Already worried that home town advantage in Super Rugby knockout was a virtual participation trophy, because both remaining New Zealand teams deserved hosting rights and the Brumbies should have been the ones confined to playing away games instead of the Canes, I found it comforting that the Jaguares scored first in Buenos Aires.
Seriously, if the Brumbies and Hurricanes both won, the final would have been in Canberra.
ACT fans wouldn’t have found much comforting in the performance at all, a long delayed come-uppance finally coming after their team won a conference everyone else knew was soft. And they won’t be arguing any tosses afterwards, that’s for sure. The Brumbies were rolled, big time.
Because good starts are so important in knockout games, Aussie fans might still be arguing about how loud and decisively Tony Pulu should have called in that noisy stadium, him being the only player coming forward out of three Brumbies converging on an innocent looking chip by first five Joaquin Diaz Bonilla in the opening minute. The ball bounced between the three and rolled into the arms of halfback Tomas Cubelli for the opening try.
It steadily got worse for the visitors and the volume seldom dropped. Zero possession, zero territory and two giveaway penalties later, lock Tomas Lavanini barged over and at 20-0 the score was running at a point a minute.
As the lid on this can of whup-ass was peeled back, the sight of 31,000 Argies celebrating was a tonic for any disheartened by dwindling crowds up to this point in the year. Attendance quickly become one of the biggest stories of the night and the last thing this 2019 season needed was a Brumbies driving maul quieting the boisterous locals down.
And then, well... ever seen a good party suddenly cooled by some sociopath intimidating whoever was in charge of the stereo into playing her lame favourite song and, with her and her cougar pals monopolising the dancefloor, rolled your eyes and strolled off to freshen your glass? That’s just what it was like in Buenos Aires when the inevitable Brumbies drive came, a minute before halftime, hooker Folau Fainga’a wriggling his way over.
But the hosts immediately shouldered the gate-crashers away from their stereo, yanked the Rolf Harris record from the turntable and spent the entire second half punishing them for having temporarily stopped the fun.
Early in the second half a poorly conceived grubber rebounded off some shins, allowing left wing Matias Moroni to simply pick up and race away with the ball, centre Matias Orlando in support for the try. Orlando sensed the Brumbies were walking dead and soon bagged a second for himself, shoving a couple of upright tacklers aside and waltzing twenty yards uncontested. Then fullback Emiliano Boffelli didn’t even need to deceive any tacklers, easily gliding between them for another try and leaving the statisticians to decide which defender would get a tick in the Beaten column.
If you like watching Australian sportsmen get squished like bugs it was almost sinfully satisfying, but even if you just enjoy watching newcomers rock boats it was magic. Where a team sticking to its blueprint and executing is concerned, it was one of the neatest fifteen-man performances since the Brave Blossoms at Brighton in 2015.
The Moroni pass infield to Orlando for the opening try of the second half was a perfect example of outrageous fingertip control coming off when on another night, in another town, such a pass wouldn’t have a hope in hell of sticking.
The Jaguares’ opponents in the final were decided by a thriller in Christchurch, which played out more like a gang of death metalers crashing a line dance. It’s easy enough to restart a party some bossy girls have interrupted with their favourite song, it’s a little different trying to get sweaty, tattooed ruffians away from the jukebox.
The good ole boys did strike first, a boxkick from halfback Bryn Hall taking forever to drop in the cold night air, long enough for left wing George Bridge to climb imperiously above his marker Salesi Rayasi and snatch it. Midfielder Ryan Crotty was in support and looked up to see the entire Hurricanes’ backfield unguarded, so he raked one into the opposite corner for right wing Sevu Reece to chase down and score.
Two well-hit penalties by first five Richie Mo’unga had the home crowd celebrating prematurely. The joint was jumping. Unlike the Brumbies in Argentina however, these trespassers weren’t waiting to be 0-20 down before disturbing the peace, although just as in the first semi it was on the stroke of halftime that they finally registered points.
Just outside his own 22, fullback Jordie Barrett skipped out of attempted tackles by Mo’unga and Reece, carrying all the way to the Crusaders’ 22 before being dragged down. Eight battering phases later, second five Ngani Laumape wrong-footed Reece for the second time in ninety seconds and crashed over.
The timing was critical. If they’d enjoyed a 13-0 halftime lead, the locals would be fixin’ to throw some sand on the floor and tell the drummer to play a double shuffle.
Beauden Barrett putting centre Matt Proctor through a gap and wing Ben Lam scooting over in the left hand corner, less than sixty seconds after the restart, had alarm bells ringing. The first franchise three-peating twice was in big danger. These party-crashers hadn’t just shouldered the DJ aside, they were trampling all over his rare vinyl.
Halfback TJ Perenara’s try-assist pass to Lam is worthy of special mention. On a tight blind while drawing both centre Jack Goodhue and flanker Matt Todd, two of New Zealand’s better defenders, then backhand-offloading to Lam on his left in the double tackle was a glorious piece of skill. It was even better than Moroni’s pass to Orlando earlier that day, because of the different game situation.
We see a lot of ambitious youngsters almost manufacturing reasons to throw one-handers these days, clearly showboating. But Perenara, under Todd’s close attention, had no room to rotate his arms and with Goodhue’s right shoulder zeroed in on his ribcage there was no choice but to attempt a high degree of difficulty.
In such circumstances, six points down to the defending champs in Christchurch, it was a princely piece of finesse and called to mind one of guru Wayne Smith’s truest insights, “A technique isn’t a skill unless you can do it under pressure.”
These weren’t just hoopleheads causing a ruckus.
Partial order was restored in the saloon when Mo’unga chipped over a line of onrushing kick-chasers and the ball bounced between Perenara and James Marshall into Reece’s path, Mo’unga staying in support for the finish between the poles.
But the tension was cranked to eleven again when Laumape grubbered ahead and expertly chested the ball to control it, scoring his second and bringing the semifinal back to a one-point ball game. The crowd, initially groaning at a perceived miscarriage of justice, could only shake their heads in appreciation as the big screen confirmed Laumape’s split-second presence of mind.
It takes a special team to reassert control over mounting chaos. When Goodhue delivered a pass to number eight Kieran Read on the ten yard line, the re-energised Hurricanes’ defensive line looked well set to stop the latest Crusaders’ foray, but Read found Todd cutting back against the traffic with a quick-handed offload. Todd had flanker Jordan Taufua on his shoulder, and Taufua’s transfer to speedster Braydon Ennor was as quick and reflexive as Read’s to Todd had been. Instead of pinning his ears back, Ennor instantly threw a wide pass to Reece. Within the space of ten yards the ball had changed hands five times and four of the best Hurricanes tacklers - Laumape, Proctor, Ardie Savea and Perenara - had been neutralised.
Reece was thirty yards out with room to accelerate and still had support on either side, so the final Hurricanes defender Beauden Barrett didn’t have a dog’s show of stopping him in the corner.
But the Hurricanes closed the gap to a point once more, a series of unruly charges disrupting the Crusaders’ defence. Like steers refusing to be branded and kicking down the rails of their corral, the Hurricanes were stampeding. Barrett clattering full speed into the men guarding channel one surprised the home team first, then hooker Dane Coles sidestepping a couple of outside backs after initially appearing flat-footed had them reeling. The visitors were within reach of the goal line yet again, from where Perenara sniped beside the ruck and dived over.
Having already scored four tries to the Crusaders’ three, the Hurricanes still trailed and launched one last assault.
With the scorer’s finger already hovering over the siren switch, they fought their way into the red zone one last time. Hot on attack, Perenara didn’t see the outstretched arm of Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock reaching over a ruck and the ball was knocked from his grip as he picked it up. The lock’s height meant he was able to support his own bodyweight by leaning on Savea, keeping both hands free, while his freakish wingspan meant he could reach past the ball to make a play at it without deliberately knocking on.
Howling in protest as referee Nic Berry ruled against Perenara, the Hurricanes were just the latest visitors to have their ambition crushed by a seemingly controversial call in Christchurch. But the ball was definitively out of the ruck because it had been picked up, Whitelock was onside and technically on his feet, so Perenara’s fumble and the ball rolling forward off his shin into Coles was the only infringement.
The Canes had no choice but to set their scrum and watch the Crusaders kick the ball dead.
The Jaguares would be flying to a final in Christchurch.
Everyone felt for the Hurricanes, even including this inveterate Crusaders supporter. But my sympathy was for the tournament’s top regular season winning ratio team not being awarded home advantage for a semifinal against the Jaguares... instead having to face the music in Shakytown, where the sports fields are just as hostile to visitors as any location in a David Lynch movie and where equally rough justice awaits anyone messing with the soundtrack.
Steve Hansen won’t be naming a finalised squad of 31 tomorrow, he’s way too cautious. He’ll announce a training squad of well over 40 players, who will assemble with the expressed purpose of ironing out every wrinkle.
You know what that means. New blood, and lots of it.
Shag won’t even be close to deciding between George Bridge, Braydon Ennor and Sevu Reece yet. He’ll name all three and see how different skill sets compliment each other. He’ll stick with Sonny Bill Williams at this stage because he’s not mentally retarded. He’ll probably include Josh Ioane, his hand having been forced by the injury to Damian McKenzie.
And there is no way he’ll leave out Brad Weber. Now is not the time to lose the goodwill of the people.
Along with dead certs Owen Franks and Joe Moody he’ll include half of Polynesia in a huge posse of front rowers because with the attrition rate the way it is, that’s the only way to be sure. This will also mean a whole bunch of hookers.
The attrition rate argument also applies to second rowers. He’ll name almost every active lock he’s ever picked before, none of them having let him down in recent years as the All Blacks lineout has become a real weapon, although Luke Romano might miss out because of lopsided biometrics.
He’ll know Matt Todd is in roaring good form and way too reliable to ignore. Actually, the selectors will still be arguing about flankers and they’ll probably include nearly every loosie you’ve ever heard a rumour about, players like Luke Jacobson and maybe even Lachlan Boshier or Dalton Papali’i.
I also have my fingers crossed for Akira Ioane, although something tells me if they were ever going to put faith in the guy they’d have done so by now. If they don’t, they’d better hope we’re not four points behind with a minute remaining in a semifinal, needing a try and pressing hard, and Kieran Read knocks on at the base of a five yard scrum.