Super Rugby Aotearoa roared into life over the weekend, with wins for competition favourites the Crusaders as well as the team that might finally be able to push them, the Blues.
Super Rugby AU was into its second week and again it was the title fancies, the Reds and Brumbies who triumphed, but in completely different styles.
Read on as we review some of the big talking points from the weekend’s action.
WARATAHS IN CRISIS AFTER 51-POINT FLOGGING
NSW have endured some terrible defeats over the years, of which the 96-19 loss to the Crusaders remains their ugliest Super Rugby result of all.
Yet there is perhaps even greater woe in their 61-10 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra given the situation the franchise finds itself in … and we’ve only played two rounds of 2021.
The Waratahs are at rock bottom already this year and there is very little to inspire optimism for the remainder of the Super Rugby AU season, and then the five-week crossover trans-Tasman series if it does in fact proceed.
For while the 1999 loss to the Crusaders remains a record defeat for NSW, it was more of an aberration – albeit one that killed the momentum of their season and allowed the Brumbies to waltz into Sydney the following week and win their semifinal – as the Crusaders ran hot that night against a Waratahs squad loaded with internationals.
That is not the case in 2021. This Waratahs squad is perhaps the weakest of any to lace up their collective boots in the 25-and-a-bit years of professional rugby.
Having lost so many Wallabies over the past two seasons, NSW were always going to be short on for experience in 2021. And the loss of skipper Jake Gordon last week only exacerbated that.
It has left the young Waratahs group without their only true leader, as Jack Dempsey, Jack Maddocks, Lachie Swinton and Angus Bell only have limited Test experience.
As a result, the Waratahs lack a voice that can bring the team together when things are falling apart, just as they were Saturday night in Canberra.
The Waratahs clearly also have some defensive issues as they conceded 17 clean breaks as the Brumbies ran in nine tries, just a week after NSW had conceded five five-pointers to the Reds in Brisbane.
NSW Waratahs chief executive Paul Doorn insists coach Rob Penney, who is the second season of a three-year deal, is safe. But surely nothing will be off the table if the team continues to run up losses like they have suffered in the first two weeks of Super Rugby AU.
“I certainly don’t think now is the time for finger-pointing,” Doorn told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Now is the time for actually working very closely together. We are looking for improvement. But we have to come together. Now is not the time to be singling anyone out.
“It’s a young squad, it’s a developing squad and you have to chalk [the loss to the Brumbies] up, unfortunately, when you look at the [difference] in experience, we’re on the negative.”
The Waratahs host the Force this Friday in Sydney.
BRUMBIES HAVE HIT THE GROUND RUNNING
Teams can often take some time to settle into their work at the start of a season, but that is certainly not the case for the Brumbies who are absolutely flying under Dan McKellar.
Last week it was a resolute defensive line and the ability to nail their opportunities that carried them to a reasonably comfortable win in Perth, but on Saturday the Brumbies unleashed a ruthless streak more accustomed to the middle part of the season.
They have arguably the tournament’s most dangerous weapon in their rolling maul, but Saturday night’s 51-point triumph showcased some of their other attacking options.
Centre Len Ikitau dropped a deft grubber in for one of Mack Hansen’s three tries while the beautiful exchange of passes down the short side put Tom Banks over. In fact, the Brumbies’ core skills are at astonishing high levels this early in the year, the speed and accuracy in which they are able to spin the ball wide truly a sight to behold.
And they have a quality forward pack up front that is laying the platform for Nic White and Noah Lolesio to control proceedings.
The Brumbies are going to take some beating.
AUSTRALIA GETS A TASTE OF SIX NATIONS CLEANOUT CRACKDOWN
It was almost inevitable that a player would be sent from the field for an illegal cleanout early in Super Rugby AU, the biggest surprise perhaps being that it took two weeks to occur.
Reds replacement prop Feao Fotuaika was on Friday night given his marching orders for a poor cleanout midway through the second-half of Queensland’s heart-stopping win over the Rebels, which was only secured after Matt To’omua had tugged a post-siren penalty goal to the left of the uprights.
Ireland captain Peter O’Mahoney and Scotland No. 8 Zander Fagerson were red-carded in week one and week two of the Six Nations respectively, after the referees had consulted with their TMOs and deemed that both attempted cleanouts were dangerous.
Fotuaika’s cleanout was similar to both of the Six Nations incidents in that he came from distance, at speed, and then collected the head of Richard Hardwick. The Reds prop could have few arguments with the decision and has since been handed a three-week suspension.
Illegal cleanouts have clearly become a focal point for referees around the globe and while fans might bemoan the crackdown, or at least continually point to the difficulty in which cleanouts often have to be made, supporters simply must adjust to this latest attempt to protect the heads of players.
Those same players must also continually work on their cleanout technique and recognise that if they are to charge into a ruck, make contact with the head of player who is over the ball, or both, then they will have to pay the consequences.
CRUSADERS REAFFIRM THEIR QUALITY
Super Rugby Aotearoa was treated to a fine opener with the latest edition of the Southern Derby taking place in Dunedin, giving new Highlanders coach Tony Brown a chance to start his reign with what would have been an impressive win over the Crusaders.
But it wasn’t to eventuate as the visitors and defending champions were able to repel the Highlanders time and time again with some excellent goal-line and driving maul defence.
Midway through the second half with the game in the balance at 19-13, the Highlanders were determined to score the try that would have given them the opportunity to take the lead with a successful conversion, and in doing so spurned several kickable penalties.
When the Highlanders failed in that endeavour, the Crusaders moved upfield a short time later and scored the try that sealed the match, something Scott Robertson’s side have made a habit of doing whilst on this amazing run of success.
It’s what sets them apart from their New Zealand opposition.
Brown would later aim his frustrations at the Crusaders and their serial offending, which brought about a lopsided 15-9 penalty count in the hosts’ favour.
“If you look at tonight’s game that’s what’s sad about rugby at the minute,” Brown told local media after the 26-13 defeat.
“We had 60 percent possession, 60 percent territory…we only concede eight penalties and they’re conceding  penalties and numerous penalty advantages against them and then two yellow cards and they still win. That’s the sad thing about footy.”
HURRICANES LOSE BUT FINALLY SEE BEST OF AUMUA
Asafo Aumua has been one of the brightest young talents in New Zealand rugby for the past few years, but he perhaps quite hadn’t filled his potential as yet.
But with Dane Coles missing from the Hurricanes’ opener, Aumua was given the chance to start against the Blues and he certainly embraced the opportunity.
Aumua finished with two tries, seven runs for 53 metres, two clean breaks and six beaten defenders in the kind of attacking performance that saw him earn rave reviews during the 2017 Junior World Championship.
The charging run that earned Aumua a second try, following a bit of maul trickery, is worth watching over and over again. No Blues player certainly wanted to get in front of him.
Just as impressive was Aumua’s work at the set-piece with the Hurricanes losing just one of 11 lineouts and all six of the scrums on their own feed.
Aumua has already toured the U.K. as an extended All Blacks squad member, but as yet hasn’t made his full international debut. More performances like the one he produced on Saturday night will make his case almost irresistible, particularly with Coles nearing the end of his outstanding Test career.
It wasn’t to be the Hurricanes’ night, however, as they were beaten 31-16 by the Blues, the hosts showing plenty of rust as they conceded two tries from simple errors, with Dalton Papali’i and Rieko Ioane the beneficiaries.