Around the grounds
It’s nearly time for a tasty line-up of mid-year internationals, but round 14 gave us a reminder of all that’s great about Super Rugby. It was a round that served up just about everything: we’re talking about a couple of red cards, a bundle of super tries, winning ugly, teams in crisis and international sides coming together.
There was just the one game on Friday: an arm-wrestle between the Highlanders and Hurricanes in Wellington that saw the visitors come out on top thanks to the unerring accuracy of Hayden Parker’s left peg. Both sides have been a pleasure to watch this year – performing above expectations, providing individual bolters and crossing for some sexy tries – but this one wasn’t all that easy on the eye. TJ Perenara nabbed the game’s only try but an injury to Beauden Barrett and the subsequent profligacy of his replacement Andre Taylor with the boot – especially late on – cost the ‘Canes the game. A huge win for the Highlanders though, who leap-frogged the Crusaders to go within a point of the Chiefs atop the Kiwi conference.
Those Crusaders had the chance to repair the damage on Saturday but lost at home, after a spectacular run of form, to a ruthlessly efficient Sharks outfit who survived the early red-carding of Jean Deysel (for stamping) to move five points clear at the top of the table. Colin Slade scored all 25 Crusader points but it was all in vain was the visitors hung on gallantly – at one point down to 13 due to Willem Alberts’ sin-binning – to cross for three tries. After a blip at the Brumbies last week, Jake-ball rolls on.
Off to Brisbane next, where the Suncorp crowd were treated to a game as a controversial as it was action-filled and enthralling. The result was momentous as it was the Rebels first ever win over the Reds. The action wasn’t always of the highest standard, although Melbourne Lukes Burgess and Jones pressed their Wallabies claims further – the former with a brace and the latter with a couple of barn-storming ruins and booming hits – but it was always exciting. In the first minute, Scott Higginbotham’s emotions got the better of him on his return to Brisbane as he hit Mike Harris late and was rightly carded. Higginbotham was at the centre of the card-based action at the end too, as Reds replacement Ed O’Donoghue was shown Saturday’s second red for making contact with the Rebels skipper’s eyes. The process was extraordinary – the TV ref called Steve Walsh back to make the decision, but the outcome was correct. The question now will be whether Higginbotham hears any more about a possible head-butt that lead to the gouge. Either way, O’Donoghue’s actions – gouging, however vicious, has no place on the rugby field and his ban should be lengthy – cost his side the game as the ever-dead-eyed Jason Woodward stepped up to slot the winning three points. Immediate justice done, but there’s more retribution coming O’Donoghue’s way – he’ll face a hearing on Monday. He’s only deepened Richard Graham’s woes, though, as the Reds slumped to their sixth successive defeat. Oh, did I not mention Quade Cooper got an injury? Busy night in Brisbane then, and the Reds are on struggle street. Looking decidedly like a one-way street right now, too.
Next, a pair of struggling South African teams beat a pair of high-flying Australian teams as the Stormers downed Western Force and Brumbies lost to Cheetahs. In Cape Town, the Force fell behind as the hosts dominated territory and possession and kept the scoreboard ticking as a result. Late on, with two Stormers in the bin, Matt Hodgson crossed for a try to start a comeback but it was too little, too late as the Force squandered more than one opportunity in a blow to their finals hopes. The Brumbies also suffered a setback in a sin-bin littered game as Johan Goosen, who notched 22 points, had his radar just right and Christian Leali’ifano and Nic White, who missed a pair of penalties each, didn’t. The Brumbies didn’t necessarily have the rub of the green in the first half, but recovered from 24-11 down to claim a bonus point.
The weekend’s final game saw the Aussies get back on track as the Waratahs back line purred – scoring five tries (but none for Izzy) to down the Lions in Sydney. With Cooper now injured for a month or so, Bernard Foley threw his name into the hat for a Wallabies jersey with a superb display, grabbing a try amid 21 points. The hosts led by just four points at the interval but ran away in the second period as Messrs Beale and Folau showed the sort of flair that could make the Wallabies’ back line the world’s most feared. Their more prosaic colleagues Adam Ashley-Cooper and Rob Horne were in fine form too, crossing three times between them.
On Monday, the All Blacks named their 34-man training squad for England’s visit next month. As ever with the ABs, and on the back of the professional era’s first unbeaten season, surprises were few and far between and, after Corey Flynn announced his move to Toulouse, hooker – with the uncapped Liam Coltman and Nathan Harris joining the ageing Keven Mealamu and the incumbent Dane Coles – looks the only position with question marks surrounding quality and depth. After the injuries of Charles Piutau and Luke Romano last week, Steve Hansen certainly won’t have enjoyed in-form five-eighth Beauden Barrett picking up a niggle against the Highlanders. It’s wrap-in-cotton-wool time now – not that the Kiwis don’t have the depth to deal with it.
With injuries striking alongside dodgy form of senior players, Ewen McKenzie will name his Wallabies squad for the series with France on Thursday. It’s sure to be an interesting list.
Good week for
It’s nice to imagine the citing commissioner being a bit like a nightclub doorman or a parking attendant – all schadenfreude and sadism – and if so they’re going to have great week. The O’Donoghue case should see a lengthy ban, while Deysel’s stamp won’t get off lightly. Throw in seven other yellows and he’s bound to have some fun. That said, for all we know, the citing commissioner is a lovely chap.
Bad week for
It’s hard not to say the Reds (AGAIN!) but this week we’re going to say it was a bad week for the favourites. ‘Canes were expected to win at home, as were the Reds and the Crusaders, while the highly-fancied Aussie sides lost to lowly South Africans. The bookies favourite only got one win (in the final game) as the ‘Tahs got up against the Lions in Sydney. As a result, congested conferences became even more crowded and the Sharks, who were the underdogs despite topping the table, extended their lead.
The ‘Tahs scored some nice ones thanks to the Bernard-Beale-Izzy axis of extravagance but the Rebels’ first was a bit of a beauty as Tom Kingston crossed after phases upon phases of patient build-up before Woodward off-loaded neatly for Tom Kingston to cross. That said, the measured build-up was allowed to happen by some typically (of the class of 2014) dodgy Reds defending.
Another mixed bag for McKenzie but it’s decision time this week so those who had a good round 14 stand in good stead. With Cooper gone, Foley and even young Bryce Hegarty (a genuine bolter) performed well. Reds again let themselves down, although Will Genia worked tirelessly and stood up in the absence of his partner-in-crime. James Horwill is a big chance to miss the squad entirely – he’s playing poorly and mouthed off about the gouging decision, while Luke Jones goes from strength to strength and Will Skelton is maturing fast – he may well be capped now just to stop anyone else getting in first! Luke Burgess picked up a knock but sniped brilliantly and would make a fine replacement and another experienced man, Rob Horne, is also playing well and would work well outside Adam Ashley-Cooper in the vacant 14 jersey (Honey Badge in 11 all the way). Of those who lost in South Africa, Stephen Moore and Ben McCalman once again stood out. Scott Higginbotham is a class act – arguably the best off-loading forward in the world – but he needs to curb his indiscipline. No one has given away more penalties this year, he got over-excited on Saturday and he could be in more trouble for a butt. That said, there’s a strong case for him to be captain, so who the hell would want be Ewen McKenzie this week?