By Roger Childs

Basically a no contest

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie thinks the quality of Australian rugby has improved this Super Rugby season and feels success for the winless Waratahs isn’t far away. –Rugby Pass, 14 June 2021

We sometimes accuse the Australian media and sports teams of being arrogant and over-confident. Prior to the Tasman Super-Rugby competition they were accusing us of the same attitudes when many in New Zealand suggested that the teams across the ditch were not in the same class as our Super teams and would struggle when they met them on the field.

The Kiwi pundits were right. In 25 matches in the series the Australians won only two and both of those were close. 

In the last round over the weekend it was a clean sweep for the New Zealand teams and in the final table the lowest placed Kiwi team = the Chiefs were 14 points ahead of the top Aussie team: the Brumbies. So the main interest over the weekend was which two local sides would contest the final next Saturday.

Decided on points scored for and against

In theory any of the five New Zealand franchises could have made it to the last two. But in practice the Chiefs and Hurricanes could only get there if there were some highly improbable upsets which were just not going to happen. The Blues only had to win against the Western Force to qualify top of the table and this they did so: 31-21 at Eden Park. 

Their likely opponents were the Crusaders who just needed a bonus point win over the Rebels, which was a certainty, and see how the Highlanders got on in Canberra against the Brumbies the previous night. The latter had beaten the Hurricanes at home the previous week, so the southerners seemed unlikely to win and get the bonus point – scoring three tries more than the opposition — to end up level with Crusaders on the table.

However, the Highlanders, led by their inspirational hooker Ash Dixon and effervescent half back Aaron Smith, won 33-12 with five tries to two. Smith scored two of these. This left the Crusaders with the mission of hammering the Rebels by 33 points or more, to head off the Highlanders on the difference between points score for and against, to take the second finals spot. 

It was an anxious second half in the match played in Sydney. The Crusaders steadily built their lead and seemed to have the 33 margin well within their sights, but two converted tries to the Melbourne team in the second half saw the New Zealand visitors needing a converted try in the last 10 minutes. With eight minutes to go one of the Crusader forwards crossed the line close to the posts, but the referee correctly ruled a double movement and the Rebels won a penalty. So the score finished 52-26 and the Highlanders had unexpectedly made the final which will be played at Eden Park on Saturday.

Comparisons 

The trans–Tasman series showed up the significant gap in the quality of rugby played by the two countries franchises. However, the Australians clearly benefited from playing the New Zealand teams and some teams improved as the rounds progressed. For example the Western Force had two close losses at home before coming to New Zealand, but were slaughtered by the Hurricanes in their first game over here because virtually every time they got the ball they kicked it away using the “high kick and hope” approach which rarely succeeds.  An interviewer after the game talking to the Force captain helpfully pointed this out and the following week against the Crusaders the team retained possession far more and did plenty of passing and hard running. They ran the home team close and last Saturday against the Blues they also trusted their backs to run the ball and scored three tries.

August will see the acid test of the quality of rugby between the two countries as the annual Bledisloe Cup matches get underway. The Wallabies coach is the wily Kiwi Dave Rennie and he has just announced his squad which includes one of the world’s top loose forwards — Michael Hooper — who didn’t play in the trans–Tasman series.

On paper the All Blacks have much more player depth and should retain the trophy comfortably, but we must not get arrogant and over-confident!