For there to be a single home win in a round of Super Rugby games is pretty rare. I’m an amateur mathematician at best but it would be a safe bet that the few times it’s ever happened before didn’t involve the only home side victory being by the Blues at Eden Park.
First away win on Friday night came an 8-32 caning of the Canes by the Crusaders in Wellington, the result unusual in itself because it’s been seven years since the Crusaders last won at the Railyard.
The result was also unusual in that the Hurricanes had an overwhelming majority of territory and possession, including hellishly one-sided numbers for time spent in the opposition half. But, putting on the amateur mathematician hat again, I’d confidently wager that the team overcoming shortfalls such as these most often would be the Crusaders, famous for both their defence and their counter-attack.
Two of the Crusaders’ three tries came from kicking into space behind the Hurricanes’ defensive line. Halfback Bryn Hall spotted wing Ben Lam up flat and sent an angled chip over his head for Tim Jordan to chase. Jordan overhauled his marker Lam in the scramble back, the ball bounced favorably for him and he controlled it well. Then fullback David Havili found acres of room on the right with a higher ball that his opposite Chase Tiatia was out of position to cover, and the bounce once again went the Crusaders’ way.
The Crusaders forcing Hurricanes into errors like these was the story of the match. It wasn’t just the midfield pressure, causing normally calm playmakers like Beauden Barrett to throw intercept passes. Whenever the Hurricanes laid protracted siege to the Crusaders goal and their forwards attacked at much closer quarters, red-jerseyed tacklers kept their pattern and separated man from ball repeatedly.
A third try to left wing Braydon Ennor sealed the deal after a far more accurate and patient Crusaders onslaught. The Hurricanes had been briefly in touch after a Ngani Laumape try, the midfielder crashing over when Crusaders flanker Matt Todd was off the field, yellow-carded for interference.
Todd had taken issue with referee Ben O’Keeffe’s decision because he’d only collided with Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara accidentally while a quick tap was being taken. Most people saw Todd’s intent as irrelevant while many old front rowers watching took greater issue with the initial scrum penalty.
The Crusader forwards clearly had the upper hand and it was only one of four penalty decisions that went against them on their own feed. All four went sideways after a clean hit, with front rowers popping each time and Hurricanes looseheads visibly boring in. By contrast no Hurricanes feed was disrupted in such a way for the entire eighty minutes, their scrums only ever going straight backwards in clear examples of Crusader dominance.
I wonder how often referees too stubborn to admit they have no idea about what’s really happening at scrum time are descended from people too stubborn to correct obvious spelling mistakes on birth certificates... my amateur mathlete instincts put the odds of having any subscribers named O’Keeffe with two Fs at a billion to one, but if there is one let’s hope getting through childhood with a funny name helped him develop thick skin.
Kieran Read lasted forty minutes, just long enough to show how far past his best he is. One of my pet hates is number eights keeping ball on the toe at the base of scrums going sideways, not only are they putting themselves in the hands of clueless referees, they’re ignoring a gilt-edged opportunity to exploit by picking up to carry on a good angle. Since his heyday as a damaging ball carrier it has become one of Read’s worst habits and, his low number of on-field minutes notwithstanding, I’m especially tired of his dumbfounded expression whenever the refereeing dice come up craps, like when Todd was yellow-carded.
A great offloader and tackler in his day, he’s currently being taken out of cotton wool just often enough to fulfil contractual obligations.
Later that evening the Waratahs, who’d taken advantage of the competition’s top team’s off night a week ago, had one themselves against the competition’s bottom team.
It was a pretty dire spectacle for the Newcastle fans to endure, living in a League wasteland as they do and having to watch a teamful of Sydney poofters cough up such a costly result. Sunwolves left wing Semisi Masirewa scored a hat-trick, benefiting from all the Waratahs’ dropped balls and missed tackles, while first five Hayden Parker kicked five straight placekicks to make an incredible 27 from 27 this year.
The Blues have now won their first three-game sequence for two years, cutting the Stormers apart in Auckland. Wings Tanielu Tele’a and Rieko Ioane both scored tries by swatting away lazy tackle attempts, and first five Otere Black finished another under the crossbar when replacement second five Sonny Bill Williams flipped him one of his trademark one-handed offloads.
The game was won and lost in the loose forwards battle, with Tom Robinson and Blake Gibson outclassing their experienced Springbok opponents Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi, while at number eight Akira Ioane produced another commanding performance, continuing the interesting duel between himself and Hurricane Ardie Savea for the All Black jersey Kieran Read will vacate in the perhaps surprisingly near future.
Blues 24 Stormers 9
Later in Brisbane the Rebels thrashed the Reds 32-13 and, for a bunch of players poached from other states, are starting to look increasingly comfortable at the top of Australia’s conference. The form of halves Will Genia and Quade Cooper suggests that Matt Phipps’ and Bernard Foley’s Wallaby roles might be significantly reduced by the time World Cup action begins.
In Durban the Bulls came away with an important away win, scoring only one try to the Sharks’ two but steered home well by the unerring boot of Handre Pollard, who kicked four penalties including the winning one when young replacements in the Bulls’ front row steamrolled a Sharks’ scrum with two minutes remaining.
The game was a dour affair typical of South African inter-franchise fixtures, spiced up a little when hookers Acker van der Merwe and Schalk Brits engaged in a long scrap and got themselves simultaneously red-carded. Brits took home the points for the Bulls by landing the only clean punch even though he spent the entire fight on his back.
Then on Sunday morning New Zealand time the Chiefs got their second win on tour by outlasting the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. If we’re trolling the bin of unprecedented achievements, we shouldn’t downplay the Chiefs going 0 from 4 to begin their season then coming away with successive wins on a twenty thousand mile trip across three oceans. After last week’s thrashing of the Bulls came out of the blue the Jaguares looked a less imposing prospect but in the end it took some real grit to secure the win.
Fullback Damian McKenzie opened the Chiefs’ account, strolling through a gap created by halfback Brad Weber’s long flat pass. McKenzie’s brother Marty conjured the second try, chipping over the Jaguares backline to hit the bottom of the upright where centre Tumua Manu could simply fall on it for the night’s easiest score.
For the rest of the first half the Chiefs defended their line doggedly, twice dispossessing the home side with the goal-line begging, but pressure told as the Argentine barrage continued into the second half. First playmaker Joaquin Diaz Bonilla picked out fullback Joaquin Tuculet with a wide kick-pass, then replacement flanker Pablo Matera crashed through the tiring Chiefs defenders to even the scores.
Both benches needed emptying to maintain a deadly intensity. There was no let-up as huge collisions continued to outnumber slick passes and clean breaks.
The visitors looked to have stopped the Jaguares’ late momentum with another goal-line save and a big defensive scrum, but once again a wide kick-pass to the right outdid them. This time it was replacement first five Santiago Gonzalez finding right wing Ramiro Moyano, who batted it down for substitute midfielder Matias Orlando.
Then came a quickfire series of changes in fortune as the Chiefs launched their final press. Desperation from the Jaguares on their own line stopped the Chiefs forwards as they tried to batter their way over and a ruck steal appeared to have decided the game, but the subsequent clearance from Gonzalez was charged down by Anton Lienert-Brown, who looked to be the only man of the remaining thirty who could summon enough energy for the necessary sprint and dive.
There was time for a five yard scrum, from which Taleni Seu picked up and drove blind, freeing his arms for replacement halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi who dived over for the winning try.
Following last week’s surprise return to the winners’ circle, this dramatic finish to a much more punishing match was even more reassuring to the Chiefs’ loyal supporters. Only time will tell if the character-building fortnight proves a turning point in their season.
There is good news and bad news coming out of Crusaderland, where administrators have decided that any change to the name of their Super Rugby team will involve a public consultation process. The good news is that their decision won’t be based solely on expensive data from focus groups full of people who live elsewhere but whose numbers are already in the phone logs of wankers who run focus groups. The bad news is they didn’t laugh off the whole idea as soon as some miserable rugby-hating scold dragged them into the public debate.
If after all this they do end up changing their name, my vote is for The Scapegoats. The Appeasers would be just as accurate but Scapegoats has better mascot replacement possibilities.