Two New Zealand teams lead the Super Rugby race comfortably, but I can’t remember a more tightly grouped chasing pack with the playoffs only a month away. When this many teams are in the hunt you can’t help feeling the attrition rate will be horrendous.
Believe me, it’s going to get as heated as it is keenly fought. Before order prevails, tempers will fray and bones will break as often as hearts.
And in the last weeks of round robin we may see matches where teams hanging by a thread manage to stay alive with wins in home games, in doing so making things slightly less comfortable for their higher-placed visitors. The best teams on the other hand, especially away from home, will prove their knockout credentials by surviving such challenges.
The Hurricanes went to Eden Park knowing that the Blues were both dangerous and desperate, and when lock Patrick Tuipulotu barged through the Hurricanes defence then offloaded from the deck to halfback Sam Nock for the opening try it was all on for young and old.
The Hurricanes hit back through Ben Lam, who sidestepped flanker Blake Gibson, fullback Melani Nanai and first five Harry Plummer for a long range try after midfielder Ngani Laumape stole possession and gave the big wing a headstart. It wasn’t long before the Barretts swung into action, first five Beauden making room for fullback Jordie’s try with a skip pass that fooled Blues right wing Tanielu Tele’a.
The Blues levelled after the break, flanker Dalton Papali’i beating several tacklers to crash over in the corner, but Beauden Barrett made the match-winning play with an intercept. Replacement halves Gus Pulu and Otere Black had cooked up an attacking move from the back of a scrum on halfway but Barrett read their minds and bisected Pulu’s pass neatly to race away for the decider.
Blues 12 Hurricanes 22
With so few home games to capitalise on the Blues had needed the win badly. The Hurricanes’ situation was nowhere near so precarious and they seemed able to relax just that crucial bit more in the pressure-cooker environment. The Blues had a significant majority of territory and possession but the Hurricanes defended efficiently in their own half and forced the more frantic hosts into handling errors at key moments.
The Bulls are hardly in the same boat as the Blues, with a much better chance of getting through the final weeks in reasonable shape for the playoffs, but their immediate problem this weekend was a Crusaders team looking to rebound on tour after a draw against the Sharks. The defending champions seldom have bad fortnights.
This is a big part of the psychological hurdle the Crusaders present, it forces a damage control mindset on their opponents. Victory over them is always treasured and while the Bulls may have harboured such hopes they fully expected their visitors to be on song and realistically just needed to avoid a momentum-killing heavy defeat.
Not bloody likely.
The Crusaders put together their most complete eighty minute performance of the year and ran up the scoreboard to a humiliating 13-45 by full-time. Returning first five Richie Mo’unga was the star and scored the first two tries with considerable poise. He was on hand to pick up and score after wing George Bridge kicked ahead and the ball bounced awkwardly for Mo’unga’s marker Handre Pollard, then he scythed through the Bulls defence by wrong-footing lock Rudi Snyman and shucking the unfortunate Pollard like an oyster.
Pollard’s implementation of the Bulls’ game plan usually creates territorial pressure but there is little value in handing ball back to the Crusaders if kicks aren’t judged perfectly. A yard off target here or there and their ability to launch attacks from deep comes into play immediately.
Such was the case when Bridge and centre Jack Goodhue returned the ball at pace and had lock Mitchell Dunshea in support. They put him into a gap well and although with the cover converging he knew the corner flag was beyond his reach he was smart enough to chop back infield and bulldoze his way over them.
Then wing Sevu Reece got into the act. All three of his tries were easy finishes, the first two being simple foot races after men inside him had exhausted the defence, and the third is most worthy of note because it featured wide kick passes by Mo’unga to each wing in successive phases. Both found their target as the Crusaders swept seventy yards almost effortlessly, Bridge catching Mo’unga’s first punt at full speed and, after a quick recycle, Reece leaping up to take the next and leave the back-pedalling defenders utterly bewildered.
This started an early mass exit from the grandstands, and lock Scott Barrett added a seventh try from a lineout drive to rub the remaining fans’ noses in it.
The Highlanders found things much tougher against the Jaguares in Dunedin. The contest was very even to begin with before the Highlanders found high gear, but then they seemed to get stuck in neutral in the second half and only just held on.
Centre Matias Moroni scored first for the visitors, chasing down a kick by Sebastian Cancilliere after the wing had split the home defence open, then Highlanders flanker James Lentjes equalised, taking a reach-around pass from first five Josh Ioane.
The response was timely. The Jaguares had been well organised on attack and, even though the Highlanders’ defence was up to it, the response needed to be more substantial than passive. With the offensive shackles broken the Highlanders hit their stride. Fullback Matt Faddes and second five Sio Tomkinson scored in quick succession, Ioane and halfback Smith launching strikes to convert territory hard-won by the forwards into points.
The pack needed no help for a fourth try just before half-time, hooker Liam Coltman powering over in a well-constructed lineout drive.
But that was where impetus stalled. After the break it was all Jaguares, tries to lock Marcos Kremer and wing Ramiro Moyano bringing the visitors to within five points before the final whistle blew to save blushes. A string of late breakdown penalties against the Jaguares helped the Highlanders enormously, including one on the very last play where a turnover seemed to have been effected, leaving the hot-blooded visitors furious, so the curtain fell on an otherwise fine match with both teams brawling.
In their post-match interviews both halfback Tomas Cubelli and coach Gonzalo Quesada made excruciating efforts to be diplomatic about Ben O’Keeffe’s rulings, but even through their tact and the limitations of English as a second language you could tell they believed it was a hijack. New Zealander O’Keeffe’s interpretation of when a ruck is formed was, in their stated view, totally inconsistent with rulings in every other country.
But look at the vicious battle for the South African conference that they’re embroiled in. Grievance, legitimate or otherwise, wasn’t easy to stifle.
The injury-ravaged Chiefs knew the Sharks would be tough to beat after their draw in Christchurch. The Africans had been one tackle away from a famous victory down there and even though history shows they find Hamilton just as intimidating they know the Chiefs have been running hot and cold in 2019.
Tries to both their locks, Hyron Andrews and Ruan Botha, had them a point ahead with ten minutes remaining. The Chiefs had scored three tries of their own, to halfback Brad Weber, flanker Mitch Karpik and second five Anton Lienert-Brown, but a conversion handy to the posts was missed by Marty McKenzie and left the score at 22-23.
The Sharks’ new star Curwin Bosch by comparison had continued his flawless kicking display in New Zealand, following seven from seven in Christchurch with five out of five in the Tron.
The Lienert-Brown try however, a typically classy effort by the All Black who slipped between tacklers after sixteen phases of recycling in the shadow of the Sharks’ goalposts, had lit the fuse.
From the restart replacement centre Alex Nankivell spotted a hole between chasers and picked a support line inside kickoff receiver Solomon Alaimalo. He called loud and early so the fullback could time his pass and in the blink of an eye he’d shot between the Sharks’ biggest men and sprinted over halfway with Alaimalo keeping pace on his inside. Nankivell’s return pass was as nicely timed as the one Alaimalo had launched the attack with, and more support runners were coming from all directions so the fullback only needed to veer further infield to outflank the scrambling cover and make Weber’s second try a formality.
Giving up decisive tries on tour is hard enough without doing it two weeks running. I was on the verge of feeling a little sorry for the Sharks until I remembered their quarterfinal against the Highlanders in 2014 and semifinal against the Blues in 2007. Even thinking of Butch James’ smug droppie at Carisbrook against the All Blacks gives me the vapors, and that was under the ELVs.
Which shows how severely Durbanites have traumatised me over the years. I try not to let them see it too often because they’re tough bastards and take inordinate pleasure in upsetting New Zealand rugby fans, by hook or by crook.
Of the matches not involving New Zealand sides this week two were close enough to hold my attention, while the third was of interest only to ritual execution fetishists. The two close ones each ended in accusations of home town favoritism against the officials, but at least it was only by supporters of the traveling teams involved, not the disgruntled coaches and captains we heard in Dunedin.
Certain referees do seem susceptible to grandstand noise. Angus Gardner, already on a card-happy rampage this season, seemed a little easy for Melbournians to persuade on Friday as he issued harsh yellows to the Reds’ two best players, Samu Kerevi and Scott Higginbotham. Maybe this was just his odd way of seeming impartial, the Reds convenient victims for him after the five cards he’d flung indiscriminately at the Sunwolves in Brisbane last week.
Then Egon Seconds and his local merry men whistled up an 11-2 penalty count against what looked to be a more disciplined than usual Waratahs in Johannesburg... including the winning three points gift-wrapped, for a breakdown offence neither replayed nor explained and which everyone else is still struggling to understand.
No friendly rulings were needed for the Brumbies to bank five points in Canberra against the Sunwolves, who struggle to muster what little motivation they have left when outside of Japan, let alone in Australia’s federal centre where enthusiasm for honest endeavour goes to die.
There is now an even more nasty than usual dogfight guaranteed for the top eight spots. The six teams nearest the Crusaders and Hurricanes are all jammed up on 29 or 28 points and the three on 28 (Rebels, Bulls and Jaguares) all have a game in hand.
It’s so tight that knockout may as well have started already.