What a weekend of rugby.
Four games, four thrillers – two that went to golden point while the others involved dramatic post-siren sequences – it’s clear that both Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa have gone up a level in the run to the finals.
In the end, there were wins for the Force, Chiefs, Reds and Crusaders. Read on as we recap a thrilling weekend of southern hemisphere rugby action.
ANOTHER REDS-BRUMBIES IS BRILLIANT NEWS FOR THE WALLABIES
And we thought the first one was good.
Saturday night’s gripping encounter between the Reds and Brumbies at Suncorp Stadium got the attendance it deserved and the 22,000 [and change] people that were there certainly went home content.
This was another Australian derby that had a Test match intensity to it, the two best teams from Super Rugby AU duking it out in a ferocious contest that has only further whet the appetite for a likely third chapter, at Suncorp Stadium, in four weeks’ time.
Can you really see either the Force or Rebels producing something extraordinary to knock off the Brumbies in Canberra in the preliminary final? No, it looks a serious long shot.
So where to start with Saturday night’s game in Brisbane, won 24-22 by the Reds, who again trailed for all but the final minutes of the match?
Firstly, the Brumbies came out with serious intent in defence. Led by an inspired Rob Valetini, who knows the No.6 Wallabies jersey is right up for grabs, the Brumbies were dominant for much of the first half as the Reds struggled for continuity and sorely missed the injured Hunter Paisami.
But they stayed in touch through the boot of James O’Connor to answer Brumbies tries from Folau Fainga’a and Tom Banks, the latter plucking an intercept from James O’Connor to run 70 metres and score untouched.
After an incredibly physical first half of defence and brutal battle at the breakdown, the contest needed a little more free-flowing attack and, naturally given the fatigue factor, that’s exactly what played out.
And what surely had Wallabies coach Dave Rennie and his attack assistant Scott Wisemantel smiling, was the perfect skill execution that resulted in superb tries to Josh Flook and Tom Wright.
First it was the Reds backline who combined, beginning with a perfect cross-kick from James O’Connor that found Jock Campbell in stride. Two phases later, O’Connor threw a beautiful cut-out pass from to Campbell once more, the winger then passing back inside for Flook who broke through the covering defence and ran to the corner for the try.
The Brumbies’ third five-pointer was a set-play classic. With a free pass under advantage from a Reds lineout infringement, the Brumbies twice played out the back behind two decoys to put Andy Muirhead into a gaping hole; all that was left for the winger to do was to find his fellow outside back Tom Wright with a long ball for the try in the corner.
On both plays, the passing and timing of the pass was excellent. So often in the past decade and probably longer, Australian teams have been guilty of spoiling genuine try-scoring opportunities with poor skill execution. But not the Reds and Brumbies this year, both teams have shown they can attack with poise when the pressure is on.
That can only bode well for the Wallabies who will draw the lion’s share of their first Test team this season from these two clubs. And this is the rivalry that Australian rugby needed this year, one that can sustain it through to the next World Cup and beyond.
Both teams are full of young, rising stars with just the right blend of experience dotted across their backline and forward units.
And it makes for what will almost certainly be yet another thriller, back at the same venue, but with an even bigger crowd, come Saturday May. 8th.
BUT IT WASN’T WITHOUT SOME CONTROVERSY …
In the closing minutes, the Brumbies were hard on the attack in search of the match-winning try or a penalty that would have given Noah Lolesio the chance at a shot at goal.
And that’s exactly what they appeared to deserve when lock Cadeyrn Neville was tackled and returning Reds skipper Liam Wright appeared to knock the ball away at the breakdown while off his feet, and with the use of his hand.
Referee Nic Berry even put his arm out to single advantage but then either received a call from one of his assistants or simply changed his mind, as no sooner was his arm out that it was quickly back by his side once again.
Certainly it was enough to irk Brumbies assistant Laurie Fisher, who was bated into an expletive response over the incident on Twitter.
But the Reds could have easily pointed to the no-try decision for Bryce Hegarty late in the first half when the fullback appeared to jolt the ball free from Andy Muirhead’s arm and then force it in goal. The TMO ruled however that in producing that play, Hegarty had in fact made contact with the ball and knocked it forward.
It was certainly a debatable decision.
What is not debatable is that the Brumbies have a discipline problem. Already the most penalized team in the competition  ahead of this round, the Brumbies were on the end of a 15-9 penalty count against them in Brisbane.
PETAIA IS LOOKING MORE AND MORE LIKE A WINGER
There were two big plays from Jordan Petaia in his best performance this season that suggest he more suited to playing in the back three, probably on the right wing as it was in Brisbane.
First it was a classic “eyes up” play, a 50/22 kick, that put the Reds straight back onto the attack as the Brumbies tried to clear their half. Then, minutes later, he soared through the air to take a cross-field kick from O’Connor to score the Reds’ second try.
After some indifferent form in the midfield, where his hands let him down, Petaia looked far more assured on the wing where he doesn’t have to worry about being a distributor; he can instead concentrate on running lines, defence and bringing the ball out of the Reds’ half – either by kicking or keeping it in hand.
His game drew high praise from Brad Thorn.
“There was a move in the All Blacks: pass the ball to Jonah because he’s good,” the 56-Test New Zealand lock said.
“That’s a good move … and I just think he’s (Petaia) one of those special guys, they’re just good.
“He’s played for Australia at 13 and he’s done very well for us there and done very well on the wing and I reckon he’d do very well at the back (No.15) as well.”
HODGE VICTIM OF UGLY CHARGE-DOWN AT END OF UGLY MATCH
While the Reds and Brumbies produced a second thriller for 2021, the less said about the Rebels-Force match a night earlier the better.
It’s true the game was still up for grabs after the final siren had sounded – Force fullback Jack McGregor fortunate not to find himself on a list of all-time rugby bloopers – but there was very little to admire from the match apart from the visitors’ gritty defence.
And there was an ugly finish to the match when Rebels fullback Reece Hodge attempted a dropped goal under pressure from Force replacement Tim Anstee, who lunged at Hodge’s legs to try and effect a charge-down.
Not only did Anstee miss the ball but he then cannoned into Hodge’s kicking leg, which appeared to hyper-extend and soon saw the fullback escorted from the field with the help of the Rebels’ medical staff.
We’re not suggesting in any way that Anstee had the intention to injury Hodge, but his charge-down attempt was clumsy at best and given the way rugby’s laws are written it’s surprising that there is no section where the legs of the kicker are protected.
In rugby league, for instance, if a kicker has his legs taken out after a kick, that defending player is usually penalised.
For Hodge it’s a bitter blow with fullback out of at least ten weeks, missing the rest of the Super Rugby and Trans-Tasman seasons, and putting his Wallabies aspirations on hold for now.
GOLDEN POINT FINALLY ARRIVES IN SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA
Golden point was in use throughout last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa but the tie-breaker was never required as the 19 games [the Blues-Crusaders finale was cancelled] all wound up with a winner in regular time.
And it was the same story across the first six weeks of this year’s competition. But the drought was finally broken, twice actually, as both the Chiefs and Crusaders recorded memorable triumphs over the weekend.
Having missed the opportunity to kick the Chiefs to victory in regular time, Damian McKenzie made no mistake from the kicking tee in golden point in Dunedin before David Havili spared the Crusaders back-to-back defeats with a calm drop goal in Wellington.
While Havili sealed the win for the Crusaders, the big play came from replacement Mitchell Dunshea who charged down and regathered a Hurricanes box kick to steal possession for the visitors.
From there, the Crusaders were able to finish the match with the ruthlessness that have made them such a great team under Scott Robertson.
MOODY, GOODHUE INJURED; ARE THE CRUSADERS JUST THAT LITTLE BIT VULNERABLE?
But this was in no way a polished Crusaders victory, and one that came just a week after they were comprehensively dismantled by the Highlanders at home.
And they have some serious injury concerns to confront, too, that will also rumble all the way through to All Blacks coach Ian Foster.
Prop Joe Moody and centre Jack Goodhue left the field in the first half of the Sunday’s three-point win over the Hurricanes, and both men appeared to be in significant discomfort.
“Both will get scans, but it looks serious,” Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said when asked about the injuries after the match.
The Crusaders have had a reasonable run without injury so far this season save for a couple of minor knocks here and there, but the likely loss of the star All Blacks duo will be no small hurdle to overcome.
And over the last 10 days it has been proven that the Crusaders are indeed beatable, even if the Hurricanes failed to finish off the job on Sunday. The defending champions will now also have their depth tested, something that Robertson also acknowledged after the three-point triumph.
“We’d been talking about it yesterday, ironically,” Robertson said.
“In one game, in five minutes of a game, things changed pretty quickly. But to win a championship you need to go deep into your squad. Teams are doing it, and that includes us.”
SAVEA MAGNIFICENT, BUT HE IS ANOTHER ALL BLACKS INJURY CONCERN
If there was one thing All Blacks coach Ian Foster won’t want to have seen following the loss of his skipper Sam Cane for between four and six months, it will be the sight of Ardie Savea hobbling off the Sky Stadium turf on Sunday afternoon.
Savea had played a starring role as the Hurricanes pushed the Crusaders to golden point, leading his side with aplomb in both attack and defence and creating all sorts of issues for the visitors at the breakdown.
While he indicated a few weeks ago on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown that he would ultimately like to play No. 7 at Test level, Savea has otherwise largely stayed mum on the subject of his back-row positioning.
But with Cane set to miss at least half and potentially the entirety of the Rugby Championship, Savea would have been a walk-up start at No. 7. His work on Sunday was particularly heroic until he hobbled off in the 62nd minute, Savea carrying the knee injury for 20 minutes before he departed.
“I’ve tried to be a medic a lot of times this season and I’m not great at it. It was encouraging to see him soldier through,” Hurricanes coach Jason Holland said.
“We watched him pretty closely when he first did it, to see if he could run, and he really accelerated and changed direction off that knee a few times. We’re hopeful but he’s pretty sore.
“Ards was desperate to lead that team and show what it meant to him, and he did it.”
The fact that Savea was able to soldier on might hopefully be good news for Foster and co. and he certainly has time on his side with a first Test of the season not expected before July.
Had it been an ACL injury, Savea would have likely been unable to continue for the 20 minutes as he did.