Around the grounds
Round eight began with a bang at the Forsyth Barr in Dunedin as the Highlanders edged the fast-finishing Melbourne Rebels 33-30 in a game more attritional than its points-heavy scoreline suggests. Jason Woodward was in fine form once more for the Rebels, notching 20 points, but his team still haven’t won overseas in Super Rugby. Lima Spooaga was once again in superb form with the boot, while Aaron and Ben Smith both scored fine tries for the hosts – the former with an outrageous step. The pick of the bunch, however, came when the outstanding Scott Higginbotham’s intercept, dash and booted dink put in Angus Roberts, who was on the field for concussion victim Bryce Hegarty, the latest in a lengthening line of injured Rebels.
Over in a sodden Canberra, the Brumbies put their defeat to the Rebels behind them as a double from the in-form Pat McCabe carried them to a win over the Blues. The hosts kicked superbly on a soaking evening on which McCabe was the standout performer and the tournament’s leading try-scorers failed to cross the line.
The fun continued on Saturday as the Hurricanes held off the Bulls as Beauden Barrett’s late penalties – which brought up a century of points for the season – secured a hard-fought victory in Napier. The odds were stacked against the Bulls – they were fighting jet-lag, injuries and physical opponents – but they scored two tries to the hosts’ one. It was great to see Julian Savea running with such power and authority, while Jack Lam shone at openside.
The clash of the weekend came in Brisbane as the Western Force made it four on the bounce for the first time ever thanks to a superb late try for Jayden Hayward, who saw off three tackles after patient build-up play – his was the second Force try to come in the 16th phase. Quade Cooper dazzled at times but hobbled throughout the second half – relinquishing the kicking duties and was one of the guilty trio for Hayward’s try. The Reds struggled to dominate at Suncorp, usually such a fortress. The Force were magnificent again with Ben McCalman and Sias Ebersohn superb; this historic run is all a far cry from the “Western Farce” of yesteryear. Great to see.
There were three games in South Africa on Saturday – first the Chiefs staged an unlikely comeback remarkably similar to their one against the Bulls last week, and the outcome was the same – a draw. This time round it was flyer Tim Nanai-Williams who tied things up after the klaxon as the champions showed remarkable resolve to find a way back from 24 points down. For the Cheetahs, half-back Sarel Pretorius was on fire, matching Nanai-Williams with a brace, and remaining fast of thought and feet throughout.
Shorn of Keiran Read, the Crusaders bucked their bad form to beat the Lions in Jo’burg and become the first Kiwis to win in South Africa this season. After a cagey first 40, the visitors scored three second-half tries to win 28-7.
Nick Phipps notched an opportunist’s try at a messy scrum to set the Waratahs on the way to a rare victory over the Stormers in Cape Town. Kurtley Beale shone at full back in an arm-wrestle of a match that saw the hosts – who slipped to bottom of the table – lose their discipline in the second half and allow the Waratahs to take the game from the tee.
The Benji experiment could be over before it really even began. Reports suggest he could be heading back to Rugby League – not in the NRL but to the English Super League with Salford. The fullback looked decent enough on Friday night but is understood not to see eye-to-eye with his coach John Kirwan and is frustrated at being left out of the starting line-up. As a result, the unfortunate nickname “Benchi Marshall” has emerged.
Elsewhere, this column is pleased to report on the distinct lack of referee-based issues. After a couple of weeks of stinking calls, peculiar judgement and accusations of hometown bias, the officials were pretty quiet this week. It wasn’t perfect of course – the Stormers were mightily peeved when the TMO denied Juan de Jongh a try and Michael Cheika had a giggle in the coach’s box at a couple of Glen Jackson’s decisions in the same game – but it is progress. The game isn’t about you guys, let it flow.
Good week for
The Australian conference. That ‘Tahs victory capped a great weekend for the Aussie teams. Sure, the Rebels and Reds lost but there was plenty to be optimistic about for both in tight contests. As the Kiwi sides stutter, the Aussie sides are really starting to purr, with each able to beat the next on their day – as demonstrated by the Brumbies defeat in Melbourne last week and the Reds loss to the Force on Saturday. Ewen McKenzie will have spent the weekend beaming as competition for Wallaby places hots up and half the sides in the top six are Australian. Standout individual performances are rife while plenty of team records and unwanted ducks are being broken. Now if the Reds regain their swagger and the Rebels to find some luck and string two performances together, the Aussies really will be in business.
Bad week for
The Stormers are having a terrible time of it. They haven’t won since February (even their solitary victory was only by a point) and sit bottom of the table, two points below compatriots the Cheetahs. The fixture list hasn’t been kind – they spent four weeks on the road (and lost them all, naturally) but for the third consecutive week they were undone by Australian opposition – this time the Waratahs. They didn’t even have the excuse of being away from home. They will pray that a couple of fixtures against South African opposition, first the Lions at home then a huge match with the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, can re-build a season that won’t see them leave African shores again.
Try of the week
There were plenty of beauties this week; a couple of scrum-half specials from Aaron Smith and Sawel Pretorious, an unlikely intercept and grubber from Scott Higginbotham and Cory Jane dabbed down a well-weighted Beauden Barrett cross-field kick for Andre Taylor. But it has to be Jayden Hayward’s last minute effort. 16 phases in, Hayward and his big beard charged from 30 yards – Beau Robinson was fooled, a crocked Quade Cooper evaded easily and Will Genia clung on to no avail as he went over by the posts.
Round eight has been music to Ewen McKenzie’s ears from start to finish. Competition is emerging in most positions and depth being developed. The really interesting spots are No. 8 and inside centre. Ben Mowen’s departure leaves an armband and a position to fill and Scott Higginbotham looks likely for the latter and an outside shot for the former. He’d be a good choice for both. He was immense on Friday – carrying, catching and tackling the Rebels within an inch of their first ever overseas win. Ben McCalman is in brilliant form too and will be hard to ignore – perhaps the pair will combine with the Rebel at 6 and McCalman at 8? At 12, there’s plenty for McKenzie to ponder. McCabe’s comeback has been superb and he’d be a good foil for Cooper, but Kurtley Beale is looking better by the week and won’t dislodge Israel Folau from fullback for club or country. Christian Lealiifano still needs to be accommodated by the Brumbies as Matt Toomua and McCabe storm on. These are problems that McKenzie won’t mind having, not by a single iota.