AUCKLAND, NZ – The Super Rugby regular season for 2015 is in the books, so it’s time to say goodbye to the Rebels, Force and Reds from Australia, the Cheetahs, Lions, Sharks and Bulls from South Africa and the Crusaders and Blues from New Zealand. The playoff set up sees the top-ranked Hurricanes and Waratahs get next weekend off, while the Stormers face the Brumbies in Cape Town and the Highlanders will host local rivals the Chiefs. However, before we get on to that, let’s cast our eyes over a final weekend of goodbyes (one department where the South Africans did a better job than anyone else), one big ref’s call and the ever-present rolling maul.
At Eden Park, Auckland: Highlanders 44 (John Hardie, Shaun Treeby, Elliot Dixon, Patrick Osborne, Dan Pryor, Joe Latta, Ben Smith tries, Lima Sopoaga pen, 3 con) Blues 7 (Matt McGahan try, Ihaia West con)
It’s a damn shame that the little memory-eraser devices from Men In Black aren’t real, because Blues players, coaches, fans and administrators could really do with one right now. The Highlanders put on a performance that can be best described as a merciless beatdown at the once-formidable Eden Park, effectively urinating all over the dead and rotting carcass of a once-proud franchise. Just to prove how ruthless it was, their first lot of tries were all short jabs from close range over poor tackle attempts, apart from John Hardie’s opener where the visiting pack simply bound up in a maul and muscled over. Shaun Treeby celebrated his return from injury by slamming his way through from five out, while Elliot Dixon brushed off a couple of feeble attempts when he picked the ball up off the back of a scrum. The pattern continued in the second half, with Lima Sopoaga again showing off his cross-kicking skills for the very under-rated Patrick Osborne to tap back to the waiting Ben Smith for the try of the match. This was a very sad way to mark Blues and All Black legend Keven Mealamu’s 175th and last appearance in the jersey, with him leaves the last remaining link to when the Blues last won a title. The latest rumor is that they are desperately trying to convince Tana Umaga to take over from Sir John Kirwan, but there’s an equally strong rumor that Umaga doesn’t want a bar of it. Man Of The Match: Flanker Dan Pryor is having a very productive season and showed the best of it in this one. Replay Worthy? If you’ve never liked the Blues, this one should be on high rotation for years to come.
At AAMI Park, Melbourne: Force 13 (Luke Morahan try, Zack Holmes con, 2 pen) Rebels 11 (Telusa Veainu try, Mike Harris 2 pen)
Another team that had a season to forget at least gave their fans something to smile about on their last outing of 2015. The Force managed to get up over the Rebels, the difference between the teams a conversion when the ref blew his whistle for full-time. In a tough encounter, Luke Morahan’s crucial try 20 minutes into the second half was set up by an intercept by Marcel Brache. Telusa Veainu matched him 10 minutes later, but Mike Harris uncharacteristically shanked the conversion. Harris then had a chance to nail a droppie to give them the lead, but that drifted wide as well. In another game with a legend leaving, Scott Higgenbotham couldn’t get the win for his side either, but at least it wasn’t as embarrassing as Mealamu’s experience earlier in the evening. Man Of The Match: Morahan didn’t just pick up the try, he was equally strong on defense as well. Replay Worthy? Not Really.
At GIO Stadium, Canberra: Crusaders 37 (Nemani Nadolo 2, Matt Todd tries, penalty try, Dan Carter con, 5 pen) ACT Brumbies 24 (Jarrad Butler, David Pocock tries, penalty try, Christian Leali’ifano 3 con, pen)
Hands up if you love lineout drives? If you do and you’re not watching the Brumbies this season, you’re missing out on a veritable orgy of one-dimesionality that is their game plan this season. So committed to the tactic, the Brumbies actually convince other teams to adopt it themselves, so they’re probably regretting not bothering to learn how to defend them. Yes, the Crusaders decided to pull the ball down and keep it at the back, not only sending Matt Todd over, but then icing the game with five minutes to play with a maul that was illegally brought down and resulted in a penalty try. Thank God for Nemani Nadolo, the human highlight reel scoring another two excellent tries, the second good enough to get Try Of The Week. Dan Carter and Richie McCaw said goodbye to their beloved Crusaders in this outing, Carter off to add to his considerable bank balance at Racing Metro, but curiously McCaw hasn’t actually said what he’s doing yet (if he wanted a career in politics then winning the RWC later this year would be a good start). Man Of The Match: A collective award to anyone involved in the many rolling mauls, well done to all of you. Replay Worthy? Well, sort of. It was pretty close, but it was all lineout drives.
At Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth: Hurricanes 21 (James Marshall, Conrad Smith tries, penalty try, Marshall 3 con) Chiefs 13 (Bryce Heem try, Marty McKenzie 2 pen, con)
Chiefs fans are again madder than a cut snake, this time around at a penalty try in the first half of their loss to the Hurricanes in the disputed territory of New Plymouth. In all fairness, Tom Marshall’s shoulder charge on Julian Savea warranted the decision by referee Chris Pollock to trot under the posts after a long consultation with the TMO. Before that Bryce Heem had picked off an errant Brad Shields pass to scoot 60 metres to score and SBW had laid out Conrad Smith in a brutally beautiful hit (see Idiot Of The Week), but the highlights dried up for the Chiefs after 20 minutes. The Canes simply held on to the ball and played better rugby for the rest of the game, firstly through the penalty try, then Smith scoring off a James Marshall break (James being the brother of the afore-mentioned Tom of the Chiefs). After the break it was just a case of grinding it out for the Canes, the only points of the half coming when James Marshall nabbed an intercept of his own. The Chiefs now head south to face the Highlanders next weekend in a huge game, they’ll be sorely disappointed that they gave away home field advantage. The Canes should be happy, they managed to get home despite a severely malfunctioning lineout. Said lineout needs to be fixed if they are going to be Super Rugby champions, though. Man Of The Match: James Marshall got the bragging rights over his brother with a great performance. Replay Worthy? Yes.
At Allianz Stadium, Sydney: Waratahs 31 (Dave Dennis, Brendan McKibbin, Dean Mumm, Jacques Potgieter tries, Bernard Foley 4 con, pen) Reds 5 (Quade Cooper try)
The Waratahs appear to be hitting form at exactly the right time, their second half demolition of the Reds giving them top spot in the Australian Conference and sending a message that they’re very eager to preserve their status as Super Rugby champions. After an awful first 40, they only led 3-0, but things started to open up after the break when Reds flanker and former All Black Adam Thomson got sin binned. The Tahs big men all got in on the action, lock Dave Dennis opening the scoring and Dean Mumm scoring the last. In yet another case of some legendary players playing their last game only to have it ruined by an awful performance, the Reds’ Will Genia and James Horwill won’t be looking back on this with any fond memories. Man Of The Match: Bernard Foley ran the show. Replay Worthy? Just the second half.
At Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria: Cheetahs 42 (Ryno Benjamin, Clayton Blommetjies, Neill Jordaan, Sarel Pretorius, Steven Sykes, Henco Venter tries, Niel Marais 6 con) Bulls 29 (Francois Hougaard 2, Jesse Kriel, Pierre Spies tries, Tian Schoeman 2 con, Jacques-Louis Potgieter con, pen)
The Cheetahs have always been known for throwing the ball around, being pretty good to watch but generally not doing that well because they don’t bother tackling. Well, this time they actually did and upset a pretty disappointing Bulls team on their own turf. The home side got off to a good start through full back Jesse Kriel in the fifth minute but by halftime the Cheetahs were 28-10 ahead after tries from Niell Jordaan, Henco Venter, Clayton Blommetjies and halfback Sarel Pretorius. Veteran lock Steven Sykes extended the lead after the break before a Bulls fightback almost saw them back in the game. That was snuffed out by Rayno Benjamin’s try six minutes from the end, though. Despite the win, the Cheetahs still end up the lowest placed South African team. Man Of The Match: Sarel Pretorius bucked the trend and actually played well and won his last game for his team. Replay Worthy? Yes.
At King’s Park, Durban: Sharks 34 (Lionel Cronje, Bismarck du Plessis, Lwazi Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane, Stefan Ungerer tries, Cronje 2 con, pen, Fred Zeilinga con) Stormers 12 (Kurt Coleman 4 pen)
If the Reds had managed to upset the Tahs in Sydney, there would’ve been something riding on this game as the Stormers could’ve climbed up to second overall on the table. But even coach Allister Coetzee knew that was about as likely as a porcine aviation event and named a bunch of second-stringers to go out and get thrashed by the Sharks. The home side duly obliged, once TMO Marius Jonker ruled that Lionel Cronje had touched down first on a loose ball after Odwa Ndungane had hacked ahead they never looked back. This was despite some truly awful handling from both sides, the ball spent more time falling out of players hands than anything else. Bismarck du Plessis got on the score sheet in his last game, him and brother Jannie are heading off after this season. The Sharks can at least be proud of the fact that they’ve won their last three in a row, meanwhile getting a hiding is not exactly the most ideal build up for the Stormers playoff against the Brumbies next weekend. Man Of The Match: Bismarck, he’ll be missed. Replay Worthy? Not really.
This last round was essentially meaningless in the grand scheme of things, the Highlanders massive win on Friday night meant that the Chiefs had basically no chance of getting ahead of them on the table. Here’s how the regular season ended up in Super Rugby 2015:
Try Of The Week: Nemani Nadolo just keeps on making life easy in this department.
Performance Of The Week: The Cheetahs and Force, but it’s a pity they’re in Round 18 and not consistently since Round One.
Idiot Of The Week: The SANZAR judiciary, for formally warning SBW for this sweet tackle on Conrad Smith. What did they want him to do, ask him nicely to lie on the ground so he could contest the ball? This is rugby, last time I checked.
So we’re set for the playoffs next weekend, it’ll be the Stormers hosting the Brumbies in Cape Town, while the Highlanders take on the Chiefs in Dunedin.