Around the grounds
On Friday, there was a pan-Anzac clash on either side of the Tasman, with the home side prevailing in both.
In Auckland, the Blues’ 21-13 victory over the Waratahs couldn’t lift them off the foot of the Kiwi conference but will give their fans plenty of optimism as Francis Saili scored a fine try and Simon Hickey put in an assured and confident performance at outside-half to remind them that while they may have wanted Benji Marshall to solve their problem in the position, the answer was probably staring them in the face all along, green as Hickey is.
This was the ‘Tahs eighth defeat in nine to the Blues and the visitors put in a performance strewn with handling errors, loose passes, ill discipline and wayward goal-kicking from their own young 10, Bernard Foley. If they wish to keep up their finals challenge, plenty of work lies ahead – this was sloppy, sloppy stuff.
In a grand final re-match in Canberra, the Brumbies got a slice of revenge as the Chiefs made it just one win in their last six matches, going down 41-23. The visitors, suffering badly with injuries, were just seven adrift at the break but the Brumbies scored 23 unanswered points to seal the match. Late lapses handed the visitors a pair of tries but Matt Toomua went over for his second in the last minute to secure an emphatic victory.
In South Africa, the Stormers made the early running but the Cheetahs fought back to gain their first win since February and in doing so leap-frogged the Cape Town outfit at the foot of the Super Rugby table. Springbok star Willie le Roux was instrumental in their fightback – a deft cross kick provided Hennie Daniller with a simple opportunity before his swerve and step saw the winger cross himself before half-time. There were two tries apiece in the last 20 minutes but by then the Cheetahs had already done enough to secure the points.
Saturday saw the Kiwi conference’s resurgence continue as the Sharks were undone four tries to none by the Highlanders in Durban to provide one of the season’s biggest upsets. Tim Swiel’s boot kept the hosts in it but the Highlanders were full of attacking invention, ran fine lines and dominated almost every department. Smiths Aaron and Ben were at their predatory best, while Malakai Fekitoa scored a superb solo try to hand them the bonus point (more of that later).
The Reds haven’t won in Wellington since 1998 but they were blown away by the Hurricanes, despite a strong start that saw Ben Lucas cross. A Cory Jane hat-trick put the hosts firmly in control before they were pegged back by the boot of Quade Cooper – who put in another mixed performance – and a try from James Hanson. Ardie Savea – Julian’s younger brother – scored late to send the Queenslanders home pointless.
The Force’s fine run came to end in Melbourne on Good Friday but they returned to winning ways when back in Perth this week, grinding out an ugly 15-9 win over the camo-donning Bulls thanks to a flawless five-from-five kicking display from Sias Ebersohn. The Force defended gallantly in the final ten minutes with bodies right on the line and a crowd of more than 14,000 cheering them on. The Force keep winning, they’re third on the table and their game is very much alive and kicking in Western Australia. Brilliant stuff.
Bye bye Benji, Benji bye bye.
So it all ended rather abruptly this week as Benji Marshall came out and said “I’m an average rugby player” after a frank chat with John Kirwan, who had told him he was being shelved for the Anzac Day clash.
“Code-hopping” is a rather flippant term that makes the transition between sports sound easy. It’s not. For every Izzy Folau, there’s a Willie Mason and, now, a Benji Marshall.
It was always going to be tough and the league legend has found out the hard way. At times he didn’t look fit and perhaps his heart was never quite in it, but Kirwan and the Blues need to take their portion of the blame. They wanted an outside-half – that most technical and tactical of positions – and that was always likely to be a bridge too far for Benji, however brilliant his step and sharp his eye for a gap. There were glimpses of that brilliance – most notably his fine late try against the Lions six weeks ago – but ultimately too much was asked and expected of Benji, both by himself and the Blues, and we wish him well on his return to rugby league.
Good week for
It’s hard not to like Matt Toomua. He’s part of Aussie sport’s most marketable, not to mention talented, young couple with Elysse Perry, he’s intelligent (see @MattToomua for article insights on politics, sport and culture), and he’s a fine little footy player too.
Quade Cooper is the global star, the wild talent and the incumbent Wallaby 10 but he remains a loose canon. He’s tried to hem himself in the season – to grow up and Dan Carter-ise himself, if you will – but it hasn’t really worked. He’s always kicked neatly but at times he’s taken his maturity too far, almost becoming, dare I say it, a little functional. He simply tried too hard against the ‘Canes and as he put in an error-strewn display for the Reds in Wellington – including one extraordinarily loose kick that went backwards – Toomua bagged his first Super Rugby brace and put in another display of un-simulated maturity and poise to guide the Brumbies to an Anzac Day triumph.
He’s a safe pair of hands at outside half but if Ewen McKenzie can’t bear to bench Quade’s talents then Toomua would be a good bet alongside him ahead of Beale, McCabe or Lealiifano – he has fine vision, quick feet and is far stronger than Cooper in defence. More displays like this and he’ll simply have to wear green and gold – somewhere, anywhere in that backline.
Bad week for
“Maybe they think they’re the Harlem Globetrotters, I don’t know”, said Michael Cheika after his Waratahs’ awful performance in Auckland. The style and swagger were there but the myriad chances they created simply weren’t executed, to use that hackneyed expression. The outside backs prised the Blues’ defence open but there were dodgy passes and loose carries that saw 18, yes 18, handling errors. Their defence was no better – they missed a whopping 22 tackles. You don’t win games with numbers like that and, after home wins for Brumbies and Force, they sit on the edge of the top six and must improve fast if they fancy all the fun of the finals’ fare.
There won’t be many bigger upsets this season than the Highlanders’ win over table-toppers Sharks in Durban and there won’t be many better solo tries than the one that sealed their bonus-point. Malakai Fekitoa isn’t an All Black yet, but on the basis of this display it won’t be long. The outside centre emerged from contact with the ball on half-way before running rings around all before him – that’s just about everyone – to score under the posts. With head up at all times, his speed of thought and fancy footwork meant no one could even get a hand on him.
No Aussie derbies so no juicy head-to-heads for Ewen McKenzie this week but still plenty to draw on. The front row remains a problem but James Slipper looked in fine form in Wellington, as did Rob Simmons. For the ‘Tahs, the outside backs – Beale, Ashley-Cooper and Folau – did the cause no harm, but another neutral display from Nick Phipps probably sees him behind Will Genia, Nic White and Luke Burgess in the race for the 9 jersey. Michael Hooper was immense, again. For the Brumbies it was great to see Lealiifano starting again but it was that man Toomua who shone. Tevita Kuridrani also bagged a brace, while Joe Tomane produced an outstanding pick-up to go over in the corner – all music to McKenzie’s cauliflower ears.