Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Rebels

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

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

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

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

Best yet

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

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

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

A costly call

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

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

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

“Super” Time

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

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

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

feat rugby Super Rugby AU logo

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.

feat rugby Super Rugby AU logo

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Reds

Another weekend of Southern Hemisphere rugby got underway with the Melbourne Rebels taking on the Queensland Reds. The Rebels were being forced to play in Sydney due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but they found themselves leading at the break through 2 penalties from Matt To’omua. The Reds started the second half strongly though and wing Filipo Daugunu crossed within a few minutes of the restart. In a tight game that saw the Reds play a quarter of the match a man down due to 2 red cards, Reece Hodge scored after a lovely first phase play off the top of a lineout, before Bill Meakes intercepted James O’Connor and took it to the house with just over 10 minutes left. The Reds fought back though, and after O’Connor landed a penalty to bring them within 7 points, replacement hooker Alex Mafi scored in the final play, with O’Connor’s conversion levelling the scores as the clock went into the red.

Now usually, this would be the end of the game, but in this case, it meant that we had the first look at Super Rugby AU’s “Super Time”: two 5-minute periods of rugby under the Golden Point rule (first score wins). In a close territorial affair, Bryce Hegarty missed a long-range penalty and the periods ended with the teams unable to be separated, the final score remaining 18-18.

Wrong place, wrong time?

When you talk about utility backs, look no further than James O’Connor. The 30-year-old has played every position in the back line (from fly half out) and currently finds himself holding the number 10 shirt for the Reds in these opening weeks of Super Rugby AU. Personally, I think that that is not getting the best out of him.

O’Connor is certainly a playmaker with his range of skills including a strong passing game – just look at his zipped (slightly forward) passed for Daugunu’s try, dangerous running game and cultured boot. He can manage a game, however I think that he benefits from doing so away from fly half, where he has less pressure on him. Not only that, but he showed in this game just how great he is at identifying a gap and exploiting it with the perfect line and timed run, however playing at stand-off limits his chances to make this play. Personally, I think that O’Connor is at his best when playing in the centre. He can be used as a second playmaker, but can also run the hard lines and carry into the defensive line, while he also has the defensive solidity – as shown by his try-saving tackle on the line in the first half of this match – to hold his own at the position.

I can understand why O’Connor is being used at fly half when you consider the quality the team has at centre, but I’d be interested to see O’Connor and Paisani paired together, with Chris Feauai-Sautia (who was incredible off the bench) taking one of the wing spots. At fly half, they could then either move Bryce Hegarty to fly half or, potentially even better in the long-term, utilise O’Connor and Hegarty at 12 and 15 as a support network to bring through a young fly half like Hamish Stewart.

Don’t expect heavy changes for their match against the Western Force next week, but I’d love them to use their Round 4 bye to look at shuffling their back line to get the best out of their stars.

Marked change

While I’ve not been a fan of many of the trial laws being used during the tournament, one that I am enjoying is the changes to being able to call a mark. Usually, if a defending player catches a kick on the full inside their own 22, they can call a mark, allowing them the usual free kick options (minus a scrum). However under the new law being trialled in Super Rugby AU, the mark can no longer be called on attacking kicks that have been made within the 22, unless they are catching the ball within their own in-goal, which will lead to a 22-drop out.

Personally, I like it this change as it allows the attacking team to take more risk with chips and cross-kicks even if they don’t have a penalty advantage, as now the defenders will still be under pressure if they take the kick rather than an attacking player. Having had Freddie and Billy Burns at Gloucester, I can talk first hand of the joy in seeing your team score off a chip-and-chase within the 22, and can also note the skill required to get the kick right.

Further than this though, the increased use of attacking cross-kicks could lead tot he next change in positional requirements. Already we see some teams utilising the aerial skills of fullbacks by playing them on the wing to beat their opponent in the air. If we’re going to see an increase in attacking kicks, don’t be surprised if we see more teams looking for wingers who can get in the air and dominate the space.

Replacement nightmare

With the score at 11-8 and the Rebels on the up, it looked like the game was playing into their hands. Then disaster struck as an accidental swinging arm from Hunter Paisani caught Marika Koroibete high and ended his game as he failed a HIA. What made this such an issue was that the Rebels had gone with a 6-2 split on the bench, and had already brought on utility back Reece Hodge. This meant that the final 25 minutes of the game (and Super Time) with Frank Lomani. Lomani is a quality player, but he is not a wing, while Koroibete is a difference maker for the Rebels. It’shard to imagine that the game would have finished the same were it not for this moment.

With only 8 replacements available and 3 of those required to be front row forwards, it is very difficult to cover for all potential eventualities and I can’t help but find it a shame when a game is so heavily impacted by a team not having a proper replacement when a player is injured. As a result, I have a suggestion that I feel could improve the game and reduce the chances of this happening.

Rather than selecting 8 replacements – and then having a few more players on standby in case of a late withdrawal – I would suggest all fit players not in the lineup (or up to 15 if you want to create a limit) are included on the bench. Substitutions are still limited to a maximum of 8 (I wouldn’t mind reducing this to 6 to help shift the focus back to players who can play a whole game rather than 50-minute behemoths), but due to a wider bench it should be easier for a tea to replace someone with a player who is experienced at playing the position. This way, in theory, a team could replace their entire front row and 3 backs, but then still have the option to replace 2 of the other backs rather than 2 more forwards if it felt suitable.

It may not completely fix the situation, but it will make it less commonplace.

feat rugby Super Rugby AU logo

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.

feat rugby Super Rugby AU logo