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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North Island v South Island 2020

North Island v South Island 2020

I’ve been seriously missing Super Rugby Aotearoa these past few weeks, so on the eve of the All Blacks selection announcement, this match between the North Island and South Island – the first since a fundraiser in 2012 – was something I was looking forward to… and it didn’t really disappoint!

The North Island couldn’t have got a much better start to the match, as Reiko Ioane go on the end of a Beauden Barrett grubber kick to score the opening try after just 2 and a half minutes, with Damian McKenzie kicking the extras. It didn’t take long for the South Island to find an answer though, as a driving maul got them to the North Island try line and Nepo Laulala took the ball the final few inches, Jordie Barrett hitting the conversion and a penalty soon after to go ahead. Next came arguably the try of the match as the North Island attacked down the blind side 15m channel with some beautiful interplay from Reiko Ioane, Caleb Clarke, TJ Perenara and Damian McKenzie seeing the Chiefs fullback put North Island back ahead with the try and successful conversion. Jordie Barrett missed a penalty, but made amends just after the half hour mark, powering over int he corner after a slick pass out of the ruck from Codie Taylor, before hitting the conversion for a halftime lead of 14-17.

The North Island struck first again in the second half as replacement scrum half Aaron Smith followed up with an inside support line after the team made a break down the right through Damian McKenzie and Hoskins Sotutu, McKenzie converting again. 10 minutes later and North Island were on the attack again, but a pass from McKenzie went astray and while Caleb Clarke managed to keep the ball in play, he was unable to collect and South Island winger Will Jordan swooped in to steal the ball and take it to the house. while the South Island scored again just minutes later as Richie Mo’unga hit Tyrel Lomax on a perfect line with a beautiful flat pass, Barrett kicking both conversions to extend the lead. North Island refused to give up and narrowed the lead when Reiko Ioane slipped through the challenges of Shannon Frizell and Leicester Fainga’anuku to score under the posts, with McKenzie cutting the lead to 3 points. Then came the controversial moment on 71 minutes as Ash Dixon took an hard line off Aaron Smith to go under the posts. Referee Paul Williams awarded the try without consulting the TMO and the conversion was taken quickly, before replays could show that Dixon had been held up over the line. As the clock ticked past the 80 minutes, it looked like that decision may prove costly, but a series of penalties gave the South Island one more chance from a 5m lineout. With a penalty advantage given at the resultant maul, and with the North Island defence extremely narrow, replacement fly half Josh Ioane went for the cross-kick and Will Jordan rose above Mitch Hunt to take the ball above his head and score the winning try, Barrett adding the extras to confirm a 35-38 victory.

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Stand-out performers

While a couple of players may not have had the impact they would have hoped, there was no player in either 23 who came away from the match with a diminished reputation. Some definitely improved on theirs, though.

Jordie Barrett was arguably one of the best men on the pitch, frequently showing his skills in both attack and defence while going near-perfect off the tee. Will Jordan was quiet in the first half but grew into the game and picked his moments to have maximum impact with 2 crucial tries. To me, they are the top 2 options at fullback right now, and I would expect Jordie Barrett to get the All Blacks 15 shirt if Ian Foster picks on form as he creates the 10/15 playmaker axis, while Jordan will certainly be putting his hand up for a spot on the wing. Caleb Clarke put in a big performance that may be the only thing that stops Jordan taking one of the starting wing spots, with Foster unlikely to want 2 uncapped wingers along with a new fullback.

One person who won’t be in contention for a wing spot is Reiko Ioane, as he has shown that the experiment of moving him inside to outside centre has been a success. While we already knew of Ioane’s pace, this move has accentuated his defensive ability and his strength, while his slick handling skills in the 13 channel just make the team even more dangerous. Sticking with the Blues, Hoskins Sotutu was the star of Super Rugby Aotearoa until his injury, but looked immediately back to his best in this game with turnovers and some great attacking play.

The final mention has to go to Tom Christie. Openside flanker is a position where the All Blacks are never short of options, while there is a legacy to uphold after the reign of Richie McCaw. Tom Christie definitely wouldn’t have been the first name on people’s lips when discussing Ian Foster’s options there, but he had a fantastic season with the Crusaders and played a starring role in this game. As captain of the national team, if Sam Cane is fit then Christie’s best chance is probably a place on the bench, but don’t be surprised to see him actively fighting for the 7 shirt in the coming years.

Strength in depth

If nothing else, this match and the subsequent All Blacks squad announcement just highlighted the strength in depth available to New Zealand.

While all 8 back rowers to play in this match put in strong performances, Sam Cane was always going to make the All Blacks squad if fit, while Cullen Grace can be considered somewhat of a shock inclusion, having missed much of Super Rugby Aotearoa through injury. Beyond that, though, are players like Du’Plessis Kirifi, Luke Jacobsen and Lachlan Boshier who all missed out on both the All Blacks and this match!

In the halfbacks, it was a shame that Finlay Christie did not get more of a chance to show his quality in the match and I can’t help feel that on form he was very unlucky to miss out on international selection (cough… snap him up, Scotland… cough!). Finally, that the match 23s suggest Otere Black my be 6ᵗʰ choice at stand-off is another crazy sign of their depth, especially when you consider some of the other players who have retired from international rugby or are ineligible due to playing outside of New Zealand!

If New Zealand are to struggle at all int he coming seasons, it won’t be due to a lack of depth in the squad.

Wasted wonder

I’ve been on record as saying that I consider Richie Mo’unga to be the best fly half in the world at this moment in time. Unfortunately, following this match, I feel that his potential will not be reached while Ian Foster is in charge of the All Blacks.

Under Steve Hansen, Mo’unga was never given a fair shot to compete against the golden boy Beauden Barrett, and when Injury to Damian McKenzie forced Barrett to move to 15 and Mo’unga to come into the XV, he was basically used in a game manager role while Barrett was given the true reins to the attack – similar to how the Blues were set up with Barrett and Otere Black. This completely takes away from his game, as playing as the lead playmaker for the Crusaders has highlighted just how good he is, while having a second playmaker at 15 would be a great support for him.

As one of Steve Hansen’s assistants, I was already worried that his selection would be bad news for Mo’unga, and this game all-but confirmed it, as Foster’s assistants Brad Mooar and Greg Feek were in charge of the South Island team. What followed was a subdued match for Mo’unga – not helped by a HIA assessment midway through the first half – as fullback Jordie Barrett was frequently popping up at first receiver. Mo’unga certainly had his moments, with an early grubber through almost ending in a try but for a great defensive play from Hoskins Sotutu and then of course his inch-perfect pass to Tyrel Lomax, but if the All Blacks were to trust him with full control like Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson does, then they would be so much more dangerous.

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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Brumbies

Suncorp Stadium played host to the final game of Super Rugby AU’s round-robin stage as the Reds hosted the Brumbies. With the Brumbies already having 1ˢᵗ place in the standings (and therefore an automatic spot in the final) secured, and the Reds already guaranteed of home advantage in the Qualifying Final by finishing 2ⁿᵈ, there was very little to play for ther than pride and momentum.

The Brumbies were coming in off the back of 2 convincing victories, but soon found themselves behind as Reds fullback Jock Campbell scythed through the defence out wide before offloading to captain Liam Wright to score in the corner. James O’Connor missed the conversion, but made up for this by kicking 2 penalties as the Reds took control of the game, before the Reds back line worked an overlap off the first phase of a scrum to put Chris Feauai-Sautia over in the same corner, O’Connor this time nailing the conversion. Things were looking bad for the Brumbies, but they managed to get on the scoresheet just before halftime as Pete Samu cut in from the left wing to score under the posts, giving Bayley Kuenzle an easy kick to make the score 18-7 at the break.

As the substitutions started early in the second half with a view to the coming weeks, the game presented very few chances for either team to score. O’Connor kicked another penalty in the 66ᵗʰ minute to extend the lead, and with the Brumbies unable to muster a response, Tate McDermott – who had saved a try in the first half by causing Tevita Kuridrani to knock on as he crossed the line – reacted quickest when Kuenzle muffed a high ball to score in the corner and secure a 26-7 victory for the Reds.

Straighten up

If the tries in this game showed one thing, it was the importance of running straight lines to maximise the space on the pitch.

Straight lines from the inside runners meant that when Jock Campbell got hands on the ball, he found himself still having almost a third of the pitch to work with, with 3 teammates outside him keeping the width, against 2 defenders who were both narrow, with Tom Banks covering the potential grubber kick in behind. This left Campbell with so many options on how to proceed that it was easier to score than anything else and he duly utilised his pace and the threat of his outside men to slip between the 2 defenders and draw Tom Banks to convert a 3v1 overlap.

Then again for their second try, the drift from James O’Connor (with Filipo Daugunu sticking on his shoulder) and then Jordan Petaia running a hard, straight line led to the Brumbies defence coming in too narrow and being completely exposed by the ball out the back to Hamish Stewart. This meant that the widest defender – Tom Wright panicked at the overlap and tried jamming up on Stewart too late (which was unnecessary as Tevita Kuridrani was able to drift out onto Stewart. With Wright biting too late, it was easy for Stewart to get the ball away to Jock Campbell, who again successfully completed the 2v1 against Tom Banks to put Chris Feauai-Sautia over in the corner.

While both these tries showed the impact of running straight in the middle of the pitch to create the space out wide, Pete Samu’s try for the Brumbies also showed the ease with which straightening up a play that is drifting can beat a defence. Tom Wright got the ball about 17m in from touch but the inside runners hadn’t successfully drawn their men so he was immediately continuing the outside arc that he caught the ball on, with Pete Samu the only man outside him. His arc failed to successfully draw the defender out wide (Tate McDermott), but even by cutting inside he still found him forced towards the touchline by the 4 defenders chasing over, with more on their way. Thankfully for the Brumbies, Samu gave him an option by cutting back inside and taking the offload from Wright, which immediately caught out the first wave of Reds defenders who had all over-chased and getting through the gap before the second wave could plug it. Samu makes it look easy, but too often you will see the wide man try to hold his wide line in these circumstances and find themselves eventually getting the ball with the defence already pushing them into touch.

There is a time and place to drift and arc outside, but if you want to create space, sometimes the simplest way to do so is just to run straight.

From red to gold?

If I’m being completely honest, there is no fullback in the competition that has stood head and shoulders above the others, but if I was selecting the next Wallabies squad, I would have a close eye on Jock Campbell.

The Reds’ utility back is making himself at home in the 15 shirt and looks more confident with every game. While his attacking stats were generally lower than Tom Banks in this game (10 runs for 44m versus 17 runs for 152), his impact on the game was much more noticeable. As a utility back, he has a great blend of pace with handling and footwork, all of which was highlighted for Liam Wright’s try as he used his pace to beat Tevita Kuridrani to the outside with an arcing run that took out Tom Wright, before drawing Tom Banks and slipping an offload to Wright out the back of his hand the moment Banks turned his shoulders inside.

With nobody else standing head and shoulders above him, I’d love to see him given a chance in the Wallabies 15 jersey. He certainly has competition for the position with Reece Hodge and Tom Banks both just a year older but far more experienced and Jack Maddocks a couple of years younger, but Campbell looks like he would provide that extra playmaking option coming into the line and is certainly one of the form players.

Will he get a shot? He’s certainly giving Dave Rennie some good headaches right now.

Kit talk

Something a little different to finish off today with a quick mention for the kits that both teams were wearing. Both the Reds and the Brumbies were wearing their indigenous kits.

Personally I love these kits as they immediately become something far more individual, while I can’t help find that the majority of professional rugby teams have somewhat boring designs. Personally, I love something with more individuality, which made me a fan of the Leicester Tigers home kit from the 2012/13 season, which saw the Leicester colours used in a design that imitated a tiger stripe pattern, while the alternate kit did similar in  shades of grey and black for a striking effect.

I’ve been a big fan of Pacific Island, Australian and New Zealand club and national team kits that have a design heavily influenced by their indigenous history. It is a great nod to the people of the country while also making a much more unique and recognisable look.

Personally, I would love it if teams used one of either their home or away kits to always have some form of indigenous design. After all, why should the indigenous people only be celebrated a couple of weeks in the season?

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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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Post-Lockdown Blues

Post-Lockdown Blues

We’re 3 rounds into the return of Premiership Rugby following the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and if I’m being completely honest, I couldn’t care less! Almost as soon as the competition went on hiatus, my feelings were that the season should just be considered null and void and preparations should be made for the 2020/21 season. And while I have really tried to give the competition a chance, the action we’re seeing is making me feel that I was right.

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The season should have been over months ago, so in order to cause minimal disruption to the next season, the remaining games are being crammed into the shortest time possible. While this may work fr a limited contact game like football, the body needs time to recover and this is a nightmare for player well-being, as teams are having up to 3 matches in a week. What this is leading to is heavy rotation within teams between matches, and this has taken away any point of these games being competitive. Bristol’s rotation saw them put out a largely 2ⁿᵈ string (if no weaker) side against a Sale team that was close to its ideal XV. That Sale ran away with the game says nothing about their ability and everything about the lineups being used, while we had similar in Exeter’s demolition of Worcester and Bath’s win at Leicester. Even in Gloucester’s match against Tigers this weekend, the game was a rout in the first half until Tigers brought their stars off the bench and Gloucester took their big names off to keep them fresh. Yes, we as fans want to see tries, but we don’t want to see a team having a glorified training session running though a vastly inferior lineup. Alex Shaw put it best on Twitter when he asked if the integrity of the individual matches being sacrificed (uneven squads) to maintain integrity of the competition (play whole fixture list), and I can’t help feel that the answer is yes, which as a result is ruining the spectacle of such a good competition, while now a team may also make the playoffs thanks to playing a number of weakened teams at the expense of a better team who continually faced XVs that were close to the ideal selection. There is no easy way to get around all this, and it will leave questions over whoever wins the competition, which could have been avoided by having an extended preseason to prepare for 2020/21.

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Considering the amount of international rugby coming in the next 12 months – the Home Nations have the Autumn Tests, Summer Tests, the remains of the 2020 Six Nations, the 2021 Six Nations and the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa – the rest caused by a longer preseason would have benefited everybody, while also allowing players to adapt to the new interpretation of the breakdown, which has only further ruined the early weeks of matches as penalties are given continuously while players learn the limits of the officials’ tolerance.

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The issue of player selection doesn’t even just come down to squad rotation, but also the players available to pick from. Due to the season having gone longer than usual, player contracts expired, and that has led to a number of players moving clubs mid-season (like Ben Spencer’s transfer from Saracens to Bath), leaving the league altogether (Will Skelton), signing short-term contracts to stay with the club until the end of the current season (Franco Marais), signing short-term deals with a new club until the end of this season (Matt Garvey, who is currently with Gloucester after leaving Bath) or entering the league midway through the season (Jonny Gray). Even the players Saracens are loaning out when they are in the Championship next season are already playing for their new clubs! What this has led to is completely different squads – especially when you look at the turnover at a club like Leicester – competing in this final stretch of the season, including the playoffs, and giving a completely different feel to this final stretch. You just have to look at Northampton’s struggles since the restart after being one of the best teams in the league pre-COVID to see how heavily impacted this season has been, and as such it doesn’t feel like a continuation of what came before.

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Obviously, I understand that with a league that is not ring-fenced, I understand that usually the league season would need to be completed if only to see who would be relegated, but this season that was not an issue as Saracens were already officially relegated as their punishment for years of cheating by breaching the salary cap. I would argue that the Sarries case even added to the argument to make the season null and void as if you look back at the lineups they were putting out before the lockdown, they were heavily varied first as they looked to try building up enough points to avoid relegation despite the initial points deduction, before then resting a their first XV as they switched their attention to Europe. How would it have been fair if a spot in the playoff was decided by one team beating Sarries’ 3ʳᵈ XV while another lost to their 1ˢᵗ XV? With Saracens relegated, it would have been easy enough to declare the season null and void, relegate Saracens – with Newcastle coming up in their place – and then using last season’s standings (with teams below Saracens pushed up a spot) to decide who qualified for the 2020/21 Champions Cup. It may be harsh on teams who improved this year, but it seems that it would have been a fairer way to do things.

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Instead, we’re stuck watching 1ˢᵗ XVs piling on the points against glorified A-League lineups in empty grounds that takes away home advantage, while being forced to listen to awful manufactured crowd noise. Coming off the back of Super Rugby Aotearoa, it looks an absolute shambles.

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Unfortunately, what is right is not he priority for the RFU or Premiership Rugby. We see all the time that the organisations only care about what will get them money or keep them safe, as seen by the loss of contracts for the England 7s program, or the way that deserving teams like Georgia never get a shot in Tier 1 tournaments but Japan buy their way into SANZAAR competitions. The league season is being finished, the competition put in jeopardy and players put at risk is just for money, and that has to change if we want the rugby to go to the next level.

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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: Brumbies v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Western Force

The final Friday match of 2020’s Super Rugby AU has been played and the first playoff spot is now confirmed following the Brumbies’ match against the Western Force in Canberra.

Without a win to their name in the competition, the Force were clear underdogs, but took the lead at GIO Stadium as a series of rucks on the Brumbies try line were finally converted by flanker Fergus Lee-Warner stretching out an arm as he was tackled short. The Brumbies had 2 tries disallowed in less than a minute of gametime, but scored shortly after as Tom Wright crossed in the corner. The Brumbies crossed again just before half time as Tom Banks’ arcing run beat Marcel Brache to the outside and just kept control of the ball on his way down despite Jack McGregor’s attempts to dislodge it, giving the Brumbies a 10-7 lead at the break.

Will Miller crossed in the corner soon after the restart, but Jono Lance managed to wriggle out of a tackle and make it to the line to keep the scoreline close. That was as close as the Force could get, though, and the Brumbies extended their lead as they flooded around the corner at the breakdown faster than the Force, creating a 7v2 overlap that Len Ikitau finished with ease. With just a couple of minutes left, Andy Muirhead just beat the defence to an Irae Simone grubber kick into the in-goal to secure the bonus point and a 31-14 win that guarantees them top spot in the table and home advantage in the final.

Equality

This is a match that will be remembered for a historic reason. Amy Perrett, who had previously became the first female assistant referee in Super Rugby, had the honour of becoming the first woman to referee a Super Rugby match. And she looked very good doing so, much better than many of her male colleagues around the world who regularly referee top flight games.

Throughout the game, she was consistent in her decisions against both teams, and communicated extremely well with both her team of officials and also the players. With a performance like this, I hope we see her refereeing another match in the tournament before it’s all over!

The sad thing is that this is such a story in this day and age. Sara Cox became the first female to referee a Premiership Rugby Cup match in November 2018 and is about to become the first female official in a Premiership game as an assistant referee when Bath face Wasps on Monday. February 2018 saw Joy Neville become the first female to referee a Pro14 match (in the process becoming the first woman to referee a top-level men’s rugby union match in the UK). Neville also became the first woman to referee a European Rugby Challenge Cup match in December 2017, while just a couple of months earlier, Alhambra Nievas became the first woman to referee a men’s rugby union international in Europe, having become the first woman to officiate in a men’s rugby union international in November 2016.

Sadly these appointments are still somewhat of a rarity, while less talented men get the chance to officiate matches regularly. There is no reason that the role of a rugby union referee or official in the men’s game requires a male to do it. To me, the male and female officials should all have an equal chance of refereeing a men’s or women’s game, with the best officials getting the top games. Hopefully with this landmark moment for Amy Perrett, we are one step closer to that.

Stepping up

With the Wallabies having a new head coach and a number of internationals having retired or moved on following the World Cup, Super Rugby AU is an opportunity for a number of players to put their hands up for international selection. One of thse you would ahve expected to be doing so is fullback Tom Banks, but he has had a largely quiet tournament… until today.

Maybe it has been tighter defences, maybe it is a relatively basic gameplan due to an inexperience fly half in Bayley Kuenzle, but Banks’ role in attack has been limited throughout the tournament, with many of his biggest inputs his penalties to touch that have given the forwards the position to set up a catch and drive.

He came alive in this match however, with 115 metres amassed off 12 carries – 43 more than the next person on the pitch. He looked sharper and also put himself in the position to exploit any match-ups, like with his try, where his arcing run was too fast for Marcel Brache.

On the performances so far in the competition, the 15 spot is up for grabs. With his big boot coming in handy in the kicking game, if he can build n this performance and show more of the same in Round 10 and the final, then Banks is in a great position to earn selection.

All in

With 7 losses from 7 games, next week’s match against the Melbourne Rebels is the Western Force’s only chance to avoid the whitewash. Their “home” loss to the Rebels in Super Time is still the closest they have come to a win, so they need to go all out to win this by making sure their best players are all on the field. So who would I pick if this was my choice?

Well the front row looks pretty settled with Pek Cowan, Andrew Ready and Kieran Longbottom starting (unless Greg Holmes is back from injury) and Chris Heiberg, Feleti Kaitu’u and Tom Sheminant on the bench. Jeremy Thrush is a guaranteed starter in the second row, and I would partner him with Fergus Lee-Warner, who has excelled at 5 or 6, as this then allows for all 3 of Henry Stowers, Kane Koteca and Brynard Stander to start i the back row. The lock and back row positions on the bench could then be filled by Ollie Atkins and Tevin Ferris.

Moving onto the backs, captain Ian Prior and Jono Lance have the 9 and 10 positions secured. Byron Ralston is the best winger in the squad by a mile, while Jack McGregor holds the fullback spot to act as a second playmaker. Chris Godwin and Richard Kahui have been key to the Force’s improvement and I would have looked to keep them as my centre pair, but a strong performance today from Henry Taefu – who used his physicality to great effect in both attack and defence – has earned him the 12 shirt, with Kahui at 13 and Chris Godwin on the wing. On the bench, Nick Frisby provides experience at 9, Jake Strachan can come on at 15 in place of either lance or McGregor, while Marcel Brache gets the final spot over Brad Lacey due to his ability to cover both the centre and wing.

Is that a team that can beat the Rebels? It’s certainly got a shot.

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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 Reds

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Reds

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

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

Limited resources

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

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

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

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

Lineout options

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

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

rugby reds lineout move

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

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

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

Too much, too soon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Tournament XV

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Tournament XV

Super Rugby Aotearoa came to an end at the weekend and by am I missing it. It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that the competition may have been 10 rounds of the most consistently exciting rugby I can ever remember watching, while seeing 9 weeks of busy stadiums was a great sight during the lonely times of the lockdown here in the UK. Sadly the final round saw the Highlanders and Hurricanes forced to play in an empty stadium and we were denied the opportunity of a stunning finale between the Blues and Crusaders, though thankfully the Crusaders had managed to secure the title in Round 9.

With the tournament over, there is just one more duty to uphold: picking the Team of the Tournament. These are all my own picks and go by my own feel from watching the matches rather than statistics – though I may throw in the odd stat to help my point. Let me know who would be your selections!

1) Joe Moody: Typically, the first position to talk about was one of the ones I found hardest to fill as there were no loose-heads that stood out to me in the same way as players did in most positions. So in the end I defaulted to one of the key roles of a prop: the scrum. The Crusaders scrum was one of the most dominant in the competition and a regular in that pack (starting all 7 matches played) was Joe Moody.

2) Kurt Eklund: There were so many ways I could have gone at hooker. Asafo Aumua could have got the spot had he been a more regular player, while Dane Coles could have also been in the hunt had he played more. Codie Taylor was let down early on by some issues at the lineout but came on strong when needed, while Ash Dixon was super-reliable and chalked up 4 tries. Instead though, I went for Eklund, who did a great job coming in when James Parsons went down injured. Eklund added physicality to the role, making metres when he carried but frequently pushing the opposition back in defence. With form like that, he’d have surely won the Blues’ starting spot even if Parsons had returned.

3) Ofa Tu’ungafasi: The Blues’ scrum was right up there with the Crusaders at the top of the charts, in no small part thanks to Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Having been a bench option often for the All Blacks due to his ability to play both sides, he has proved himself to be the best tight-head in New Zealand – if not the world – with performances full of strong scrummaging, heavy carrying and big tackling.

4) Patrick Tuipulotu: The Blues captain is in the form of his life right now and will surely be starting for the All Blacks should the Rugby Championship go ahead. The lock led from the front, finishing top amongst his team for lineouts won, while carrying and offloading to put his team on the front foot and putting in great shifts in defence.

5) Pari Pari Parkinson: The role of Tuipulotu’s partner was the final spot I filled in this squad. Both of his Blues teammates Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and Josh Goodhue were in the hunt but their shared minutes counted against them, while Naitoa Ah Kuoi’s injury in the middle of the competition saw him miss out in favour of Parkinson. His 26 lineouts won saw him finish behind only Mitchell Brown, while like Ah Kuoi he used his physicality effectively in attack and defence. At just 23, if he can cut down the penalties he gives away, he will be an incredible talent.

6) Lachlan Boshier: The Chiefs flanker was the star player in a poor team. Finished in the top 5 for lineouts won and scored a team-high 4 tries, but the big draw with Boshier in such a deep back row was how quickly he adapted to the new interpretations at the breakdown to consistently win crucial turnovers.

7) Dalton Papali’i: Openside was such a tough position to pick due to the depth of quality. Tom Christie looks like a future All Black, Dillon Hunt came alive as the tournament went on and Du’Plessis Kirifi consistently made big metres in the loose. Instead I went for Papali’i, who split time between 6 and 7 but regardless of where he played would put in 100% for the team. Finished 5ᵗʰ overall for tackles made and was a reliable carrier in attack. The flanker finished the competition joint-2ⁿᵈ (1 of 7) n the try charts with 4, but arguably should have had another after his interception try against the Highlanders was disallowed.

8) Akira Ioane: Hoskins Sotutu looked destined for this spot until he got injured, and even then still managed to hold onto it for a couple of weeks. Ardie Savea almost won the spot but a quiet start and end to the tournament saw him just miss out to Akira Ioane. Started at 6 until Sotutu’s injury and continued the role of defensive enforcer throughout the competition, finishing joint-9ᵗʰ overall with 68 tackles, but as he got more comfortable he became a more regular carrier off the back of the scrum, helping put the Blues on the front foot consistently.

9) Aaron Smith: I really wanted to pick Finlay Christie here but I couldn’t ignore the performances of Aaron Smith. The All Black, who won his 150ᵗʰ Super Rugby cap in the last match of the competition, controlled the games so well for the Highlanders and was constantly exploiting any gaps in the defence, resulting in some crucial tries.

10) Richie Mo’unga: I could wax lyrical about the Crusaders fly half but I will keep it brief here. When you see him play for the Crusaders, you see just how talented an individual he is. Accurate off the tee, great footwork, great range of passing, and strong enough to hold his own in both attack and defence. Scored 84 points with the boot t finish as the top scoring kicker and 3 tries ensured that he finished with 16 points more than the nearest player. I would call him the Player of the Tournament and also currently the best fly half in the world!

11) Will Jordan: A bit of a cheat here as Jordan didn’t play on the wing too much during the tournament, but I had 2 undroppable options at 15, while players like Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea and George Bridge impressed at times but also had quiet games. Just look at Jordan’s figures and you’ll see why he had to be included: 6 tries (1ˢᵗ overall), 88 carries (4ᵗʰ), 15 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ), 39 defenders beaten (1ˢᵗ), 724 metres carried (1ˢᵗ – 235 ahead of his nearest competitor, Damian McKenzie, who had more carries). Whether at wing, fullback or o the bench, this guy has to be in the All Blacks 23.

12) Jack Goodhue: If we were going by single-game performance, then Ngani Laumape had this secured. However we are looking at the entire competition, so his quiet start and untimely injury counted against him. TJ Faiane is probably one of the most underrated players of the tournament, while Sio Tomkinson was a consistently solid option for the Highlanders, but I have gone for Jack Goodhue, who did a great job in both attack and defence, keeping everything tidy while also running hard to commit defenders in attack.

13) Reiko Ioane: Peter Umaga-Jensen is unfortunate to miss out after a breakout tournament, while Michael Collins came alive at 13 for the Highlanders, but Reiko Ioane got the nod here. It took a few weeks for teams to figure out how to deal with his blend of pace and power at 13, but when they did, he let his handling skills put other players through gaps, while his defensive workrate was not discussed enough. Dropped down the pecking order on the wing in the latter days of Hansen’s reign, but at just 23 years old a move to 13 may reignite his international career.

14) Sevu Reece: The All Blacks winger is an absolute joy to watch on the rugby field and continues to make magic out of nothing. Has the pace and footwork to beat most and the handling skills to offload when he is finally stopped by someone. What makes Reece even more impressive is his willingness to come inside looking for work. With him and Will Jordan in the back 3, the opposition need to make sure their kicks are spot on.

15) Jordie Barrett: If I’m selecting the All Blacks starting XV tomorrow, there is a Barrett in the backline, but not Beauden. Jordie Barrett’s return from injury revolutionised the Hurricanes’ season. Has the ability to be a playmaker in a 10/15 axis, but is also a strong runner with a big boot, scoring 52 points off the tee, and winning some key turnovers in games. The youngest of the All Blacks’ Barrett trio at just 23, his versatility has counted against him in the past, but this could be the moment that he starts to secure his spot in the squad despite a high level of competition.

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