The weekend’s action brought wins for the Force and Brumbies in Super Rugby AU, while the Highlanders and Crusaders were triumphant across the ditch in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Read on while we review some of the big talking points across the four fixtures.
CRUSADERS ARE SOMETHING DIFFERENT
This won’t come as a surprise, but the Crusaders are already showing signs they are again a cut above their Super Rugby Aotearoa rivals and that they retain a ruthless streak few teams in any sport can truly match.
And they haven’t played anywhere near their best rugby as yet, despite easily accounting for the Hurricanes 33-11 having seen off the Highlanders 26-13 in round one.
Sunday afternoon’s victory over the Hurricanes was borne out of a blistering 10-minute stretch after Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea had been sin-binned for pulling down a maul on 19 minutes.
In probably the play of the match, wingers Sevu Reece and Leicester Fainga’anuku had earlier chased down and tackled Hurricanes fly-half Jackson Garden-Bachop in a brilliant double-act of cover defence. Garden-Bachop had looked certain to score, only for the twin Crusaders wingers to catch up with him just short of the line and then roll him into the touch.
Minutes after Savea’s sin-binning, Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor went in before Richie Mo’unga and then Ethan Blackadder also added five-pointers, with skipper Scott Barrett rounding out the first-half scoring and a halftime 26-6 lead.
That was always going to be too tall of an order for a Hurricanes side still finding itself in the post-TJ Perenara era, but the visitors did well to add some respectability to the scoreline and to claim the second-half 10-7, albeit after Will Jordan had correctly had a try overturned for failing to force a kick in goal.
The Crusaders lost their way in the second half and that will more than likely have left a sour taste in the mouth of coach Scott Robertson.
And that should be a worry for not only the Crusaders’ New Zealand opposition, but the likes of the Brumbies and Reds when or if the crossover trans-Tasman competition proceeds.
Both for the fact that there is no better team at punishing opposition defences when they are a man down, and that over the first two weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa they have been well below their best and have still triumphed by 13 and 17 points respectively.
RENNIE SHOULD BE HAPPY WITH INTENSITY, SKILL LEVEL NOT SO MUCH
While they were perhaps short on the free-flowing entertainment we saw in Super Rugby Aotearoa over the weekend, the two games of Super Rugby AU will have genuinely kept fans engaged through to the final whistle.
After a week from hell, the Waratahs had the chance to steal their match with the Force at the death in Sydney only for the play to break down with a forward pass. Then on Saturday evening in Canberra, the Brumbies required a brilliant flick pass and epic long-range penalty from replacement scrum-half Ryan Lonergan to edge a determined Rebels outfit.
One of the highlights of both games was the intensity around the breakdown, particularly from the Rebels, who were able to upset the Brumbies’ rhythm time and time again by getting players over the ball at the breakdown.
But while that breakdown intensity should bring a smile to the face of Dave Rennie, some of the execution, particularly kicking out of hand, remains a concern. There were several poor kicks in both matches when players booted the ball directly into touch, despite a lack of pressure around the moment of execution.
When Rennie was first unveiled as the Wallabies coach he made a point of mentioning that Australia needed to kick more than they had done in the past, he stressed the need to “kick smart” to give defences something to consider.
The skill should be at the forefront of all players’ minds given the presence of the 50/22 & 22/50 law variations in Super Rugby AU, but for a couple of fleeting examples the kicking has been relatively poor so far in 2021.
The catch-and-pass also remains patchy early in the season but there have been enough examples of positive play on that front to suggest things will continue to improve in the coming weeks.
BRUMBIES WIND BACK THE CLOCK IN CANBERRA
It is perhaps a touch ironic that George Gregan is no longer heard on Australian commentary airwaves, only for the Brumbies to then go and use a play straight out of the former Wallabies No. 9’s playbook.
Ryan Lonergan’s 55-metre match-winning penalty against the Rebels will likely see him go down in Brumbies folklore, but it was his delightful flick pass to a flying Tom Banks that was the real highlight of Saturday night’s 27-24 win.
With the Rebels a man down, Lonergan drifted out to the left of the ruck before getting the call from Banks on his inside. The Brumbies No. 9 offloaded a deliciously light flick pass to the inside while still looking to his left, the pass catching the Rebels defenders off guard before Banks skipped through the tackle of Tom Pincus to score.
Who knows if he was watching, but Gregan’s phone surely lit up with messages of nostalgia given the play was a favourite of his in conjunction with both back-rower Owen Finegan and winger Joe Roff.
SEVENS GRADUATE STEALS THE SHOW IN SYDNEY
When Bill Pulver took charge of the then Australian Rugby Union, he made sevens a key focal point of his plan to engage the masses and boost falling participation numbers across the game.
It was a slow burn, at least until Australia’s women won gold at the Rio Olympics and crowds flocked to the Sydney Sevens where both the men and women enjoyed tournament success.
But the shortened version of the game remains on hold, at least in terms of international competition, given the coronavirus pandemic. We all remain hopeful the Olympics proceed in Tokyo as planned, and sevens is once again front and centre on sport’s grandest stage.
What the current environment has allowed for however is that a number of Australia’s sevens stars have joined up with Super Rugby AU franchises and have since shown glimpses of how beneficial a stint in the shortened form of the game can be.
There was a time when Australian rugby used to bring sevens players through to 15s continually, with the likes of Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley and Nick Cummins all graduates of the program that would go on to represent the Wallabies.
After a long period without such a transition being made, we may have just seen a glimpse of a future Test star in Tim Anstee following his powerhouse performance for the Force on Friday night.
Playing at No. 6, Anstee was superb for the visitors around the paddock as he set up the Force’s first try and then scored their vital second five-pointer after rumbling round the back of the lineout from close range.
The skills Anstee has honed in sevens and the pace he has combine almost perfectly for the mould of player who should have success in a 15s back-row.
Notably in the first half, he got back to his feet having released the ball to pinch another five metres in attack and also picked off a strong turnover over the ball at the ruck.
Anstee is only at the very start of his Super Rugby AU career, having trained with the Force ahead of their return last year, and then impressing with Eastwood in the Shute Shield.
But his efforts on Friday night were worthy of man-of-match honours and show why the sevens pathway shouldn’t merely be viewed in the prism of its own environment.
“Definitely from a workrate perspective, I wanted to get around the park really quickly and I’m used to making a lot of one-on-one tackles,” Anstee said of how valuable his sevens career had been. “But it’s a real team effort out there, it’s a lot more strategy involved and I’m just really glad we could grind out a win.”
WARATAHS LOSE AGAIN, BUT FIND GREEN SHOOTS OF HOPE
There were several positives for the Waratahs despite a third straight loss to start the season, not least of which was the performance of Mark Nawaqanitawase at fullback.
Having been interchanged with Jack Maddocks in the back three, Nawaqanitawase seemed to appreciate the extra space and the opportunities that came his way with ball in hand.
He just needs to be a little bit more measured in his decision-making, particularly on the offload.
Bringing the ball back from a kick midway through the first half, Nawaqanitawase was able to get on the outside of the first defender and open up the Force’s disjointed kick chase. But just as the Waratahs appeared set to really put the Force on the back foot, the fullback tried what looks to be a pet: a flick pass out of the back of a free hand.
The only problem was that it hit the turf, rather than Maddocks, and then dribbled into touch, the Waratahs losing all momentum as a result.
Nawaqanitawase then repeated that same play, only this time it was after a wonderful chase and catch of a NSW high ball; the better decision was always going to be to take the ball to ground and let the Waratahs’ attack from the following phase.
Later in the second half, Ramm also had a couple of opportunities in open space but was let down by poor ball security.
The Waratahs won’t want their youngsters to give up on the offload altogether — Nawaqanitawase was successful with a couple of offloads as well – but they do need them to show a little bit more respect for possession.
It’s natural that given the predicament they find themselves in, Waratahs players may be inclined to push for the miracle pass. But if they can pull back slightly, there was enough positive play elsewhere on Friday night to suggest some Waratahs success might not be as far away as everyone thinks.
And Nawaqanitawase is clearly worth persisting with at fullback.
SMITH GETS CAPTAIN’S CHALLENGE OFF THE MARK
Super Rugby Aotearoa is trialing a controversial captain’s challenge in a move that mirrors the NRL and was originally drawn from the NFL.
The decision from administrators had drawn criticism from coaches and players in the preseason, but given rugby’s need to innovate in certain areas it was deemed a worthwhile trial to proceed with.
There were no challenges in round one of the competition before four were taken over the weekend, with Highlanders co-captain Aaron Smith the only one to come away with a successful result.
Smith chose to refer a carry in the lead-up to Chiefs winger Etene Nanai-Saturo’s disallowed try in the shadows of fulltime, a move that ultimately ensured the Highlanders earned valuable bonus-point win on the road.
Smith asked the officials to check a carry from Mitchell Brown in the lead-up to the try, after the Chiefs forward had appeared to lead with an elbow going into the tackle of Josh Ioane. And so it proved to be the case on replay, with referee Paul Williams coming back for the penalty.
Chiefs captain Sam Cane had earlier seen his call for a challenge turned down because the tip had come from a team waterboy, not one of his teammates, which is not permitted under the variation.
The Hurricanes and Crusaders also lodged challenges in Sunday afternoon’s game in Christchurch but both were turned down.