contact with his shoulder. It was a clear penalty try right under the referee’s nose, but was completely ignored not just by him, but also the TMO, despite it being obvious on replays.

Decisions like these change games. Going back to that game between Italy and France, the TMO called in at one point for a missed knock-on my Matteo Minozzi, but a later knock-on from a French tackler that resulted in Italy going from attacking in the French 22 to cleaning up the ball int heir own 22 was ignored, while in the same weekend, Kyle Sinckler’s blatant and cynical strip of the ball after a tackle had been completed 5m out from the England line (almost certainly a yellow card) was also ignored by all the officials and the TMO – an event that completely changed the momentum of the game as Scotland had been pressuring the England defence until that point. I also recently saw the most ridiculous of decisions as referee and TMO combined to yellow card Cheetahs centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg for a “dangerous challenge” on Leinster’s Fergus McFadden that anyone with half a brain could see was just a rugby incident. Finally in England’s U20s Six Nations loss to Ireland, a clear neck roll on England fly half George Barton was ignored in the build-up to Ireland’s final try, while an earlier England knock-on at a maul was changed to an Ireland knock-on by the TMO, despite the replays clearly showing that the Irish player had illegally swam up the side of the maul.

As much as I want my teams to win, I’m a fan of the sport first and foremost and I hate to see so many games being affected by iffy officiating.

How does all of this happen? I can only put it down to narratives being in the minds of the officials. There is a constant narrative that Italy are not good enough to deserve a place in the Six Nations, so if there’s a close (or even vaguely close-ish call) it will go against the Italians. Of course the French tackler didn’t knock the ball on, these Italians don’t know how to throw a pass. Likewise there is the narrative this season that Gloucester are struggling at the scrum, so an offence at the first scrum by Val Rapava Ruskin results in an Exeter penalty, while the following scrums for most of the match saw Fraser Balmain dominating Ben Moon (who was illegally angling in), but the scrums were just getting reset. Once officials have a narrative in their head, it is hard for them to look past that.

So why doesn’t this get called out more? Because the media also buys into these narratives. All the talk during Italy’s Six Nations losses is how they continue to lose every match in the tournament and Georgia continue to dominate in the Rugby Europe Championship, never about how Italian Rugby has been rebuilt under Conor O’Shea to start bringing the talent into the national team, who handily beat Georgia last time they faced off. When even the media is buying into the narratives, how is a casual fan of the sport meant to really see what is going on.

Right now, we have a chance to stop this. To put the focus back on the 4 officials working together to effectively police the game and clean it up. It may lead to a period of penalty-ridden games, but players and coaches will have to adapt to the laws which are already in place or we will begin to see interest wane as the sport just becomes a mess.

Hodge/Yato: What A Mess

Hodge/Yato: What A Mess

As we reach the 3rd round of World Cup matches, we have been blessed with plenty of fantastic rugby, even if the heat and humidity has led to a high number of handling errors. However, all that rugby was overshadowed in the news for the best part of a week, focusing on just a couple of seconds on the pitch.

The second match of the tournament saw Australia take on Fiji in a match that I thought had the potential to be the big upset of the tournament. It certainly looked like it could go that way, as Fiji started strong and had control for much of the first half. With 25 minutes on the clock and the score at 7-11 to Fiji, the islanders released Peceli Yato – who to this point had been the best player on the pitch – down the 5m channel following a lineout. The back row made good ground, before eventually being felled by a combination of Nic White and Reece Hodge. While White’s tackle was fine, Hodge’s didn’t look right on first viewing and it looked even worse as the broadcasters replayed it. There was little (to none) attempt to wrap an arm and there was clearly contact with Yato’s head – so much so that Yato was forced off the field for a HIA, which he failed!

Now let’s take a moment here to remind ourselves of the new high tackle framework that was brought in at the end of last season:

rugby high tackle framework

Apply that to the Hodge tackle. Is there foul play? Yes. Is it a shoulder charge or high tackle? The framework describes a shoulder charge as the tackling arm being behind the body or in a sling position, so while there is no real attempt to wrap – High Tackle. Shoulder/arm? Shoulder. Direct to the head/neck? Yes. Degree of danger? Hodge is attempting a dominant tackle – High. Before looking for mitigating factors, are there any aggravating factors? Hodge has a clear line of sight in open space – Yes. As there are aggravating factors, mitigating factors do not come into consideration. Result: RED CARD

So what happened in the match? Well apparently nothing. Play appeared to continue without referee Ben O’Keeffe referring the challenge to TMO Rowan Kitt – O’Keeffe would have been largely unsighted as he was behind Yato – or Kitt intervening in the game. So Fiji lost one of their stars and Australia, who should have played over half the game a man down, kept 15 men on the field. Even more galling, Hodge went on to contribute 8 points in a 39-21 victory. It was later revealed that the challenge was referred to the TMO, but Kitt felt that it was acceptable. Given that the referral wasn’t clear to TV viewers, it must have been the most cursory look from Kitt and I struggle to see how he could have not felt that this deserved even a penalty according to the framework if he was doing his job properly.

Unsurprisingly, Hodge was cited following the match and ended up with a 3-week ban (cut down from 6 weeks).

feat rugby hodge yato

While this could have been everything and the end of a poor moment from the TMO, the story only continues as reactions came in to the citing and ban. Michael Cheika blasted the Fijian coaches for being nice to his face and going behind his back to report the tackle to the citing commissioners. This is such a pathetic argument as the coaches have no responsibility to tell Cheika they are referring the incident, while it is hard to imagine the citing commissioner would not have chosen to review the incident anyway. Cheika also refused to accept that the challenge was a red card – even when saying they will not appeal the ban. The framework clearly proves that it was a red card, but as Cheika said following a penalty against Samu Kerevi in Australia’s match against Wales “I honestly don’t know the rules anymore.” – Pretty embarrassing for the head coach of a Tier 1 international team.

Things only got worse as the report form the tribunal made note that Hodge was unaware of the high tackle framework. As I said to some of my friends who were keeping up with the tournament, if a fan like me can have a copy of the framework saved to their phone (yes, I need a life) then there is no excuse for a professional playing for a Tier 1 nation to not know the framework. I would have also thought that given the number of players who were given red cards during the World Rugby U20 Championship, teams would have made sure their players were aware of the framework. Poor from the player, poor from the coaches. But even without knowing the framework, a tackle that involves contact with a ball carrier’s head has not been legal for years… there was no excuse to tackle that high.

Sadly, it wasn’t just Michael Cheika questioning the merits of a red card. Commentating on the match, Ben Kay chose to praise Hodge for putting in a hit rather than comment on the illegality of it. Clive Woodward went even further following the ban to tweet that it was a yellow card at most. If even the officials, pundits and commentators can’t stick to World Rugby’s frameworks when looking at an incident, what hope has the general public got of understanding what is legal? With player safety such a big issue, things need to improve.

Sadly in this case, Yato’s failed HIA meant that he was unavailable for Fiji’s loss to Uruguay that has effectively ended their chances of making the quarterfinals. Reece Hodge will miss Australia’s remaining pool games but return for the knockouts. Looking at everyone involved in this affair, it’s hard to argue that anyone comes out a winner.

Eyes On: France v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: France v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

After matches against Scotland home and away, France continued their World Cup preparations on Friday night with a warm-up match against Italy. France made a number of changes but took an early lead through Yoann Huget. Italy scored through Mattia Bellini, with Tommaso Allan’s conversion putting the Azzuri ahead. A penalty try and a score for Camille Chat gave Les Bleus a 19-7 halftime lead and they ran away with it in the second half with tries from Antoine Dupont, Arthur Iturria, Wenceslas Lauret and Thomas Ramos giving them the 47-19 victory, with Bellini getting a second and Jake Polledri scoring an unconventional try as a commiseration.

France

Les Bleus came out the blocks hard in this game. The defensive line was flying up to minimise the time Italy had on the ball, the breakdown was often a battleground as players looked to slow the ball down or turn it over and the team were doing everything they could to win the ball back at the lineout.

While it clearly rattled the Italians early on, they soon grew into the game, helped in no part by the fact that France were being repeatedly penalised. France were coming too far across or playing the man at the lineout, they were playing the ball on the floor at the breakdown and they were frequently shooting up too soon and getting caught offside. So poor was their discipline, Louis Picamoles was sin binned in the 18th minute and Rabah Slimani 4 minutes later, both due to an accrual of penalties by the whole team.

Following Slimani’s card, the team appeared to back off a bit and reduced their penalty count significantly, though they still found themselves pushing things a little too far in the lineout. And it was at this point that they started having more success, as they stopped gifting Italy possession and territory.

Against Argentina and England, France will need to get the balance right between putting pressure on their opponents and not giving away too many penalties.

Italy

Italy were their own worst enemies in this match. A couple of their tries came from poor defensive mistakes, such as Michele Campagnaro shooting out the line to create a dogleg for the opening try and Bellini being stepped far too easily by Antoine Dupont for his try. In attack, they made far too many basic handling errors, bringing many of their promising attacks to an end. A good break by Matteo Minozzi ended when his offload back inside was straight to the hands of Gaël Fickou, leading to the France penalty try, while a couple of great opportunities from 5m lineouts were ruined by handling errors. Even Jake Polledri’s try appeared to be an accident – I struggle to imagine that’s how he planned for it to go!

If they play like this against New Zealand and South Africa, we could be seeing some very one-sided games. If they continue to play like this against Namibia and Canada, 3ʳᵈ place and automatic qualifying for RWC2023 may not look as comfortable as it should do.


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