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The Highlanders and Hurricanes enacted one of the season’s most gripping dramas on Friday night, the match coming down to a tense struggle between lineout jumpers after the sides going blow for blow with four tries each in the first hour.

The contrast of styles couldn’t have been more stark. All four Highlander tries came from pressure exerted inside the Hurricanes’ 22 whereas the only Hurricanes try-scoring play which wasn’t launched from halfway or beyond capped off a series of twelve phases which was.

Hurricanes flanker Ardie Savea, engaged in an even breakdown battle with Highlander James Lentjes all night, proved the difference between sides by showing the breakdown isn’t the only area of play in which he excels. 

The expansion of Savea’s brief became a nightmare for Highlanders’ wing Tevita Li. Savea ran him down the only time the Highlanders threatened from long range, anticipated his offload to score a seventy yard intercept try, then ranged up in support of barnstorming wing Ben Lam to get another, wrong-footing Li in the process.

This second Savea try also exposed a Highlanders weakness, the tackling of Marty Banks. Banks is an old school five eighth, relying on tackle-hungry flankers and midfielders to cover his lane, making up for the deficiency with play-making and placekick accuracy, but when he failed to stop Lam even though the big unit had already been partially slowed by the attempts of loosies and midfielders in front of him, the entire Highlanders backfield was laid bare. Savea showed great foot skill to sidestep two cover defenders and finish the break, but had both at his mercy because the initial incision had been too deep. 

Taking the score from 28-17 to 28-24 it was a huge moment, after a clear period of dominance which the Highlanders pack had worked hard to establish, their set piece strength having led to both second half tries. Minutes later the home side found themselves behind as Beauden Barrett ran straight at the now obvious weakness between halfback and second five, easily keeping his arms free in their hastily rigged double tackle. Ngani Laumape was on his shoulder as planned, after which the powerhouse midfielder made short work firstly of the flat-footed Banks’ turnstile left arm then Li who was haring across too quickly to adjust for the sidestep.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Fifteen minutes remained, the Highlanders pack was still dominant and fourteen of those minutes were spent inside the Hurricanes half.

In that final quarter hour the Highlanders were awarded no less than five kickable penalties. Each one was turned down in favour of lineout drives in the right hand corner. Four of these lineouts worked well but in the fifth lock Tom Franklin, to free up jumping room, waved the man in front of him away a little too obviously. Flanker Vaea Fifita spotted Franklin’s tell and got up in front of him to disrupt the throw. With the Hurricanes down a jumper because Liam Mitchell had just been carded it was a risky but brilliant roll of the dice.

The ball was kicked out and the game ended.

Highlanders 28 Hurricanes 31 
(highlights) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvXx_plrHrc
(full match) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KUfIBdjPyI

Needing wins because you’re in the bottom half of the points table is all very well, but there’s a big difference between turning down the shots at goal which the Highlanders did in the 68th and 72nd minutes and turning down the ones these initial displays of bloody-mindedness more or less then obliged them to spurn in the 80th, 81st and 83rd.

So obviously giving zero fucks seemed to please the drunks in the crowd, but rest assured there were plenty of sober people on hand thinking Banks could have slotted both the first two penalties, giving the Highlanders the lead back, then simply punted any one of the last three into touch. In prizefights such as these, true fans prefer hard-fought points decisions over consoling themselves that their boys went down swinging in the final round, especially when two of the knockout blows were self-inflicted uppercuts.

If you’re going to select a first five-eighth who can’t tackle but makes up for that lack with the accuracy of his kicking boot, don’t suddenly ditch that blueprint when he’s already missed the tackles and the goalposts are within his spitting distance. 

This is the problem with romanticizing loss. William Wallace, with freedom at stake, would have tossed his first five the kicking tee.

Later that night the Stormers got rolled by the Reds in Brisbane. They started well but were denied tries twice in the first half by replays showing ball or boot on the chalk, then captain Siya Kolisi got himself yellow-carded for repeat offending and without the Stormers’ point man contesting the open side the Reds took full advantage.

Reds 24 Stormers 12
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9LLW_ejuKc

Then the Sharks made the Lions look even more foolish than they probably felt in their Spider-Man outfits, winning by a staggering 42-5 at Ellis Pork. Tendai Mtarawira’s record-breaking 157th Super Rugby match meant the visitors were excused from playing Marvel Comics dress-up games for the evening and in their commemorative jerseys could simply focus on not looking like pre-teens.

Lions 5 Sharks 42
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPwtudJlDxo

On Saturday afternoon the Crusaders made the Brumbies look almost as bad, their fifteen-man interchangeable passing game leaving the visitors clutching air whenever they weren’t making flailing contact above the shoulder.

Crusaders 36 Brumbies 14
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6bKuSZ-nEs

The sin bin staff were busier than those guys back in Canberra who have to swap name plates on the Prime Minister’s parking space. But it wasn’t just the high tackles the Brumbies were yellow carded for, it was their almost uniformly upright stance on defence that the Crusaders’ multi-faceted attack confused them into, letting the home side run riot.

More detailed analysis of the reigning champions’ chances of three-peating can wait until they face opposition committed to defence worthy of the competition.

The weekend’s second thriller involving last-minute heroics unfolded at Eden Park. The Waratahs were coming off a loss to the Sunwolves while the Blues were on a three-game winning streak and looking to make it four, but pre-match betting was even because many people are as yet unconvinced that the Blues have acquired a winning habit. Most still regard them as a talented but uncoordinated gang of street brawlers whose lethal outside backs make them capable of upsets.

On Saturday they showed much more than this and key to the equation was veteran Ma’a Nonu’s performance in the midfield. He set up the first two Blues tries with great passes, a bullet trajectory spiral skip to unmarked flanker Tom Robinson in the left hand corner and a subtle short ball to guide wing Caleb Clarke in under the posts. He then caused mayhem in the Waratahs midfield, knocking the ball from Israel Folau for wing Rieko Ioane to pick up, and took Ioane’s pass to race away for a try of his own.

Folau still had a good night, getting one of the Waratahs’ tries to become the competition’s all time record holder with sixty and setting up wing Alex Newsome for another with a textbook space-creating draw-and-pass. With their third try on the blind side of a late scrum the Waratahs were within reach of stealing the result. 

The Blues had three minutes left on the clock and resolved to set one-out rucks for the duration. Twenty-one phases later, having retained possession under heavy pressure, they forced a penalty and the ball was kicked into touch, sending some of New Zealand rugby’s most loyal diehards in the grandstand into raptures.

The last time an Eden Park crowd saw a team stitch this many gritty phases together in the dying minutes was when Richie McCaw’s All Blacks ran down the clock against France in the 2011 World Cup final, redeeming the career of the Great Redeemer. 

That year was also the last time the Blues put together four straight wins.

Blues 32 Waratahs 29 
(highlights) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYk6xRBWGbc
(full match) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lFqSYNP3CE

A link is included to the full match coverage as well as the highlights package. I know you can’t just take the afternoon off and immerse yourself... many of you are hanging on to paychecks by a thin thread, despite a disproportionately high percentage of taxes paid by rugby players to cover soccer families’ benefits... but set aside enough time for the final phases at least. Email that brute from HR back, tell her you’re team-building and then plug in your headphones. If she shows up at your desk, let her see what you’re watching and say this is how good teams are built.

The Rebels took the Sunwolves down in Melbourne 42-15. The margin might have been less if midfielder Billy Meeks’ ugly shoulder to the head of Jason Emery had been given proper consideration by the TMO at the time. The referee asked him to look at it but he was probably too busy high-fiving the Fox Sport replay team as Reece Hodge dived on the ball for his hat-trick.

Rebels 42 Sunwolves 15 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6o5ZUSbL61Y

Last game of the weekend saw the Jaguares sneak past the Bulls at Loftus, where by resting Handre Pollard the Bulls showed how loose their grip on winning rugby is.

Bulls 20 Jaguares 22
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU0yteYTcRQ

A veneer of top tier professionals staying in Super Rugby is just thick enough to keep the Springboks’ faltering trajectory hidden from sight. Curwin Bosch’s very strong performance for the Sharks at fullback this weekend showed that there is depth in certain positions, but not enough to create a winning culture in the national squad when pretty boys come back from Europe with tales of how much land their big salaries can buy unbegrudged.

Clubs are feeling the pinch as local sponsors dry up. Businesses are fleeing the now openly Marxist country to find economies not drowning in punitive regulations. Old warnings about over-taxing the most successful businesses are now ignored and the new conventional wisdom seems to be Eat The Rich.

Rugby once held back this red tide.

When SuperSport signed the deal with Marvel Comics to make South Africa’s Super Rugby teams wear silly superhero jerseys in derby games, it was just the latest desperate move. For a few years now their commentators have been required to mention sponsors’ names whenever possible. Bantu clicks and whistles were once Africa’s strangest speech pattern but they were never more alien-sounding than “The G Cell Sharks beat the DHL Stormers at Jonsson Kings Park on Vodacom Super Saturday.” The Dark Continent is changing all too quickly.

And we’re now officially past the point where they’ll put you on a terror watchlist as a suspected white supremacist for forwarding reports about a wave of farming families being slaughtered in their homes, or de-platform you for posting an It’s OK To Be White meme. Now solid citizens will get a knock on the door for merely questioning the competence of a government which can’t even keep the lights on.

So far my sources have correctly predicted not only the Springbok decline under the coaching of Allister Coetzee and policies of Tokozile Xasa but also, with spooky accuracy, South Africa’s new land grab resolutions and rolling blackouts. Meanwhile those who most often scream “fake news,” screaming loudest whenever an actual shoe leather journalist from the Republic says anything other than the ANC is the party of peace, keep putting their faith in organs whose reporters are ever more frequently being caught circulating lies for political purposes.

After having to flee his own country for speaking his mind, the smartest thing Voltaire ever said was “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Until next week,
Inky remains at your service.

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