On Saturday night, I had decided on my “headline” for this week’s article – “The Rebels are the Real Deal” – and then, on Sunday, came the Reds astonishing rout of the high-flying Chiefs. New headline needed!
Just a few weeks back I was bemoaning the form of most of the Aussie teams – the Brumbies being the exception – and now we have victories over the two in-form teams of NZ rugby; the Rebels astonishing and well-deserved win over the Crusaders and the Reds “back from the edge of the grave” to register the first Chiefs’ defeat since Round 1.
Despite the Rebels’ five-try, two bonus point defeat to the Bulls – no mean feat – just one week ago, I was fearing a bloodbath at the hands of the in-form Crusaders. How wrong could I have been? 18 months ago, I acknowledged my support for Rebels’ head coach, Damien Hill, based on the quality technique displayed by his Sydney Uni teams – this quality under pressure of game situations has always been, for me, the sign of a quality coach.
Recently though, I had begun to question my assessment, especially given the distinct lack of technique in the support lines of the Rebels fowards and Nick Phipps’ consistent slow and inaccurate passing. Lo and behold, what a turn-around! Five tries against the Bulls in a quality display full of character was followed, one week later, by a deserved win against the all-time Super Rugby champs, the Crusaders. During the game, at different points, I made the following notes:
- Kurtley Beale is a genius.
- Peyper is a joke; Crockett is the problem.
- Crusaders’ forwards consistently take the space in front of the ball at the tackle.
- Gerrard’s kicking makes him man-of-the match.
- Rebels support lines to the tackled player/s allowed for early pass or off-load to keep pressure on the Crusaders’ defence.
- Rebels in for the kill – a sure sign of a hungry team.
- Impressed by Robinson, Pyle, Neville, Delve, Phipps, Beale, Vuna, Gerrard. (The whole team actually played well, but I especially noted these.)
The Rebels now look “the real deal” and can go forward from here. As I said to one of their senior members during last week, they “seem to have played with more character!”
The Reds had improved the previous weekend against the Crusaders – perhaps not as good as the Reds’ one-man cheer-squad of Greg Martin would have us believe, but improving. [Incidentally, Greg described the Reds four point loss to the Crusaders as “full of merit”, but referred to the Waratahs being “overwhelmed” by the same Crusaders, by the same four-point margin!]
This week, v the table-topping Chiefs, at the 36 minute mark, the Reds were shot. The score was 8-22 and the Reds could not get any controlled scrum ball at all. Then a determined try to Ben Lucas, right on the stroke of half-time, gave them a glimmer of hope. The half-time break showed, yet again, how tactically astute Ewen McKenzie is. Scrums seemed to virtually disappear from the game – you statisticians can give us the accurate numbers – pick and go was now the order of the day and when the ball did shift wider, continuous play was achieved via tight support lines.
Will Genia, apparently free from the pressures of “contract negotiations”, played last week with tons of commitment and spirit. This week, he added quality to all he did. This has been a transformation and he gave his team the momentum and, indeed, the life-line. They all responded and there was virtually nothing the Chiefs could do to stem the Red tide. Liam Gill has risen along with Genia – albeit from a different level – and was a significant contributor to the outcome. Greg Martin had correctly predicted an intriguing battle between the scavenging of Gill and the running skills of the Chiefs’ backrow. The late, great Dave Brockhoff was often wont to say, “You can’t get Utopia in the backrow”, but the Chiefs’ selectors will try harder next time to get closer to Utopia. The Reds have genuine pace – how did Genia skin Masaga? – across the pitch and they executed a lot more accurately, although still more improvement is needed.
I was impressed with Simmons again, Gill, Genia, Lucas, Ioane and Shipperly. Horwill did excellently at the lineout and restarts, but I still want more from him in the “tight-loose”, and Wallace-Harrison and Robinson made great contributions as “Link’s finishers”. Morahan – and perhaps his team – will be extremely grateful that the referee’s assistant was conveniently wearing a blindfold and was “unable to get a number”, enabling him to escape a potentially damaging yellow card for a lift tackle. We may yet hear more about this. This was a significant and season-changing victory for the Reds.
The Waratahs, as they did against the Crusaders, continue to show more in some aspects of their game, only to be sadly let down in others. They definitely lifted their numbers and leg-drive at the tackle – some of the time – but their inconsistency let them down. For example, in the 31st minute, Rocky Elsom took advantage of quickly recycled ball, to charge through the heart of the Bulls defence, but subsequent lack of quick support at his tackle allowed the Bulls to immediately snuff out any threat.
With the notable exception of Rob Horne’s break for an excellent early try, the Tahs attack was totally fundamental, asking no questions at all of the defence. Why didn’t they try the same again; the play must have 3 or 4 options? On the plus side, the Waratahs scrum was dominant – when have we been able to claim any sort of dominance in the scrum? – although this was not acknowledged by referee Pollock, when he doled out the scrum penalties. At the tackle also, I would question Pollock and two – against Elsom in the first half and Timani in the second – should have gone the other way, to my mind.
In the end, it was the Bulls superior ability to close out the game that won them the day. Skipper, Rocky Elsom, commented that it was “their ability to control field position at the end of the game” that spelled the difference. Indeed, in this period, the Bulls never looked like losing. From the 75th minute, the Waratahs conceded two lineouts and a 5 metre scrum turn around, when Lopeti Timani inexplicably tried to go the long way around a wheeled scrum. How? Why?
In some ways, the Waratahs may have been the better team, but lost – again! They continue to be badly let down by dreadfully inaccurate passing, their kicking game is totally inadequate and their numbers at the tackle still inconsistent. Berrick Barnes is as big a culprit as anyone in the first two of these. I want the concept of forwards “reloading” at the tackle to be removed from the vocabulary of Aussie players. Then we might be capable of pressuring defences and make space for our talented backs. Kepu was great on the tight-head; he could yet be a star. AAC was good as ever. Elsom and Ulugia made significant contributions and both scrum-halves likewise.
The Force were dreadful. They looked tired and lethargic. Mark Lawrence was equally off the pace. I was delighted when the siren sounded.