Around the grounds
Fans of the AFL looked on enviously as the rugby codes had their Good Friday fun and Super Rugby proved what a worthy pursuit such fixtures are on both sides of the Tasman.
In Wellington, the Highlanders survived a mid-match speed-bump to continue their revival and brush aside the Blues, who extended their losing streak away from home to 12 matches and kept them rooted to the foot of the Kiwi conference. The ‘canes racked up four second-half tries, including one each for All Black backs Julian Savea, TJ Perenara and Conrad Smith, as they fought back from a 13-17 deficit at the break to win 39-20.
Good Friday was a mighty busy day in Melbourne, with the Rebels victory over the Force almost inconsequential alongside an impressive crowd at AAMI Park, some remarkable fund-raising, not to mention a hotly-contested mascots’ race won by the Melbourne outfit’s latest recruit ‘Vic the Rebel’, who edged out Kanga of North Melbourne FC. At full time, the turf was awash with fans and players alike as they celebrated a Rebels win and continued fund-raising for the Good Friday appeal. During the crucial 80 minutes, the Rebels put the brakes on the Force’s remarkable run, dominating a hard-fought game that didn’t change either side’s standing on the ladder. Inspirational skipper Scott Higginbotham crossed in the second-half to give the Rebels the points their domination deserved and hand them a third win of the season, despite Nick Cummins bagging his fourth meat pie in two games after the klaxon had sounded.
On Saturday, six Colin Slade penalties provided the Crusaders with a shock win over the Chiefs, whose poor run of performances continued in a wet Waikato Stadium. The Crusaders now sit just three points adrift of the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference as they avenged a narrow defeat in the reverse fixture two months ago with a hard-fought arm-wrestle of a win that saw more concussion checks than tries.
Israel Folau made an emphatic return for the Waratahs, scoring after just 28 seconds to set his side on their way to a 19-12 win over the Bulls with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge watching on at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney. Folau and Kurtley Beale linked well in a re-born back line until Beale left the field with a calf strain just before half-time; both Michael Cheika and Ewen McKenzie will hope it’s nothing too serious. The outstanding performance of Michael Hooper also won’t have escaped McKenzie’s notice as his Wallabies XV for the first Test against France becomes clearer. Hooper is emerging as a genuine candidate in an open field for the captaincy.
Easter Saturday also saw a pair of South African derbies as the Sharks brushed aside the Cheetahs and the Stormers began a revival of sorts with victory over the Lions, who managed just a single Marnitz Boshoff penalty on their trip to the Cape. Stormers hooker Deon Fourie was binned in the first-half but that didn’t hold his team back as they scored twice in his absence to lead 18-zip at the break, and they hung on in the second-half to snap a five match losing streak. The Sharks consolidated their lead atop the table as they overcame the Cheetahs in a dull game shy on quality but big on boot.
The Brumbies spent their week off working hard preparing for the Anzac Day clash with the Chiefs, calling for a regular fixture in the capital on the commemorative day (following successful traditions in other codes), launching a one-off jersey but being thwarted by Super Rugby officials in their attempts to play national anthems.
Former All Black forward Andrew Mehrtens called on the ARU and NZRU to go their own way and ditch South Africa from Super Rugby, citing a loss of interest in the African franchises, time-zones and travel requirements as his reasons in his column for stuff.co.nz. Meanwhile, the citing commissioner was busy this week, banning Crusaders’ Dominic Bird and Chiefs’ Michael Fitzgerald for a week each for dangerous tackles and issuing Stormers lock Michael Rhodes an off-field yellow card.
Good week for
The Crusaders have made a quiet but very effective recovery after an uncharacteristically sloppy start to the season and their win in Hamilton was their grandest statement yet. There were concussions, high tackles and shoulder charges aplenty in a game that made up for its lack of beauty with a healthy dose of drama. Colin Slade isn’t the most fashionable footy player going round but he was the architect of this hard-fought, ugly win that saw the ‘Saders sneak into the top six and made a finals push look ever more likely. Earlier this year he was out of the side and their kicking stats tumbled, with Tom Taylor and Tyler Bleyendaal unable to manage even a 40% success rate. The last three games have seen Slade boot 74% and – guess what? – they’ve won all three. Onwards and upwards for the men from Christchurch.
Bad week for
This week no one wanted to cross the try-line. The first game of the weekend, between the Hurricanes and Blues, yielded seven five-pointers but the round served up just eight more in five matches after that, with the Bulls, Crusaders and Lions all failing to cross. Going into round 10, Super Rugby had been rattling along impressively with 4.8 tries per game across 55 clashes. Where did they go? There’s no hard-and-fast answer but a decent guess would be simply that a combination of some dodgy weather, white-line fever and rock-solid defence put paid to any attacking intentions. Here’s hoping next weekend is a little more free-flowing!
The Aussie conference has been tough to get one’s head around this year but this was another good week for Ewen McKenzie. Various Rebels impressed: Scott Higginbotham won his battle with Ben McCalman, while Luke Jones was absolutely spectacular in the second row as calls for him to be seen in green and gold became louder once more. His statistics were mighty impressive as his agile and athletic frame went on 16 runs totalling 86 metres. Luke Burgess has been demoted to the bench of late but the transformative effect of his calm head when introduced in the second-half won’t have escaped McKenzie’s notice. He turned the game against the Brumbies in round seven on its head, altered the course of the match against the Chiefs last week and was brilliant when he came on against the Force. In Sydney, Folau made it through without damaging his troublesome throat, a well-timed two fingers to the ARU, but Kurtley Beale wasn’t so lucky. Bernard Foley’s influence is growing and Michael Hooper was just everywhere.