Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Reds

Super Rugby AU reached the halfway point of its regular season and in fitting fashion it was a table-topping clash between the 2 unbeaten teams in the competition as the Queensland Reds came to GIO Stadium.

The game couldn’t have started much worse for the Reds, as a series of penalties gave the Brumbies a lineout 5m from the Reds tryline just 5 minutes into the game. The Brumbies’ driving maul is one of the most deadly weapons in the game and it duly transported Folau Fainga’s over the line for the opening try. As a titanic battle continued, the Brumbies driving maul got another chance to shine and again transported Folau Fainga’a over for another try, before James O’Connor finally got the Reds on the scoreboard with a penalty.

The Reds came out firing after the break and number 8 Harry Wilson was put through a gap to score a try just minutes after the restart. Minutes later, Wilson was through another gap, and though he was stopped just short this time, his fellow back rower Angus Scott-Young took the ball the final few inches to put the Reds ahead for the first time in the game. O’Connor added another penalty and it looked like the Reds would get a huge victory, until a late penalty set the Brumbies up with another 5m lineout. Folau Fainga’a was off the pitch by this point, but his replacement Connal McInerney duly took the armchair ride over the line, but with the scores at 19-20, replacement Mack Hansen pulled the conversion wide, only to be given a lifeline at the death as the Brumbies won a penalty, which he duly dispatched to pull a 22-20 victory from the jaws of defeat.

Architects of their own defeat

The Reds have nobody to blame for this loss but themselves. If there is one team that you need to stay disciplined against, it’s the Brumbies, due to the danger of their driving maul. The Reds gave away a whopping 9 penalties and were lucky not to lose a man to the bin within just 6 minutes of the game starting. It massively impacted the Reds’ ability to get into the first half, as they found themselves continually pushed back deep into their own half and struggling to get possession. Meanwhile in the second half, the Reds managed to concede just 3 penalties (all in the last 10 minutes) and as a result they looked a much more dangerous team, able to play with ball in hand and express themselves.

More than that, though, when the Reds look back at this game, they will be absolutely kicking themselves as every point they conceded in this match came as a direct result of the penalties they conceded. Both of the first half’s tries and conversions came from penalties being kicked to the corner then driven over the line. Then, of those 3 second half penalties, the first was kicked to the corner and driven over, while the final one was kicked off the tee for the game-winner.

There is a chance that the final minutes of this game prove costly to the Reds’ playoff position. If so, they will be kicking their lack of discipline.

Give him the ball

The Brumbies have a number of top quality ball carriers in their ranks, including but not limited to Tevita Kuridrani, Irae Simone, Solomone Kata and Pete Samu, but the more ball carriers you have, the better, in order to create the space for the fliers on the pitch. For that reason, I want to see more from Rob Valentini.

Granted he is only 21 at the moment, so will surely improve over the next couple of years, but he is a big guy and they need to utilise that physicality. Right now, he appears to be held more as a defensive enforcer, but 44m from 9 carries (including 2 defenders beaten) in this match highlighted just how good he can be if they utilise him as a carrier.

With a new head coach, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto playing at lock and David Pocock retired, the back row spots for the Wallabies are wide open and as a young player who will be in his prime from RWC2023 through RWC2027 and an experienced veteran come RWC2031, this is the perfect time to consider making the youngster a regular in the squad and looking to add to his game.

Balls of steel

With the game looking certain to be a Reds victory, it looked like the scapegoat for the Brumbies loss was unfortunately going to be replacement fly half Mack Hansen. The 22-year-old (the eldest fly half to have featured for them in this competition by 3 months – talk about trusting in youth!) had the unenviable task of having to kick a potential game-winner with his first attempt at goal and pulled the kick wide. Then as the game ticked into the final minute of play, Hansen went for a 50/22 – understandable given the strength of their maul, but very risky – and got the kick completely wrong, gifting possession back to the Reds.

Thankfully for the Brumbies, poor game management from the Reds gave the Brumbies one more chance to win it, and at this point I have to give so much credit to Hansen. Those 2 poor kicks could have easily knocked his confidence, but he didn’t hesitate in pointing to the posts. Those 2 kicks could have put him off his rhythm, but instead he made corrections from his missed conversion and bisected the posts to win the game.

I couldn’t help be reminded of Jonny Wilkinson on that fateful night in Sydney in 2003, where the England fly half missed 4 drop goal attempts during the Rugby World Cup final, only to step up and kick the winning drop goal with just 26 seconds remaining with his weaker right foot! Now, I’m not saying that Hansen is the next Jonny Wilkinson (though if that ends up being the case you heard it here first), but it just highlighted how hard kickers must work to become experts at their craft, that in the moment they can put all those bad moments out of their mind and focus on the moment. That is dedication to one’s craft and this was a great moment to highlight it.

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Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Rebels

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

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

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

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

Best yet

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

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

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

A costly call

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

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

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

“Super” Time

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

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

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

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Super Rugby AU: 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: Reds v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Western Force

One week on from making their return to Super Rugby, the Western Force were taking on the Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium. The Force started brightly last week and did so again here, with Jack McGregor and Byron Ralston crossing in the opening 15 minutes. The Reds soon hit back and drew level through tries from Brandon Paenga-Amosa and Jock Campbell, before Taniela Tupou crossed from short range to put them ahead. The Reds had the chance to further their lead just before halftime, but Ralston intercepted James O’Connor’s pass and took it to the house, Filipo Daugunu charging down Jono Lance’s conversion to keep send the Reds into the break 21-19 ahead.

Daugunu extended the lead after the break with his 3ʳᵈ try in 3 games, but the Reds could not quite pull away on the scoreboard, with Liam Wright having a potential try disallowed by the TMO and Jock Campbell knocking on just short of the line. We were guaranteed an interesting end to the game as Hunter Paisani received a yellow card with just 10 minutes left for a tip tackle, and the Force kicked the penalty to the corner before Andrew Ready crossed from the resultant driving maul, Lance hitting the woodwork with his conversion to leave them needing a try. The Reds finished strongly though, with a period of pressure ending in a James O’Connor drop goal to make the score 31-24, before a strong defensive effort beyond the hooter forced an error from the Force to end the game.

 

Toeing the line

Losing Ian Prior just 20 minutes into the match was a big loss for the Force. As captain of the team and such an experienced scrum half, he is a key member of the team and hard to replace. As a kicker, he was 2/2, whereas Jono Lance failed to land either of his kicks after taking over kicking duties. When a player like that goes off, he will be hard to replace and sadly, young Jake Abel struggled to do so.

Now let me first make clear that as a former forward whose job was just to hit whatever was in front of him, I have a lot of respect for he amount of things a scrum half must be focusing on at the same time. However, Abel committed one of the cardinal sins of scrum half play in the second half: forgetting the laws of the game. Specifically in this case the one that says if the ball is on the try line at the back of a ruck, it is classed as out of the ruck. Unfortunately, Abel moved the ball back onto the line as he looked to prepare their exit strategy and it almost proved costly as Liam Wright dived in to dot the ball down. This isn’t even the first time Wright has done this in the tournament, so you would expect scrum halves to have been warned about this when facing the Reds. Luckily for Abel and the Force, Wright missed getting downward pressure on the ball with his leading hand and the officials decided that Abel did initiate downward pressure.

Abel is a young scrum half and will learn from this, but it just highlights the inexperience from a player who only made his Super Rugby debut last week. Assuming Prior is fit next week, the Force have to decide whether they keep Abel on the bench or look to bring in short-term signing and former Wallaby Nick Frisby in the hope that the extra experience helps the team turn their first home match of the tournament next week into their first win.

80 minutes

In both games so far, the Western Force have come flying out of the blocks and scored a couple of tries, only for the opposition to grow into the game during the second quarter. Last week, the Force struggled to get back in the game, but this week was a much more competitive affair, however there were some horrible lapses in defence that proved costly.

While it is clear that the Force are improving, it’s no massive surprise to me that they are taking some time to grow into the tournament. Following their axing from Super Rugby, they started competing in the newly-formed Indo Pacific Rugby Championship, now rebranded as Global Rapid Rugby. In this tournament, they have been playing 70 minute matches, so need to find the right balance between fighting hard and pacing themselves through a game. This is made harder by the quality of opposition, as they have suddenly started playing Super Rugby squads after taking on China Lions, Fijian Latui, Manuma Samoa, Malaysia Valke and South China Tigers – that’s a heck of a step up in competition!

Thankfully, the Force look to be improving by the week and while I think the Brumbies will be too strong of an opposition net weekend, a win could certainly be n the cards when they host the Melbourne Rebels in Round 4.

Balancing out

When writing about the Waratahs last week I highlighted how they did not have a good balance between strong ball carriers and more skilful/technical players. The Reds highlighted my point perfectly.

As well as having Taniela Tupou (who was absolutely fantastic) and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto in the pack gave them a good starting point, which was built on by the carrying of winger Chris Feauai-Sautia and direct lines of Paisani, while Jock Campbell looked assured at fullback. These carriers, combined with the footwork of Filipo Daugunu and technical nous of Liam Wright and Fraser McReight put the team in such a great position to succeed.

I do however think that the balance could be improved further. Paisani has found himself in the bin in 2 of the 3 matches due to poor tackle technique, while Hamish Stewart ha a quiet game in attack. Personally, I would reiterate my feeling that James O’Connor would improve the team by moving to centre, while with Campbell performing so well at 15, Bryce Hegarty could return to the starting XV at fly half. The fact that this back line can probably only get better is a scary thought!

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Western Force

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Western Force

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

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

The Force Unleashed

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

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

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

“The law is an ass”

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

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

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

A familiar issue

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

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

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

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Reds

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

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

Wrong place, wrong time?

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

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

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

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

Marked change

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

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

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

Replacement nightmare

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

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

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

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

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Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Brumbies v Rebels

The day after Australia were intended to play Ireland during the Summer Tours, the opening round of Super Rugby AU was finished with The Brumbies taking on the Melbourne Rebels in Canberra.

In front of a socially distanced crowd of 1500 at GIO Stadium, the home team took an early lead as wing Andy Muirhead crossed within minutes of the game kicking off. While Matt To’omua pulled things back a little with a couple of penalties, it was short lived as 2 more tries from Joe Powell and Folau Fainga’a created a 19-6 score at the break. It was more of the same when play resumed as a break from young fly half Noah Lolesio resulted in a try for Tom Wright. Something finally clicked for the Rebels just before the hour and they pulled themselves back into the game with 2 quick tries from Jordan Uelese and Dane Haylett-Petty. 4 points down with 10 minutes left, the Rebels chose to kick a penalty to bring it within a point, hut they could not create another scoring opportunity and a when Will Miller scored from a lineout drive with just minutes left, the win was confirmed for the Brumbies, with Lolesio’s successful conversion making the score 31-23 and denying the Rebels a losing bonus point.

Round 1 rustiness

I’m not going to lie: this was not the best of adverts for Australian rugby, as it was very clear that there was some rustiness from both teams. Though the competition was announced in mid-May, there is no real substitute for live match experience, and it certainly showed as a number of passes went to floor from both teams, bringing an end to a number of attacks early on.

Even more than that, is the adaptation to the way that the breakdown is being refereed. We saw huge numbers of penalties in the early matches of Super Rugby Aotearoa, and while I’m sure the players have watched tape in an attempt to learn the new adaptations, we are still seeing a large number of penalties conceded for a range of breakdown offences.

As Super Rugby Aotearoa has show, the penalty count will drop over the coming weeks. Expect whoever can adapt quickest over the next couple of weeks to have a slight advantage.

The Brumbies not-so-secret weapon

The Brumbies have a not-so-secret weapon in their arsenal that teams just don’t seem able to stop: their lineout. You just have to look at the amount of tries Folau Fainga’a has scored in recent seasons to get a idea just how dangerous the Brumbies are at this set piece.

In this match, the lineout played a heavy role in 3 of the Brumbies’ 5 tries. Their opener came on the first phase, with the maul being set to draw in the pack and then turned to open up the open side. rather than join the back of the maul, Fainga’a took the ball on the loop and ran an outside line, before passing back inside to the hidden Andy Muirhead, who raced through the gap that had been created to reach the line. For the next try, the driving maul drew in a number of players to halt it’s progress, allowing Joe Powell to snipe for the line before the remaining defenders could get set. And then finally the winning try from Will Miller was just a example of a devastating catch and drive that spat the Rebels forwards out the back as it rushed to the line.

The Brumbies weapon means that as an opponent, you can’t afford to give a penalty away anywhere in or around your own half, as they will just kick to touch and use the platform of the lineout to make you pay the ultimate price. Similarly, you can imagine that they will be looking to take advantage of the new 50/22 and 22/50 kicks as much as possible to work their way up the field. With the higher penalty counts likely in the early rounds, the Brumbies could get off to a strong start in the tournament.

New star

This match was meant to be a special occasion for Matt To’omua, who was making his 100ᵗʰ Super Rugby appearance. Sadly, he was completely overshadowed by his opposite number Noah Lolesio.

Though he missed a couple of kicks off the tee, the 20-year-old put in a great performance, controlling the game well and moving the team around the park, including a great break early in the second half, after which he was mature enough to draw in Dane Haylett-Petty before calmly feeding Tom Wright for the try.

Fly half has been a bit of a problem position for Australia for a while, with nobody managing to regularly and effectively control the game. But it looks like Lolesio and Waratahs fly half Will Harrison could be the future for the Wallabies at the position an should be in and around the squad as soon as possible if they maintain their performances from this round.

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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Waratahs

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

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

 

No pushovers

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

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

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

Kick out the new laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden future

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

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

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

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

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

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