Really, how much better can the Crusaders get? What a team. We can’t think of too many more clinical — or better — performances than that produced to humble the Chiefs. These are not the Chiefs we have come to know, of course, but still they were put to the sword with skill and efficiency.
Later Saturday, the Waratahs edged the Reds in a grinding Australian derby from which the SCG surface remains a hot topic in Super Rugby.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, the Bulls assumed top billing in the conference with another performance that suggested they can have a very big say on the season.
Read on as we review some of the big talking points from Round 4.
My goodness, Will Genia’s still got it
There were suggestions Will Genia might have reached the peak of his rugby talents after signing off 2019, in his 100th Test, with one of the worst games of his Test career. While Genia was just one of a number of underperforming Wallabies on the spring tour, he can’t have gone into the offseason happy after a dreadful showing at Twickenham.
But back in Melbourne, reunited with his old mate Quade Cooper, the veteran scrum-half appears to have a new lease on life; Genia’s second-half effort in firing the Rebels to a comeback win over the Brumbies was among the best of his storied Super Rugby career.
And it appeared to be borne out of frustration. After watching his forward pack butcher a lineout late in the first half at AAMI Park, Genia unloaded an almighty serve to his struggling troops. It was what they deserved, too, after both Adam Coleman and Matt Gibbon had been issued first-half yellow cards.
But the Rebels were a different outfit after halftime as they reined in a 16-point deficit on the back of a renewed focus, and Genia’s willingness to run the ball.
Quade Cooper may have provided the pinpoint long passes for Marika Koroibete and Jack Maddocks’ tries, but it was Genia who drove his team forward with a series of determined charges in finishing with an equal-team-high 12 runs.
When the 31-year-old halfback runs the ball, more often than not his team is in the contest. There is something about seeing a scrum-half tuck the ball under an arm and take off for a dart that other players respond to.
He may have lost half a yard of pace, but Genia still retains the vision and footwork to slide between defenders, just as he did when taking a quick tap for a try in the 65th minute on Friday night. With the Rebels awarded a scrum penalty, Genia slid around the right-hand side of the scrum before stepping and ducking his way through to place the ball beside the left upright.
In keeping the Brumbies to just one try after the break, the Rebels again showed far more defensive resolve than they have in other seasons, too. There is no doubt they have the attacking firepower to reach the playoffs for the first time, but they have often let themselves down with a flimsy defensive game.
With Genia and Cooper calling the shots, an array of strike weapons further along the backline, and a more assured defensive unit, the Rebels have a real chance to register a first-ever win in South Africa over the next two weeks.
Facing both the Lions and Sharks on their home tracks is no easy assignment, but if the Rebels are serious about being a genuine competition threat, one victory from their next two weeks should be seen as a major team goal. Two would be even better.
From a Wallabies perspective, a ball-running Will Genia is as important to Australia’s World Cup chances as a fit David Pocock. If both men are playing at their peak, then an early tournament exit might not be as probable as many might think.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Laumape-Goodhue combination looking the goods
The All Blacks aren’t short on centre options, but given their outstanding form in the opening month of Super Rugby both Ngani Laumape and Jack Goodhue must be inching ever closer to the No. 12 and 13 jerseys respectively.
There have been few better backs anywhere in Super Rugby this season with both men demonstrating their supreme skill sets, and that they offer much more than just a powerful ball-carrying option in midfield.
Having come off a hat-trick against the Brumbies last week, Laumape scored a double in the Hurricanes’ 25-22 win over the Highlanders on Friday night. But it was the nature of how he scored those tries that really stood out.
The first was an excellent piece of support play as TJ Perenara put Liam Mitchell into space, a flying Laumape looming up on his inside to take the final pass. Laumape’s effort in working through to a position where he could receive the final pass should not be discounted, it is the kind of hustle not all midfielders possess.
For his second five-pointer, Laumape recognised the space on offer out wide, in behind the Highlanders’ defensive line, and when Beauden Barrett dropped a perfect grubber in behind, all that was left for Laumape to do was to scoop up the loose ball and rumble over the top of the cover defence.
But it’s the other skills that Laumape has worked into his game that are putting All Blacks selectors on notice. The former NRL player continues to show off his own short kicking game, while his general understanding of the game has improved considerably over the last 12 months.
He is charting similar skill growth to that which Ma’a Nonu added to his attacking arsenal, albeit on an expedited timeframe.
Goodhue, meanwhile, continues to go from strength to strength for the Crusaders; in a team full of players performing at their absolute peak, he is arguably the standout. Goodhue’s ability to work his way through defensive traffic is unmatched throughout the Super Rugby.
He is a focal point of the Crusaders backline approach in that even if the defending champions are under pressure coming out of their own end, he has the footwork, fend and offload to create opportunities for support runners.
He also produced two sublime flick passes among three offloads in the Crusaders’ 57-28 thrashing of the Chiefs in Christchurch at the weekend, a game in which the visitors scored two late tries to add a small measure of respectability to an otherwise horror afternoon.
Goodhue probably finished 2018 as the All Blacks’ first-choice outside centre but he has surely now cemented that position barring injury.
Laumape may face a tougher challenge to beat out Ryan Crotty, Sonny Bill Williams or Anton Lienert-Brown at No. 12, but such are the growing improvements in his fame, and the raw power that remains his ultimate strength, he will be hard to leave out of any All Blacks backline, let alone the World Cup squad completely.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Specman might be one of the 20 percent for whom Rassie Erasmus is searching
South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus spoke in the week, after a Springboks ‘Alignment Camp’ in Cape Town involving 10 Stormers players, that his Rugby World Cup squad was “80 percent settled”. So, subject to form, fitness and ‘fit’, Erasmus is looking for no more than seven or eight “other” players to augment his ostensible first-choice XV and maybe half of the back-up side; he indicated that he’s looking primarily for back-up back-ups — third-choice players, if you will — but in citing Frans Steyn as someone who “broke down the door ahead of the 2007 tournament” he said “there will always be space for someone special to force their way into the mix”.
That “someone special” may well be named Rosko Specman judged on the Bulls winger’s form thus far in Super Rugby.
Specman continued his early season brilliance with another brace of tries on Saturday, his second double of the season, to take his campaign tally to four. His tries were the least of his efforts as the Bulls defeated the Sharks 37-14, however, given that he pretty much had only to collect passes, from Warrick Gelant and Jesse Kriel respectively, before racing untouched in the channel outside S’bu Nkosi through to the tryline.
Specman, one of a number of former South Africa Blitzboks sevens team stars to have switched to Super Rugby, including Bulls teammates Dylan Sage and Tim Agaba, who both featured alongside the winger in the starting XV on Saturday, is making genuine strides. He joined the Bulls only in December, after being named in the Cape Town Sevens Dream Team, but he offers more than X- Factor alone, which may be good for his Test prospects given that Erasmus says he has “enjoyed” watching the South African Super Rugby teams “trying tactically to squeeze results out of each other”.
He has shown great discipline and awareness to date in knowing when to stick on his wing and when to come off it, both in defence and attack, and it was notable the lack of panic in trusting the defender inside him when the Sharks went right at Loftus Versfeld.
His Sevens skills have been visible in his strength and low drive in support at ruck and maul, and in being comfortable to approach the breakdown as and when his halfback has been trapped; and the lines he has been running in support of Warrick Gelant and Handre Pollard, when they are returning the ball from deep, have been a a delight to see.
He’s been good in chasing kicks, and hitting the catcher legally, while he’s been strong also in taking the ball into contact; the understanding he’s developing with likely first-choice Springboks backline stars Pollard and Jesse Kriel might also work in his favour.
His tackling technique has, perhaps, provided the one area for quibble, as he’s looked more likely to slow rather than stop opponents, and certainly his 166 cm and 70 kg frame won’t put fear into to many opponents — either in defence or attack — but his prospective selection is suggested primarily on the grounds that he provides something different to the facsimile winger otherwise available to Erasmus.
Specman certainly has more to produce if he is to do more than catch Erasmus’ eye; but he’s certainly made the sparkling start to the season that was necessary if he is to be in contention as a World Cup ‘bolter’.