By Roger Childs
Rugby fans have been looking forward to seeing how the impressive New Zealand Super Rugby teams would perform against their Australian counterparts. Some pundits felt that we would be far too strong. However, the results over the weekend showed that, although there were two mismatches, the Brumbies and the Western Force came very close to causing upsets.
It was ironic that the two New Zealand franchises that struggled to beat their Australian opponents were the two finalists in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
Australians champions well beaten
The first match in the Trans-Tasman competition saw the Reds, who had beaten the Brumbies last week in the Australian final last weekend, playing the Highlanders, the fourth placed New Zealand team.
It was played under the roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin and the locals gave the Queenslanders a hiding 40-19. The visitors looked nervous and a silly mistake where a loose forward got in the way of pass from the half back destined for the fullback allowed the Highlanders to pounce. Winger Scott Gregory scored close to the posts and the home team never looked back.
The Highlanders was well led by Ash Dixon who scored two tries in addition to excellent throwing to the lineout and a strong performance in the tight. The Reds were outplayed in the loose and couldn’t cope with the locals lineout drives which resulted in three tries. The Highlanders backs were always dangerous and Mitch Hunt controlled the game well from first five and also kicked five conversions.
One bright spot for the visitors was the pin-point cross kicks from the first five which allowed right winger Suliasi Vunivalu to climb high for the ball and score two tries in the corner.
A Romp in Sydney
The cellars dwellers in both competition met at the Sydney Cricket ground and provided an entertaining feast of scoring in a fast-moving open game. It was perhaps appropriate, given the venue, for the teams to run up a cricket score 64-48.
The Hurricanes were always ahead on the score board, but for much of the game the Waratahs matched the visitors try for try. There were 17 in all -10 to the Hurricanes and 7 to the home team. Though well beaten the locals never gave up and this was exemplified in the last two minutes when quick passing allowed fullback Jack Maddocks to run 70 metres to score.
The Hurricanes had the better of the forward battle and overall were more dangerous in the backs. Julian Savea enjoyed himself on the wing and scored two tries, and Billy Proctor did the same. Jordie Barrett was always dangerous from full back coming into the line and as well as scoring a try he kicked seven conversions.
Both side missed plenty of tackles and will need to tighten up on their defence if they wish to have any success in the remaining four rounds.
The Brumbies run the Crusaders close
The home team led the visiting Australian finalists 19-7 at half time and 31-17 with eleven minutes to go. Crusaders coach, Scott Robertson almost paid the price by emptying the bench too early and replacing key players like Richie Mo’unga, Bryn Hall and Codie Taylor. The Brumbies scored two tries in the last eight minutes, the first from a brilliant 60 metre run by fullback Tom Banks. Then forward Rob Valentini crossed wide out to bring the visitors within two points. However Noah Lolesio who had had an excellent game at first five could not convert and the Crusaders sneaked home 31-29.
The first half had been messy with the Brumbies struggling to match the home team in the scrums. There were many collapses and resets. Wallaby prop Scott Sio had an impressive game and as well as working hard in the tight ran well with ball in hand and scored the visitors first try.
The Crusaders scored five tries with a first half gem from Richie Mo’unga dancing his way through the defence from 20 metres out. However the visitors played a bustling game and often forced the home team into uncharacteristic errors. It was an even battle in the loose and Ethan Blackadder and Cullen Grace were standouts for the home team.
The Blues thrash the Rebels
The visitors in Melbourne scored 50 points to a mere 3 to the home team. The Auckland based franchise were superior in all aspects of the game and their stronger forwards rolled the Blues back in most scrums, Prop Karl Tu’inukuafe had an excellent game in the tight and made several bullocking runs in the open.
The first 25 minutes were relatively even and the first 15 points scored were all from penalties. It was 17-3 at half time but in the remaining 40 minutes the visitors ran riot scoring five tries with loose forwards Hoskins Sotutu and Akira Iaone getting two each. The Blues were always dangerous with Rieko Ioane, Bryce Heem and AJ Lam being prominent with ball in hand. They were well served by half back Finlay Christie who passed quickly from scrums and rucks.
This was the biggest mismatch of the weekend and is hard to see the Rebels winning any games in the remaining four rounds.
Cliff-hanger in Perth
The Chiefs match against the Western Force in Perth saw the biggest crowd of the weekend and the closet margin of the five matches. At 20-7 late in the game the visitors looked like winning comfortably. They had the better of the forward battle and often looked dangerous in the backs.
But there were too many errors and a lack of discipline saw Anton Lienert-Brown and Luke Jacobson sin-binned in the first half. Then with four minutes to go Jacobson offended again and was sent off. The Force scored in the last minute and only needed the conversion to give the Australians their only win of the round. Domingo Miotti kick looked on target but drifted just outside the right hand post, much to the disappointment of the large crowd,
Kiwi teams in the ascendancy
So it was five from five for the New Zealand sides, however three of the Australian team showed plenty of fight to indicate that there will be plenty of interesting rugby to come with some close results.