A worrying injury toll for the All Blacks, the Rugby Australia response to the Folau controversy, a significant change in selection policy in South Africa, an initiative tackling the mental health of rugby players, and two razor’s edge thrillers in New Zealand. Welcome to this week’s down under digest.
Losing our looseheads
The big worry in New Zealand at the moment is the massive injury toll to first choice and back up All Blacks. This could make the world champions very vulnerable in their upcoming Test series against a resilient French team which is very much on the up.
The biggest area of concern is loosehead prop, where Joe Moody broke a finger in his comeback from a shoulder injury suffered back in September. Kane Hames has concussion-related symptoms and there is no sign of him playing his first game of the season. Wyatt Crockett has recently retired.
So unless Hansen gives an emergency plea to Crockett, we are left with third-string Crusader, journeyman Tim Perry, who squeezed onto last year’s Northern tour as the next in line to the aforementioned. Perennial reserve, the versatile Ofa Tu’ungafasi, could move over from the tighthead side on the bench, although playing at tighthead he was outscrummaged by rookie Chiefs loosehead Aiden Ross last weekend. Could the 22-year-old be a bolter?
Culling of teams
Here’s a good opinion piece from Gregor Paul looking at how the culling of teams has led to much-needed boosts in interest in Australia and South Africa. The problem is that the increase in compelling but highly attritional kiwi derbies has helped lead to the injury crisis above.
In Australia, everyone has had their say on Israel Folau’s social media post. He met with Rugby Australia this week and they seem to be walking a bit of a tightrope of not needlessly offending the public, sponsors or a very important player who is off contract this year. I don’t think this is a website for religion or non-rugby politics but I’m sure you have your own views.
Less well publicised has been a tough financial year for Rugby Australia. This has been due to the one-off costs of cutting the Force from Super Rugby and, more worryingly, poor test crowds. This is a tough job inherited by their new kiwi boss Raelene Castle. Good luck to her because rugby needs a strong Australia.
Now to South Africa, where new coach Rassie Erasmus has persuaded his bosses to allow him to pick any eligible overseas player. For me, this is short term and will only encourage their stars to move overseas and further weaken South African rugby.
There’s no coincidence that the top three teams in the international game are 100% strict on this. You want your players to be 100% committed to the national cause and not flying between club and country.
Finally, in our off the field section, NZ Rugby is facing up to the mental issues that affect so many players, whether pros or in the grassroots. Nehe Milner-Skudder, so often out with physical injuries, has fronted up on how hard that can be. Let’s stick together.
Now to the rugby.
Chiefs 21-19 Blues
The big kiwi derby was a strange old match. The Blues reacted superbly to their embarrassment against the Sharks and were very resilient. They took the lead with two early penalties and throughout the match, their defence both in close and on the scramble was top notch when it mattered.
For much of the first half though a Chiefs win looked obvious. They scored a beautiful try with an Alaimalo break and pass, which led to a lightening low catch and high offload above the tackler from McKenzie. Add a few penalties and they were 14-9 ahead and looking comfortable.
Everything changed when McKenzie went off injured, even though the Blues also had a couple of injuries. The Chiefs’ backline stopped flowing and remarkably none of their players scored another point in the match. The visitors started to make inroads and a Parsons pick and go and Perofeta penalty led to a surprise 14-19 halftime lead.
Both teams took all the shots at goal on offer in the first half, but the Chiefs threw that out the window after the break. Their forwards dominated the scrum, possession and territory with Brodie and Cane getting through a ton of work. The Blues rarely escaped their own half but were magnificent on their own line and by fair means and foul kept their opponents scoreless for more than thirty punishing minutes.
The climax came when a Blues player (Goodhue) was finally yellow carded on his line. Two scrums led to two Chiefs penalties for swift collapses and a warning to the Blues. On the third, the collapse came right on the line and at last the dam broke with a penalty try. The hosts kept the ball for the final four minutes and escaped with a very hard earned win.
Both teams can take a lot from the match. The Blues were much improved and really stood up to the challenge. As for the injury-plagued Chiefs, once again their forwards stood up in a tough game to grind out the win. That’s four in a row, but can they keep this up?
Hurricanes 38-37 Sharks
Now let’s move on to the games between the kiwi and South African Conferences where we continue the theme of the top three New Zealand teams doing just enough to overcome important injuries and determined opposition.
There have been some cracking contests between teams from these proud rugby nations this year and this game in the attractive little seaside city of Napier in the Hawkes Bay was possibly the best of the lot. It ended with a kiwi win, but once again we saw a very promising South African performance against one of the best non-test teams in the world. They are playing with a highly effective blend of physicality and flair that adds a wonderful new dimension to a competition that has become too kiwi dominated. If this can be replicated at test level we may well see the Springboks back where they belong near the top of the world rankings.
The game started according to pre-match expectations with two excellent Hurricanes tries. In the first, Perenara executed a textbook Sexton loop with multiple runners keeping defenders in the middle of the park, creating space out wide for Jordie. Then a strong West offload to Laumape stretched the lead to 12-3.
The Sharks dominated the rest of the half. They brought fast, aggressive line speed which frequently overwhelmed the Hurricanes attack, while their own attack created holes with both power and movement. They scored two tries from close range and one following a beautiful team move. Last week’s hero Du Preez continued his fine form from the tee and in general play and the Beast was the Beast.
The Hurricanes, who lost Beauden before kick off, also lost Perenara and lacked fluency, but did manage a slightly fortuitous runaway try to Aso from a West crosskick. 19-27 at halftime.
Defences ruled the next 32 minutes, with the Sharks, in particular, having plenty of chances. But then last year’s teenage sensation Curwin Bosch brilliantly ran back a poor West kick and Paul crossed from the resulting ruck. Nine points ahead with seven to go.
West kicked a penalty with just two to go, but with seconds ticking away, the Canes struggled to get out of their 22. However, Laumape broke to around the halfway and we entered a tense five minutes where the Sharks defended bravely but not always legally. Countless rucks, several penalties and a yellow card later the hosts finally created an overlap and Laumape scored again.
In the end, this game came down to one team knowing how to win and calmly executing when it mattered – Saints-bound Brad Shields being singled out by teammates. Here’s an excellent article by Brendan Nel bemoaning a common theme – South African teams failing to land the killer blow when they have the chance.
Jaguares 14-40 Crusaders
I will race through the remaining games.
The Crusaders have, like the Chiefs, been winning ugly while suffering numerous injury absences. This was a bit easier though, and a vital bonus point was secured.
The big moment came at 14-26 on 65 when a dominant home pack won a succession of scrum penalties 15m out. However, the visitors’ scrum totally turned the tables at the big moment and one clearing kick and one charge-down later it was curtains.
Crotty was excellent throughout but my highlight was an astounding 50m sprint by All Black hooker Codie Taylor.
Lions 52-31 Stormers
After four unconvincing performances against foreign teams, The Lions were right back in their comfort zone in a lopsided South African derby. The big win put them 11 points ahead of the Sharks in their conference, though having played a game more.
They had a low percentage of possession, but that was only because they scored so efficiently and defended so effectively. Winger Madosh Tambwe scored four tries, three in the opening quarter, with the first a weaving 65m kick return.
Brumbies 45-21 Reds
We will finish our roundup in the Australian conference. The derby was a game of momentum shifts, the Reds dominating the first 25 minutes with a fast hard pick and go game (Brumby attack?) and the first 15 points. Then the Brumbies owned the rest of the half, scoring from a trademark lineout drive and also open play to close the gap to 12-18 at halftime.
Tries to Peni and Arnold took the score to 22-18 and we entered the key phase of the game when the Reds had their final turn on top. During a four-minute injury break, the TMO failed to tell the ref that a supposed Reds knock on had actually been a Brumbies knock back and a Reds try should have stood. They closed the gap to three soon after, but their chance to make hay was gone and three dominant Brumbies tries in the last 15 blew out the margin.
The return of Pocock for his first start since 2016 and Carter for his first match after a lengthy injury lay-off made a massive difference to the Brumbies forwards and self-belief.
Sunwolves 29-50 Waratahs
Our final match was pretty predictable, some great tries by the Wolves but a comfortable Tahs win. The Waratahs are now racing up the table and are comfortably in the top 8, and for Saints fans, it was good to see Naiyaravoro putting in a strong 80-minute effort on attack, if not defence.
Here are the highlights of all the games. Good tries in all matches, but check out Tambwe’s 65m effort for the Lions, Taylor’s 50m sprint against the Jaguares, a lovely Chiefs set play and a great contest between the Hurricanes and Sharks.
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.