Around the grounds
Round three kicked off in Auckland on Friday as the Blues welcomed the Crusaders, with both teams still nursing wounds from season-opening defeats. The visitors found themselves 17-3 up but were pegged back as the Blues let loose either side of half-time, scoring four times in 13 minutes, including a stunning solo try from 18-year-old Tevita Li. Debutant Simon Hickey, who kept Benji Marshall on the bench for the entire 80, slotted 6 of his 7 kicks to guide the Blues home.
On a sunny autumn evening in Melbourne, the Rebels enjoyed the start from their wildest dreams, crossing the line five times, including a deft cross-kick from the skipper Scott Higginbotham that found the impressive Jason Woodward in the in-goal area. New recruit Tamati Ellison was in fine form for the home side and, in truth, the Cheetahs were never in the game.
Down in Cape Town, a beautifully-worked Julian Savea score and a diving Cory Jane effort gave the Hurricanes a 12-6 lead at the break against the Stormers. That six-point buffer was maintained until the 77th minute when Deon Fourie crossed after a gritty Stormers rolling maul. Demetri Catrakalis slotted the conversion from out wide to break Hurricanes hearts as they fell to their second successive defeat.
Saturday’s action was equally enthralling as the Waratahs laid down a marker in the Australian conference with another bonus-point win, this time against the lacklustre Reds. Once again Israel Folau didn’t waste time crossing the line and before long had finished a superb team move to double his tally. Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale’s 9, 10, 12 axis was impressive, with the latter barging over for a second half try as the ‘Tahs ended a five-match losing streak against the Reds in style.
In Perth, the Brumbies nonchalantly brushed Western Force aside, opening up a 27-zip lead before the home side crossed for a pair of consolation scores in the last three minutes.
Over the Tasman, the Chiefs topped the Kiwi conference as they overcame the Highlanders to win 19-18. In Pretoria the hitherto winless Bulls inflicted a first defeat of the season on the Lions as Jacques-Louis Potgieter’s boot dominated proceedings.
Pan-national Super Rugby politics have continued to rumble this week, with all three of SANZAR’s Unions evidently holding very different ideas about what the perfect Super Rugby competition looks like – Australia wants it longer, South Africa wants an extra team and less travel, while New Zealand wants it shorter with less travel. Negotiations for the new format, set to be announced in June, could be a painstaking process.
Meanwhile, penny-pinching at the ARU could see Australia’s end of year tour squad cut to 28 players with many support staff, including the tour manager, set to be culled too. While theoretically sound, this could see havoc wreak when injuries and, as with 2013’s European jaunt, indiscipline strike.
Week to remember for
The Rebels had some week. They notched their first ever win against the Cheetahs, their biggest ever win, crossed the line five times and Angus Roberts even notched their first ever drop-goal too. In the end, such was their dominance that the 35-14 scoreline flattered the Cheetahs. The hosts’ few big names – Higginbotham, Ellison and Luke Burgess – all shone and the latter was at the heart of all their good work, nabbing a thoroughly deserved try on the stroke of half time. The scrum-half looks to have beefed up during his time in France and performances like this will see him back in green and gold sooner rather than later.
Week to forget for
You won’t see this too often, but Richie McCaw is the recipient of this week’s booby prize. Not only did his Crusaders side fall to their second consecutive defeat, but McCaw was withdrawn at half-time nursing a broken thumb that will keep him out for two months after an error strewn 40 minutes that saw him uncharacteristically miss tackles for both the Blues’ first-half tries.
Try of the week
Betham… Alofa Alofa… Ashley-Cooper… Foley… Polota-Nau… Beale… Phipps… back to Foley… Palu… Potgieter… who else? Folau, of course. What. A. Try. When a loose grubber from Anthony Fainga’a gifted the ‘Tahs possession, they chose to put on a clinic in patience, off-loading, keeping the ball alive and support running as play drifted 50 metres forward and 50 metres across the field, drifting through 10 sets of hands in 20 seconds before a gap opened up on the 22 and Izzy did the rest. Simply sublime.
What a week to be a Waratah. Phipps, Beale, Palu and, naturally, Folau were all in fine form, while Michael Hooper shaded Liam Gill in the hotly-contested battle for the No. 7 shirt. Will Genia and Quade Cooper misfired behind an overpowered pack but Gill was one of few Reds to emerge with credit as he burrowed away tirelessly at the breakdown.
In Perth, David Pocock caused collective Australian anxiety as he hobbled off with a knee injury, but early signs suggest that it isn’t serious, while Pat McCabe’s neck injury also doesn’t appear to be the season-ender we first feared. Jesse Mogg’s peculiar start to the season continued as he crossed the line again but was sin-binned for lifting in the ruck.