It only took a few minutes of the new Super Rugby season to renew concerns about television match official interference.
But by the end of round one, the focus was back on the pitch, and possible implications for Australian rugby in 2019.
At the forefront were the Melbourne Rebels – more particularly the comeback, after an 18-month absence from top-level rugby, of fly-half Quade Cooper, and his contribution to the Rebels’ 34-27 win against the Brumbies in Canberra.
— 7 News Brisbane (@7NewsBrisbane) February 16, 2019
That Cooper so impressively slotted straight back in, alongside his old buddy Will Genia, not only promises to carry the Rebels deep into the competition but raises possibilities for the Wallabies as they head towards a World Cup in September.
Ever a polarising figure, 30-year-old Cooper seems destined never to win over a substantial portion of Australia’s rugby community – Wallabies coach Michael Cheika and Reds coach Brad Thorn so far included.
But there is a steely resolve and calm assuredness about Cooper this year, with Rebels coach Dave Wessels only too happy to provide him a framework that allows Cooper to play flat at the gain line and show off his trademark distribution skills.
At the very least, the fact fans are once again arguing the merits of Cooper’s on-field performance is a huge win for a game rife with discontent over a number of off-field matters.
With Australian franchises loitering in recent seasons around the lower reaches of the Super Rugby ladder, there are hopes that, with all franchises required to rest leading international players at various stages of the season before the World Cup, improved Australian results will be forthcoming.
On the limited evidence of one round, with the rider the Reds are not even in action until round two, there are indeed signs this may be the case.
The Brumbies were severely hampered by the loss of their best player, David Pocock, in the fifth minute, yet they contributed mightily to an attractive match that, despite typical first-up jitters, yielded nine tries.
With their roster chock-full of Wallabies, expectations around the Rebels making their first finals campaign are high. In that respect, it was both a relief and a delight to see them deliver on that promise, and mark themselves as the real deal.
At Sydney’s Brookvale Oval, the Waratahs agonisingly fell short, 20-19 to New Zealand’s Hurricanes, yet there were signs here too, that a positive season lies in waiting.
Not only did the Waratahs scrap manfully to stay in a tight, even contest, but they were also provided with a gilt-edged opportunity to win it, via a 78th-minute penalty, awarded in a handy position.
Unfortunately, Bernard Foley’s attempt slid to the left of the upright, but the overriding impression was that Australia, for now, has at least three decent sides, who will be competitive this season.
Would that final kick play on your mind? pic.twitter.com/VLjyQdcPfv
— NSW Waratahs (@NSWWaratahs) February 16, 2019
The Reds will endeavour to make that four when they debut next weekend against the Highlanders, with Thorn no doubt keen for his players to set tongues wagging about their performance, rather than about Cooper, the man Thorn let go.
It is inevitable that, as the season progresses, weekly discussion about Super Rugby will drift into an argument about player selection for the World Cup.
Cooper versus Foley is already back on the table, and there will be competition for other key positions like the loose forwards and midfield, as form and injuries come into play.
Cheika has played his hand early, calling his current squad into boot camp in January with personnel mostly comprising players who had toured the UK in November, with a couple of fringe selections thrown in for good measure.
Rugby Australia CEO Raelene Castle recently announced an additional selector will be added to the Wallabies mix, partly to keep the coach on a shorter leash after some confounding selections in 2018, but also in a genuine attempt to deliver better outcomes.
That individual is yet to be identified, nor is Scott Johnson, appointed to sit above Cheika in a Director of Rugby role, yet to take up his post.
The Wallabies were undeniably poor in 2018, and to rush headlong into blissful optimism so early in 2019, would be foolish.
But there was enough shown over the weekend to suggest that competition for a number of Wallabies positions will be intense and that Cheika and his new co-selector have good reason to cast a wider net when putting together their World Cup squad.