AUCKLAND, NZ – The latest edition of Super Rugby saw a massive shift on the table, although it wasn’t at the top. Yes, Blues fans rejoice, their team not only pulled off a win but pulled themselves off the bottom of the table at the expense of the woeful Reds. But it wasn’t without a bit of drama and certainly wasn’t the only upset of the weekend, as you can read below.
At Eden Park, Auckland: Blues 16 (Dan Bowden try, 2 pen, con, Ihaia West pen), Brumbies 14 (Lausi’i Taliauli try, Christian Lealiifano 3 pen)
After seven long weeks, the Blues kept everyone guessing till the final play of the game as to whether they can join everyone else at the winner’s table. They made it, just, after Nic White drifted a penalty wide of the uprights off a pretty dubious scrum penalty against Blues replacement prop Angus Ta’avao. Earlier the Blues had showed the composure that had eluded them all season by building a solid 13-0 lead, but the Brumbies battled both inclement weather and their own inability to hang on the ball to regain the lead by the last five minutes. Replacement Blues first five Ihaia West stepped up big time to slot a difficult sideline penalty to swing the pendulum back to the home side and they looked to have done enough, however the ref gave White the chance to snatch the result back. Sir John Kirwan was visibly ecstatic at the final result, maybe being back home at Eden Park is what this team needed after all. Man of the Match: Blues second five George Moala had a strong defensive game and had a few handy carries. Replay Worthy? Unless you’re a diehard Blues fan, not at all. It rained for the whole game and made proceedings very messy indeed.
At AMI Stadium, Christchurch: Highlanders 25 (Waisake Naholo 2, Ben Smith tries, Lima Sopoaga 2 con, 2 pen) Crusaders 20 (Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua tries, Israel Dagg con, Colin Slade con, 2 pen)
What is it about these two teams? Unlike the dross that was served up at Eden Park the night before, the Crusaders and Highlanders wrote another thrilling chapter in their long history of southern derbies. After the home side had jumped out the blocks early with two first half tries, the visitors refused to lie down and fought back for an unlikely upset. Not even the loss of Lima Sopoaga to the sin-bin for a debatable shoulder-charge was enough to derail the Highlanders, who once again took the opportunity to showcase the talents of Blues castoff Waisake Naholo (although you could argue the Crusaders took that opportunity too by gifting him an intercept try). Ben Smith’s try came after an uncharacteristic lapse in defense from the home side, but Naholo’s second came from relentless pressure and ultimately led to a deserved victory. Man of the Match: Even though he was binned, Lima Sopoaga’s goal kicking and setting up of Smith’s try was crucial. Replay Worthy? Yes, great game.
At Allianz Stadium, Sydney: Stormers 32 (Damian de Allende 2, Cheslin Kolbe, Kobus van Wyk tries, Kurt Coleman 2, Demetri Catrakilis con, 2 pen) NSW Waratahs 18 (Rob Horne, Taqele Naiyaravoro tries, Bernard Foley con, 2 pen)
While the Highlanders thought they might have pulled off the upset of the weekend, that honour only lasted till full time of the next game as the Stormers scored a remarkably easy victory over the fading Waratahs. The home side, playing in green jerseys for some reason, opened strongly with a beautifully brutal try to Taqele Naiyaravoro which was set up by Israel Folau (see Try of the Week). For the rest of the game, however, it was all the visitors. They not only scored four tries for a bonus point, but did so with some classic long-range efforts to Damian de Allende, Cheslin Kolbe and Kobus van Wyk. The Tahs simply weren’t allowed into the game by a Stormers side that showcased an open game plan you’d have to wonder why they’ve been hiding for so long. Perhaps this was cosmic justice for Tahs coach Michael Cheika influencing the referee a few weeks back and completely getting away with it thanks to a toothless SANZAR judiciary? Or maybe it was just the Stormers realizing they’d better start playing some decent rugby or watch the Bulls be the only South African conference representative in the playoffs. Man of the Match: Some foretold a struggle in the midfield this year after Jean de Villiers was ruled out, but Damian de Allende has stepped up brilliantly in his absence. Replay Worthy? Yes, some excellent tries in this one.
At nib Stadium, Perth: Cheetahs 24 (Heinrich Brussow, Raymond Rhule tries, Joe Pietersen con, 3 pen, dg) Force 15 (Chris Alcock, Luke Morahan tries, Luke Burton con, pen)
So last year this would’ve definitely been classed as an upset as well, but the Force now have the same win-loss record of the Blues and Reds, so it’s actually probably about the right result. Even though they were at home, the Force continue to be a pale imitation of their 2014 version while the Cheetahs shook off three successive road defeats to at go home to South Africa with something to show for their trip. Things were looking good for the home side after Chris Alcock was the beneficiary of a well-executed rolling maul, but then Joe Pietersen’s boot effectively kicked the result beyond doubt. He landed three clutch penalties and added a drop goal for good measure, then Heinrich Brussow sealed victory for the visitors. Man of the Match: Brussow had an industrious game, probably enough to raise the attention of the Springbok selectors. Replay Worthy? Yes, a good effort by the Cheetahs.
At Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria: Bulls 43 (Francois Hougaard 2, Burger Odendaal, Pierre Spies, Marcel van der Merwe, Piet van Zyl tries, Jacques-Louis Potgieter 3 con, pen, Tian Schoeman 2 con) Reds 22 (Nick Frisby, Will Genia, Marco Kotze, Lachie Turner tries, Turner con)
The run of upsets came to a very abrupt end at Loftus Versfeld, where the Bulls decided they’d had enough of upstarts and ruthlessly dismantled the Reds. The turning point in this one was a yellow card to former All Black Adam Thomson, these days plying his trade on the side of the Reds scrum. At the time of his break, the Reds were hanging in there at 24-17, but without him Pierre Spies crashed over and pushed the lead from obtainable to unassailable. Earlier the Reds had shown glimpses of the team they should be, with Will Genia having his best game in a long time. He scored one and set up Nick Frisby, who was starting at first five for the injured (again) Quade Cooper. But this one was all about the Bulls reasserting the fact they are a serious challenge at home, with big games from all their rep players. They’re going to need to carry this sort of form with them when they hit the road though, the Stormers are breathing down their neck. Man of the Match: Francois Hougaard just edges Pierre Spies, the halfback/winger showing why he’s got so much X-factor with two tries. Replay Worthy? Yes, a solid performance from the South African conference leader.
At Ellis Park, Johannesburg: Lions 23 (Faf de Klerk, Howard Mnisi, Harold Vorster tries, Elton Jantjies con, 2 pen) Sharks 21 (Renaldo Bothma, Thomas du Toit, Lwazi Mvovo tries, Fred Zeilinga 3 con)
If the Blues need any inspiration for 2016, they ask for whatever the Lions have been on this year. They picked up their fifth win in six games, this time denying a tired-looking Sharks side that was still wondering what happened to them last weekend when they were nuked by the Crusaders. Three good tries meant they built a lead that the Sharks couldn’t quite peg back, despite Fred Zeilinga getting a shot at goal on the last play to win the game, which he missed (sound familiar?). The Lions winning ways combined with it being a local derby meant they got to get the win in front of a crowd of almost 40,000 at Ellis Park, if they can keep this up it’ll be a similar number in two weeks when they host the Cheetahs. Where do the Sharks go from here? Unfortunately it’s a trip to Pretoria, where the Bulls will not be in a very welcoming mood. Man of the Match: Lions winger Howard Mnisi showed excellent poise for his crucial try. Replay Worthy? It won’t go down as a classic, but it’s worth a look.
The Hurricanes, Chiefs and Rebels got the weekend off, so here’s how the table looks after week nine of Super Rugby:
Try of the Week: Even though they ended up copping a hiding from the Stormers, the Tahs at least gave their fans something to cheer about when Taqele Naiyaravoro did his best impression of Jonah Lomu down the sideline.
Performance of the week: The Highlanders walked into AMI Stadium, grabbed everything they could and split before the Crusaders even figured out what was going on, giving them some sweet revenge for their round two defeat.
Idiot of the week: Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, instead of just being relieved that SANZAR seemingly don’t care at all about him trying to influence a referee, decided to take a swing at New Zealand, saying he’s ‘not respected’. This is pretty ridiculous from Cheika, it’s pretty fair for anyone to ask why he did what he did and why hardly anything was done about it.
So there’s Super Rugby round nine in the can, we’re officially halfway through the regular season! Things are heating up so make sure you check out my preview for round 10 later in the week.
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