James Gemmell looks at the stand-out moments from the weekend’s Super Rugby matches in New Zealand and Australia…
Crusaders 32 – 34 Hurricanes
Super Rugby Aotearoa really is the best club rugby you can get your hands on. It’s as if the teams have got together and agreed that games can only be decided in the final 10 minutes, and free beers for whoever serves up the best skill.
On that basis the Crusaders have not been to the bar all year, and yet another victory at home would have put them as far as 10 points clear of the pack.
But if there was one team catching the eye with their return to form, it was the Hurricanes.
Laurel and Ardie
The ‘Canes are no joke. They have learned to manage without Beauden Barrett this year and bounced back from two first up defeats with three wins on the spin coming into this one.
If there’s one thing you need to have as a visiting team to Christchurch it is self-belief, and no one epitomises that more than knee thumping, fist bumping, blood pumping Ardie Savea, who got his side into the match early from No 8. A trademark early break from the back of the scrum set the tone and sent the message: we have come to play.
Uh Ah Umaga (Jensen)
The chant used to ring out for his famous uncle Tana, but Peter Umaga-Jensen was the family’s best centre on Saturday with an outstanding performance for the ‘Canes.
Having conceded the first try to Richie Mo’unga (more on him later), it was time for the visitors to hang tough. That they did on defence, putting plenty of pressure on the red and black backline, before Umaga-Jensen ran two delightful attacking lines in the build-up to Wes Goosen’s score. Seeing space almost before it is there is a gifted centre’s skill, and Umaga-Jensen certainly has it.
Bridge Over Troubled Water
No one does under-the-pump better than the Crusaders of course, and the lead changed hands for the fourth time in half an hour when Sevu Reece and Bryn Hall cha-cha’d their way through the Hurricanes narrow defenders on half-way. Drifting across field to find his support, Reece looked high and wide with the pass for George Bridge.
What followed was either the most audacious piece of skill or the most outlandish piece of luck on a rugby field this year. You be the judge.
Slaughtered By Lam
A half-time lead has seduced teams in Christchurch before, and the real test was still to come for the ‘Canes. Could they survive the relentless wave of Crusaders pressure that was inevitably on its way?
It turns out they could. Just on the hour mark, at precisely the time the champions usually turn boa constrictors, Ben Lam, in his 50th and final match for the Hurricanes delivered a telling blow on opposite wing George Bridge.
It was not a try-saving tackle, or even to stop a particularly threatening breakaway, but the nature of the hit sent the message that the visitors were not heading home anytime soon.
Minutes later, as our man Umaga-Jensen crossed with a fine finish, the lead was out to 11.
Game over against most teams, but not the Crusaders. Quinten Strange crossed from close range to bring them within one score, and then Richie Mo’unga picked his moment.
It says a lot about the quality of the player that, even as the most tightly marked man on the field, he can manipulate space in his favour in the exact moment he needs to.
With 76 minutes on the clock, Mo’unga eyed a tired loose forward and a wide-eyed replacement prop in the Hurricanes defensive line. A burst of acceleration, the hint of a dummy, in behind the line and the perfect pass; three seconds of magic to put Sevu Reece away in the corner.
That his wide conversion to tie the match slid across the front of the posts is perhaps justice for the ‘Canes, but should take nothing away from the sheer class of Mo’unga in that instant.
So a famous away win – or perhaps the home loss is the more memorable line here – and Super Rugby Aotearoa as a contest is kicking again.
The Hurricanes may just run out of time with only two matches left to play, but the Crusaders have left the door ajar for the Blues, who now just have to be good enough to open it.
Blues 21 – 17 Chiefs
So there was a renewed sense of opportunity at Eden Park on Sunday, alongside the excitement of Beauden Barrett’s first start at 10 for his new club, as they turned to the winless Chiefs.
The afternoon kick-off saw more than 30,000 stream through the gates, and whatever inconvenience it causes for TV viewers in other parts of the world, it’s hard to argue against the atmosphere and the occasion. Smiling faces wherever you turned, unless of course you were looking at Warren Gatland.
Barrett’s move forward meant a first start at full-back for Matt Duffie, whose performances off the bench had been mixed. He’s a player of quality though and was the early beneficiary of a Blues’ set move that rather went wrong.
Set backline plays from the base of a wobbly scrum are hard to get right. Exactly when the ball emerges, and in what way, can wreak havoc with the inches and nanoseconds that need to sync up further out. So it was when TJ Faiane rushed in from centre as a decoy, only to see the ball wedged at the base.
But what might have undone the attack only seemed to confuse the defence, and when the ball reached midfield, Duffie sliced a magical line off Rieko Ioane (with Barrett wrapping as the decoy) and streaked away to bag the game’s first try. Sometimes individual skill trumps the perfect plan.
Speaking last week to the Will Greenwood Podcast on his return from six months with the Blues, Joe Marchant explained how Rieko Ioane had asked to play at outside for his club, having made his name on the wing.
It was a fascinating insight to a young player who exploded onto the international scene as a 20-year-old, but who has gone conspicuously quiet in the last two seasons, so much as to lose his spot in the All Black starting team at the World Cup.
Centre was his position at school, and it turns out his preferred role. He obviously feels established enough now to seek a return, and can’t you see why? His speed is well known, and his distribution skills are certainly up to task.
But most impressive is what he does with the ball in the first second after receiving it. He will subtly shift direction and gear with his feet, whilst simultaneously shifting which hand holds the ball. This opens up the fend, and gives the most beautiful balance to his running lines. He’s a stunning athlete to watch at full tilt, and is surely looking at a new chapter in his All Black career.
Oh, and spare a thought for Marchant. Having played so well at 13 in the early stages of Super Rugby pre-lockdown, he barely got a look-in after Ioane’s shift in, but was still gracious enough to recognise his team-mate’s qualities.
Ioane was involved again, as was Barrett (looking immediately at home again at 10), in the build-up to skipper Patrick Tuipulotu’s drive over try. 14-nil up in as many minutes, and Eden Park was bouncing.
O Captain, My Captain
The Chiefs are nothing if not courageous, and staring down a seventh straight loss (their worst run in history), they fought back to lead briefly in the second half.
A third Blues try saw them four points adrift with just moments to play, before a decision that may haunt captain Sam Cane. Hard on attack, the Chiefs forced a goal-line infringement from Blues’ outside back replacement Harry Plummer, who was correctly binned. A penalty would not do the job, and the midfield location made kicking for the corner a risky call.
Their numerical advantage was in the backs, so a scrum was overlooked in favour of a simple tap. Multiple rumbling phases followed, before a ruck penalty went the other way, ending the contest.
Surely a scrum was the option here? The Chiefs’ pack had held firm all day, and with a central attacking position you would surely bet on any of Brad Weber, Aaron Cruden, Anton Lienert Brown or Damien McKenzie making the individual play.
So it was relief as much as joy for the Blues, who might just have set up a final round home match with the Crusaders to decide the title in a few weeks’ time.
They have become a full squad of contributors in 2020, and for all the fanfare of a Beauden Barrett or a Rieko Ioane, every team needs a Kurt Ekland. The hooker was voted MVP for his work in the mosh pit, and you just know he’s a great team man – even if he will have to drink that horrible looking blue stuff all over again.
Super Rugby AU
Waratahs 10 – 29 Rebels
The ‘Tahs took us back to the SCG this week, surely Super Rugby’s most picturesque setting with its iconic pavilion and picket fences, but it was the Rebels who came off the long run for a resounding first victory of the competition, breaking a four year drought in Sydney and taking home the Weary Dunlop Shield in the process.
The form and fate of the Waratahs must surely be a concern, representing as they do the game’s biggest market in Australia. When the talismanic Michael Hooper falls foul of the law, seeing yellow and conceding multiple penalties, there just isn’t enough experience around him to step up.
The result is all the more disappointing given the home start. Veteran cross-coder Karmichael Hunt, who at 33 is roughly the combined age of the rest of the Waratahs’ backline, showed his League pedigree with some lovely early touches and bruising defence.
It was in these early stages that his man bun, or top knot, depending on your preference, was most tightly packed. As the game wore on it became a little frayed, much like the ‘Tahs performance.
Pup Muscles Up
Helping to keep the Rebels in contact in the first half was another veteran, Matt ‘Pup’ Toomua, who earned his tag as a prodigious young talent for the Brumbies. Over a decade later he is a seasoned international but playing with the energy that befits his nickname.
He ran the show for a Rebels side who looked much the calmer when under pressure, and along with his goalkicking he was a constant threat with ball in hand and a fearless defender. His timely supporting shunt got Ryan Louwrens over for the momentum building try just before half-time, and they never really looked back.
With Bernard Foley, Christian Leali’ifano and Kurtley Beale all playing abroad now, the Wallaby fly-half jersey is looking for a new, regular home. Toomua looks a likely bet.
Harry’s Johnson Home
We all appreciate the sacrifices rugby’s front-rowers make for our viewing pleasure. Scrum after scrum, ruck after ruck, and when found in open space we now expect them to give the perfect pass as well. In many respects, the modern-day prop is arguably the most versatile athlete on the field.
But what few of us appreciate is the toll all this can take on a big guy’s under garments. After a particularly grizzly scrum, Harry Johnson-Holmes gave us a quick glimpse.
Force 0 – 24 Brumbies
Super Rugby AU’s tour of Australian sporting grounds continued on Saturday, as the nomadic Force ‘hosted’ the Brumbies at Leichhardt Oval in Sydney’s inner west, regular home of the NRL’s Wests Tigers. Along with fixtures at Brookvale Oval in Manly and the Sydney Cricket Ground, there is a constant reminder in this competition of the fragmented and compromised times we are living through, although shrewd marketing minds might claim it’s also a clever ploy to win fans from other codes.
Certainly if you headed along to Leichhardt as a league fan, you would have liked what you saw of the Brumbies on Saturday. They are the most complete side in AU, and each week proves it just a little more.
For Pete’s Sake
As a collective the Brumbies are greater than the sum of their parts, but this win put a couple of names in the spotlight. Number 8 Pete Samu had what the Aussies would call a pearler, influencing just about every play he was involved in with power, pace or subtle skill.
Or in the case of Irae Simone’s try, it was a combination of all three.
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