AUCKLAND, NZ – The 2014 Super Rugby campaign is proving to have more twists and turns than an drunk guy heading back to the bar. We had an amazingly high-scoring draw, a return to form for a team under immense pressure and some signs of consistency from the Hurricanes… if you can believe that. But let’s not dawdle; here’s your Super Rugby Review:
We started the action on Friday night in Dunedin, where two up and down teams came together to put on a high scoring affair, even if it was a little stop-start. The Highlanders can thank the increasingly reliable boot of first five Lima Sopoaga for getting them through this one, he was also influential around the field. The two All Black Smiths showed their class too, both Aaron and Ben bagging tries while former Highlander Scott Fuglistaller nabbed one back for the Rebels. However, the try of the night was set up by big Rebels flanker Scott Higgenbotham, who picked off an errant pass, showed some pace to get down to halfway and then put ahead a perfect kick for Angus Roberts to pick up and score. The home team showed enough determination to withstand a late fightback from the Rebels, but still made a lot of costly errors that made the scoreline as close as it was. The Rebels should be pretty happy despite the loss, no one is expecting anything of them on the road this year so to get that close is a bit of a victory in itself.
Highlanders 33 (Shane Christie, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith tries, Lima Sopoaga 4 pen, 3 con) Melbourne Rebels 30 (Scott Fuglistaller, Angus Roberts, Jason Woodward tries, Woodward 3 con, 3 pen)
Man of the Match: Lima Sopoaga is proving to be the most positive thing so far in an inconsistent Highlanders season.
It was a wet night in Canberra on Friday for the late game and unfortunately, the match turned out to be about as fun as a damp firework for Blues fans. Brumbies second five Pat McCabe continued his excellent run of form this season by bagging a double, although the first was thanks to some truly pathetic tackling by the Blues midfield. The visitors couldn’t get anything going at all, failing to score a try and probably having the aura of rookie first five Simon Hickey shattered a little bit. He got exposed big time in this game as the ruthless Brumbies lured him into a kicking duel that he couldn’t win. The Brumbies should be feeling like their season is back on track after their hiccup last week against the Rebels, while for the Blues this is an embarrassing 11th road loss in a row. Due to the conditions and the fact that only one team showed up to play, this game won’t be going down in history as memorable.
Brumbies 26 (Pat McCabe 2, Robbie Coleman tries, Nic White 2 pen, con, Christian Leali’ifano pen) Blues 9 (Simon Hickey 3 pen)
Man of the Match: Can’t go past McCabe for this one, he’s been in brutal form and the Wallaby selectors can’t be ignoring it.
On Saturday night in Napier the Hurricanes took on the Bulls, who chose to take the field in their somewhat ridiculous camouflage uniforms. Whether it was a ploy to blend in with their surroundings for a sneak attack or just some marketing idea that was hatched after one too many drinks will probably remain a mystery, but the Bulls did actually show up to play in this one. After the Canes dominated he early exchanges and bagged a lovely kick-pass try to Comeback Kid Andre Taylor, the Bulls didn’t fold and hit back with some accurate goal kicking and a couple of nice tries of their own. Ultimately though, it was Canes first five Beauden Barrett who settled matters with the differentiating shots at goal and the home team proved it doesn’t need to rack up 6 or so tries to get a win (which is usually how post-season matches are settled). The Bulls probably even surprised themselves at how close they got, so look for an even bigger performance next weekend in Dunedin.
Hurricanes 25 (Andre Taylor try, Beauden Barrett 6 pen, con) Bulls 20 (Jurgen Visser, Handre Pollard try, Jacques Louis-Potgieter 3 pen, Pollard con)
Man of the Match: Canes flanker Jack Lam was everywhere and tackling everything during this game, which will maybe give Mark Hammett a bit of a rest from critics demanding Ardie Savea’s inclusion in the side.
A lot of attention was on the match in Brisbane, where the surprisingly entertaining and successful Force came off their bye to meet the erratic Reds. What they managed to produce was another stunning performance that ended with a team record 4th win in a row for the men from WA (not that many of them are actually from there). While they got three tries, the Force will be mostly pleased with their new-found backbone, which got it through a game that could have gone either way. Kiwi Jayden Hayward smashed his way over for the 79th minute game winner, but one other highlight was probably the ugliest successful drop goal in rugby history by Sias Ebersohn. His kick wobbled it’s way over the cross bar in such a manner his team mates looked somewhat embarrassed when the scoreboard ticked up another three points. The Reds face some some real questions now that their season is on the skids, bad news for them is they the face the Brumbies next.
Western Force 32 (Jayden Hayward, Ben McCalman, Luke Morahan tries, Sias Ebersohn 4 pens drop goal, Hayward con) Queensland Reds 29 (James Slipper, Ben Tapuai tries Quade Cooper 2 con, pen, Michael Harris 4 pen)
Man of the Match: When you need someone to pick up the ball and show a bit of go-forward, your Number 8 is the best one to do it. The Force’s Ben McCalman obviously knows this and was a real leader.
A bizarre game unfolded in Bloemfontein, where the Chiefs would’ve been wondering if they’d taken a trip in a time machine back a week to their game against the Bulls. Once again they found themselves on the end of a hiding at halftime. Once again they mounted an epic comeback. And once again the result ended in a draw. I have done some calculations and there is less chance of being struck by lightning while winning the lottery than this happening. Both teams can pat themselves on the back for producing an amazing spectacle with some top class tries (see below), but the Cheetahs once again proved whoever is doing their defensive coaching obviously has a background in touch rugby rather than the real thing. The Chiefs won’t be too happy with conceding 43 points and coach Dave Rennie gave a post match interview that suggested he was regarding this game as a loss.
Cheetahs 43 (Sarel Pretorius 2, Rayno Benjamin, Boom Prinsloo tries, Johan Goosen 4 con, 5 pen) Chiefs 43 August Pulu 2, Asaeli Tikoirotuma 2, Tim Nanai-Williams 2 tries, Aaron Cruden 5 con, pen)
Man of the Match: Whoever was operating the scoreboard, they deserved a rest at the end of this one.
After that craziness, things returned to normal in Johannesburg, where the Lions took on the Crusaders. When I say things returned to normal, I also mean the Crusaders started playing like the team that has a history as proud as theirs. It was a typical backs-to-the-wall effort from them, losing captain Kieran Read before kick-off and coming up against a team that would punish any kickable infringement. Outrageously, they didn’t even give the Lions a penalty attempt, which would’ve left the home fans frustrated as the Crusaders ran in three tries, including one to halfback Andy Ellis who is surely back on the All Black selectors radar. Unfortunately this one will also be remembered for another refereeing clanger, with hometown boy Marius van der Westhuizen deciding to change his mind on a Ryan Crotty effort as Tom Taylor was about to attempt the conversion.
Crusaders 28 (Ryan Crotty, Andrew Ellis, Kieron Fonotia tries, Tyler Bleyendaal con, Colin Slade 2 pen con, Israel Dagg pen) Lions 7 (Lionel Mapoe try, Marnitz Boshoff con)
Man of the Match: Getting chucked the captaincy at the last minute inspired Ryan Crotty to a huge game, despite having one try disallowed he still bagged another.
Down in Cape Town the Stormers and Waratahs closed out the round. The Tahs were hoping to improve their miserable South African record and might have been inspired by the Crusaders as they put in a gritty but admittedly pretty dour performance. Luckily the Stormers were just dour, both teams scored one try each and the game was settled by the boots of Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale, the latter chiming in for a couple of long-range penalties. The Stormers garbage season continues, they’ll be wondering what can possibly make them any better if home ground advantage can’t. The absence of Jean de Villiers certainly didn’t help matters, but the Tahs were without their best player Israel Folau too. File this game in the same category as the Blues/Brumbies.
Waratahs 22 (Nick Phipps try, Bernard Foley 3 pen, con, Kurtley Beale 2 pen) Stormers 11 (Kobus van Wyk try ,Peter Grant 2 pen)
Man of the Match: Tahs coach Michael Cheika, for keeping his temper under control and not threatening or smashing something this week.
Another weekend down and I have to say I’m pretty happy that a couple of my predictions came in. Aaron Smith and Jayden Hayward both dotted down after I told you all to watch them, so they either read this column or it’s all just a wild coincidence. In fact, I’m so happy with Jayden I’m putting him in the awards:
Try of the Week: Yep, it’s Jayden Hayward’s match-winner for the Force. Not just because it was a great try, it was a player stepping up at a crucial moment.
Performance of the Week: Goes to both the Cheetahs and the Chiefs, because there’s enough highlights on here for a whole season.
Idiot of the Week: The scrum laws. This would have been a great weekend of footy, but again too much time was wasted setting, resetting and penalizing scrums. Now I hear they want to stop the clock when a scrum is called, which will only result in each game being around 3 hours long. How about changing the rules?!
One final word… I mentioned the USA Eagles and their qualification to the next RWC, in my last column and how they won’t be facing the All Blacks. Turns out the Eagles will get a historic home test against us later this year at Soldier Field in Chicago, which will be great for the game in the USA. However, the NZRU will roll out some garbage about player development for the All Blacks, when we all know it’s just about money for them. In fact, there’s only three reasons why the All Blacks will be playing this game: A, I and G.