Around the grounds: So, with Round 9 of 19 done, we’re as good as halfway through the Super Rugby season and this week served up another set of belters, especially in Australia, where two fierce local derbies were played out. The first of those came on Friday evening in Brisbane, where just three points separated top-of-the-conference Brumbies and the misfiring Reds, who staged a spirited second half comeback after falling 17 points behind in a topsy-turvy game. It was a clash full of forward grunt but Reds fans left grumbling after referee Steve Walsh denied Will Genia a second-half score in the corner that would have reduced the deficit further. Over the Tasman, the Highlanders and Bulls played out an enthralling encounter full of top tries (more on that later) to move to second in the Kiwi conference. Inspired by red-hot centre Malakai Fekitoa, the hosts survived a first-thirty onslaught to claw the South Africans in by the break and knock the stuffing out of them after it. The Highlanders’ play-off hopes are realistic but must remain on ice – they’ve a bye next week ahead of a tough trip to South Africa. Return home with points, and they are looking good.
We were treated to another excellent Aussie derby on Saturday as the Force made it five – yes, five – on the bounce as they felled the mighty Waratahs in Perth. Shorn of Israel Folau by the ARU, the visitors were out-grunted up front and out-foxed by a Nick Cummins hat-trick behind – the first from a masterful intercept. After Cam Crawford was denied due to obstruction, ‘Tahs finally got a try as Kurtley Beale finished in style but it was all too little, too late as the Force train rolled on. Next stop, Melbourne. Speaking of Melbourne, the Rebels were unlucky to go down to double-champions the Chiefs in Hamilton as the hosts survived a late onslaught to protect their six-point advantage. Chiefs raced into a 19 point lead with Gareth Anscombe, replacing star man Aaron Cruden, to the fore, kicking 14 points and creating Mike Fitzgerald’s try with a sharp break. The Rebels fought back though, with Japanese hooker Shota Horie crossing for his first Super Rugby try and Jason Woodward’s fine kicking form showing no signs of abating. The Chiefs weathered the storm, though, and still look good for the play-offs despite some middling showings of late.
In South Africa, the Crusaders hit their straps, scoring six tries amid a half-century of points in a high-scoring clash with the Cheetahs, who managed three scores of their own despite losing fly-half Johan Goosen to an early concussion. It was back-and-forth for an hour before the Crusaders cut loose in the last quarter to take the spoils. It’s good to see Israel Dagg back on the scoresheet but the star of the show was the brilliantly-named (wait for it) Nemani Nadolo Nasiganiyavi, who bagged a hat-trick. At Ellis Park in Johannesburg, the Sharks returned to the top of the table with a win over the Lions in a typically brutal South African derby. There was just a solitary try as full back Lwazi Mvovo showed brilliant opportunism to pinch the ball, chip, chase, gather and score to swing the game the Sharks’ way. From there, their defence held firm to secure a 25-12 victory.
Housekeeping: The Blues weren’t in action but you can’t keep them out of the papers. The men from Auckland aren’t having a great time of it of late but this is good news: Piri Weepu will return to training on Monday having made a full recovery from minor heart surgery and his stroke. Looking forward to seeing you back, Piri! After all that talk, Benji Marshall is set to see out his contract with the Blues but down in Wellington, one man who is on his way is Mark Hammett. The ‘Canes coach is set to step down at the season’s end.
Elsewhere, Israel Folau has expressed confusion at the ARU’s decision to withdraw him from the ‘Tahs match against the Force as he continues his recovery from a throat injury. “Obviously I’m very disappointed and frustrated at this stage, but the ARU have made a decision and I’m not happy with it,” the full-back told Fox.
Good week for: Hello, the Honey Badger. Nick Cummins is just too much fun and on Saturday night he added a hat-trick of tries to his waggish wise-cracks and whimsical witticisms. He’s a fair dinkum Aussie never short of a sharp line or two and with one of the finest manes in the game and is now the world’s undisputed pre-eminent post-match interviewee. In the past he’s been “busier than a one-armed beggar in Baghdad” and “going off like a bag of cats” but this week he was simply “bagging meat” (meat pies = tries). Three whole pies in fact, and two of them were well-earned as he had to sprint the length of the field to get them. The first saw him bravely dive out of the line to gobble up an intercept as the try line beckoned for the ‘Tahs; he dived over in the corner for his second, before gorging on a loose ball and heading for the line and his third portion of meat. Best of all? His celebration of that intercept try; after an almost disbelieving dive, he stood up and marched to his faithful fans behind the goal and shook one’s hand before embracing his team-mates. What a guy!
Bad week for: Poor old Quade Cooper is a hot-and-cold kinda footy player (mainly hot, by the way), but he had a couple of ice-cold moments on Friday night. He kicked nicely but amid a forgettable first-half for the number 10, he spilled the ball under pressure from Robbie Coleman for Scott Fardy’s score before dropping it at the other end of the field to cost his team just as many points after the break. With Joe Tomane all over him, he just couldn’t get the pill down and another Reds chance went begging. Matt Toomua looked calm, composed and consistent up against him but Quade is Ewen McKenzie’s man and will be back. Hopefully very soon.
Try of the week: Cummins’ intercept was classy and Mvovo’s score a delight but there were four beauties on Friday in Dunedin, two for the Highlanders following one for the Bulls. Piet van der Zyl chipped over the top after breaking from a scrum and Bjorn Basson gathered ahead of the hosts’ defence to get the Bulls the points their early dominance deserved. Then, an intentionally overthrown line out was met on the angle and at pace by Highlanders centre Shaun Treeby, who off-loaded to Lima Sopoaga to score. To cap off a great night of rugby, standout centre Lima Fekitoa broke beautifully to feed flanker Gareth Andrews before grabbing one of his own – his dazzling feet just as electric in heavy traffic, eyeing the slightest gap, accelerating and breaking a tackle to score under the posts. Sublime stuff.
Odd spot: We’ve seen it before, but that doesn’t make the Bulls’ camo change-jersey any better. Quit it guys, it’s rank.
Wallaby watch: Another enjoyable week for McKenzie as his options in the backs improved – Cummins was obviously brilliant but Joe Tomane looked back to his best, Kurtley Beale’s re-invention as a centre continued apace and Adam Ashley-Cooper put in a typically industrious shift. That said, along with Quade, Tevita Kuridrani looked out of sorts and Jesse Mogg continues to chop and change violently. He’ll be licking his lips at the prospect of Scott Higginnotham (who was a little off-colour for the Rebels this week) and Ben McCalman’s battle in Melbourne this Friday.