Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Waratahs

The second match of Super Rugby AU’s Round 8 saw the Brumbies face off against the NSW Waratahs. The ‘Tahs were coming into the game off the back of 2 strong wins, but had not won 3 consecutive matches since 2018 and missed a chance to take an early lead as Jack Dempsey knocked on while reaching for the line. The Brumbies took the lead in controversial fashion on the 15 minute mark as scrum half Ryan Lonergan was awarded a try after diving on Bayley Kuenzle’s kick through, despite replays during the review showing that Lonergan was offside. A Will Harrison penalty cut the lead, but Andy Muirhead collected a cross-kick to go over in the corner. Harrison kicked anther penalty and a strong run out wide from hooker Tom Horton set Dempsey up for a try to make the halftime score 12-11.

The Brumbies extended their lead soon after half time as a wide pass from Irae Simone found Pete Samu out wide, and the number 8 showed a good step and acceleration to make it to the line first. This was the first of 3 tries in a 12 minute spell from the Brumbies as winger Tom Wright crossed twice in the left corner to take the game away from the Waratahs. With tie running down, Pete Samu found time to squeeze in at the right corner for one final try despite having 3 players trying to force him into touch, Kuenzle kicking the conversion to secure a 38-11 victory and put them back on top of the standings.

Inexcusable

The TMO usage in recent weeks has been highly impressive, with TMOs already making the checks while the on-field officials have discussed whether to refer, leading to minimal stoppage in the game. Unfortunately, a lot of that good work was undone today by TMO Ian Smith for Ryan Lonergan’s opening try.

Bayley Kuenzle put through a clever grubber kick from just outside the Waratahs 22, which Lonergan chased down, just beating James Ramm to dot down the ball in the in-goal. The try was referred to the TMO initially to check the grounding, but the question of offside was also rightfully added. After a couple of looks, Smith decided that there was no clear offside and the grounding was good, so the try was rewarded.

However, anyone with any eyes could see that Kuenzle was outside the 22 and the kick itself was on the 22 at best, while all of Lonergan’s body was clearly inside the 22, it looked like by at least a foot. So at the time of the kick, Lonergan was clearly offside. Now that in itself is not an offence, as long as he does not chase forward until he has been played onside by either the kicker or another teammate who was onside. However the replays clearly showed that Lonergan continued chasing the ball and was never actually played onside by a teammate at any point, so the game should have remained scoreless and the Waratahs should have had a penalty on the edge of their 22.

Judging by the Waratahs’ performance in this game, I don’t think that this missed call decided the match in any way, but in a game where momentum is key, that was a crucial call and an embarrassing mistake from Ian Smith. If players are being expected to perform at the top of their game, the same must be expected of officials, especially those who have the chance to use video replays to inform their decision.

Hit and miss

As I said above, I don’t think the poor TMO decision for Lonergan’s try really affected the final outcome, as the ‘Tahs just weren’t good enough. Watching this game and yesterday’s big win for the Reds, it’s hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago the Waratahs were putting the Reds to the sword!

The ‘Tahs had no platform to build off in this game as their scrum was brutalised by the Brumbies pack, while Tom Horton’s throwing at the lineout was a liability as the team won only 7 of their 12 throws (58%). To make it even worse, one overthrow on halfway was so bad, it set up a Brumbies attack that took just the one phase to go half the length of the pitch and put Wright over in the corner. With so little platform, it’s no surprise that they lost!

But sadly that wasn’t it for the ‘Tahs, as their back line couldn’t get anything going when they did get ball. Jack Maddocks and James Ramm have been so dangerous in attack but were given so little ball to work with in this game. It felt like Karmichael Hunt’s injury before the game was costly as Will Harrison didn’t look as comfortable or dangerous, while the amount of times the ball went to floor as the ball went down the line suggested that the midfield hadn’t had much time practising together following the late reshuffle.

This is a young team that will just get better with time, but until then we may see their performances go up and down. With their match away to the Rebels their last in the competition, it is likely to be the decider as to who earns that 3ʳᵈ playoff spot. On this performance, I have to give the advantage to the Rebels.

Back row balance

While both teams certainly have areas where they need to improve, they both have a great balance in their back rows.

In Michael Hooper and Will Miller, they both have a great fetcher who will continually cause issues at the opposition breakdown and come up with some key turnovers, while Hooper is also a threat with ball in hand if given space.

Lachlan Swinton has established himself as the enforcer with his carrying and tackling, while the Brumbies have 2 great options at 6 in young Rob Valentini or the more experienced Lachlan McCaffrey, who was one of the star players in the pack on a rare start.

And then finally at number 8, you have 2 players who will surely be pushing for international honours in Pete Samu and Jack Dempsey. Both are great all-rounders, with great strength in their carrying but also pace to exploit open ground, while both are also equally adept in defence, making key tackles and getting stuck into the breakdown.

With such well balanced back rows, it’s always going to give a team a fighting shot around the park. Don’t be shocked to see a number of these players putting their hands up for selection when Dave Rennie names his first squad.

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Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Reds

Round 8 of Super Rugby AU kicked off at the Cbus Super Stadium for the Western Force’s last “home” game of the tournament, taking on the Queensland Reds. With the Brumbies not playing until tomorrow, the Reds knew that a win would put them top of the standings, but they were lucky not to go behind early on as Brad Lacey was too flat to take a cut-out pass from Jack McGregor that would have put the Force winger over in the corner. Having survived that scare, the Reds built into the game offensively and after Taniela Tupou had a try disallowed, Filipo Daugunu opened the scoring by taking an inside pass off James O’Connor as the ball came away from a maul. The Reds backline was forced into a reshuffle after losing both centres to injury before the half hour mark, but it didn’t seem to affect them as they continued to gain an advantage over the Force and managed to put Daugunu over in the corner for his second. As halftime approached, O’Connor added 3 points from the kicking tee, but there was time for one more chance as Tupou broke through the defence on the edge of the Force 22 and went through the gears, only to lose his footing and knock on with the line at his mercy – a let-off for the Force, who found themselves still in the game at halftime with the score just 0-15.

The Force struck first after halftime with a driving maul getting hooker Andrew Ready across the line, but 5-15 was the closest things got for them. As the Reds put the pressure on, Fraser McReight had a try ruled out for a double movement, but the pressure soon told and a yellow card for prop Kieran Longbottom opened the floodgates as McReight took a beautiful offload inside from Jame O’Connor to cross – legally this time – and just minutes later scrumhalf Tate McDermott sniped down the blind side at a ruck and stepped Lacey with ease to score. 14 points from the sin bin was already a good haul, but as Longbottom was due to go back on, McDermott took a quick-tap penalty and the scrum half found it far too easy to weave through defenders on his way to a second try. O’Connor had played a key role in the Reds attack and got his own reward with just 10 minutes left, as Daugunu, Tupou and McReight countered following a recovered kick. McDermott thought he had his hat-trick only for a TMO referral to show that he lost control of the ball as he crossed the line, but on just the 2ⁿᵈ phase after the restart, Bryce Hegarty slipped through some tired tackling from the replacement front row to go over under the posts, while replacement lock Tuaina Taii Tualima scored after the final hooter to finish things off, O’Connor converting for a final score of 5-57.

Limited resources

The Reds will be thrilled to have a bye next week as they will need it to try and get a back line arranged. The Reds were forced into an early reshuffle as Josh Flook lasted just 19 minutes of his first Super Rugby start before needing to be replaced, and things got even worse just 9 minutes later as their other starting centre, Hamish Stewart was escorted off the pitch. With no recognised centres on the bench, this led to a reshuffle as James O’Connor was moved out to 12 – with Bryce Hegarty coming on at 10 – an Jordan Petaia moved in from wing to 13 to accommodate Jack Harvey.

Luckily for the Reds, they were able to make do in this game – and even moved Tate McDermott to the right wing late on when Petaia went off – but how will they cope longer-term? Both players will be missed if they are not available for a couple of matches, while Hunter Paisami and Chris Feauai-Sautia are both already out injured.

Luckily for them, a number of their backs are versatile, while Paisami may be back after the bye, but if we assume that all 4 are missing, how could the Reds be forced to line up against the Brumbies in Round 10? McDermott would secure the 9 spot, while Hegarty would come in at 10, allowing O’Connor to switch out to 12. As in this match, Petaia would move to 13, with Jock Campbell staying at 15 and the wing spots occupied by Daugunu and Harvey.

While that is still a strong back line, the only other backs that would be available for the bench would be the scrum halves Scott Malolua and Moses Sorovi. This would probably lead to them having to call up players from the Academy – who could be well out of their depth – or potentially looking at a player like Fraser McReight and trying to spend the bye week training them to be an emergency back. Heck, from the way Tupou played this week, you could always look at him as an option at centre!

Lineout options

With the Reds’ lineout finally performing at more acceptable levels (15/17 – 88%) we got a chance to see how they look to use it as an attacking platform.

Often they used the same set-up, which allowed a number of options: the team would look like they are setting up for the driving maul, but the man at the back with the ball would spin out and pop to the hooker on the loop. The scrum half would be doing a loop of his own from the open side to the blind side, slightly deeper than the hooker, while the blind side winger would be tracking on the hooker’s inside shoulder. Moving into the back line, the 12 would be running a crash ball line, with the 10 in behind them. For those of you who are struggling to visualise that in your mind, I have used all of my (minimal) MS Paint skills to put this together for you:

rugby reds lineout move

Now what makes this setup so clever is that they can run so many different plays off the exact same shape:

  • The hooker can reverse the play back to the scrum half, who can take advantage of a defence coming over to the open side too quickly
  • The hooker can take the ball on themselves and then depending on how the defence reacts and where the gap opens up, they can either…
    • … keep hold of the ball themselves
    • … feed the ball back inside to the winger
    • … throw a flat pass to the 12 on the crash ball – the 10 and 2 would be there to clean out and the blind side winger could secure the breakdown or play an acting scrum half role if there is quick ball
    • … pull the ball back behind the 12 to the fly half, who can the spread the ball if the defence has bit on the strike runners and come too narrow

By having all of these options available off the same shape, it makes it very easy to manipulate the defence as there is automatically a degree of disguise on the play, which will mean that one of the options will likely be left undefended. It does however put a lot of pressure on the hooker, who must be mobile enough and have the sleight of hand to make the range of passes required – not an issue with Brandon Paenga-Amosa. If the Reds can continue putting their issues securing the lineout behind them, then this is going to make them highly effective attacking off the set piece.

Too much, too soon

I’ve been hoping against hope all competition, but with just 2 away games left, I’m coming to the realisation that the Western Force will finish the competition without a win to their name.

Their Super Time loss at “home” to the Rebels was the one time they looked able to win a match, but they have generally looked second best, and in some matches like this one, they have been thoroughly outclassed. Now with just 2 away matches remaining, any hopes of a win look all-but over.

Sadly, there was just too much against them this year. The season did not start with them meant to be playing Super Rugby, and it has shown in the players they have at their disposal. You have players like Byron Ralston and Jack McGregor playing key roles despite having no experience of playing at this level, while at the other end of the spectrum you have players like Kieran Longbottom and Heath Tessman who are well past their prime. And then there are others who just don’t seem up tot he standard of Super Rugby, like Brad Lacey or other players who were overlooked for Super Rugby squads for some reason or another – perhaps a combination of age and playing for under-the-radar teams while having severe competition in front of them at their former teams, perhaps due to not being eligible for Australia meaning they are losing out to younger, eligible talent. And then finally there are all the recent signings – many of them who would be considered the more talented players like Richard Kahui, Chris Godwin and Nick Frisby, but they are coming in so late, the chemistry is not there with the rest of the team. All this combines to just leave them out of their depth against superior teams who have better chemistry.

Further to this, what became clear in this game is that the fitness required in a game of Super Rugby is having its toll, as the players who were already with the club have got used to shorter games against significantly weaker opposition in Global Rapid Rugby, so they are now fining themselves unable to cope with the combination of speed and physicality required at this level. This became expressly clear looking at the front row options in this game as they will have spells of superiority at the scrum before tiring, while the majority of the rest of their positive impact will be at the set piece and any driving mauls – like Ready’s try today. But in open play, they largely disappear, one half of slid carrying from Chris Heiberg earlier in the tournament a rare outlier. They are tiring too quickly and as a result they are not making the tackles that they should – you just need to look at Hegarty’s try today to see that, and that was the replacements, who in theory should have been relatively fresh still!

Finally, as if that wasn’t enough against them already, they have been forced to play the entire tournament away from home – this match against the Queensland Reds was in Queensland – which robs them of much-needed support, which would have spurred them n in close games like against the Rebels.

With the future of Super Rugby up in the air at the moment, there is a chance that the Force may be here to stay, but they will need to look at improving their squad and holding onto as many of their impressive players as they can if they want to make an immediate impact. 

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

As the Premiership prepared to kick off it’s return to play following the COVID-19 lockdown, Super Rugby AU entered Round 7 with the Western Force hosting the NSW Waratahs at “home” at the Cbus Super Stadium. The Waratahs were coming in off the back of a huge win over rivals the Reds, but after an early Will Harrison penalty, they found themselves behind to a try from Brynard Stander, who got on the end of a beautiful grubber kick by Richard Kahui. Harrison kicked a further 2 penalties to one from Force captain Ian Prior, before a break through the middle of the field saw Jake Gordan pulled down just short, only for Jack Maddocks to spread a wide pass from the back of the ruck to put Alex Newsome over in the corner, with Harrison converting to make it 8-16 at half time.

The ‘Tahs just missed out on another try before halftime after they were held up over the line with the final play of the half, but they scored soon after the break as Jack Maddocks intercepted a wide pass from Jono Lance on halfway and took it back to the house. With the Waratahs having a further 2 tries disallowed as the half went on (a second for Maddocks and one for Gordon) it looked like all the scoring may be done, but replacement prop Harry Johnson-Holmes burrowed over in the dying seconds to secure a 8-28 win.

Thrown away

New Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie must be having nightmares at the thought of selecting hookers right now and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him trying to beg Stephen Moore to come out of retirement. While so many roles in the game have gone from being position-specific to being performed by everyone, the role of throwing in at the lineout remains one of those key tasks that separates the hookers from the rest of the team.

The problem though, is that nobody in Australia seems able to throw a reliable lineout. Brandon Paenga-Amosa had a horror-show against the Waratahs last week, while the Brumbies have struggled to utilise their driving maul as much as they’d like due to issues with Folau Fainga’a and Connal McInerney throwing in. In this match, the Force managed to win only 10 out of 18 lineouts on their own throw, which was costly in this game. And while the ‘Tahs were a little more reliable, 77% (7/9) is still well below the percentages you would want and expect.

Lacking a reliable lineout massively impacts your game. The obvious downside is that it takes away a great attacking platform, but it is so much worse. It heavily limits your options with penalties in attacking positions if you know there is a good chance you will lose possession, prompting you to go for a scrum (always a gamble with the way they are refereed), a tap r settle for 3 points. At a defensive penalty, you may not want to clear your lines for touch if you think that the ball will be turned over and just ran back at you, leading to you playing from dangerously deep in an attempt to keep some possession.

With a number of experienced lineout operators leaving Australia (with Rob Simmons off to London Irish after the tournament, that will be all 4 of the Wallabies locks from the World Cup squad playing in Europe) there will be a lot of pressure on the Wallabies’ hookers at lineout time. Dave Rennie – and the Super Rugby franchises – desperately need an improvement from their hookers.

Competition or support?

The loss of international matches due to the COVID-19 pandemic and this being the start of a new World Cup cycle mean that Dave Rennie will have some big decisions to make when selecting his first Wallabies squad. One of the biggest being at a key position: fly half. With Bernard Foley and Christian Leali’ifano now out of the way, Rennie will have to decide whether he goes with an experienced head like Matt To’omua or James O’Connor, or look at a more long-term option in Will Harrison or Noah Lolesio – though Harrison would appear the more likely option given Lolesio is missing much of the competition with injury.

Harrison is looking a very good fly half and has been near-perfect off the tee so far in the competition. However he is not the most physical fly half by any means so would likely be seen as a target in defence, while he also often plays a little deeper for the Waratahs, picking his moments to come flat to the line. The solution to these issues may have been given however by the form of Karmichael Hunt. Having not started in the Waratahs XV at the beginning of the tournament, Hunt has made their 12 jersey his own. He provides a physical option at centre but also helps take the pressure off of Harrison with his ability to distribute the ball, often coming in at first receiver and taking the ball flatter to the line. The New Zealand squads have focused mainly on a 10/15 playmaker axis during Super Rugby Aotearoa, but it could easily work the same way with a 10/12 axis – providing the players around them do their job as runners – with one player coming flat to the line with runners, and the other hanging deeper to spread the ball if the defence bites in on the runners.

Hunt’s form has certainly put him in the picture to return to the Wallabies squad, but there would also be the opportunity to utilise the versatility of To’omua or O’Connor at 12. I feel confident that we will see this from Rennie, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Harrison coming off the bench later in the game, with O’Connor or To’omua starting at 10 and shifting out a position when Harrison comes on. Personally, I would do that against the All Blacks, who I feel will be dominant in the upcoming Rugby Championship, but starting Harrison and one of the trio against South Africa and Argentina, with another of the trio on the bench who can either come on to replace either Harrison or the inside centre depending on how the match is going.

Wasteful Force

The Force will come away from this one disappointed, especially to have not scored a point in the second half. It would take a miracle for them to avoid finishing bottom of the table, and their focus needs to be on getting a win under their belts in these last 3 rounds. That’s certainly not impossible, but they need to cut out errors.

Obviously, improving the lineout will go a long way to help, but the team were also somewhat wasteful at times. While Stander’s try came from a great grubber by Richard Kahui (which maybe took a lucky last bounce), there were occasions where the Force were too quick to put boot to ball… and it cost them dearly.

A scrum in a good attacking position came to nothing as Kahui tried another grubber in behind, only to put too much on it and see the ball go dead, while Godwin made a great break and then wasted it by kicking on when he thought the defence were about to catch him. One of the big features of rugby union is that there is no 6 tackles like rugby league or 4 downs like american football. The Force do not have to score off the first phase and would benefit from going through the phases. You don’t have to look any further than Newsome’s try in this game, where Jake Gordon could have kicked as the defence approached, but instead chose to keep hold of the ball and recycle, leading tot he try being scored on the very next phase.

The Force have shown that they deserve to be in the competition, a little more composure could get them that elusive first win.

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Reds

With the Rebels beating the Brumbies, the race for the Super Rugby AU playoffs was wide open (except for the Western Force) with almost half of the competition still to go. The team in the best position to take advantage of this were the Queensland Reds, who travelled to Sydney to take on their rivals the NSW Waratahs.

The ‘Tahs soon found themselves behind to a penalty from Will Harrison (who went perfect off the tee on the day) and things soon got worse as scrum half Jake Gordon crossed for the opening try in the 10ᵗʰ minute. Gordon was over for his second just a few minutes later, reacting quickest to the awarding of a penalty 5 metres out between the posts and taking a quick tap to go over before either James O’Connor or Brandon Paenga-Amosa could react. Jack Maddocks soon added a third before Gordon and Harrison broke following a messy lineout, the scrumhalf completing his hat-trick in just 27 minutes. There was still time for Alex Newsome to add one more try with a spectacular finish, bringing the halftime score to 38-0.

With the rain arriving for the second half, the Waratahs went to a tighter game, this time scoring through Tom Horton, courtesy of a catch and drive lineout. Newsome and Jack Dempsey both had second half tries rightfully ruled out by TMO reviews, while the Reds finally got on the board as the hour mark approached, as replacement Jack Hardy was on hand to take advantage of Jack Maddocks failing to control James O’Connor’s cross-kick. O’Connor kept playing despite the match being out of reach and he got his just reward with the final play of the game, bursting through a gap to score the Red’s second try and converting to make the final score 45-12, a record margin between these teams in Super Rugby.

Thrown away

Perhaps last week’s match with the Brumbies took more out of each team than we thought, as just like the Brumbies at Leichhardt Oval, the Reds were never in this game.

While the intensity wasn’t really there for the most part, what really hindered them in this game was the lineout. The Reds lost a whopping 5/15 lineouts through this game, and when such a vital set piece is operating at just 67% you are always going to struggle to win matches. The ‘Tahs didn’t need to worry about going for 22/50 or 50/22 kicks, they could just kick for decent territory and know that there was a good chance they could win the ball back from the Reds’ lineout.

The lineout seemed to improve after hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa was replaced by Alex Mafi. Unfortunately for the Reds, the game was already over by that pint, then Mafi had to go off on 67 minutes with a head injury, meaning a return for Paenga-Amosa. It became clear that the team didn’t trust his throwing in the second half, as they twice went for tap-and-go penalties despite being deep in their own half, while they also took a quick lineout on their own 5m line late in the game when it clearly wasn’t on, leading to the series of scrums that saw replacement prop Zane Nonggorr sent to the sin bin.

Next week’s match at home to the Rebels is now a must-win match. Assuming he is fit, don’t be surprised to see Mafi given the starting spot, and Paenga-Amosa potentially drop out of the 23 altogether.

Left exposed

In the early stages of the game, the Waratahs found that they were having a lot of success on their left wing. James Ramm is a talented young winger with pace to burn and Jock Campbell had no way to cope with him.

While it wasn’t great for Campbell, it’s not really his fault, as he would usually be playing fullback and was originally set to play 15, until Jordan Petaia understandably pulled out late following the passing of his father. This led to Campbell covering the right wing, and it was clear that he’d had limited preparation for the match there as he didn’t know how to deal with the Tah’s attack. an early attack was allowed to make its way downfield on the Tahs’ left wing as Campbell was caught too deep, while the next time the ball got spread wide to the Tahs’ left, Campbell was caught too narrow coming up in the line and found himself easily stepped by Ramm as he rushed across to narrow down the space – this in fact led to the opening try. A knock in the early attack when he was caught deep certainly didn’t help things either, but by the time he was pulled off after 18 minutes, the game was already looking like a 1-way affair at 17-0.

Sometimes being a utility back makes your job a lot harder.

He’s back!

After a couple of off matches, I suggested that Jack Maddocks would really benefit from last week’s bye in order to reset. Well it certainly seemed that it worked on today’s performance!

Maddocks certainly seems to be a confidence player, and an early break down that left wing – which saw him beat a few defenders – will have done wonders to help. His play seemed so much better this week and his 86 metres from 9 carries was beaten by only Hunter Paisani (11 runs, 103m), while in the first half alone he made a couple of breaks, saved a 50/22 kick and of course got himself in the right position to get a try!

His impact was limited in the second half as the weather led to a tighter game, but what impressed me here is how he reacted to fumbling O’Connor’s cross-kick for Jack Hardy’s try. In recent games, we’d have probably seen his head drop, but not this time, and he still made some key contributions as the game went on.

I sincerely hope that this is the Jack Maddocks we see for the rest of the competition.

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Brumbies

Round 6 sees us enter the back half of Super Rugby AU’s regular season and that means it’s time to kick off the reverse fixtures. First up was a trip to Leichhardt Oval as the Melbourne Rebels took on the unbeaten Brumbies.

Though neither team would usually consider Leichhardt Oval home, it was a home away from home for the deposed Rebels and they got off to a near-perfect start with Reece Hodge crossing in the corner just 3 minutes in. Things soon got worse for the Brumbies as their next attack came to a costly end as an attempted grubber through the Rebels’s defence rebounded behind the attacking Brumbies, Marika Koroibete kicked the loose ball on and when Andy Muirhead missed trying to fall on the ball 5 metres from his line, Koroibete collected and offloaded to the onrushing Brad Wilkin, who was not being stopped from that range. The Brumbies quickly hit back as a catch and drive 10m out from the Rebels’ line setup Joe Powell to score, but this was quickly cancelled out as Reece Hodge scored again, beating Tom Banks to a grubber through. Matt To’omua added a penalty and Jordan Uelese powered over from short range to give the Rebels a 27-7 lead at the halfway mark.

While 27 point was the most the Rebels had scored away from Melbourne in their Super Rugby history, the second half was far from high scoring. To’omua added a penalty to extend the lead, before a combination of substitutions, handling errors and penalties against the attacking team saw the rest of the half go scoreless until the final minute, when Will Miller crossed from close range to give the final score a slightly more respectable look at 30-12.

Out of sorts

If someone watched this game with no knowledge of how the previous 5 rounds had gone, there is no way they would think that the Brumbies were the unbeaten side. They really didn’t turn up for this match.

Right from the opening whistle they were on the back foot, leading to Reece Hodge’s try on just 3 minutes. Their attacks often seemed half-hearted, while in defence, they were sluggish to react to the Rebels and found themselves pushed back by the Rebels’ carriers and made to chase the ball all game long as Andrew Deegan controlled the game and continually pinned them back deep in their own territory.

Their heads dropped and with that the game got even further away from them, as their attacks continued to lack the intensity of recent weeks, seeing the team pushed back in contact and ending lots of attacks with turnovers, penalties or handling errors.

This loss really opens up the table with the 1ˢᵗ place finisher getting an automatic spot in the final and 2ⁿᵈ getting home advantage against 3ʳᵈ in the playoff for the other spot in the final. The Brumbies need to recover quickly or this could be costly.

Out of position

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the replacements bench should be expanded so that players going off injured and a team not having a suitable replacement on the bench doesn’t end up negatively impacting the game. Well, this match had me doubling down n this opinion.

As if a raft of substitutions wasn’t already going to impact the Rebels’ consistency in the second half, they lost replacement back row Rob Leota to injury just 10 minutes after he came onto the pitch. With replacement lock Mike Stolberg already on, it left the Rebels turning to centre Bill Meakes to fill in at flanker. While Meakes did a good job and didn’t look out of place on the side of the scrum, he’s still playing in a position that he is wholly unprepared for and having a centre in the back row seriously hampers the pack’s options at the lineout and the moves that can be ran off a scrum.

To make matters even worse, Meakes’ appearance at flanker meant that he wasn’t available to come on 5 minutes later when Reece Hodge came off, leading to Frank Lomani having to once again fill in on the wing. As I said before, Lomani is a great player and dangerous runner, but he is not a winger and in a closer match, these 2 players being out of position could prove costly.

If World Rugby is determined to fiddle with the game, then increasing the options on the bench will be much more beneficial than a 50/22 kick or these new goal-line drop-outs.

Countermeasures

When the Brumbies get a lineout within 10 metres of the opponents’ line, it’s often a fair assumption that they will go for the catch and drive and end up with a try. Well the Rebels managed to stop this in the first half with the easiest of strategies: putting a man in the air. Folau Fainga’a underthrew the lineout and it was an easy steal for Matt Philip.

This got me thinking: why not always get a man competing in the air at Brumbies lineouts within your 22? The Brumbies maul is nigh-unstoppable, but the lineout is shaky. If you compete in the air and miss it, the result will probably be no different that if you had stayed on the ground. However, putting a man in the air – even if it is just at the front every time – adds extra pressure on the hooker. Fainga’a and Connal McInerney already struggle enough to hit double-top at lineouts, and with any extra pressure, the chances of an overthrow/underthrow/not straight increases.

And with the lineout being such an issue for the Brumbies, why limit that pressure to inside your own 22? Get a man in the air at the majority of lineouts and the job of the Brumbies hookers becomes so much harder.

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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 AU: Brumbies v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Rebels

The day after Australia were intended to play Ireland during the Summer Tours, the opening round of Super Rugby AU was finished with The Brumbies taking on the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra.

In front of a socially distanced crowd of 1500 at GIO Stadium, the home team took an early lead as wing Andy Muirhead crossed within minutes of the game kicking off. While Matt To’omua pulled things back a little with a couple of penalties, it was short lived as 2 more tries from Joe Powell and Folau Fainga’a created a 19-6 score at the break. It was more of the same when play resumed as a break from young fly half Noah Lolesio resulted in a try for Tom Wright. Something finally clicked for the Rebels just before the hour and they pulled themselves back into the game with 2 quick tries from Jordan Uelese and Dane Haylett-Petty. 4 points down with 10 minutes left, the Rebels chose to kick a penalty to bring it within a point, hut they could not create another scoring opportunity and a when Will Miller scored from a lineout drive with just minutes left, the win was confirmed for the Brumbies, with Lolesio’s successful conversion making the score 31-23 and denying the Rebels a losing bonus point.

Round 1 rustiness

I’m not going to lie: this was not the best of adverts for Australian rugby, as it was very clear that there was some rustiness from both teams. Though the competition was announced in mid-May, there is no real substitute for live match experience, and it certainly showed as a number of passes went to floor from both teams, bringing an end to a number of attacks early on.

Even more than that, is the adaptation to the way that the breakdown is being refereed. We saw huge numbers of penalties in the early matches of Super Rugby Aotearoa, and while I’m sure the players have watched tape in an attempt to learn the new adaptations, we are still seeing a large number of penalties conceded for a range of breakdown offences.

As Super Rugby Aotearoa has show, the penalty count will drop over the coming weeks. Expect whoever can adapt quickest over the next couple of weeks to have a slight advantage.

The Brumbies not-so-secret weapon

The Brumbies have a not-so-secret weapon in their arsenal that teams just don’t seem able to stop: their lineout. You just have to look at the amount of tries Folau Fainga’a has scored in recent seasons to get a idea just how dangerous the Brumbies are at this set piece.

In this match, the lineout played a heavy role in 3 of the Brumbies’ 5 tries. Their opener came on the first phase, with the maul being set to draw in the pack and then turned to open up the open side. rather than join the back of the maul, Fainga’a took the ball on the loop and ran an outside line, before passing back inside to the hidden Andy Muirhead, who raced through the gap that had been created to reach the line. For the next try, the driving maul drew in a number of players to halt it’s progress, allowing Joe Powell to snipe for the line before the remaining defenders could get set. And then finally the winning try from Will Miller was just a example of a devastating catch and drive that spat the Rebels forwards out the back as it rushed to the line.

The Brumbies weapon means that as an opponent, you can’t afford to give a penalty away anywhere in or around your own half, as they will just kick to touch and use the platform of the lineout to make you pay the ultimate price. Similarly, you can imagine that they will be looking to take advantage of the new 50/22 and 22/50 kicks as much as possible to work their way up the field. With the higher penalty counts likely in the early rounds, the Brumbies could get off to a strong start in the tournament.

New star

This match was meant to be a special occasion for Matt To’omua, who was making his 100ᵗʰ Super Rugby appearance. Sadly, he was completely overshadowed by his opposite number Noah Lolesio.

Though he missed a couple of kicks off the tee, the 20-year-old put in a great performance, controlling the game well and moving the team around the park, including a great break early in the second half, after which he was mature enough to draw in Dane Haylett-Petty before calmly feeding Tom Wright for the try.

Fly half has been a bit of a problem position for Australia for a while, with nobody managing to regularly and effectively control the game. But it looks like Lolesio and Waratahs fly half Will Harrison could be the future for the Wallabies at the position an should be in and around the squad as soon as possible if they maintain their performances from this round.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

It’s hard to believe but we’re already 3 weeks through Super Rugby Aotearoa and the teams are already starting to really separate themselves from each other in the standings. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs went to Christchurch in search of a crucial win but will find themselves returning home with just a losing bonus point, having not led at any point in the match.

In wet conditions, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie each slotted a first half penalty but it looked like the match would be devoid of much excitement, until Sevu Reece beat McKenzie to a high cross-kick from Mo’unga and broke down the right wing, before feeding the ball inside to Will Jordan for the go-ahead try. The same 2 players combined again shortly after half time, with a quick lineout from Reece catching out the Chiefs and allowing Jordan to run in uncontested. The Chiefs began to fight back after this and Sean Wainui crossed to narrow the deficit, but the Crusaders managed to hold on and remain one of only 2 teams still unbeaten in the tournament – the other being the Blues (3-0), who have a bye next week before their trip to Christchurch.

New kid on the block

If there’s one person currently that will be making All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster reconsider a 10/15 playmaker axis, it’s Crusaders fullback Will Jordan. The 22-year-old has started the tournament in fine form and is currently keeping David Havili on the bench with his great performances.

In bad conditions today, Jordan looked assured under the high ball and made some incisive runs, finishing with a match-high 98 metres. Not only that, but he is clearly developing a good link with Sevu Reece, being in the right place to support for the opening try and seeing the opportunity with Reece to take a quick lineout for the second try. If he carries on like this, international recognition can’t be far away.

The only thing going against him right now, though, is that he is much more of a prototypical fullback, as opposed to the second playmaker that I think the All Blacks will be going for, especially given the great performances Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett are putting in at the position. It may be that for the near future at least, Jordan has to prove that he can also have a great impact on the game from the wing, much like Ben Smith and Israel Dagg did at times to keep themselves in All Blacks contention.

Play every second

The Chiefs certainly weren’t happy with the awarding of Will Jordan’s second try, but they had only themselves to blame. The laws state that a quick lineout can be taken provided it is on/behind the mark, nobody else has touched the ball and the lineout had already formed, which was exactly the circumstance when Reece fed Jordan for the crucial score.

It seemed like many of the team saw Aaron Cruden go over to speak to referee James Doleman and assumed that time was off. However, Cruden was not the captain so had no right to speak to the referee and was rightfully brushed away.

I always remember being told to play to the whistle, but in situations like this, it is a little more complicated than that. Usually the moment the ball goes into touch you can have a quick rest as you prepare for the set piece, but the one thing you can’t do is switch off mentally, as the moment you start doing things by rote rather than reacting to what’s going on around you is the moment your opponent will make you regret it.

Hopefully with Warren Gatland at the helm, the players will have learned from this mistake. But in the meantime, with just 2 points from 3 games, that is a costly and completely unnecessary mistake.

Set piece success

When you’re playing in wet conditions like in this match, there a 2 things you need more than anything else: a playmaker who can control the game and put you in the right areas of the pitch, and a pack that can gain the upper hand at the set piece. While both teams certainly had the former in Cruden, McKenzie and Mo’unga, it was the Crusaders pack that gained the advantage that probably proved crucial.

Of course the set piece is always important, but in bad conditions it becomes even more so as the territory game leads to more lineouts, while the greasy ball will likely lead to more handling errors and therefore more scrums.

In this match, the Crusaders pack managed to stop a 5m catch and drive from the lineout midway through the first half, despite the Chiefs throwing in a couple of backs to increase their numbers. They caused the lineout problems all game, especially after Chiefs’ replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho entered the fray. Overall, the Chiefs ended up losing 4/20 (20%) of their own lineouts, while they also lost 1/5 of their scrums (20%) and found themselves being pushed back and giving away penalties on multiple occasions.

The old adage is that the forwards win the match and the backs decide by how much. The Crusaders once again showed that to be true.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Blues

Today should have been the Super Rugby final, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought a premature end to the competition. Thankfully, New Zealand have effectively combated the disease, so we sill managed to get professional rugby today in the form of the first match of Super Rugby Aotearoa’s second round.

Fresh off a narrow loss to the Highlanders last week, the Chiefs returned to Hamilton to host the Blues. So often, the Blues have been considered the weakest of the New Zealand franchises, but they came into this game off the back of a win and scored the opening try after 15 minutes as Hoskins Sotutu was driven over the line under the posts. However, poor discipline kept the Blues on the back foot for most of the fist half and allowed the Chiefs to stay close through the boot of Damian McKenzie. However, the game started to turn after the Blues survived 10 minutes with flanker Dalton Papali’i in the bin and the Chiefs then began to be the ones giving away the penalties, allowing Otere Black and Beauden Barrett to keep building a score, before Mark Telea crossed in the corner with 8 minutes left to confirm a 12-24 victory.

On the up

Since Super Rugby’s inception in 2011, New Zealand franchises have had a stranglehold on the competition, winning the title in 7 of the 9 completed seasons. The only New Zealand franchise to have not won the Super Rugby title is the Blues, who’s last win was back in 2003 when the competition was still Super 12! The Blues finished 4ᵗʰ in the inaugural 2011 season of Super Rugby, but lost in the semifinals and since then, their best finish in a season was 9ᵗʰ back in 2017. They have only had 2 seasons f Super Rugby where they finished with a winning record. And yet when Round 2 finishes, they will be on top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings.

It may still be early days, but his looks like a Blues team that is finally on the up and ready to compete towards the top of the table again. In winning this game, the Blues have just set a new franchise record for the most consecutive away wins (5). I wrote last week about the strength of the Blues back line, but the bad conditions today highlighted the strength of their pack. Even with the super-impressive Tom Robinson missing, they were able to put out a super physical and talented back row in Sotutu (who even at just 21 already looks like he should be playing for the All Blacks), Papali’i and Akira Ioane. Patrick Tuipulotu looks in the form of his life and leading by example, while Josh Goodhue is also putting in strong performances beside him. James Parsons provides great experience at hooker, while the props are all coming into their prime as they reach their late 20s. This is a team built to win not just now, but for the years to come too.

What may seem incredible right now is that the Blues are 2-0 without Dan Carter even making it into the matchday 23. Personally, I think that even if he barely takes the pitch, he will have been a fantastic signing as all the backs, especially young fly halves like Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta (whose injury opened the spot for Carter) will benefit so much from training with and learning from both Carter and Barrett, under the coaching of former All Blacks Leon MacDonald and Tana Umaga.

Obviously there’s still a long way to go, with 6 more matches to play over the remaining 8 rounds, but don’t be surprised to see the Blues challenging towards the top over the next few seasons.

Playmaker plans

Sadly the conditions in Hamilton denied us the thrill of watching Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie face off at fullback in a running battle as the kicking game became the focus of the day. However, the continued use of both players at 15 is something to keep an eye on.

For so long, New Zealand have had superstars at fly half, which has led to the next generation coming through initially at 15 and eventually transitioning to first five-eighth. While this has led to incredibly talented attacking playmakers like Barrett and McKenzie, I do not think that they are able to control the game as well as the players that came before them and instead benefit from playing at 15, where they have more space to exploit.

By having these guys stationed at 15 for their club rugby, it is now giving the new generation of talent the chance to learn how to play at this level already at fly half. This is going to benefit so many of these players – such as Harry Plummer, Perofeta and Black (Blues), Kaleb Trask (Chiefs), Josh Ioane (Highlanders) and Jackson Garden-Bachop (Hurricanes) – as it means that they are learning under the pressure of having flankers charging at them, but then have the benefit of experienced playmakers elsewhere in the back line to help guide them.

The next couple of seasons will be interesting to watch.

Set piece struggles

Last week, the Chiefs’ success was built largely on the strength of their catch-and-drive lineouts. This week, the set piece was an absolute nightmare.

At the lineout, the Blues were willing to put a man in the air to challenge and it led to a number of inaccuracies. The Chiefs lost 3 lineouts during the match, with one 5m out from the Chiefs line potentially costing them 5-7 points an another 5m out from their own line almost proving costly if not for a knock-on by Sam Nock as he tried to collect the loose ball.

It wasn’t even just the lineout that had issues, though, as the Chiefs lost 2 of the 6 scrums on their own feed. Tat already doesn’t sound good, but it’s even worse when you look back at the scrums and see them physically pushed off their own ball!

Mitchell Brown’s injury last week has left them with a talented by inexperienced pair at lock in Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Tupou Vaa’i, but this cannot be used as an excuse. The pack needs to improve the set piece soon, because if they can’t provide clean ball for their backs, it doesn’t matter how talented the players out there are.

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