Few expected the Hurricanes to self-destruct at home against the Jaguares, but the dark side of the home team’s split personality reappeared and they couldn’t stop the tide of stupidity once it started.
Jordan Barrett’s brain fart in batting the ball dead to earn himself a yellow card and gift the Jaguares a penalty try was just the beginning. By the time he retook the field a weird kind of breakdown rot had set in, with halfback TJ Perenara just as guilty as his forwards in failing to protect possession. This almost blithe-looking foolishness and the admirable focus of the visitors were enough to create the upset.
On Saturday another streak of long standing ended at Eden Park as the luck the Chiefs had recently been making for themselves ran out. The Blues hadn’t beaten their neighbours in Auckland since 2010 and this was one of those sequences that always looked unlikely to continue much longer. After their horror four-loss start in 2019 most of the Chiefs’ wins had been squeakers and they’d drawn two against New Zealand teams, compared to the Blues who had been on the wrong side of way too many close results... an average final score of 22-22.5 also being significantly better than the Chiefs’ 26-32.
Blues 23 Chiefs 8
A game which never reached great heights could have turned into a more interesting spectacle if both teams had fallen short of the playoff standard bar by the same amount, but the Chiefs simply didn’t show up and admitted as much afterwards.
This dynamic was encapsulated neatly by a head-clash between Blues midfielder Ma’a Nonu and Chiefs loosie Mitch Karpik. Nonu’s aggressive intent was decisive, catching Karpik off balance because the flanker thought collision was avoidable. Afterwards, as Nonu nonchalantly prodded his cheekbone for damage and Karpik left the field to have his own face stitched back together, Pinetree was looking down from Olympus thinking, “There goes the season.” The Chiefs are now second from bottom and the only team in the bottom half of the table without a game in hand.
Next up were the Reds and Waratahs feeling each other up in Brisbane, a high-scoring game with embarrassingly wide defensive gaps everywhere and one which proved the value of goalkickers with the Reds losing while two tries to the good. Bryce Hegarty converted only one of the Reds’ six tries, even having a sitter under the posts charged down, with Bernard Foley converting all four of the Waratahs’ including his own, then four penalties to seal the deal.
Defence was just as conspicuously absent in Johannesburg four hours later. From a quick tap the Highlanders did little more than shovel ball through the hands to outflank the Lions for wing Sio Tomkinson’s first try, and the Lions’ reply came though fullback Andries Coetzee when Elton Jantjies noticed he was being ignored as a threat, spread-eagled the Highlanders midfield and put flanker Kwagga Smith into an acre of space.
Then fourteen Lions were tea-potting spectators as Highlanders first five Josh Ioane (this time correctly) disregarded the threat posed by Jantjies and simply offloaded in his tackle to let lock Tom Franklin stroll in under the crossbar. Just as comedic was the number of Lions busy waving their arms at the referee when Franklin deliberately knocked on under his own goalposts to stop a Jantjies pass, while cunning old Kwagga was actually playing the whistle and scoring.
Only two Highlanders were even paying attention when Smith quick-tapped and dived over for his second after the half-time break. The Highlanders’ reply came straight away, wing Jordan Hyland making the left hand corner after some fingertip handling by the men inside him caused the Lions backline to get irreparably tangled.
Halfback Aaron Smith actually gave the Highlanders the lead a couple of minutes later, stealing unattended ball at a Lions ruck on halfway and providing fullback Matt Faddes with a runaway try, but that lead was relinquished when replacement wing Shaun Reynolds finished off the game’s best sequence of handling skill. Jantjies no-looked one over his shoulder back to replacement fullback Tyrone Green, who stood well in Tomkinson’s tackle and dropped the ball off to wing Aphiwe Dyantyi. Dyantyi drew the final defender on what had previously looked a well covered blind and suddenly Reynolds had the line open in front of him.
Five minutes from time Ioane backed himself and stretched out beside the posts to plant the ball, bringing the Highlanders back to within two points, but they ended up leaving Ellis Park empty-handed when the Lions backline found their way through their leg-weary markers and Courtnall Skosan raced over for the decider.
It may be worth noting that the Lions have conceded only 6 penalties to their opponents 43 in the last three games at Ellis Park, but the subject of local referees and their biases in all three conferences is already exhausted and not worthy of extrapolation when the Highlanders missed 37 tackles.
The most contentious refereeing decision of the weekend came at Cape Town where the Stormers and Crusaders fought to a 19-all standstill.
A potentially match-winning try had been awarded to wing Sevu Reece when TMO Marius Jonker piped in from upstairs to show impressionable referee Nic Berry what Jonker, beyond his jurisdiction, was already referring to as a forward pass. Braydon Ennor had delivered the ball to Reece on halfway with a passing motion that at any replay speed seemed legitimate, but when the review process began somehow the distance the ball had drifted past the point of delivery became an issue and Berry allowed himself to be rail-roaded by the Northern Cape man in the booth.
Once again this is only noted in passing, but Berry’s playing days were ended by a long series of concussions. If anyone else wants to cite a scientific link between career-ending head knocks and comprehension problems, knock yourselves out... just remember that a plurality of anecdotes is not data. I’m sure the delirious crowd at Newlands thought it looked a mile forward. Application of the lawbook seems increasingly vulnerable to the volume of noise coming from grandstands these days.
Referee querying in the era of ultramotion cameras is getting to be like poker... I’ll see your try denied because of a forward pass replay with my three blatantly crooked scrum feeds and raise you a winning goal kicked from a ruck-already-formed penalty. It was much better when we just had a flat beer-clouded memory of our view at an awkward angle from a seat in the grandstand that cost us five bucks and we didn’t give a single rhymes with suck if the visiting team complained about how they were gypped upon return to Enemyville.
We tend to piss and moan about what jimmy-rustled little ponces most millennials are, authority-questioning brats who aren’t fit to fight the war we suspect is coming, but we’re showing signs of the same disease if we don’t accept bad decisions as part of what made Rugby the soldier-making game.