It was another intriguingly-intense round of Super Rugby that included a missed match-winning penalty, two genuine upsets and the Jaguares round out the best Australasian tour of the season with a win in Brisbane.
While the Blues and Bulls split the points in Auckland, there were wins for the Waratahs, Brumbies, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Lions.
Read on for some of the big storylines from Round 6
Waratahs stay in finals hunt as Tokyo leaves lasting impression
Have Melbourne Rebels let another playoffs appearance slip by? After Friday night’s loss to the Waratahs in Melbourne, they’re certainly facing a testing a final two weeks to qualify for the postseason for the first time.
And they have no-one else to blame but themselves after a yet another game where they failed to capitalise on a dominant share of possession and territory, letting themselves down with moments of panic and simple mistakes in the face of a resolute defensive effort.
The Waratahs deserve credit for that, too, the “Blue Wall” that had gone missing on the road in South Africa and at home against the Jaguares, once again reforming to complete a superb 92 percent of its tackles even though they were asked to make 80 more than their opponents.
One bad defensive read and a lack of cover was all it took for the Rebels to give up two tries to the Waratahs, although Adam Ashley-Cooper’s offload, and Curtis Rona’s clever kick and regather, reflected elements of class on the visitors’ behalf.
Having received a rev-up from Daryl Gibson in the lead-up, Bernard Foley responded with his most commanding performance in weeks while Kurtley Beale got the better of Dane Haylett-Petty in the positional battle mentioned in our Round 16 preview.
But the measure of how much the Waratahs’ wanted this victory was shown in replacement Harry Johnson-Holmes vital forced penalty inside the final quarter. Just when it looked like the Rebels might be opening up enough space to score out by the left-hand touchline, Johnson-Holmes and fellow replacement Will Miller got on the ball and rightfully earned their reward from referee Paul Williams.
When Johnson-Holmes rose to his feet, blood streaming from his nose but bearing a wider grin than the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland, it was clear this was a hole the Rebels weren’t going to be climbing out of.
How coach Dave Wessels rallies his side over the final two weeks of the competition will be measure of his coaching ability, and just whether he has the right ingredients to one day go on and coach the Wallabies. They will be rated little chance of victory against the Crusaders, who were run down in Fiji by the Chiefs, and then a final-round clash with the Waikato side awaits in Round 18.
The Rebels’ loss to the Waratahs presented the Brumbies with the opportunity to open up a gap at the top of the Australian conference and put themselves in the box seat for a home quarterfinal, and Dan McKellar’s side capitalised despite falling behind early to the Sunwolves.
After regrouping following a Hosea Saumaki try only moments after the opening whistle, the Brumbies rumbled to a bonus-point victory that was the result of contributions across the paddock but highlighted by the hat-trick from Connal McInerney off the bench.
Unable to score from their powerful rolling maul in the first half, McInerney replaced Folau Fainga’a, previously Super Rugby’s leading try-scorer, with devastating effect. The reserve hooker’s treble was complete eight minutes from time, so too the Brumbies’ Tokyo mission.
But an unlikely hat-trick wasn’t the big story from a Prince Chichibu Stadium that again was bathed in sunlight and full of passionate Japanese supporters enjoying the Sunwolves’ final home game of 2019. As it stands, they have just six more matches to enjoy in 2020 before the Sunwolves join the likes of the Kings, Cheetahs and Force on Super Rugby’s scrapheap.
That is unless SANZAAR backflips on its decision to eliminate the Japanese franchise, or the Japan Rugby Football Union suddenly finds the $9 million in cash the southern hemisphere alliance requested for the Sunwolves’ continued involvement.
That looks unlikely on either front, leaving thousands of Japanese rugby supporters disappointed. The impact the Sunwolves have had in the country is not only seen in the stands on Saturday afternoons but also through the week when teams like the Brumbies were greeted with long lines of fans hunting an autograph or selfie.
Soon that market will be shut down, while another region couldn’t be making any more of a case to see more Super Rugby.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Suva stunner should serve as Pacific reminder
Game of the season? You’ve got to think so, if not for the end-to-end attacking rugby and determined Chiefs comeback, then certainly for the packed Suva Stadium that screamed from the opening whistle to the last.
The fans have turned up for this fixture each year for the last three seasons, bathed in the jerseys of both the Chiefs and Crusaders, creating an atmosphere seldom seen anywhere else in the competition.
There are clearly funding issues that have prevented SANZAAR from throwing a licence to the Pacific Islands, but at what point does the governing body go to World Rugby and plead for the likes of Bill Beaumont and Agustin Pichot to support such a project?
If the attendances in Tokyo and Suva are telling us anything, it’s that emerging markets are hungry for more rugby action. It’s a far cry from the piddling attendances we are seeing across Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, anyway.
But back to the game, and what a contest in was. After cruising out to a 20-0 lead after the opening quarter, the Crusaders managed just a further seven points in the face of a Chiefs onslaught to which the defending champions simply had no answer.
Led by the tireless Brad Weber, who must surely now have established himself as the All Blacks’ third-choice scrum-half, the blistering Solomon Alaimano and home favourite, Fijian Pita Sowakula, the Chiefs capitalised on an unusually mistake-ridden Crusaders team that appeared unable to deal with the tempo their New Zealand rivals rose to over the closing quarter.
Just how much is to be read into the Crusaders’ supposed frailties is debatable, but having drawn with the Stormers away in South Africa and battling past the Blues at home a week later, Scott Robertson’s men are certainly not the same side that looked impossible to beat at this time last year.
The Chiefs have, however, left their finals run too late. With the bye to come in Round 17, followed by a trip to Melbourne the week after, the 36 points they could reach with a bonus-point win over the Rebels doesn’t quite look it will be enough to reach the postseason.
They can however take pride in the way they are finishing out the year. Having lost key All Blacks Damian McKenzie and Brodie Retallick amid a horror run with injury, and being without Sam Cane for two thirds of the season, the Chiefs are finally starting to play with some confidence.
Their comeback in Suva on Saturday was special, and one befitting the atmosphere it was played before. Whether we see such a fixture there again remains to be seen, though, as this was the Chiefs’ final match of a three-game deal with the Fijian government.
In what is an uncertain time for rugby globally, administrators can’t ignore boots on the ground. They’ve certainly got that in Suva, and have had it throughout the year in Tokyo.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Lions’ turn to roar in throwback to last two seasons
Another week, another headline performance from a South African side; this week, the Lions, who produced their best 80-minute effort of the campaign to defeat the Stormers at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday.
Not only did they claim a bonus point in defeating the Stormers 41-22, they also showed something more like the form of the Lions who dominated the South African conference in reaching the three previous Super Rugby championship games than that of this year’s outfit that, until Saturday, had not defeated a South African opponent.
The Lions had lost four straight to their compatriots — including home hidings by the Bulls and the Sharks – and faced improving opponents who had won three of their previous six matches while also drawing with the competition standouts the Crusaders and pushing the Jaguares and the Brumbies, who are now respectively on top of the South African and Australian conferences.
The Lions were also without playmaker Elton Jantjies, for a breach of team protocol, with pressure further ratcheted by knowing they faced the Hurricanes at home and the Bulls up the highway in Pretoria in the coming fortnight to round out their bid for post-season footy.
This was a danger fixture, no doubt, and a meek team could easily have faltered; but the Lions, who, to be fair, have been submissive on occasions this season, were not to be cowed. Their performance deserves extra credit for noting the Stormers did not play badly; indeed the visitors probably played as well as they had in defeating the Highlanders in Cape Town the week before, but they were punished for their errors that were, mostly, induced by the Lions’ strong defensive effort.
For all that the Lions scored six super tries, and for all the truth in Owen Nkumane’s note in the SuperSport commentary that “When they find their rhythm, they’re unstoppable the Lions”, this was a victory built on solid defence – notably in the spell in the final quarter when the Stormers were dominant and camped in their hosts’ 22 looking for a converted try that would reduce the margin to five points. The wonderful Lions try by Hacjivah Dayimani two minutes from the siren that secured the hosts’ attacking bonus point may yet prove critical in the tight South African ladder — it moved them above the Bulls into second on the log — but it would not have been scored had the home defence not been strong enough to repel the visitors multiple times over in the minutes immediately preceding.
Kwagga Smith rightly earned plaudits for his performance in which two tries were just the most visible illustration of his excellence, but the Lions also had match-effecting efforts from, most notably, Malcolm Marx, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Andries Coetzee and Lionel Mapoe; Vincent Tshituka, in the back-row, and Harold Vorster, alongside Mapoe in the centres, were also noteworthy, and that’s to be celebrated for the Lions often haven’t dished up so many good individual efforts in a single game this season.
The brilliance of the counter-attacking thrusts turned the clock back a couple of seasons to show the best of the Lions, rekindling memories among neutrals of what made the team such fun to watch, and now they simply must go on with the job if they are to reach the finals again.
That’s easier said the done — is any fan willing to tip or forecast what will happen from week to week in the South African conference? But the Lions, like all four South African teams, know their fate is likely in their own hands: Win both remaining games, and they’ll be in the finals; lose one or both, and likely they won’t and they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.