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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Super Rugby AU: Reds v Rebels

Super Rugby AU: Reds v Rebels

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

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

White line fever

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

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

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

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

Linchpin

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

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

Clash of the titans

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

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

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

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Hurricanes

After 9 rounds of COVID-free rugby, Super Rugby Aotearoa was hit by the return of COVID-19 to New Zealand, leading to the cancellation of the Blues’ final game against the Crusaders and making the Hurricanes’ match at the Highlanders the final match of the competition.

With the cancelled game between the Blues and Crusaders being classed as a draw, the ‘Canes knew that a win would secure 2ⁿᵈ place in the standings, and they got the perfect start as Vince Aso crossed within 5 minutes. The lead didn’t last long though, as Ngane Punivai – on while Jona Nareki received some treatment – got on the end of great link-up play from Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane. The Hurricanes had 2 tries disallowed but still retook the lead on half hour as the electric Jamie Booth finished off a great long-range try, only for Ash Dixon to score from the back of a rolling maul to make it 14-14 at the break.

Ioane gave the Highlanders an early lead in the second half witha penalty, and the lead was quickly extended as Michael Collins ran a smart line to cross for the Highlanders’ 3ʳᵈ try. The ‘Canes had another try disallowed, and things soon got much worse as another Highlanders rolling maul resulted in a penalty try and yellow card for Ardie Savea before Mitch Hunt extended the lead just minutes later with another try following a turnover out wide. The Hurricanes kept pushing and Peter Umaga-Jensen crossed with 7 minutes left, but that was as close as they could get, as the game ended 38-21.

Fine margins

The Hurricanes may have come away on the wrong end of a 17-point deficit, but it could have easily been the other way around, but for fine margins.

Vince Aso thought he’d got his 2ⁿᵈ try in the 18ᵗʰ minute, only for a referral to the TMO to notice that he had kept his running line a little too wide, resulting in him putting a toe on the touch line. Just 5 minutes later, Reed Prinsep scored after a great run by Scott Scrafton to commit the defenders before a flick inside to Prinsep, but unfortunately the pass was (rightly) judged forwards by the TMO. Then with 20 minutes left, Chase Tiatia scored what would have been a crucial try off a great backs move, only for Billy Proctor to be penalised for obstructing Michael Collins – the right call, even if Collins had bit on the wrong runner and would probably not have made it across to Tiatia. That was it for the disallowed tries, but not quite for the fine margins costing them tries, as Devan Flanders made a great run down the right flank, but his ball back inside went to ground and after Proctor checked his run to pick the ball up, he was turned over on the line.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Mitch Hunt’s try was very much a story of fine margins, as the turnover just inside the Highlanders half was close enough to the touchline that Aaron Smith was able to draw in the only defender on the blind side and release Mitch Hunt, who just had the pace to make it unchallenged to the try line.

If just a couple of these fine margins went the other way, the game could have been completely different. Aso or Prinsep’s try standing would have given the ‘Canes the lead at half time, while Tiatia’s try preceded the penalty try by just a few minutes, resulting in a big blow to the Hurricanes’ morale.

Moments like this remind me just how great a game of rugby can be, especially as a neutral.

Midfield maestro

One of the players who I really think has benefited from the return of Josh Ioane and the subsequent reshuffle in the back line is Michael Collins. Initially when the tournament started, he wasn’t even in the squad as the coaches continually chopped and changed their back 3. After Vilimoni Koroi and Scott Gregory both failed to fully impress at fullback, Collins secured that position, but while he was solid, his impact was still limited.

After moving to 13, Collins’ impact on the game was immediately increased. His experience as a fullback allows him to identify and pick the holes to attack, while having him in the centre has really brought to the fore his distribution skills. Probably the big thing though is that – like Conrad Smith before him – Collins just seems to make the right decisions. He picks the right moments to run and the right ones to pass, but he also rarely seems to make the wrong decisions in defence – his biting in on Billy Proctor for Tiatia’s disallowed tries one of the few examples where he got it wrong. To win games in such a high quality competition, you need the reliable players like Collins as much as you need the attacking superstars like Jona Nareki.

Wrong way round

While the Tomkinson/Collins centre pairing have been great for the Highlanders in recent weeks, I don’t feel that the Hurricanes’ selections worked so well this time out. With Ngani Laumape out injured and Vince Aso moved to the wing, Peter Umaga-Jensen was moved from 13 to 12 and Billy Proctor brought into the lineup at 13.

While they both played well, I think that the decision to move Umaga-Jensen inside proved costly, as it limited his impact on the game. Yes, he made a great break to help set up Jamie Booth, and got a try of his own late on, but he did not have the same impact that he has had in recent weeks from the 13 position, something that Proctor was unable to replicate. Both Proctor and Umaga-Jensen are big lads with good all-round skills, and I can’t help feel that switching the pair around would have helped release one of their form players in Umaga-Jensen and possibly helped them get a better result.

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Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

Super Rugby AU: Western Force v Waratahs

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

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

Thrown away

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

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

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

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

Competition or support?

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

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

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

Wasteful Force

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

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

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

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

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Highlanders

Despite the Hurricanes keeping themselves in the title hunt yesterday, the Crusaders still had the chance to secure the title this weekend as they hosted the Highlanders to end Round 9. The Crusaders knew that a win would make it mathematically impossible for the Blues or ‘Canes to catch them, but found themselves behind almost immediately as Shannon Frizell crossed after just over a minute. Though the Crusaders were rattledand found themselves getting turned over with some regularity, a Sevu Reece break set Richie Mo’unga up for a 7-pointer to level the scores. Josh Ioane kicked a penalty to put the Highlanders back ahead, before Jona Nareki successfully gambled on going for the intercept against an overlap and just held off Reece in a footrace to extend the lead, with Ioane kicking the conversion and Mo’unga 2 penalties to take the teams in to halftime with the Higlanders leading 13-17.

After a tense start to the second half, the Crusaders looked set to take the lead through Bryn Hall, only for Josh McKay to force a knock-on on the line. Buoyed up by this, the Highlanders extended their advantage as Michael Collins crossed the line before the first points of the half. and then in a 5-minute spell on the hour mark, the game changed. An offload from replacement lock Luke Romano on the edge of his 22 sparked a break that ended in George Bridge crossing for a try – converted by Mo’unga – while the Crusader very next possession from the restart saw them go the length again and put Bridge over out wide, while the Highlanders were further hit by a yellow card for centre Sio Tomkinson for a shoulder charge off the ball in the build-up to the try. Though the Highlanders continued to fight, the Crusaders exploited the 1-man advantage as it expired for Braydon Ennor to score their 4ᵗʰ try, with MVP Richie Mo’unga converting to secure the 32-22 victory and the Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a game to spare.

 

Championship pedigree

The Crusaders sealed their 4ᵗʰ consecutive Super Rugby title with a week to spare but had it far from their own way in this match, and in doing so they highlighted their championship pedigree.

With so many handling errors, penalties and turnovers going against them in the first hour, so many teams would have been excused for going to a plan B and trying to get into the game with a tighter, more territory-focused gameplan. However, they kept playing the ball around as normal, going for the offload when they thought it was on and setting up the ruck when the offload wasn’t there. It didn’t always work out, such as for Nareki’s try, but the Crusaders had a 3-man overlap in that moment so he had to gamble!

In this game, the star players came to the fore in Mo’unga, Reece and captain Codie Taylor, who kept driving the team on and leading from the front, while Tom Christie also made some crucial turnovers. With the game going as it was, and the combination of Hall’s knock on and Collins’ try just after half time, so many teams would have thought that the game was getting beyond them and started looking ahead to next week’s match against the Blues as the title decider. Not the Crusaders though, and as always seems to be the case, the clock ticked pas the hour mark and they seemed to go up another couple of gears. The passes started sticking in the hands, the breakdowns were secured and in the space of less than 5 minutes the game changed completely.

With performances like this, you can see why the Crusaders have such an incredible level of success, and wonder why Scott Robertson is not the new All Blacks head coach.

Highland balance

It’s a shame that the competition is coming to an end, because the Highlanders have finally hit on the right balance for their team. A few weeks ago, I suggested the back line that they should go with, and it worked very well against the strongest team in the competition. Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt have controlled and varied the attack so well fromt heir 10/15 axis, Michael Collins has provided improved distribution in the midfield to complement Tomkinson’s physicality, Nareki has shown himself to be their best attacking option out wide and and McKay’s pace has been key in both attack and defence, and Aaron Smith has been Aaron Smith!

Meanwhile in the pack, both Shannon Frizell and Dillon Hunt have grown into the competition, creating a great back row with Marino Mikaele-Tu’u that exhibits a great balance between physicality, technical ability, carrying and defensive ability. Ash Dixon and Liam Coltman provide an experienced 1-2 punch at hooker while players like Pari Pari Parkinson work great as physical enforcers who also play a key role in the set piece.

In a trans-Tasman tournament, I’d be confident in this Highlanders team finishing in the top half. But in a 5-team Aotearoa tournament, it’s going to be a hard fight.

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Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Reds

Super Rugby AU: Waratahs v Reds

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

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

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

Thrown away

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

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

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

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

Left exposed

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

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

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

He’s back!

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

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

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

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

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Chiefs

The Hurricanes opened up the penultimate weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa with the visit of the Chiefs. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs knew a loss would mean they would go the whole tournament without a win, while the ‘Canes knew they needed 2 bonus point wins and other results over the final 2 weeks to go their way in order to win the competition.

For those who have been following the Chiefs’ exploits this tournament, it was probably no real surprise to see the Hurricanes cross for an early try through Peter Umaga-Jensen. As the game evened out, Damian McKenzie kicked a penalty to open the scoring for the Chiefs, but Umaga-Jensen crossed again soon after to give the ‘Canes a 12-3 lead at halftime.

With Kobus van Wyk in the sin bin for a dangerous tackle, Sean Wainui scored early in the second half, but a quick attack from the Hurricanes right before van Wyk could rejoin the fray saw Dane Coles cross for a try. McKenzie kept things close with another penalty, but the ‘Canes soon had another try as a cross-kick from Jackson Garden-Bachop bounced perfectly into van Wyk’s hands. Mitch Karpik brought the Chiefs back inside bonus point range with a try off the back of a driving maul, but after Jamie Booth found a gap in the Chiefs defence, Billy Proctor collected his offload to turn a bonus point for the Chiefs into a bonus point for the Huricanes, with Jordie Barrett kicking the conversion and winning a late penalty to secure a 31-18 victory.

Man in the middle

One of the big names to emerge during Super Rugby Aotearoa is that of Hurricanes centre Peter Umaga-Jensen. The 22-year-old has solidified himself as the man at 13, despite the quality of teammates Vince Aso and Billy Proctor. Now, with Ngani Laumape out injured, Umaga-Jensen is taking on a bigger and more crucial role, running hard to create the platform for those around him as much as he is working the spaces created by others.

With 9 carries in this match, Umaga-Jensen carried more than every Hurricane other than Jordie Barrett (14), whose stats would always be inflated due to running back wayward kicks. He ran a great line to punch through the defence for his opening try, before running a great support line inside Wes Goosen for his second.

He is an incredible talent who will have benefited so much from playing weekly alongside and against such talented players. If he carries on like this, he will be hard for Ian Foster to ignore him when selecting his first All Blacks squad.

Missing the midfield

While it was nice to see the Chiefs willing to play a little more rugby this week, one thing became abundantly clear: this team was not earning the right to go wide. In players like Sean Wainui, Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo and Etene Nanai-Seturo, they have a fantastic set of wingers, but if they can’t get the ball in space it means nothing.

The Chiefs need to do the hard work in the middle of the park, but I don’t think they have the right players for it in midfield at the moment. Kaleb Trask looks out of his depth and the constant switching between him and Aaron Cruden won’t have helped. Quinn Tupaea and Alex Nankivell look like they are still a season or two away from being difference-makers in the centre. While Anton Lienert-Brown had one of his better matches, I still don’t feel that he is the kind of player to significantly draw in tacklers.

Meanwhile in the pack, there are very few carriers besides Pita Gus Sowakula. The Chiefs need more from the pack and midfield if they are to start winning matches next season. Perhaps a different man at the helm while Warren Gatland focuses on the British and Irish Lions will be able to get the team playing with a better structure.

Plug and play

Considering up here in England we focus on fly halves controlling the game, the limited impact that Jackson Garden-Bachop has on games surprises me. Rather than the general of the team, or even a game manager, he feels just like a distributor, though this distribution did lead to him getting 2 assists in this game.

By keeping things basic though, it has allowed the Hurricanes to move TJ Perenara to first five-eighth midway through the second half and bring on Jamie Booth. Booth is a very talented and exciting player, but would not usually get more than a handful of minutes due to Perenara’s leadership meaning he generally stays on the park. However, by making the first five-eighth role in the team easy enough to plug Perenara in later in the game, it allows the team the best of both worlds, while also making the team even more dangerous against a tiring defence, as both Booth and Perenara will exploit the tiniest of gaps and ensure that they are on the shoulder of any break.

Will they need a plan B? Maybe, as they struggled without Jordie Barrett and with the big boys out of sorts. But while it’s working, it is a great tactic.

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Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Brumbies

Super Rugby AU: Rebels v Brumbies

Round 6 sees us enter the back half of Super Rugby AU’s regular season and that means it’s time to kick off the reverse fixtures. First up was a trip to Leichhardt Oval as the Melbourne Rebels took on the unbeaten Brumbies.

Though neither team would usually consider Leichhardt Oval home, it was a home away from home for the deposed Rebels and they got off to a near-perfect start with Reece Hodge crossing in the corner just 3 minutes in. Things soon got worse for the Brumbies as their next attack came to a costly end as an attempted grubber through the Rebels’s defence rebounded behind the attacking Brumbies, Marika Koroibete kicked the loose ball on and when Andy Muirhead missed trying to fall on the ball 5 metres from his line, Koroibete collected and offloaded to the onrushing Brad Wilkin, who was not being stopped from that range. The Brumbies quickly hit back as a catch and drive 10m out from the Rebels’ line setup Joe Powell to score, but this was quickly cancelled out as Reece Hodge scored again, beating Tom Banks to a grubber through. Matt To’omua added a penalty and Jordan Uelese powered over from short range to give the Rebels a 27-7 lead at the halfway mark.

While 27 point was the most the Rebels had scored away from Melbourne in their Super Rugby history, the second half was far from high scoring. To’omua added a penalty to extend the lead, before a combination of substitutions, handling errors and penalties against the attacking team saw the rest of the half go scoreless until the final minute, when Will Miller crossed from close range to give the final score a slightly more respectable look at 30-12.

Out of sorts

If someone watched this game with no knowledge of how the previous 5 rounds had gone, there is no way they would think that the Brumbies were the unbeaten side. They really didn’t turn up for this match.

Right from the opening whistle they were on the back foot, leading to Reece Hodge’s try on just 3 minutes. Their attacks often seemed half-hearted, while in defence, they were sluggish to react to the Rebels and found themselves pushed back by the Rebels’ carriers and made to chase the ball all game long as Andrew Deegan controlled the game and continually pinned them back deep in their own territory.

Their heads dropped and with that the game got even further away from them, as their attacks continued to lack the intensity of recent weeks, seeing the team pushed back in contact and ending lots of attacks with turnovers, penalties or handling errors.

This loss really opens up the table with the 1ˢᵗ place finisher getting an automatic spot in the final and 2ⁿᵈ getting home advantage against 3ʳᵈ in the playoff for the other spot in the final. The Brumbies need to recover quickly or this could be costly.

Out of position

A few weeks ago, I suggested that the replacements bench should be expanded so that players going off injured and a team not having a suitable replacement on the bench doesn’t end up negatively impacting the game. Well, this match had me doubling down n this opinion.

As if a raft of substitutions wasn’t already going to impact the Rebels’ consistency in the second half, they lost replacement back row Rob Leota to injury just 10 minutes after he came onto the pitch. With replacement lock Mike Stolberg already on, it left the Rebels turning to centre Bill Meakes to fill in at flanker. While Meakes did a good job and didn’t look out of place on the side of the scrum, he’s still playing in a position that he is wholly unprepared for and having a centre in the back row seriously hampers the pack’s options at the lineout and the moves that can be ran off a scrum.

To make matters even worse, Meakes’ appearance at flanker meant that he wasn’t available to come on 5 minutes later when Reece Hodge came off, leading to Frank Lomani having to once again fill in on the wing. As I said before, Lomani is a great player and dangerous runner, but he is not a winger and in a closer match, these 2 players being out of position could prove costly.

If World Rugby is determined to fiddle with the game, then increasing the options on the bench will be much more beneficial than a 50/22 kick or these new goal-line drop-outs.

Countermeasures

When the Brumbies get a lineout within 10 metres of the opponents’ line, it’s often a fair assumption that they will go for the catch and drive and end up with a try. Well the Rebels managed to stop this in the first half with the easiest of strategies: putting a man in the air. Folau Fainga’a underthrew the lineout and it was an easy steal for Matt Philip.

This got me thinking: why not always get a man competing in the air at Brumbies lineouts within your 22? The Brumbies maul is nigh-unstoppable, but the lineout is shaky. If you compete in the air and miss it, the result will probably be no different that if you had stayed on the ground. However, putting a man in the air – even if it is just at the front every time – adds extra pressure on the hooker. Fainga’a and Connal McInerney already struggle enough to hit double-top at lineouts, and with any extra pressure, the chances of an overthrow/underthrow/not straight increases.

And with the lineout being such an issue for the Brumbies, why limit that pressure to inside your own 22? Get a man in the air at the majority of lineouts and the job of the Brumbies hookers becomes so much harder.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

The Blues kept their hopes of winning Super Rugby Aotearoa alive following today’s Round 8 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

The Aukland-based franchise had to do some late shuffling to their lineup with starting flanker Blake Gibson and replacement lock Josh Goodhue, but it didn’t seem to matter as the pack drove a 5m lineout over the Highlanders try line after just 3 minutes, only for Aaron Smith to have his foot in the perfect position to hold the ball up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as from the resultant scrums, Akira Ioane crashed over Scott Gregory to open the scoring. A few minutes later, a Highlanders handling error turned the ball over on halfway and after Beauden Barrett cross-kick to Caleb Clarke cutout the Highlanders defence, he had the support inside for Finlay Christie to cross fr another try. The Highlanders forced their way back into the game, and after Josh Ioane got them on the board with a penalty, Ash Dixon got their first try of the match from a 5m catch and drive. Dalton Papali’i had a try controversially ruled out for an offside penalty that allowed Ioane to kick the Highlanders into their first lead of the game, but the lead lasted just seconds as another turnover quickly saw TJ Faiane cross to put the Blues back ahead. With Barrett having an indifferent day off the tee, Ioane kicked another penalty to keep things close, but Ofa Tu’ungafasi crossed right before halftime and Barrett converted to give the Blues a 16-24 lead.

The Blues quickly extended the lead after the break with Christie crossing for his second try and Barrett added a penalty just before the hour to put the game all-but out of sight. The Highlanders continued to fight and after the Blues lost replacement prop Sione Mafileo to the bin with 7 minutes left, Shannon Frizell managed to cross to give the final score a more respectable look. The Highlanders looked to pull within 7, but the Blues managed to hang on to get the 21-32 bonus point win, their first win over the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

The spirit of the game

Another day of rugby, another controversial decision relating to a try referred to the TMO. This time it was a disallowed try as Dalton Papali’i interceted a pas on halfway to score under the posts, only for referee Mike Fraser to be badgered into checking with the TMO and then instead awarding a penalty to the Highlanders for offside against prop Karl Tu’inukuafe. So what actually happened.

Tu’inukuafe was involved in the tackle attempt that led to the final ruck before the try, but fell off the tackle. He went to get back to his feet, but realised that he was in the passing lane, with Aaron Smith ready to go at the back of the ruck, so he dropped back to the floor so as to not interfere with play. Rather than throw the pass, Smith chooses to run laterally and appears to trip over Tu’inukuafe as he passes, the Highlanders try to spread the ball without looking, but Papali’i has had time to come forwards and legally get in the passing lane, making the intercept and taking it to the house.

I can understand why Tu’inukuafe was penalised, but personally I think it was he wrong call, as unlike a lazy runner, he has made every attempt to keep himself out of the play and it is only through Aaron Smith’s decision to run directly over where he was led that brought him into the play. There was nothing else the prop could do, whereas Smith chose to run there in the full knowledge that he was on the floor, so I would argue that at best it was a stupid decision from a very good halfback rather than an illegal act by Tu’inukuafe.

When you watch the replays of the trip, though, it becomes a different story. Smith was on his way to the floor before he even reached Tu’inukuafe having done his best impression of Tom Daley and diving to the ground, throwing out a pass on his way down. All it needed were a few rolls on the ground and I’d have thought the Highlanders had Neymar playing at scrum half! There is milking a penalty, overreacting to an illegal offence to highlight it to the officials, but then there is simulation to buy a penalty, and that is what Smith did here.

This is completely against the spirit of the game, exactly like a scrum half deliberately throwing the ball into a retreating player at a ruck when there were clearly no teammates in the vicinity to receive that pass. There is no place for it in the sport and I would love to see officials do what Mike Fraser initially did here: wave play on and watch the other team pounce on the loose ball so the cocky halfback gets crucified by his teammates.

What made the situation even worse in this case is that the conversion was almost certain to be scored, but instead Ioane managed to kick a penalty. This decision caused a 10-point swing in the moment and put the Highlanders ahead, luckily the Blues got on with the game and put themselves back ahead almost immediately.

Playmaker

This game really highlighted the benefits of Beauden Barrett at fly half. I will continue to argue that Mo’unga is the better 10 as he is more reliable, but when Barrett is playing well, it is a sight to behold.

While Otere Black has done a great job managing the team around the pitch, Barrett brought more variety to the attack. As well as running it himself when it was on, he was utilising a range of passes and kicks to keep the defence guessing. This meant that it became difficult for the Highlanders to effectively organise their defence, especially given the quality of the options available to Barrett.

His abilities were especially highlighted at a couple of turnovers. Christie’s opener came one phase after a turnover, where Barrett caught the defence out with a cross-kick shallow enough to take the opposition winger out of contention and allowing the support me to create a simple numerical overlap against the winger and fullback, the only people with any chance of stopping the attack. Similarly for Christie’s second, Barrett took advantage of a turnover by throwing a wide pass to Tony Lamborn that cut out the entire defence – who had been caught too narrow in transition – and while Lamborn did not have the pace to make it to the line himself, it was still easier for the support in comparison to the covering Josh Ioane and the turning defenders.

The Blues now have a bye before their potential decider against the Crusaders (this would require the Crusaders to lose/draw without a bonus point at home to the Highlanders next week), so they have a choice to make: do they stick with Barrett at 10, or go back to Otere Black? I pick option 3: Carter at 10, Barrett at 15.

Stacked at the back

One thing that Super Rugby Aotearoa has highlighted is the depth that the Blues have in the back row. This match was no exception.

Back in Round 1, the starting trio was Blake Gibson, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu, with Papali’i coming on after half hour to take the place of the injured Gibson. Robinson is a fantastic player, but injury sadly robbed him of any further gametime in the tournament, while Gibson fund himself lower down the pecking order with Papali’i and Akira Ioane creating a dangerous trio with Sotutu. Sotutu’s injury has been largely dealt with by moving Ioane back to his preferred position of number 8 and he has got better by the week, while Gibson, Tony Lamborn and Aaron Carroll have all done a great job partnering Papali’i as flankers an minimising the impact on the team.

This week, with Gibson and Goodhue pulling out last, Lamborn was promoted to the XV with Carroll and lock Jacob Pierce coming onto the bench. Carroll was on early in the second half as Papali’i took a knock, but then Lamborn needed replacing for a HIA. This led to Pierce having to come on, and with 3 locks on the pitch (4 if you count Carroll too), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti found himself packing down at number 8 for a 5m scrum and doing a great job of keeping the ball in the scrum while a pack that was already big and was now even bigger following the substitutions steamrolled the Highlanders scrum for a penalty.

If you want to challenge for the title, you need to have strength in depth to cover for injuries and allow players to get sufficient rest, especially with the intensity these games are being played at. With available to the Blues in such a key unit, they are in a very good position to challenge both now and in the foreseeable future.

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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 themselves for 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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