When Ben Smith went down clutching his left knee on Saturday night, Highlander fans at Forsyth Barr Stadium weren’t the only ones watching anxiously. New Zealand’s rugby community held its collective breath because the specialist fullback’s loss would be a huge blow to the All Blacks’ chances of defending their World Cup title in Japan.
Luckily no other player was at fault, as is so often the case when New Zealand teams batter each other. Too often we’ve seen top players ruled out of upcoming tests by the clumsy actions of rivals.
This time the damage was self-inflicted. Smith slipped and hyper-extended the knee joint by colliding with flanker Luke Jacobson, who unlike other tacklers wrong-footed by the magician’s footwork over the years had simply stayed low and square.
Smith was assisted to the sideline and heavily iced but didn’t seem to need further immediate treatment. By full time he was amiably chatting with Steve Hansen and looking quite relaxed. By Sunday we learned the ligament was only mildly strained and Smith didn’t think it would be long before his return.
Expectations should always be managed. We’ve been through a process many times before as worrying scenes are downplayed and recovery is surprisingly quick, only to find the player either has a persistent niggle or has lost a crucial yard of pace.
On its own of course, Smith being a yard of pace slower wouldn’t rule him out because the selectors are well aware of his almost clairvoyant play-reading ability. Play-reading is an under-rated skill. People complained about Justin Marshall’s relatively slow pass for years until we all found out the hard way that wrong options taken by his successors proved far more costly.
That Dunedin game was a quite magnificent eighty-minute spectacle, standing out in a weekend which started with a distinct lack of roars and still ended with a whimper.
The Crusaders snatched a 21-21 draw in Christchurch from the touring Sharks on a Friday night when they should really have been celebrating Kieran Read’s 150th game with a trouncing. They needed three tries to counter seven penalties by Curwin Bosch.
To begin with, the problem was infringing far too many times. Prop Joe Moody personally gave away four, retreating ten yards each time with expressions ranging from resigned to scornful. Lazy binding and sloppy engagements at scrum time push referees to def con three and they tend to start seeing your jersey number at every breakdown.
The tries were typically clinical. The Crusaders applied sustained pressure on the Sharks’ line only three times and came away with seven points on each occasion, firstly when hooker Codie Taylor grounded against the uprights, secondly when number eight Read put centre Jack Goodhue into a hole and finally, after the siren, when first five Mitchell Hunt wriggled over.
Hunt started in the ten jersey because All Black Richie Mo’unga was having the night off, which speaks volumes about the champion side’s attitude. When stars take a break, their understudies usually shine. Other teams would have come up short but the Crusaders registered three valuable points.
Later that night the Reds sneaked past the Sunwolves in Brisbane. Referee Angus Gardner helped them out by constantly binning the visitors, seemingly on a personal mission to lead the sissification of Australian rugby.
Things looked to be gaining some kind of momentum on Saturday afternoon, albeit one-sided, when the Hurricanes jumped out to a 26-3 half-time lead against the Rebels at the Railyard. Free-running backs and forwards cut all sorts of capers as they banked four tries.
Five-eighths Ngani Laumape and Beauden Barrett both scored solo efforts in very different style, Laumape alternatively weaving and smashing his way through half the Rebels backline while Barrett simply spotted an angle, kept the ball in two hands and hit the gas to glide through untouched.
Wing Wes Goosen found the right hand corner as usual to keep his place near the top of the try-scorers list and in the other corner flanker Vaea Fifita galloped away from defenders bemused by his pace. Will Genia, usually on hand to bark instructions and maintain structure, had been laid out flat by hooker Asafo Aumua in the lead-up.
After the break however, the Hurricanes looked not only to have taken their foot off the accelerator but forgotten where it was. Nor was their inability to launch attacks the only conspicuous defect. Lock Matt Philip, midfielder Billy Meakes and makeshift wing Reece Hodge all found the line as by full time the Rebels had made the home side’s defensive pattern look non-existent.
...and consider that in rivalries so fierce it was only a matter of time before an official stalemate was reached.
The Highlanders opened the scoring, first five Josh Ioane backing himself close to the line, but the Chiefs hit back straight away with a try from inside their own half when number eight Tyler Ardron broke the line and sent halfback Brad Weber streaking away.
The Highlanders laid siege to the Chiefs line until Ben Smith saw a pick-and-go opportunity beside the goalposts and took it. Once again the Chiefs responded, Luke Jacobson swatting away attempted tackles from halfback Aaron Smith and flanker Luke Whitelock to crash over in the corner.
After the break right wing Matt Faddes finished off from an attacking scrum when successive offloads from the two Smiths kept a strike move alive, and the Highlanders seemed to have extended their lead decisively when a twenty yard long ball from halfback Smith found openside James Lentjes, giving him just enough angle to outrace tacklers stranded by the pass.
Quality finishing isn’t the only thing needed to make games great. In this case both sets of forwards and backs were playing with fire and accuracy, even when scoring was prevented. Several were having blinders. Ardron and Jacobson in particular seemed to be everywhere for the Chiefs and their contest with the Highlander loose forwards made every breakdown a small scale war. Huge collisions in midfield made it apparent just how desperate both teams were for the win.
And there never was a great game of rugby where the team who scored last didn’t show immense courage. Trailing four tries to two, the Chiefs exhibited that quality in spades.
They came up with a gem of a lineout move at the hour mark to show they still finish with class even when missing most of their All Blacks. Hooker Nathan Harris hit Ardron at the front, the number eight dropping it off in mid air to Weber. The halfback shot through a small gap being held by replacement prop Angus Ta’avao, who then ranged up in support to take his pass, working a neat one-two with Harris to find the line.
Workhorse Ardron then banked one himself. Jacobson gave fullback Solomon Alaimalo room to manoevre with a wraparound offload, Alaimalo had Anton Lienert-Brown in support and when the centre turned back infield he saw Ardron timing a run perfectly to take his pass and race away, at which stage it was all on for young and old.
This was the moment when Ben Smith was assisted from the field, and who knows whether his defensive genius might have prevented any further scoring, but after God knows how many tackles and gains of inches at the advantage line, needing a seven-pointer to tie the game, in the final minute the Chiefs pounded their way over between the uprights. When the pile of bodies sorted itself out it was Ta’avao who came up with the ball, and the final whistle blew on the first ever draw between these two teams.
The result did nothing for either side’s chances of making the playoffs, stuck as they are in a conference where half of their games are against the tournament’s best teams, but this match will be remembered for a long time.
The Blues couldn’t possibly maintain the pace just set, least of all in Canberra where the very air is drained of oxygen every morning by venal politicians plotting leadership coups.
They began well, a wonderful line break and offload by fullback Melani Nanai putting centre TJ Faiane over and an intercept by wing Caleb Clarke creating a handy lead, but then official ACT regulations against fun began to kick in. The rot started when prop Alex Hodgman was sin-binned for obstruction and any short term spell cast by exciting visitors was broken.
Over the next hour literally nothing happened apart from the Brumbies mounting four lineout drives which resulted in one yellow card for Blues prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi and three tries to Brumbies hooker Folau Fainga’a.
Fainga’a now leads the try-scoring table and all his ten have come from lineout drives. Go on Brumbies, take that game plan to the knockout stage and see what happens.
Brumbies 26 Blues 21
By the same token, if you can’t find a way to untangle yourselves from the Brumbies’ smothering blueprint you probably won’t be featuring in any playoffs either. The Blues have a hellish run home regardless, two matches against the Hurricanes, the Chiefs and Bulls at Eden Park and away games in Christchurch and Brisbane. This was a game the Blues needed to win.
It was quite a comedown after the Highlanders v Chiefs and by sunrise on Sunday the fever pitch intensity of Dunedin was a distant memory. The Waratahs went down to the Bulls in Pretoria, try exchanges between the sides coming in odd bursts, most the result of shoddy defence and not enough to get any real atmosphere crackling.
But that was nothing compared to what the Jaguares and Stormers came up with in Buenos Aires, eighty minutes of forward passes, knock-ons, crooked throws and scrum collapses punctuated by occasional stroll-over tries through yawning gaps.
The well-made highlights package will probably give an inaccurate impression. I’m an unashamed addict and even I was googling by half time, investigating the Jaguares’ chance of topping the South African conference.
I haven’t spent enough time yet disabling Google’s advertising bots however, only hours and hours of trying, so as usual my browser was bombarded with weird stories. Normally I can resist clickbait but eventually, after a couple of chair swivels back in the direction of the television, I clicked.
But amongst all that dross I found three things which survived fact-checking.
1. The Australian Rugby Union will end up paying Israel Folau the full four million of his four year deal because their lawyers were stupid enough to meet his lawyers to request a social media clause be added after he’d already signed his contract. He refused.
2. Reds prop Taniela Tupou is worried all Polynesian players are going to be targeted for their beliefs because many hold the same views as Folau on what constitutes sin, even if few are bold enough to so publicly state them.
3. The odds of the Jaguares topping the South African conference, while better than the ANC’s policy regarding land expropriation being covered impartially, are now being openly discussed, unlike that other clear evidence of greatness in decline.