Welcome to my weekly Southern Hemisphere rugby digest.
It’s intended to be a one-stop shop, with:
- Links to the big stories in the mainstream media, plus human interest stories that are easy to miss but say something about what rugby is all about.
- A description of the best of the action from the previous week’s Super Rugby, plus all the scores and a link to the highlights.
- A brief preview of the following week, with all the fixtures and kick-off times. I’ve used UK and NZ times, hoping that most readers will know how their time relates to one of those. NZ clocks go back for winter early this Sunday morning, just to confuse us.
The idea is to click on the link or links that interest you and leave a comment on what you think of the action or the issues of the week, or what might happen next week.
This week we look at how Super Rugby might look in future, Rieko’s contract negotiations, the hottest teenager in South African Rugby and the against the odds success of Australia’s best young coach. But if you only have time to click one link, make it the highlights of the Hurricanes/Highlanders game near the bottom of this article to see a cracking selection of tries.
Let’s start with a brilliant little “amateur hits the big time” story. The Chiefs’ top four props are injured and Tauranga electrician Jeff Thwaites has his chance “the boss is pretty good, he lets me swan in and out and do a bit of part-time.”
Thwaites was until recently a flanker but is loving life as a prop. “It’s not a bad lifestyle, eh, playing prop, you get to eat a bit more and run a bit less.”
In total contrast is this story about Karmichael Hunt, who has served his ban following his second drugs conviction and has had an initial meeting with the Queensland Rugby Union. Hunt is a joy to watch on the rugby field and has a great sense of humour – I well remember the edited highlights of when he wore a microphone during a Reds game. But he will need to provide some solid evidence of commitment to fit into Brad Thorn’s successful gritty regime. And club administrators and former Wallabies are queueing up to say that Queensland and Australian Rugby should have nothing to do with him.
Restructuring Super Rugby
Now onto some rugby politics, as Gregor Paul looks at SANZAAR’s options on restructuring Super Rugby from 2020. New Zealand wants that long overdue Pacific Island team, but with SANZAAR determined to stick with three equal conferences and the three main nations wanting to stick with the teams they have, that seems unlikely. However, Japan and Argentina will be asked whether they want to continue so there is still a possibility. For me, the Jaguares bring a lot to the competition, but the Sunwolves need to have access to more of the best players in Japan and it is questionable whether Australia has the home-based talent for four teams. Of course, there’s no chance of Australia going through the pain of cutting another team just yet.
Good news for All Blacks fans as the Ioane brothers are said to be close to extending their New Zealand contracts, with Rieko set to become one of the team’s highest earners. The other All Black off contract this year is Ardie Savea and he is also expected to recommit.
Meanwhile, Steve Hansen says that playing England and Ireland in consecutive matches at the end of the season will be an excellent chance to see where the All Blacks rate and prepare for the quick run of pressure games at the World Cup.
Good news also for Wallabies fans, as kiwi born, former Aussie Schools rep Simon Raiwalui has been named their forwards coach. He replaces Argentinian scrum expert Mario Ledesma. He earned 43 caps for Fiji and has impressed as forwards coach for Biarritz. “I’ve learned so much about the game in the Northern Hemisphere… there’s so much focus on (forward play there.)”
In South Africa, Rassie Erasmus is minimising disruption to Super Rugby by hosting three separate camps for players in April, during the bye week of the team they play for. This will be a great chance for the new coach to share his expectations and strategies with the players who will need to carry them out.
Now to the Super Rugby action
It was a quiet week in terms of contests – the kiwi derby was the standout – but a big one in terms of the table. The only unbeaten team from last week lost and last year’s bottom team is back on top.
The story of the season so far is the Rebels, who earned their fourth bonus point win from five as they again piled on the points at the end, this time against the Sharks. It was another example of their great resilience as they bounced back from a big defeat to the Tahs. Next week though they have their first big test – they host the Canes.
Here’s a nice little summary of where the Rebels are at. I like this from their very highly rated young coach, Dave Wessells. “I think we’re playing our best when we’re enjoying our rugby… we play rugby for fun.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are a basketball team though, they are tough.
Wessells is the best Aussie coach in Super Rugby. Mind you, there are only two, but that’s another story…
In South Africa, the Lions are still in second but can’t be happy after shipping 122 points in their last three games and losing two of them, all against teams in the bottom four of the table. They are so good in derbies – it’s literally years since they lost one – but seem incapable of getting themselves up to produce the committed, organised defence needed to do themselves justice against weaker foreign teams that they should be beating comfortably. There should be no lack of motivation this week though, as they host the Crusaders.
The Stormers joined the Reds in the Top 8 as they beat them in Cape Town. They were well on top up front, but as usual the Reds hung in there and still had a chance as they attacked in injury time.
All of the talk this year has been about the extraordinary talent of teenaged Stormers ten Damian Willemse, and when his skills coach (who has also coached Rieko) says that he is as talented as anyone he has ever worked with, that is some statement. But former Blues and now Stormers assistant Paul Feeney warns that it takes time to learn how to be the brains of a team and we shouldn’t expect too much too soon.
The big four kiwi teams menacingly fill slots three to six. With the Chiefs and Crusaders getting easy wins over the previously hard to beat Sunwolves and Bulls, let’s focus on the Hurricanes/Highlanders clash.
These are the most miserly teams in the competition and for long periods the defences held sway. Yet such was the clinical brilliance of the finishing out wide that six tries were scored.
If you’ve not seen the highlights they are a must watch via the link below. Beauden Barrett and Waisake Naholo showed off their soccer skills, pace and try-scorers instinct. Top marks for former sevens rep Ben Lamb (remember the name, he’s surely a future All Black) who showed great power and flexibility to power over twice in the corner against the odds and Naholo. But the best try features some wonderful interplay between Jordie and Aso – who both handled twice in quick succession – started by a beautiful Barrett outside break and finished by Aso with his feet a yard above ground and well out of touch. Spectacular!
A quick mention too for 35yo Canes prop Ben May who didn’t stop when a ball seemed certain to go out, so was able to get over and stop a certain try when the ball took a left turn. Contrast Kurtley Beale at Twickenham.
Here are the highlights from every match, remember don’t miss the Hurricanes game!
- Crusaders 33-14 Bulls
- Rebels 46-14 Sharks
- Sunwolves 10-61 Chiefs
- Hurricanes 29-12 Highlanders
- Stormers 25-19 Reds
- Jaguares 49-35 Lions
Next weekend we have an absolutely fantastic set of games. The leaders will have their first big test against the Hurricanes and the three main countries will each stage what should be a competitive derby. And then a special Easter Sunday treat, a repeat of last year’s final. I look forward to seeing what Simon’s game of the week will be! Here are the fixtures (UK time; NZ time in brackets)
7.35am Chiefs v Highlanders (7.35pm)
9.45am Rebels v Hurricanes (9.45pm)
7.35am Blues v Sharks (7.35pm)
9.45am Brumbies v Waratahs (9.45pm)
4.15pm Bulls v Stormers (3.15 am Sunday NZ time)
1.30pm Lions v Crusaders (12.30am Monday NZ time)
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.