There were three away wins in Round 14 of Super Rugby with the Jaguares, Bulls and Waratahs all picking up vital victories on the road.
The Crusaders were denied by a late penalty goal in Cape Town, which earned the Stormers a 19-all draw.
Read on for some of the talking points from the weekend’s action.
Ten-try thriller just what Australian rugby needed
Just over 24 hours after Israel Folau was officially removed from Australian rugby, the Reds and Waratahs were tasked with the job of giving supporters something else to talk about.
And they didn’t disappoint, producing a spectacle few Australian derbies have delivered in recent years.
While the gripping 10-try contest wasn’t without its mistakes, seven lead changes ensured the result was in the balance until the closing minutes; the Waratahs reigniting their near flat-lining playoff hopes with a 40-32 victory.
And they had the under-fire Bernard Foley to thank post match, the Wallabies playmaker recovering from a terrible opening penalty attempt to nail four conversions and four penalties in a timely display from the kicking tee ahead of Sunday’s Wallabies camp.
While Foley could bask in a match-winning 25-point performance, there was nowhere for his Reds counterpart Bryce Hegarty to hide after he landed just one conversion from six attempts. Hegarty crossed for two of the Reds’ six five-pointers – the hosts scored six tries to four – but his inability to split the uprights ultimately denied the Reds a win they otherwise seemingly deserved.
And what will irk Hergarty even more is the fact that, prior to Saturday’s loss, he had been striking at 85 percent.
While Foley will have entered Sunday’s Wallabies camp with a spring in his step, the form of several other Waratahs will have also been warmly welcomed by coach Michael Cheika.
Playing his sixth game at fullback for the year, Kurtley Beale seemed to have just that little bit of extra zip to his stride as he exerted his influence in attack. The veteran Wallabies utility was hardly mistake-free – a fumbled grubber gifted the Sefa Naivalu the Reds’ third five-pointer – but in the open spaces of fullback Beale has the freedom he enjoys and the ability to drift into the front line when it suits as he did to lay on a second try for Michael Wells.
Nick Phipps, Sekope Kepu and Michael Hooper also enjoyed strong games, the Wallabies skipper laying several strong tackles including one that ploughed the Reds scrum-half into the Suncorp Stadium turf, while No. 8 Wells grabbed a double in a performance that may just have caught the eye of the national selectors.
For the Reds, skipper Samu Kerevi produced one of the offloads of the season to put winger Jock Campbell away in another excellent performance in midfield while Lukhan Salakaia-Loto carried strongly in the No. 6 jersey.
But it will be another frustrating review session for the Reds ahead of their trip to Hamilton on Friday, one they are set to make without a resting Kerevi, with their winless streak against NSW extending to an 11th game.
They are only six points adrift of the conference-leading Brumbies but with a visit from the in-form Jaguares and a trip to Canberra to follow Friday’s game against the Chiefs, another loss to the Waratahs may have just ended their season.
For the Waratahs, their fans, and the neutral Australian rugby supporter, this was a contest that certainly shifted discussion away from the six-week Folau saga. When a dour, scrum heavy, stop-start local derby would have brought calls for a rethink on the plight of the banished Wallabies star, Australian rugby’s oldest rivals showed there is life after Izzy.
And plenty of life in the Waratahs’ season, too.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Hurricanes against expose their soft underbelly
It’s been difficult to get a read on the Hurricanes all year. Friday’s 28-20 loss to the Jaguares only added to the confusion.
Admittedly, the Hurricanes were without the glue that holds their team together in Beauden Barrett.
But such is the All Blacks quality they still had throughout their line-up on Friday that serious questions must be asked about their level of focus and whether they are indeed a team that can trouble the Crusaders come finals time.
It’s true that the Crusaders, who drew 17-all with the Stormers, aren’t playing quite as well as when they thrashed the Hurricanes in both their games earlier this year. But the Hurricanes lack the consistency and remain prone to almost inexplicable on-field decisions, like the one the previously in-form Jordie Barrett committed in swatting the ball dead with his hand rugby-league style instead of simply grounding and forcing a 22m restart.
Hurricanes skipper TJ Perenara rightfully called out his team’s performance, knowing they’ll need to improve considerably as they prepare for a two-week tour of South Africa after the Round 15 bye.
“I think it would be foolish to not look ourselves in the mirror and say that that wasn’t good enough. If we just sugarcoat it and glaze over it and say that’s just a wake-up call, I think we don’t take as much from that as we could.
“We’re a better football team than what we put out there, plain and simple. We’re at home in front of our fans in our home stadium and we didn’t play to the standard we need to play to.
“We will take motivation from that and we will take a kick up the butt from it, but we need to look at ourselves and say ‘we don’t need to go through that to be a good football team’. We need to be better than that every time we put on this jersey.”
While the Hurricanes could have closed the gap to the Crusaders to just five points in the New Zealand conference after the two-time defending champion slipped to a frustrating draw in Cape Town, John Plumtree’s side remain in the box seat to secure a home quarterfinal, even if they finish second in New Zealand.
But its performances like the one from Friday that will have doubts about their ability to go to either South Africa, Australia or even Argentina, however unfair that might be, and win a semifinal a week later.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Road victories reaffirm Africa’s unpredictability
We’re no closer to declaring a front-runner in the South African conference after the Bulls, Jaguares, Lions and Stormers defied the odds to complete an undefeated Round 14 for the division.
While the Stormers required a post-siren penalty to snatch a draw with the Crusaders and the Lions again rode a healthy penalty count to down the Highlanders, the Bulls and Jaguares both recorded emphatic wins on the road, meaning there is just three points separating first from fourth in South Africa.
The Bulls’ win was driven by a forward pack that overpowered their Rebels’ opposition and a rush defence that gave the hosts little room to implement their flat style of attack.
The Jaguares, meanwhile, created all sorted of problems for the Hurricanes at the breakdown in recording their first ever win over the 2016 champions; the visitors winning over referee Brendon Pickerill with a relentless focus at the tackle.
The hard work done in New Zealand, the Jaguares are perfectly placed to complete another successful tour – they swept all four games in Australia and New Zealand in 2018 – with matches against the Waratahs and Reds to come on the other side of the Tasman.
They beat the Waratahs in Sydney two years ago, so a second meeting, this time at the new Bankwest Stadium, will hold few fears as they look to finish on top in South Africa and secure a home quarterfinal.
The Bulls face a tougher challenge in Canberra, particularly given the stronger Brumbies pack they will be up against and one that might be boosted further by the long-awaited return of star flanker David Pocock.
But they should take plenty of confidence from a 15-point win over the Rebels that saw forwards Duane Vermeulen, RG Snymnan and Hanro Liebenberg each run for over 30 metres.
It promises to be an intriguing finish to the regular season in South Africa regardless.