5 to watch from Super Rugby AU 2021

5 to watch from Super Rugby AU 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it brought a premature end to the biggest club rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby. With conditions improving in Australia and New Zealand, they returned with more domestic versions of the competition, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa respectively.

On Friday, the second season of Super Rugby AU will kick off – 10 weeks of rugby that will see each of the 5 Australian teams face each other home and away, with the teams finishing 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ facing off in a Qualifying Final and the winner facing the 1ˢᵗ-placed finisher in the final a week later. This will run concurrently with a slightly shorter Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament (which is just a 10-week round-robin tournament, without the playoffs), before all 10 teams face off in a new tournament: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

But, assuming that someone picks up the broadcast rights to the competitions here in the UK (I’m getting very nervous with no news just a few days out) who should we be looking out for in these tournaments? I’ve looked at each of the Australian teams and picked one player per team to keep an eye on this year. Keep an eye out for my New Zealand picks, which will come out early next week.

Brumbies

Kicking things off in Canberra and my pick is fly half Noah Lolesio. The youngster missed most of the 2020 tournament through injury, but has since gone on to appear for the Wallabies. he was a big miss for the Brumbies last year despite their success, as it hampered the back line’s ability to take advantage of the quality front-foot ball that the forwards will provide. Expect to see him pushing for a more regular spot in the Wallabies squad moving forward.

Rebels

Moving from fly half to the engine room for the Rebels as my pick here is Cameron Orr. The former Gloucester prop is starting to come into his prime at 25 years old and last season really grew into his role with the Rebels. Orr is improving at the scrum, but really came into his own in the loose, with his strong carrying and impressive handling skills add an extra dimension that makes any front rower even more of a threat.

Reds

If anyone watches the Reds regularly during their 2020 campaign, then they probably won’t be shocked to see me pick Tate McDermott here. The 22-year-old was an absolute livewire and was duly rewarded with a call-up to the Wallabies squad at the end of last year. With incredible pace, he can’t be given an inch of space around the breakdown, while he will often find himself in the right spot to carry on a break and often finish it off. With another season like 2020, it will be almost impossible to keep him out of the Wallabies 23.

Waratahs

Lachlan Swinton was about to get my vote here, until my scanning of the 2021 squad’s backs noticed a familiar name: Izaia Perese. The 23-year old first came to my attention with some impressive performances at 13 for the Australian U20s, and his form on the wing for the Reds led to a Wallabies call-up in 2017. He disappeared with a move to rugby league and the NRL, but was sacked by the Brisbane Broncos for drug-related offences and returned to union with a short spell at Bayonne. Now back in Australia, this is the chance for the youngster to have a do-over, and if he gets it right, he will be a welcome addition to the Tahs’ back line.

Western Force

Maybe it’s from my time as a prop, but I’m going back to the front row here with Santiago Medrano. At 24 years old, the tighthead is already an experienced international and the disappearance of the Jaguares is a great benefit to the Force, wo also picked up fellow Pumas Tomás Lezana, Tomás Cubelli and Domingo Miotti. One of the big issues for the Force last year was a reliance on props coming tot he end of their careers, who did not have the fitness to keep playing at the required high level all match, but Medrano will bring more youthful energy to the front row alongside former Waratah Tom Robertson.


During the competitions, I will be running predictions pools on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. The pools are entirely for fun, so everyone is welcome to join and there is no buy-in!

Super Rugby AU: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: lidsbops

Super Rugby Aotearoa: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: harmgirt

Super Rugby AU Qualifying Final: Reds v Rebels

Super Rugby AU Qualifying Final: Reds v Rebels

Last week saw the 2020 edition of Super Rugby AU come to an end for 2 of the 5 teams as the top 3 in the standings moved on to the playoffs. Today, another team would see their journey come to an end as the Melbourne Rebels faced the Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium in the Qualifying Final.

The Rebels came close to taking an early lead as Andrew Kellaway got on the end of a cross-kick from Matt To’omua, only for a referral to the TMO to show that he had put a foot on the dead ball line before dotting the ball down. The next Rebels attack just a minute later ended in even more disappointment, as Jordan Petaia intercepted a wide pass from To’omua and took it under the posts to allow James O’Connor an easy kick to give the Reds an early 7-0 lead. To’omua and O’Connor traded penalties, but in such a high pressure match, handling errors were frequently bringing chances to a disappointing end. As the half drew on, Isi Naisarani charged down O’Connor’s clearance from the try line, only for the bounce of the ball to elude him and deny him a try. However, Marika Koroibete found a gap at the fringe of a ruck and broke away to score as the half came to an end, To’omua converting to level the scores at 10-10.

The Reds struck first after the break as Lukhan Salakaia-Loto crashed over in the corner, with O’Connor nailing the conversion. Injuries disrupted the chemistry of both teams as O’Connor and Reece Hodge traded penalties. Marika Koroibete went over in the corner, but the try was not given as the final pass from Bill Meakes was correctly adjudged forward. Then with just 5 minutes remaining, an inside ball from Bryce Hegarty set Taniela Tupou loose and after making his way deep into the Rebels 22, he spread the ball to Filipo Daugunu to go over in the corner, securing a 25-13 victory and a place in next weekend’s final against the Brumbies.

Wallaby woes

While Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie will have certainly enjoyed some of the performances in this match, I’m sure he’ll also be feeling very nervous about the number of injuries so close to the start of the Rugby Championship.

Matt To’omua was likely one of the favourites for either the 10 or 12 shirt, but had to come off after less than an hour due to what appeared to be a groin injury, while fellow internationals Dane Haylett-Petty and Jordan Uelese also went off injured during the second half. Meanwhile, the Reds were forced into 2 changes in the first half as they lost both Jordan Petaia and Chris Feauai-Sautia – both of whom had already missed significant time in the competition due to injuries.

Of those 5 players, I think that at least 4 were likely to be included in the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship and Rennie will be hoping that there is no lasting damage done. Meanwhile, the Reds will be hoping both players are available next week as they are great talents who would be sorely missed in the final.

Backup needed

Perhaps the most critical blow dealt to the Rebels during this match was not one from the Reds, but instead the loss of Matt To’omua.

With his impressive defence and running of the game, To’omua is arguably the key player for the Rebels and will always be missed when he is not on the pitch. Unfortunately for the Rebels, what makes his loss even more of a hit is the lack of success that they have had with his replacement Andrew Deegan playing in his stead.

Unfortunately, where To’omua plays flat to the line, Deegan plays from a deeper position, which makes it much harder for a centre pairing like Bill Meakes and Campbell Magnay, as they are most effective taking the ball at pace close to the line, where a 10 playing flat will have been able to open up holes. It’s not to say that Deegan is a bad player, he unfortunately doesn’t fit the style of play that the Rebels are going for.

This was the first time that the Rebels ever made it into a Super Rugby playoff. They have a strong team but if they want to remain consistent then they need to find another fly half to back up To’omua who will also play close to the line, in order to keep the consistency in their play.

The Final

With this win, the Reds have secured their spot as the Brumbies’ opponent in next week’s final. And so the question becomes “who will be the first Super Rugby AU Champion?”

The Brumbies won their last meeting in Canberra 22-20, while the Reds looked by far the stronger team in last week’s 26-7 victory at Suncorp Stadium. While the home advantage is certainly with the Brumbies, the Reds will know how close they came at the start of August and I would argue that they are a better team now.

The Brumbies may have had a week to recuperate, but as a Gloucester fan I know that the bye week in a 3-team playoff can be a killer, while the Reds now come into this game on the back of a 4-game winning streak.

To me, it all comes down to the Reds’ injuries. Petaia is an incredible talent who can play centre or wing, while Feauai-Sautia also provides quality at both positions. If they are both out injured then the Reds will find themselves stretched thin in the back line – though promoting Hunter Paisami from the bench back to the XV would still leave them with strong starting XV.

I feel that the Reds have enough to get the win, but will feel more confident if this week’s injuries do not rule the players out of the match.

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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: Rebels v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Waratahs

With the automatic spot (and home advantage) in the Super Rugby AU confirmed as going to the Brumbies, thoughts turned to Leichhardt Oval, where the Melbourne Rebels were facing the NSW Waratahs.

With the Tahs having a Bye next week, a win was vital to keep their hopes of playoff rugby alive, and after Matt To’omua put the Rebels ahead early on from the tee, Jake Gordon sniped over beneath the posts for the opening try. Jack Dempsey fought his way over the line to extend the lead, but To’omua kept things close with a hard inside line to crash over for the Rebels’ first try and keep things close, Will Harrison kicking a penalty on the stroke of half time to make the score 10-17.

It didn’t take long for the action to get going in the second half, as Isi Naisarani broke off the back of a spinning maul to narrow the gap. Harry Johnson-Holmes soon crossed for the ‘Tahs, before a clever move off a lineout put Joey Walton over for a try. It looked like a comeback may be on for the Rebels, as Marika Koroibete crossed in the corner after a Waratahs penalty failed to find touch, before To’omua managed to hold Jack Maddocks up over the line just a few minutes later after Matt Philip was sent to the sin bin, while the 14 men of the Rebels then crossed for another try through Naisarani, To’omua pushing the kick wide to leave them just 2 behind. The comeback came to an end in crushing fashion, however, as Michael Hooper charged down a kick from Andrew Deegan and Will Harrison collected to score the winning try, though To’omua had time to kick a penalty to secure a losing bonus point.

Balance

Though the Waratahs have been up and down this tournament due to their youth, this match shows that if they can get things right, they have a great balance to their squad.

I talked about how well balanced the back row was last week, but elsewhere in the pack you also have dynamic carriers like Ned Hanigan, Tom Horton, Angus Bell and Harry Johnson-Holmes, who did a fantastic job of putting the team on the front foot. Jake Gordon is a wily operator at scrum half, while Will Harrison will just get better at controlling the game with experience. In the centre, a combination of Karmichael Hunt, Tepai Moeroa and Joey Walton provides good physicality to help the forwards put the team on the front foot, while also having the ability to distribute the ball well to create gaps and exploit the space out wide. Finally in the back 3, you have a trio of talented attacking players who will cause you severe issues if given space.

If the ‘Tahs can get off to a decent start n games and get the pack making metres and generating quick ball, this is a dangerous team and not one that will be easy for defences to stop.

Round 10

While I’m sure a lot of us would have loved to see the Rebels try to go coast to coast and score a try after the hooter to bring this game down to a Matt To’omua kick, the decision to walk away with the losing bonus point was the right one. Though the Rebels find themselves outside of the top 3 int he standings, they are only 4 points behind the Waratahs – who have now played all 8 games – and their head-to-head record means that they will finish above today’s rivals with a win, while a win with a bonus point will give them the win outright.

In Round 10’s “Super Saturday”, the Reds and Brumbies will face off knowing that they are both confirmed of having a space in the playoffs – though the Reds will want a win to secure home advantage in the Qualifying Final – while the Rebels will face off against the Western Force knowing that a win will see them face the Reds a week later at the expense of the Reds.

The Rebels can’t take this match for granted as the Force ran them close in Round 5 and will be keen to get a win in the competition, so the Rebels need to make sure that they are putting out as strong a team as possible to ensure the win while also looking ahead to the week after. So who should they go for?

The current front row of Cameron Orr, Jorda Uelese and Jermaine Ainsley is looking very good at the moment, but I would look to give Ainsley a slight rest with an appearance off the bench, with Pone Fa’amausili starting as I feel he we bring another physical option to help the team get on the front foot early on – something they failed to do in this match. The lock pairing of Matt Philip and Trevor Hosea are starting to work well together in the engine room so should remain the same. In the back row, Michael Wells and Isi Naisarani should stay in the 6 and 8 shirts respectively, while at 7 a rotation between Brad Wilkin and Richard Hardwick will keep both fresh without weakening the pack. Frank Lomani remains the obvious pick at scrum half with Ryan Louwrens injured, while Matt To’omua should shift back to fly half as Deegan has struggled to consistently control the game. Billy Meakes would be the beneficiary of Deegan’s removal and pair with Campbell Magnay. In the back 3, Reece Hodge should retain the 15 jersey while Andrew Kellaway needs consistency of selection on the wing to get back into form, but I feel that Marika Koroibete could benefit from a rest, leading to a start for Tom Pincus. On the bench, Cabous Eloff and Jermaine Ainsley would provide a good balance of open play danger and scrummaging similar to that of the starters, with Efi Ma’afu keeping the hooker spot. For the final 2 forward spots on the bench, I would select between Micheal Stolberg and Esei Ha’angana to cover the lock position and Brad Wilkin or Rob Leota at back row. James Tuttle would cover Lomani, with Deegan able to come on for To’omua if the Rebels can get a sizeable lead. Finally, I would welcome back Dane Haylett-Petty in the 23 and aim to get him 20-30 minutes to get him match-ready.

So who will join the Brumbies and Reds in the playoffs? I think that there is too much strength in the Rebels squad to lose to the Force, so I can see them coming away with the win, but perhaps not the bonus point, while I can see the Brumbies’ pack getting them a narrow win over the Reds. As a result, the Reds will get home advantage in the Qualifying Final against the Rebels, while the ‘Tahs will be left ruing some bad performances earlier in the competition.

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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Rebels

Coming off the back of a shock thrashing at the hands of the Waratahs last week, the Reds were back at Suncorp Stadium to face the Melbourne Rebels. The Rebels were hoping to follow on from a victory over the table-topping Brumbies, and took an early lead through a Matt To’omua penalty. That ended up being their last points of the game however, and Jordan Petaia soon put the Reds ahead with a try off of a strong Reds scrum. As the half hour mark approached, a game of kick tennis was clinically ended by Jock Campbell, who broke through an uneven chasing line before feeding Filipo Daugnu, who drew the final defenders before offloading to hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa to score in the corner in the corner; James O’Connor converting for a 14-3 halftime lead.

The first 30 minutes of the second half can be described as a failed siege, as wave after wave of Rebels attacks ended scoreless, with the notable points being some wasted chances, a couple of occasions when the Rebels were held up over the line and a fun moment when replacement prop Cabous Eloff’s shorts fell apart a minute after he came on to reveal he was wearing a pair of hot pink budgie smugglers. Entering the final 10 minutes, the Reds got some possession with a scrum on halfway and – despite having Paenga-Amosa in the bin – clinically cut through the Rebels defence for Hamish Stewart to score off the first phase, solidifying the Reds win by a margin of 19-3.

White line fever

Granted the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily reduced the amount of rugby I’ve been able to watch in 2020, but I haven’t seen such a bad case of white line fever from a team in a long time.

In the second half siege of the Reds’ try line, the Rebels found themselves held up over the line twice. Isi Naisarani knocked on over the line as he tried to get to ground following a rolling maul with 15 minutes left, when if he had just stayed in place at the back he could have fallen safely and scored. There was also one final chance in the right-hand corner when all Marika Koroibete had to do was draw the man and pass, only for him to selfishly keep hold of the ball and get hit back in the tackle, bringing an end to the chance.

Of course when you’re down on the scoreboard you want to score as quickly as possible in order to give yourself the maximum amount of time to come back at your opponent, but trying to be too quick and wasting the chance is an even worse result. It is crucial to stay calm and composed that close to the line. Just look at Exeter, who will go through double-digit phases on the opponent’s line and keeping themselves low whenever they go for the line to ensure they aren’t held up and can get the ball back to keep the pressure on, until they eventually bulldoze over or draw in the defence to create an overlap.

In a game where the smallest of margins can decide the game, the Rebels need to ensure they are less wasteful in the future.

Linchpin

What won’t have helped the Rebels in the second half was the loss of Matt To’omua in the 47ᵗʰ minute. The 30-year-old played fly half for the first half of the tournament but has moved out to 12 in recent weeks to accommodate Andrew Deegan. Unfortunately, his loss in this match proved costly as Deegan struggled to keep any real control to the attack without him – leading to the white line fever I mentioned before. More than that, though, To’omua is a leader defensively, solidifying the midfield and stopping attacks with big hits.

The Rebels can be a very dangerous team, but they need to be able to make sure that they don’t rely too much on a couple of players, otherwise they will win one-off games but not full competitions.

Clash of the titans

Usually when I think of Australian teams, I generally think of smaller, more technical players than massive units, but this match is one of the exceptions. In Pone Fa’amausili and Taniela Tupou, the Rebels and Reds have probably the biggest behemoths in Super Rugby AU, while Cabous Eloff put his hand up for recognition as well as probably becoming a fan favourite with his hot pink budgie smugglers.

What makes these props so impressive is that they are sizeable units, but have all shown themselves to be able to reach a decent speed when allowed a run-up, making them even more destructive when going into contact.

The Rebels especially seem to be trying to utilise their destructive running by having at least one of Fa’amausili or Eloff deep on drop-outs, with the idea that they will take the kick – or be given the ball by whoever does – and have 20+ metres to reach top speed ahead of reaching the defensive line in a similar way to a rugby league prop usually taking the ball into contact following a drop-out. With other similar props out there including Ellis Genge, expect to see other teams looking at a similar set-up if the goal-line drop-out becomes a permanent fixture in rugby.

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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: Western Force v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Rebels

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

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

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

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

Best yet

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

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

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

A costly call

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

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

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

“Super” Time

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

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

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

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Super Rugby 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: 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.

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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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