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: 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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Forced into a bad move

Back in April we got the announcement that Super Rugby was being cut from 18 to 15 teams, with 2 South African franchises and 1 Australian franchise being cut from the competition. The worst kept secret in rugby was officially announced recently that the Kings and Cheetahs would be leaving Super Rugby to join the Pro12 (now Pro14). Now the news has dropped that the Western Force will be the 3rd casualty of the Super Rugby Cuts.

Those who read my article at the time the planned cuts were announced will know that I am not happy with the way SANZAAR have been running Super Rugby in recent years, first with the format after expanding the league and then the way they quickly jumped ship and forced SARU and the ARU to cut teams. I have not been overly happy with the decision to add South African teams to the Pro14 but I am willing to give it the chance. However I am very unhappy with the cutting of the Force.

It has already been said that the decision to cut the Force was primarily due to financial reasons. That is understandable as this is a business, however I wonder if this could have a negative impact on Australian rugby. The axing of the Western Force means that all 4 of Australia’s franchises are to be found in the East or South East of the country. With no top-level rugby union franchise in West Australia, there is a distinct possibility that fans will leave the sport, depriving the national team of support and young players who could have grown into future superstars.

The geographical argument may have held more sway if the Force had been poor this season, however they finished 12th overall in 2017 with 26 points, ahead of fellow Australian franchises the Reds, Waratahs and Rebels (21, 19 and 9 points respectively. Australian Rugby is not in a great place at the moment but the Force were one of the only franchises that the ARU could conceivably be proud of. They have also contributed 6 players to the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, the same number as the conference-topping Brumbies and 1 more than the Melbourne Rebels.

It’s never nice to see a team cut and players lose their job, but I feel that the entire situation has been handled appallingly. The expansion of the competition was handled poorly leading to a controversial cutting of teams by SANZAAR. It was always going to be tough for the ARU to look good coming out of this, but the way they have handled the situation since it was announced they have had to cut a team has been shocking.

It would appear that every step of the way money has been the motivator. At the end of the day, it’s rugby that will be losing out.