Around the grounds
In the world of golf, the third day of a major is known as “moving day” – Thursday and Friday are used to whittle the field down before the competitors set themselves up for the final push on Sunday. Early pace-setters fold, while others come from nowhere. Round 15 of 2014’s edition of Super Rugby looks to have been this year’s “moving day”.
Try this for size: there were those who slipped – Brumbies and Chiefs started the weekend 2nd and 3rd before losses sent them outside the play-off places to 7th and 8th, there were some old heavyweights climbing – Waratahs from 4th to 2nd and Crusaders from 6th to 3rd, while Western Force went from 7th to 4th and the Hurricanes from 8th to 5th. Get that? Nah, didn’t think so.
Anyway, the weekend started in style as the Sharks, one of the only teams to stay in the same place (top spot), completed their excellent trans-Tasman tour with an impressive 29-23 over the Blues, despite their indiscipline meaning they spent a quarter of the match down to 14 men. Their ever-impressive defence held firm, weathering a late Blues fightback that saw Tevita Li narrow the gap. Sharks lead atop the table remains five points. Waratahs emerged as their nearest challengers with a mighty impressive bonus-point-claiming, statement-making win over the Rebels in Melbourne. Melbourne’s excellent defence and some wayward Waratahs’ kicking meant the scoreboard remained close for 60 minutes before three late tries saw the visitors pull away. Bernard Foley made strong claims for the Wallaby 10 jersey, while there were tries for five of Ewen McKenzie’s first squad of 2014 with Michael Hooper, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale and Rob Horne, who cut a beautiful line to scythe through for the first score, all crossing. As the Waratahs celebrated, the Brumbies, their fiercest foes and the team they leap-frogged to top the Aussie conference, had a nightmare in Pretoria, going down 44-23 to the Bulls. After a pair of losses on their South African tour, the men from Canberra’s season sits on a knife-edge. There were all sorts of mistakes – handling, wayward passing, missed and high tackles – that contributed to their downfall as the Bulls raced to a 31-6 lead before tries to Henry Speight, Ben Mowen and Tevita Kuridrani saw the visitors give the scoreboard a sense of respectability. For the Bulls, the age-less Victor Matfield was outstanding, as was Jan Serfontein, while flanker Jono Ross crossed twice.
Saturday was every bit as busy, beginning with a Kiwi derby for the ages in Dunedin as the Crusaders edged the Highlanders in controversial fashion as an eleventh-hour, last-ditch Israel Dagg tackle put Patrick Osborne into touch (according to the TV ref) and clinched the visitors’ victory. Each side crossed four times and Crusaders looked a side transformed after their loss to the Sharks last week – they bullied the Highlanders at the breakdown, forced errors and scored four excellent tries. Tries for All Blacks new and old – Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith – brought the battling and impressive Highlanders into range before Dagg, who has endured a mixed season, stepped in to prevent them from completing the job. Immediately after this, we were treated to another excellent all-Kiwi clash, albeit a more one-sided one, as the Hurricanes swept Chiefs aside to 45-8 and six tries to one. In blustering conditions, the ‘Canes were lethal on the counter-attack, with Julian Savea scoring twice and Beauden Barrett in scintillating form. They just kept on scoring – six in total – and sent the Champions home feeling thoroughly dejected.
The fun doesn’t stop yet – Force notched a record eighth win for the season over the Lions in rainy Perth (not often you say that). Wearing pink socks for the McGrath Foundation, the Force were excellent once again and are looking good for finals footy, with recalled Wallaby Matt Hodgson crossing twice. The Lions have lost seven on the bounce now but were no pushover, their strong defence keeping the Force at bay. That said, they endured two terrible spells – one just before half-time and another as the final whistle approached – that lost them the game. The weekend’s final fixture was a South African derby that saws the resurgent Stormers brush the Cheetahs aside 33-0, with four tries in a one-sided affair at Newlands.
Good week for
It was all about the 10s this week – on both sides of the Tasman – and it’s been a grand old week to be Bernard Foley and Beauden Barrett. Both orchestrated six-try routs for their teams and staked strong claims for their respective national five-eighth jerseys. Equally, along with the rest of his Brumbies team-mates, Matt Toomua endured a tricky week. His usually impeccable defence let him down as he was sin-binned for a high tackle in Pretoria. McKenzie appears to see him as a 12 too, naming just Foley and Kurtley Beale as his fly-halves for the France series. In other fly-half news, Aaron Cruden made an unscathed return from injury with 30 minutes for the Chiefs and as a result had the best view in the house of Barrett’s clinic.
Bad week for
In the absence of the Reds, who are bottom of the table, the Brumbies picked up the under-performing baton. They’ve had it pretty good of late – re-signing their hottest stars and playing good, gritty rugby but the wheels have come off the wagon in South Africa. They were utterly out-played by the Bulls and the scoreline reflected it, but they made their own bed with indiscipline and sloppy skills errors. Their fixture against the Rebels, who beat them earlier in the year, next week is a genuine, unadulterated season-defining eight-pointer. Lose and finals footy is a very long shot.
Try of the week
This week was more about Patrick Osborne’s try that wasn’t but there were some beauties around, too. Barrett created a string of excellent one for the ‘Canes, Beale and Horne scored stunners for the ‘Tahs and Victor Matfield went on an age-defying lollop up field to put Jono Rose in for his first. Osborne did get one score and it was a cracker, too. Twitter nearly went into meltdown when Richie McCaw was sent to the bin but the Highlanders remained calmer. They set off on a sweeping cross-field move at searing pace, sending it through the hands and with Fekitoa producing the sort of sleight of hand normally associated with Dickensian pickpockets with a stunning off-load to put Osborne – all pace, power and composure – away in the corner.
Nick Cummins is many things – raconteur, comedian, sprinter, try-scorer and general-helluva-bloke, but a kicker he ain’t. His dire, scuffed, sliced, in-goal effort gifted the Lions a try but, just like his post-match interviews was a hilarious gift that keeps on giving. Arms, legs and technique all over the place, Cummins looked like a drunk trying to punt an empty beer can. Leave it to the experts, Badge.
So we have a squad, and a pretty good one, too. McKenzie has found a blend of youth, in Will Skelton and Luke Jones, experience – Messrs Horwill, Simmons and Slipper haven’t been at their best but have credit in the bank – and form, with the previously unfashionable Pek Cowan, Matt Hodgson and Rob Horne rewarded with recalls. So how did they go? Top marks for Foley, Hodgson and Horne but a bad week to be a Brumby, unless you’re Henry Speight, who was excellent. Michael Hooper and Luke Jones were excellent again, while Kurtley Beale, despite kicking poorly, once again gave an encouraging performance for the ‘Tahs.