Around the grounds
Well, well, well, what a fine weekend it was – and our favourites the Western Force weren’t even in action.
Round 12 – yep, just seven more left – kicked off on Friday in Auckland with a colourful (pun intended) clash in Auckland between the Blues and Reds. It was a miserable night for the Reds – Quade Cooper mis-fired again on his 100th appearance for the side, James Slipper and Rob Simmons showed worrying indiscipline and they only managed their 14 points in the second-half when the game was well and truly over. Worrying times for the Brisbanians. The Blues, after a tricky few weeks, looked excellent, with Ma’a Nonu running the show in an easy bonus point win.
In Melbourne, the Rebels will have spent the weekend kicking themselves as they were their own worst enemy in allowing the Sharks to become the first South African side to win overseas in 2014. The territory and possession stats were heavily in Melbourne’s favour but crucial handling errors let them down badly and Frans Steyn’s hefty boot kept the Sharks in front when the hosts’ discipline lapsed. As ever, the Rebels never gave up and there were bright spots, with the performance of Bryce Hegarty – who took a quick tap (albeit illegally) for Pat Leafa’s try – catching the eye. Jake White’s Sharks secured their status at the top of the table with their eighth win from ten and now head to Canberra for their greatest test yet – against White’s old charges the Brumbies.
On Saturday, Richie McCaw returned for the Crusaders as they downed the Brumbies on a stunning afternoon in Christchurch, with Colin Slade’s boot carrying them to a 40-20 win. It wasn’t easy for the hosts, who lost Matt Todd, Kieron Fonotia and Tom Taylor to injuries in the first half, but still managed to take a 22-6 lead into the break, thanks to Johnny McNicholl’s score. Upon resumption, Stephen Moore crossed almost immediately but a pair of tries gave the Crusaders control. Pat McCabe scored late to give the Brumbies, who remain top of the Aussie conference, a consolation try.
The Chiefs got back to winning ways with a six-try, 38-8 win over the Lions at Waikato Stadium. For the Chiefs, Gareth Anscombe showed exactly why Wales are interested in luring him north as he helped his side to a bonus point a couple of minutes after half-time. It could be a long tour for the Lions, however, who have a green side containing 17 players on their first overseas jaunt.
By the time the Waratahs kicked off in Sydney, they weren’t just playing for New South Wales, they were playing for all Australia. They didn’t disappoint, coming out on top of an enthralling encounter with the Hurricanes. Adam Ashley-Cooper’s break gave the hosts the lead within 90 seconds, but errors handed the ‘Canes three scores in 15 minutes. In a see-sawing first-half, the ‘Tahs fought back with scores from Dave Dennis and Bernard Foley making it 24 apiece at the break. Afterwards, they assumed control of the scoreboard – if not proceedings – to take a 39-30 win and return to the wildcard spots.
On their tour of South Africa, the Highlanders beat the table-toppers last week but this time round they lost to the bottom side, with the Stormers coming out 29-28 victors in Cape Town. The visitors can take solace in a pair of bonus points and enhanced their reputation as players of attractive footy as Aaron Smith scored a brilliant try and three of their electric outside backs also crossed. At Loftus Versfeld, the Bulls fought back from 9-18 down at the break to beat the Cheetahs, who now sit at the foot of the table, 26-21 and put a horrible, winless tour of Australasia behind them.
Big news this week. Just as we got used to Super Rugby’s current structure, it’s going to change again. From 2016, we’ll add three more sides – one from South Africa, one from Argentina, one TBC – and another conference. There will be two four-team pools based in South Africa including all the new outfits. There will be more games in total but each team will play one fewer (less travel = happy players), it’ll be a shorter competition by a week and, crucially, the broadcast deals will be more lucrative.
Good week for
The fans at the Sydney Football Stadium – or the Allianz, or whatever it is called these days – were given a real treat by the Waratahs and the Hurricanes. The line-ups looked fun: with the likes Folau, Beale and Ashley-Cooper up against Barrett, Savea and Smith in the backs and Bledisloe match-ups all over the park. The fans certainly weren’t let down by arguably the season’s finest game to date, with eight tries, a yo-yo-ing scoreboard, thrills, spills and just about everything in between. Super Rugby’s new format will see more trans-Tasman clashes and if this is what they’re gonna be like, we’re all for it.
Bad week for
Just about everyone else in Australia. The Reds were awful, the Rebels profligate and the Brumbies dominated as the Aussies had a tough start to the weekend. For much of this season, Australia’s has looked the strongest conference but there’s little doubt the Kiwis are resurgent, with all five of their sides in the top nine. It was great to see the Blues playing some fine footy again, but it’s hard to know what to say about Richard Graham’s Reds. They’re horribly indisciplined, wasteful in attack and shaky in defence: all in all, not a good look. The Rebels came up against a Sharks outfit who just know how to win and are increasingly in Jake White’s image, while his old side Brumbies lost a tough clash in Christchurch. White’s return to Canberra next week is a mouth-watering proposition but it could be another tough weekend for the Aussies – Reds and Rebels both host in-form Kiwi sides and the Force head to South Africa.
Not a vintage week on this front but a few nice scores nonetheless. Aaron Smith in full flight is a thing of beauty and his try for the Highlanders in Cape Town was wonderful. He was all eyes when finding a gap, then quick feet darting through it, kicking ahead, gathering and crossing for his fourth of the season. Another cute kick put his equally-brilliant namesake Ben in later. Ashley-Cooper’s spectacular, searing break to set up Rob Horne was also a highlight, while Tom Donnelly finished an absolute superb team move to grab the Blues’ bonus point in Auckland.
Not such a good week for Ewen McKenzie. All Reds bar Will Genia – who made a couple of brilliant try-saving tackles – get a black mark. Genia had his best game for a while, kicking long and with more purpose, passing tidily and darting with some of that old verve. Great to see. For the Rebels, Scott Higginbotham remains an inspirational figure and is close to a nailed-on Wallaby starter, but he needs to watch his penalty count, while Luke Jones was impressive again. In Christchurch the Brumbies boys were solid and Matt Toomua, after a storming week last time out, did his chances no harm, showcasing his hard-hitting defence. In Sydney, Michael Hooper was excellent and rightly nabbed the man-of-the-match award, a timely tonic for McKenzie.