The Blues opened Round 3 with purpose and accuracy in Auckland, but failed to match their endeavour with enough points to stave off an inevitable Hurricanes counter.
They were unlucky to have a 50-50 call go against them. TMO Shane McDermott channelled Nigel Llong in deciding that what he saw on the slow-motion replay could have been anything, not just an Ardie Savea knock-on, and that in real time, all was sweet.
For all their power forward runners, of which there were many good ones, the Blues need to find a way to recycle faster, to provide quicker transition to the backline. This also opens up running options for Bryn Hall, which were telling in Round 1, but conspicuously absent here.
Both No.3s had cracking matches, Charlie Faumuina adding snappy ball distribution to his already impressive CV, and Jeff Toomaga-Allen showing pace in a number of penetrating ball carries. Notably, both played the whole match, both coaches sensibly ignoring the modern practice of pre-determined substitutions.
The new law allowing for a penalty after the siren to be kicked into touch and play to continue with a line-out was starkly evidenced, the ending to the match dragging on as long as a John Farnham farewell tour.
It was agricultural and messy but somehow the Hurricane’s defence held fast and their season is finally underway.
That the Brumbies won in Perth was no surprise, and after going to out to 17-0 lead against the Western Force they may have felt the job was mostly done. But after 30 minutes, and with Tomas Cubelli in the bin for what seemed like a trivial offence, the Force finally got into the game, and from there until the end, fans got an enjoyable, closely fought contest.
Force lock Adam Coleman was a stand-out up front, and Luke Morahan and Dane Haylett-Petty as enterprising as any outside backs seen in the Australian conference so far.
The Brumbies got a chance to put game time into many of their bench players although they still lean too heavily on their main man, David Pocock, to keep them out of trouble. Coach Stephen Larkham will also be hoping that Tevita Kuridrani shows a bit more interest next week in Cape Town.
The Highlanders got their customary high-speed game working, blowing the Lions away in Dunedin. The inter-play between Ben and Aaron Smith in taking a quick lineout then combining for the try 70 metres downfield was worth the price of admission alone.
For their part, the Lions return home with two road wins under their belt, reputation enhanced as the ‘nice guys’ of the competition (in a Brendon McCullum kind of way), and with a sound base from which to build their season.
Holed up at home with a knee injury and unable to attend AAMI Park, I missed Sean McMahon and 45 other lesser mortals play rugby in person, as the Rebels held out a gallant, but ultimately clueless Reds, 25-23 in Melbourne.
It was like Stephen Curry dropping in on a neighbourhood pick-up basketball match – one guy with class, athleticism, skill and intent, and then everyone else. The weird thing is that McMahon rates as Australia’s third best open-side flanker, but may actually rank higher as the Wallabies’ best footballer – if that makes any sense.
The Rebels very generously opened the door for the Reds to claim a classic ‘coach sack comeback’ win, and with time up and Jake McIntyre within spitting distance of the winning drop goal, it all looked likely. But when the pass finally came, McIntyre bottled it, fatally shifting the point of the attack towards the sideline, away from support and Red redemption.
A word too for the Nematode worm, more usually associated with European locales like Millennium Stadium, Murrayfield and Parc des Princes, but who now it seems is enjoying a Melbourne autumn. Or were the two scrummaging packs merely commissioned by the Andrews state government to make a start on the new Metro rail tunnel?
Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Sunwolves first Super Rugby season, the Reds and Rebels should take keen interest in how the newcomers passed the ball crisply, into the space in front of the receiver, and how this carved up the Cheetahs defence, to the tune of four first half tries. Delightful stuff.
It was a night of historic firsts – winger Akihito Yamada notching the Sunwolves first hat-trick, and the franchise recording their first ever one point loss in Singapore against South African opposition.
As poor as the Cheetahs were, their missed tackle and handling error counts racing each other into the stratosphere, there was a certain inevitability about the final result; experience and a better pre-season getting them home in the end.
The Chiefs too spilled far too much ball against the Kings who were, for much of the game at least, better than their reputation. But there’s an old saying in rugby; the sign of a good team is a side that, even when it doesn’t play well, still wins by 34.
And so the round ended as it began, with one side, the Stormers, just like the Blues on Friday night, playing well and dominating territory and possession in the first quarter, only to be overrun by their opposition.
If there is such a thing, the Stormers seem to be the most ‘traditionally South African’ of all their sides, with an abrasive style which, among other things, doesn’t always lend itself to high scoring. As such, they tend to keep opponents in the game for longer.
The downside being that it only takes one thing to go awry for them to be exposed on the scoreboard – and go awry it certainly did, courtesy of TMO Marius Jonker, who somehow deduced that Siya ‘The Virus’ Kolisi, intentionally kicked the ball out of Cobus Reinach’s hands in the act of scoring a try.
For what was plainly incidental contact, such an interpretation stretches credulity. To determine a penalty try and then add extra salt to the wound by way of a sin-bin was, to use a technical term, nuts.
Jonker’s folly was a shame because earlier, both Quinton Immelman and Jaco Van Heerden enhanced the reputation of South African officialdom through calm and competent displays, in Singapore and Port Elizabeth respectively.
Both showed excellent rapport, relaxed and respectful communication with players, neither keen to play schoolmaster or impose their personalities on the match. What’s more, they weren’t on a mission to seek out the ‘technical penalty of the week’, as if to prove to players and fans how encyclopaedically they know the law book.
Andrew Lees, I hope you were watching.