Super Rugby Pacific 2022: Signings to Watch

Super Rugby Pacific 2022: Signings to Watch

While most rugby fans in the Northern Hemisphere are getting ready for the return of the Six Nations, the Southern Hemisphere is getting ready for the beginning of the next phase of Super Rugby. Starting on February 18ᵗʰ, Super Rugby Pacific will be the biggest tournament since the pandemic caused the early cancellation of the 2020 competition. The South Africans are now gone and a part of the United Rugby Championship, and we have also lost Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves, leaving us with 5 Australian teams (the 4 from the 2020 season, and the Western Force, who were axed but returned in Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman), 5 New Zealand teams and 2 new teams in Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua.

Now I love watching Super Rugby—though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to this year as there is still no news on a UK broadcaster for the competition— as we get some wonderful attacking rugby, so as I like to do for most of the leagues that I can follow with some degree of regularity, I’ve picked 1 new signing per team who I think fans should be keeping an eye on this year. In some cases (most notably the Reds, who have only brought in a couple of new players) this was very hard, whereas for our 2 new teams, I was lucky enough to have the entire roster to pick from.

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Blues

Starting with the Blues, and the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman Champions may have one of the most exciting signings of the year in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. The 28-year-old has been a superstar in rugby league and now makes his move over to show what he can do in the 15-man code. Expected to play centre, he adds a real playmaking ability into the midfield—as if they needed more attacking quality! With the World Cup fast approaching and questions over the best All Blacks centre pairing, don’t be shocked to see him getting capped in the June Tests.

Brumbies

For the Brumbies, we look at a familiar face for fans in fullback Jesse Mogg. The 3-cap Wallaby returns to Canberra after 6 years in France with Montpellier and Pau. A dynamic runner with the ball, Mogg’s presence will force Tom Banks to play at the top of his game to keep the 15 shirt, while he can also appear on the wing to help alleviate the loss of Solomone Kata.

Chiefs

An easy pick here for the Chiefs, in Josh Ioane. Aaron Cruden was clearly never a long-term option when he returned to Hamilton, and with him gone, neither Kaleb Trask nor Bryn Gatland looked like the player who could lead the Chiefs to the very top. However in young Josh Ioane, they have a player who is entering his prime and will be keen to push for a spot in the All Black’s World Cup squad, or put himself at the forefront of the discussion for the next cycle. Could he be the guy to bring the Chiefs back to the top?

Crusaders

How do you improve one of the strongest teams in rugby? Well by adding Pablo Matera. The former Pumas captain is one of the best blindside flankers in the world, a monster on defence and a great carrier, who also isn’t afraid to put boot to ball with surprisingly good effect. If you want to create a strong pack who can also get around the park to keep up with the backs, this is the kind of signing you want to make!

Fijian Drua

Probably a surprise pick here as I go for prop Manasa Saulo. You wouldn’t expect me to look at a squad of Fijians and pick a prop as one to watch, but if you can’t hold your own at the scrum, it won’t matter how exciting the attacking talent in your team is. Well Saulo comes to Super Rugby with top flight rugby experience from his time at Toulon and London Irish, as well as 43 caps. With a relatively young and inexperienced batch of props on the roster, Saulo will be a great teacher to help take the new generation of Fijian players to the next level.

Highlanders

Another player returning to known pastures, my pick for the Highlanders is Marty Banks. With Ioane, Caleb Makene and Tim O’Malley all gone, it’s just Banks and Mitch Hunt left to cover fly half. The good news is that, now on his third spell at the club, it should be easy for Banks to slip straight in. But will he be there to provide cover for Hunt, or will he be a regular at 10, allowing Hunt to shine at 15?

Hurricanes

While the return of TJ Perenara is huge, I’ve instead gone for Owen Franks. The ‘Canes roster is very young at prop, and so the arrival of a player of Franks’ experience (150 Crusaders appearances and 108 New Zealand caps from 2009-2019) will not just help shore up the scrum when he is on the pitch, but also greatly help the development of the new generation coming through.

Melbourne Rebels

Another returning player to make the list, Matt Philip comes back to Melbourne following a brief spell with Pau. While the Wallabies have been up and down over the last few years, Philip has been one of the more consistently good players. Reliable at the set piece and a strong carrier, Philip will play a key role in trying to put the Rebels pack on the front foot as the team tries to cope with the loss of Isi Naisarani.

Moana Pasifika

There were so many ways that I could go with this pick, but I eventually landed on fly half Christian Leali’ifano. The Australian fly half is of Samoan heritage, and will help provide shape and stability to the team as they find their footing against much more experienced opposition, while helping William Havili and Lincoln McClutchie grow into players of Super Rugby quality.

NSW Waratahs

While Michael Hooper’s return is the obvious pick here, I chose to look beyond the obvious and instead pick Jamie Roberts. Aged 35 and 5 years on from his last Wales cap, Roberts is still more than capable of excelling at the top of his game. His experience at centre will be vital in shoring up the defence, while his reliability and his picking of a line will be a real attacking boon for Will Harrison and co.

Queensland Reds

Without a doubt one of the hardest to pick, the Reds only have 4 incoming faces this season: 3 from Queensland Premier Rugby which is well beyond my scope of knowledge, and one from Harlequins’ academy. It is that academy player, Tom Lynagh, who gets the nod though. At 17 and with no top-flight rugby under his belt, he will surely be third choice at fly half, but if he possesses half the quality of dad Michael or brother Louis (who has been called in the England Six Nations squad), we may only be an injury or two away from seeing him come in at 15 to get some experience.

Western Force

And last but not least, we reach the Force and their new signing, Izack Rodda. Rodda brings an impressive degree of experience and international quality to partner Jeremy Thrush in the second row, while proving a solid yet dynamic carrier in the loose. The Force have been steadily improving since their return in Super Rugby AU, and Rodda is just the kind of signing they need to step up against the quality of the New Zealand franchises.

Do you think I missed someone? Let me know who your picks would have been.

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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: 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: Brumbies v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Waratahs

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

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

Inexcusable

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

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

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

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

Hit and miss

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

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

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

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

Back row balance

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

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

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

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

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

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Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

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

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

Thrown away

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

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

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

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

Competition or support?

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

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

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

Wasteful Force

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

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

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

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

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Reds

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

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

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

Thrown away

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

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

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

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

Left exposed

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

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

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

He’s back!

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

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

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

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

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Super Rugby AU: 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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