Welcome to another Southern Hemisphere digest, likely to be the last for a few weeks as other commitments approach.
There was something for everyone this week in Super Rugby. Plenty of close contests with a mixture of free-flowing and scrappy; epic comebacks and nip and tuck; winning chances taken and blown. One long losing run came to an end and another almost did – with bitter recriminations from the losing nation. I hope you didn’t miss it!
But first, the news.
Samoan RWC qualification route clarified
World Rugby has clarified who and when Samoa will be playing in their final qualifier for the Rugby World Cup and I think it is fairly good news. Belgium, Spain and Romania have all been eliminated due to fielding ineligible players, which means that Russia qualify automatically and Germany and Portugal will play off to face Samoa.
Samoa will host the Europeans on 30 June and play in Europe on 14 July. Their players should all be available for the first game, and although that might not be the case for the second their opponents are likely to be in the same boat and not of the same quality as some of the eliminated teams.
World Rugby say that this is the best possible outcome for Samoa and they will also fund warm-up matches in the Pacific Nations Cup.
Pasifika Super Rugby Team?
The other big off-field story was a strengthening in the will to bring an independent Pacific Island team into Super Rugby. As always, finances are an issue, but rugby unions and indeed the worldwide rugby community clearly want it to happen.
Even the New Zealand government are keen, at a time when China is trying to gain more influence in the South Pacific, and have funded a feasibility study. This has been welcomed by the Pacific Players association.
Currie Cup Shortened
Still, off the field, the regular season of South Africa’s domestic Currie Cup competition has been shortened to one round of six matches. This will further intensify a competition that enjoyed a 12.5% increase in attendances last year.
Crusaders 31-29 Waratahs
This one had a bit of everything. Tries scored through backline magic, tries scored from high kicks and tries scored through muscle. A record comeback. And an incident missed by the officials that sparked a wave of indignation in Australia.
In the first half hour, the big Aussie guns fired four big shots, with Folau ruling the air, Beale and Foley weaving their magic and Naiyavoro hauling in a big intercept. Four tries, 29-0, was the 37 match losing streak over?
The Crusaders went back to basics and dominated the rest of the game with their set-piece and quick rucks. They scored three tries in the last five minutes of the first half and the Waratahs defence should be congratulated for not buckling in the second. Indeed the upset could still have happened, but Foley hooked two late penalties under pressure.
The controversial moment was the one that began the Crusader fightback. Joe Moody scored a try moments after his high forearm on Beale created the gap which Mo’unga motored through, before offloading to the prop. This was missed by the officials, which generated all sorts of column inches in the Australian rugby media.
The Tahs were clearly hard done by and the try was the turning point of the match. However, it should be remembered that Folau was ahead of the kicker for the previous try and two weeks earlier Isreal Dagg’s participation in the France series was put in doubt by concussion from a high shot from Chance Peni, who wasn’t red carded due to a “lack of force.”
These things happen. In the end, you don’t fix deep-rooted problems by creating a sense of injustice over refereeing errors. You control the controllables – and one of those is taking your chances to win the game in the last few minutes. Perhaps it would help defuse the media though if referees for a match were not from participating countries.
Next week the Tahs have another crack at the Kiwis as they host the Highlanders. Will they gain or lose confidence from their two near misses?
Brumbies 24-27 Rebels
In the Australian derby, the Rebels pulled off a gutsy comeback of their own to move back into the playoff positions. The Brumbies had been dominant in the first half, with three close-range tries from ruck, lineout and maul. But the visitors kept plugging away bravely and were rewarded in the final quarter with two converted tries and the climactic, tricky Reece Hodge penalty. That man has shown steady nerves in this situation before, respect to him.
The Brumbies are now ahead only of the Sunwolves, and such is the crisis in ACT rugby that less than 6,000 loyal fans turned up, on a weekend when 16,500 watched the Force in Perth. The Brumbies are now thinking of following the Tah’s successful example last week by playing matches in smaller, more attractive venues to bring back some decent crowds.
Bulls 39-33 Sharks
This was the sort of match that brings hope for South African rugby, with lots of ambition and skill on display. The lead changed five times in a game that was a joy to watch, but did nothing to reduce the logjam in the South African conference; four teams are within a point of each other.
Bulls fullback Warrick Gelant had another good game and it will be interesting to see how he is used by Rassie in the England series.
Stormers 9-15 Chiefs
The third and fourth rated Kiwi teams both overcame jet lag to defeat South African opposition. Defences ruled in Cape Town, with the injury-plagued but gutsy visitors coming through a scrappy encounter. Despite being down their five first-choice props their scrum again won the game, a penalty try in the last quarter the key moment. They now face an unusual handicap in that, in addition to sixteen players injured, all their All Blacks are required back home for an All Blacks camp and will miss their match in Durban. Surely an open goal for the Sharks?
Highlanders 39-27 Lions
The game in Dunedin was much more entertaining, with both sides playing good rugby. Five tries to four to the hosts, but it was two late Sopoaga penalties that sealed the deal. The Lions have now lost all four of their games to Kiwi opposition, but their continued derby dominance means that their seven-point conference lead is unlikely to be overhauled.
Blues 15-36 Hurricanes
Quite a typical Blues derby, competitive for most of the match but blown out at the end. It was great to see Milner-Skudder back in fine form after his long layoff, while Sonny-Bill Williams also seems to be doing well after injury.
Sunwolves 63-28 Reds
Yes, you read that right, a first win of the season for the Sunwolves and how good they were on a day when their movement and skill confounded the Reds. Former Highlanders ten Hayden Parker kicked 12/12 and ran the show beautifully, while wing Hosea Saumaki bagged a hat-trick. It could never have happened though without considerable resilience as the Reds dominated possession and territory; also good decision making to take seven penalty shots at goal. The scrum also came to the party with the sight of the visiting scrum retreating at a rate of knots one to behold.
The visitors perhaps thought that they only needed to turn up. Brad Thorn’s training sessions should be interesting this week.
Here are the highlights. Your chance to evaluate the Crusaders controversy and enjoy the flair in the Sunwolves, Bulls and Highlanders games.
Author: JD Kiwi
JD Kiwi currently lives in northern England, trying to find enough waking hours to work, be a devoted family man, and watch too much rugby. He supports the All Blacks, Chiefs and Waikato but also enjoys watching European rugby.
As a player he was was the shortest lock and slowest pace bowler in New Zealand. His favourite sporting achievement was winning the annual bowling cup for his small town Second XI.