Another weekend of Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa is in the books.
The Rebels and Reds were triumphant in close games in Australia, while the Crusaders and Blues enjoyed far more comfortable victories across the Tasman.
Read on as we bring you some of the key talking points from the weekend’s action.
THE BEST AUSSIE DERBY EVER?
Now that was a game of rugby.
In a sensational advertisement for both Super Rugby AU and Stan Sport/Nine Gem’s foray into rugby, the Brumbies and Reds turned on arguably the greatest Australian derby of the Super era in Canberra on Saturday night.
In short, this game had it all.
When the Brumbies raced out to a 17-0 lead after just 15 minutes it looked like being a long night for the Queenslanders. But showing the growth in maturity of Brad Thorn’s team, the Reds merely chipped away at that advantage before eventually stealing the match in the shadows of fulltime.
The match-winning try was a beauty, too.
Setting up as if they would play out the back to James O’Connor, Hunter Paisami instead took the ball to the line before dropping it onto his left foot in the direction of the goalposts. Following through was centre partner Jordan Petaia and while the ball took a devilish bounce to the left, Petaia was able to contort his body around the post to force it in goal and snatch the win for the Reds.
You really could not have wanted much more from a game of rugby. Nine tries; prompt common sense refereeing Nic Berry; set-piece dominance from both teams; Saturday night’s thriller was the exact kind of game rugby fans want to see more of.
The match rated 85K in metro regions on Nine Gem, which was down from last week’s Brumbies-Rebels match at the same venue, but with the NRL returning the small dip was likely to be expected. It remains unclear just how Stan Sport’s subscriptions are tracking, despite ESPN requesting a guide on their progress.
What is clear is that the Brumbies and Reds are clearly a cut above the rest of Super Rugby and should provide the lion’s share of the Dave Rennie’s first Wallabies squad in a few months’ time.
The Brumbies will have the chance at revenge in Brisbane in a few weeks’ time and a Reds-Brumbies final almost looks a formality as we prepare to round the halfway point of the season this weekend.
But we won’t exactly forget this game in a hurry.
“It was a great contest. It’d be nice to be sitting in the stands as a neutral ’cause that’s what rugby needs: 78 points, five tries to four,” Brumbies coach Dan McKellar said.
“A really strong rivalry is developing between us and the Reds.
“I know it’s always been there but between these two teams in particular. They’re playing with a really positive mindset.
“We went out to the same.
“I thought Nic Berry was outstanding in managing the game. His comms to the players, his decisions at key times.
“So there’s a lot to like about it from a rugby point of view.”
O’CONNOR MAKES RIGHT CALLS AT RIGHT TIMES
In terms of the key Wallabies battles in Canberra, they came no bigger than Noah Lolesio vs. James O’Connor at fly-half.
O’Connor was Rennie’s man before he was injured last year, a turn of events that allowed Lolesio to make his starting debut against the All Blacks in Sydney.
While that match ended in a 43-5 drubbing and a forgettable debut, Lolesio’s form this year has been excellent and he is clearly enjoying spending more time outside Wallabies scrum-half Nic White.
O’Connor had perhaps enjoyed a slower burn to start the season, but the veteran back was at his best in Canberra on Saturday night.
Not only was O’Connor perfect off the tee, but the fly-half also played a key role in the try that stemmed the Brumbies’ early surge and then generally directed the Reds show superbly thereafter.
But O’Connor’s most vital contribution was his decision to take the points in the 76th minute, the skipper having faith his team would be able to again get down to the right end of the field and give themselves a shot at victory.
After knocking over the penalty to close the gap to just five points, O’Connor and his Reds teammates then marched upfield, setting the scene for the Paisami-Petaia double-act when for all money it appeared the Reds would play behind them to their fly-half.
It’s highly likely O’Connor made the call for that play, too, proving coach Brad Thorn was right to install him as captain following Liam Wright’s injury during the preseason.
REBELS, JUST GIVE THE BALL TO KOROIBETE
In a match that featured plenty of missed opportunities, some lighting drama and few highlights, Rebels’ wing Marika Koroibete would have made up the bulk of the entertainment, easily stepping up as the most impressive player on the park on Friday night.
While the Rebels came away with their first win of the season, life on the road and two close losses had clearly taken its toll on the team with almost every point-scoring opportunity going down. They hardly looked the side that had threatened the Brumbies and Reds in their two earlier matches.
But if there’s one lesson they can take away from the match it’s to give the ball to Koroibete as much as possible.
From the sixth minute of the game he was threatening to carve the Force up with a lovely in-and-out run on the sideline, while it would be only moments later that he was back to test out the hosts’ defence again. In fact, every time he touched the ball he looked threatening and you could only hope the Rebels would bring him into the game whenever the opportunity arose just to witness some more magic.
He was unlucky not to finish the match with any points to his name, but his attacking stats speak for just how remarkable his game was. Making 14 runs, Koroibete racked up 134 run metres! That’s 51 metres more than next closest Tom Pincus and 74 more than the Force’s Byron Ralston.
But Koroibete’s dominance comes from more than just catching the ball and running, you only need to watch and see him constantly searching for work. So many times he popped up beside the ruck, running a lovely line to slip through the defence or holding his line on his wing only to dart back on the inside to break the defensive line open. In all he finished the night with five line breaks and six beaten defenders.
Joe Powell’s try in the 62nd minute is a perfect example of how destructive Koroibete can be. Lurking behind the Rebels’ attacking line at the lineout just metres inside the Force’s half, Koroibete ran a beautiful unders line to collect the pass from James Hanson and slice straight through the Force defence. The winger raced about 20 metres downfield before he sent a lovely pass to Powell on his blindside who ran into the corner to score. It was so impressive that even the Force fans rose to their feet to applaud.
In a match that was dour with little to cheer about, the wing stood up yet again to prove just how invaluable he can be and no doubt solidify his place in Rennie’s Wallaby line-up.
Rumours that he is the target of big money offers from overseas will be a concern to Rennie and Rugby Australia administrators.
TIME TO GO DIRECT DEBIT FOR YOUR POWER, FORCE
The last thing such a scrappy contest needed was the power to go out in one of the stadium lights, but that’s exactly what happened at HBF Park in Perth on Friday night.
It was perhaps the worst timing ever. With just minutes left in the game, and the Force in the perfect position to take a lead, one of the stadium lights seemed to lose power and switch off. It saw a 10-minute delay and had the referees and match officials consulting the game day manual. Even the 7,700 strong crowd started using their phone lights to help brighten the stadium.
Players were forced to stay warm by passing the ball around while stadium staff raced to fix the issue and officials determined whether the match could continue with the lack of lighting. At one stage it looked like the match would be abandoned and the Rebels handed the win through a technicality.
“I’ve never been involved in a game where the lights cut out, a red card – what a game,” Rebels fly-half Matt To’omua said post-match.
Luckily the match was allowed to continue despite the lack of lighting, and the Rebels went on to hold the Force out and claim their first win of the season. But who knows what could have been if those lights hadn’t failed?
This is of course in no way the Force’s fault with lighting handled by the stadium operators, but the Force and Rugby Australia will no doubt be sending a ‘please explain’ note to HBF Park to ensure such a problem doesn’t happen again.
While we can laugh about it now, and we still got to see the final six minutes of the match played out, although somewhat in darkness, it was not a good look.
For a sport that’s so desperately seeking growth and cut through against their rival footy codes, this is not the attention rugby wants to generate. It was the first night Super Rugby and NRL had gone head-to-head in 2021, and a dour contest plus lighting drama isn’t what the sport was after.
But perhaps as they say, any publicity is good publicity?
TMO STRIKES AGAIN
Another week, another TMO denying a magnificent try. It had fans and Blues coach Leon MacDonald steaming, and rightly so.
If not rubbed out, Rieko Ioane’s try in the 33rd-minute would easily top the list of contenders for try of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
Rampaging down the sideline, Blues flanker Akira Ioane bumped off Highlanders fly-half Josh Ioane to charge from deep within the Blues’ half into the Highlanders’ 50 before he flicked a beautiful ball to his younger brother and outside centre Reiko, who had come flying from the other end of the field to support his brother. Cutting back inside Reiko would go on to beat the chasing defenders and score what looked to be a fantastic try.
It was spectacular, and had the crowd and commentators cheering. But according to the TMO, Akira Ioane’s pass had drifted forward.
Straight away social media lit up, decrying that while the ball floated forward, the pass was backwards out of the hands. It was a sentiment carried by MacDonald who called for some sort of scientific approach when it came to forward passes.
Fainga’anuku really did this 🤯
— StanSportAU (@StanSportAU) March 13, 2021
“It’s tough. You need something a bit more subjective,” MacDonald said post-match. “For me Aki [Akira Ioane] was able to stay in front of the ball, and it looked pretty good out of the hands.
“There is a lot of science out there, and there might be a visual or graphic or something that somebody a lot brainier than me might be able to come up with that is more consistent. These inconsistencies are what’s frustrating.”
Luckily the denied try had no impact on the end result with the Blues easily running away 39-17 in Auckland. But it so easily could have influenced the outcome, and it’s an issue plenty of people would like to see changed.
A day earlier in Christchurch, Crusaders winger Leicester Fainga’anuku scored one of the most acrobatic tries you are ever likely to see, but there was more than just a shred of doubt that he hadn’t been forced into touch.
Under pressure from Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie, Fainga’anuku was somehow able to ground the ball with his left having leapt into the air in the field of play. However, replays appeared to show his left foot may have actually skimmed the grass outside the touch line.
TMO Paul Williams eventually upheld the original decision of try after a succession of replays, but social media was awash with people questioning whether the try had successfully been scored.
Given it was not clear an obvious that Fainga’anuku had brushed the grass with his left foot, Williams ruled there was not sufficient enough evidence to overturn the on-field decision of try.
It mattered little in the end, the Chiefs no match for the Crusaders who powered away to a 39-17 win.