Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Brumbies

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

Outgunned

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

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

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

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

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

Hope for the future

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

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

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

Blast from the past

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

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

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

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Rebels

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

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

One to watch

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

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

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

Watch this space.

Worst performance of Super Rugby AU

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

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

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

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

Bad spell

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

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

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

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Brumbies

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

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

Evolution is a long process

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

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

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

Lineout woes

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

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

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

Play of the game

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

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

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

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Western Force

1092 days after their last Super Rugby game following their axing from the competition, the Western Force returned to the big leagues as the 5ᵗʰ team in Super Rugby AU. They didn’t waste any time in Sydney, coming out the blocks quicker than the Waratahs and building up a 0-14 lead through a try from Byron Ralston and 3 penalties from scrum half Ian Prior. The Tahs grew into the game though, and Angus Bell crossed with the final play of the half, with Will Harrison’s conversion making it 7-14 at the break.

The second half struggled to hit the heights seen in New Zealand a couple of hours earlier, but replacement lock Tom Staniforth crashed over for the Waratahs’ second try and Will Harrison remained perfect from the tee to secure a 23-14 win for the ‘Tahs.

The Force Unleashed

As someone who was firmly against the axing of the Western Force from Super Rugby, it was great to see them back in the tournament – a rare sporting positive during this pandemic.

While they may not have been able to carry on their strong start for the full 80 minutes, it is clear that they are not going to be the walkovers that some probably expected after so long away from the elite competition. They may have the Australian players that couldn’t get a Super Rugby contract for the initial Super Rugby season, but that gives them a chip on their shoulder and a desire to prove themselves, while they then have a spine of experienced Super Rugby players (eg. Brynard Stander and Jono Lance) internationals (Jeremy Thrush, Henry Stowers and Marcel Brache) and some returning former Australian internationals (Nick Frisby, Greg Holmes and Kyle Godwin), all of which puts them in a strong position.

I’m not expecting them to compete for the title, but I’m hoping that they continue to show the ARU that they can hold their own and find a way to push for more inclusion if the hanging rugby landscape leads to changes in Super Rugby.

“The law is an ass”

As I mentioned in my look at the Rebels’ draw with the Reds, I’ve not been a fan of most of the law changes being trialled in the tournament. I wasn’t very confident in them when they were initially announced, and 4 games into the tournament, they’re not growing on me.

While I still feel that the 22/50 and 50/22 kicks are giving an undeserved advantage, they felt even worse in this game as they slowed the game down due to officials all having to debate whether the last breakdown before the kick was actually in a position to make the kick a 50/22, highlighted by a ridiculously close call that led to Staniforth’s try – the ball carrier was tackled in his own half, momentum took him into the Force half but he managed to reach the ball back onto the halfway line, making a 50/22 a possibility. The officials already have too much to worry about and already ignore too much. Having them pay attention to whether a 22/50 or 50/22 is applicable will just lead to more serious infringements being missed.

I seriously hope this is one trial that goes no further.

A familiar issue

Watching the match, something finally began to click in my mind why the Waratahs are struggling for results. They have some fantastically talented players in their squad, but they are lacking ball carriers.

Now before I go any further, I want to clarify that by this, I mean the players who will be able to carry into the defensive line over and over again and put the team on the front foot, the men you’re looking to put on a crash ball to do some damage. They have some wonderful runners on the ball like Michael Hoper and Ned Hanigan, but they generally only come alive in space, while the team is lacking the firepower of a Taniela Tupou, Samu Kerevi or Pone Fa’amausili. It’s a familiar issue and one that will probaby feel familiar to many Wallabies fans, and it makes the game so much harder as the team must work harder to break over the gainline, as the defence can spread themselves more without the fear of missing a 1v1 tackle.

This can certainly be fixed though. Lachlan Swinton is already developing a name as an enforcer at 6 defensively and with 16 carries, they are clearly looking to build him into one of those ball carriers, while I can’t help think that promoting Jack Dempsey (16 metres from 4 carries) from the bench will also help in this area. Further than this, though, a team can try to make up for a lack of physical carriers by running hard and straight. Karmichael Hunt is far from what you would consider a crash ball runner, but he made such an impact after his introduction by running hard at the gaps between players. While it is certainly more effective having a more physical player do that, a good line and committed run will go a long way to break through a gap, while all it takes is a few players straightening their lines to start forcing the defence to get narrower and stop drifting, immediately creating space out wide for players like Jack Maddocks and Mark Nawaqanitawase to exploit.

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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

As Super Rugby Aotearoa prepares for its 4ᵗʰ week of action, Australia kicked off its own domestic tournament, Super Rugby AU, as they continue to get over the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament sees the 4 Australian Super Rugby franchises (the Reds, Rebels, Brumbies and Waratahs) and axed Super Rugby franchise the Western Force combine for a 10-round, 5-team round-robin tournament similar to Super Rugby Aotearoa, but with a 2-week playoff at the end involving the top 3 teams in the standings.

The tournament kicked off at Suncorp Stadium with a match between North/South rivals the Queensland Reds and New South Wales Waratahs. After both packs traded early tries, the Reds took control with another 2 tries from Filipo Daugunu and Tate McDermott to take a 19-13 halftime lead. They were slow out of the blocks after halftime, however, and as their discipline disappeared, a great line from Jack Maddocks saw him cross for the the Waratahs’ second try and – though the Reds crossed again through Harry Wilson – the flawless kicking off the tee from fly half Will Harrison saw things all square with just 10 minutes late. The Reds ended the stronger, though, and 2 late penalties from James O’Connor saw them come away with a 32-26 victory, ending a run of 11 consecutive losses to the ‘Tahs.

 

No pushovers

Just last week, I wrote about the importance of a dominant pack at the set piece. While the lineout had issues (certainly not helped by the early loss of lock Angus Blyth) the scrum was an area of serious success for the Reds.

The Tahs chose to start with 19-year-old Angus Bell at loosehead and the poor kid was taken to school by Reds tighthead Taniela Tupou. He may be widely known as the “Tongan Thor” but at 5’9″ he is like a rhinoceros, and found it easy to get underneath 6’4″ Bell, allowing him to dominate the right hand side of the scrum. By the 30 minute mark, Bell had been penalised at the scrum 4 times and was finding himself sent to the sin bin.

The scrum is such a key component of the game and important weapon. While Tupou was certainly a big weapon at the scrum, it was a team effort, with a big second push from the pack often putting the ‘Tahs on the back foot. The Reds will be very happy with their performance here and hoping to repeat again in Melbourne next week. The Waratahs meanwhile, will have to decide whether to put Bell in again next week against the Western Force, or whether they take him out of the firing line for a week.

Kick out the new laws

Fans watching Super Rugby AU will notice some differences to how the game is usually played as the tournament is trialling a number of new laws. The 3 that I’m going to focus on right now are as follows:

  • Play will be restarted with goal line drop-outs following an attacking player being held up over the line (replacing 5m scrum)/the ball being grounded by the defending team over their own goal line, regardless of who took the ball over the line (replacing 2 drop-out/5m scrum)
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own 22 to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ half, the kicking team will throw into the lineout
  • If a player successfully kicks the ball from inside their own half to bounce into touch inside the opponents’ 22, the kicking team will throw into the lineout

Now, I will start by admitting that I was not a fan of these law trials when they were initially announced and remain sceptical, but I am giving them a fair chance. One match in and I’m not convinced.

There was a moment in the second half when Michael Hooper found himself caught behind his own goal line after getting back to field a kick. Usually, this would have meant that a dominant Reds pack would have had a 5m scrum in the middle of the pitch, which feels like it would have ended in a try and perhaps even a numerical advantage. Instead, under the new law trial, the Waratahs were allowed to clear their lines and the Reds found themselves getting possession back over 40m from the line. How is that rewarding a good kick chase from the Reds?!

As for the 50/22 and 22/50 kicks, I was surprised that there weren’t more attempts from players to go for these, but the 2 that did pay off from the Reds – a 50/22 from Tate McDermott that got a lucky bounce to take it to 10m out from the Waratahs’ line, and a 22/50 from Bryce Hegarty – twice gave the Reds possession that did not feel earned at all.

I understand making changes to benefit the game, but these changes felt unnecessary when announced and one match in I can’t see how these are improving the game.

Golden future

The Wallabies have not been great for a while and with an ageing squad and Michael Cheika gone, it wouldn’t surprise me if new Head Coach Dave Rennie brings in a number of younger players early in this 4-year cycle with the intention of building for RWC2023. Judging by this game, the future could be bright for the Wallabies.

There were already a handful of young players in or around the national team, such as Jack Maddox and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (23), Tupou (24), and Liam Wright (22), as well as 20-year-old Jordan Petaia, who was not involved in this match, but there were also a number of other young players putting their hands up for selection.

Will Genia will be hard to replace, but Tate McDermott (21) looked fantastic, keeping a good tempo to the attack, while showing his wheels when given space and also some quick thinking to take a quick-tap penalty after a series of scrum penalties, when everyone was just expecting another scrum. Flyhalf has been a bit of a mess for the national team for a while, but Will Harrison (20) looked composed taking the ball to the line and was flawless off the tee to keep the ‘Tahs in the game.

Elsewhere on the pitch, Fijian-born wing Filipo Daugunu (25) – who recently turned down a lucrative contract in Japan with a view to wearing the green and gold – showed some good moments in attack and took his try well. Waratahs flanker Lachlan Swinton may have conceded one of the winning penalties by straying offside in the dying minutes, but he put in an otherwise great performance, really filling the role of enforcer at blindside with some big tackles, while also making the pass that put Jack Maddocks through for a try.

If these players can carry on with performances of this level, international recognition can’t be far off – once international rugby returns!

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