This one’s a smokey. When looking at the draw before the season kicked off, this match would have attracted more than its fair share of “meh” from many. But there’s a lot to like about it.
Here’s the first reason – top of the conference versus bottom of the conference (and, for that matter, the whole shebang), and they’re both coming off wins. Surprisingly, and here’s another reason, both teams are three from five in recent matches. Who’d have thunk it? So don’t write off these Moondoggies just yet, because, like most things rugby, it’s never as simple as it seems. Just ask the Rebels, or the Bulls, or Israel Folau, or Angus Gardner. But don’t ask Brett Gosper.
The Tahs won last week, but it was ugly. That is the sign of a good team, and if that means the uglier it gets the better they are, then they’re a great team! Behind on just about every stat last week, they somehow snuck home (it’s a match the Rebels will learn from, and in 12 months time, I’d expect the increased cohesion of the Rebels to be good enough to close out such a match). No surprise that the Tahs were disjointed, as they’d had a week of disruption. A number of their Wallabies didn’t return to training until Wednesday, and even then they were still beaten up from the Ireland series. To compound that, the week was all about “The Izzy Affair” – in, out, shake it all about. Ultimately, he found out very late in the piece that he was still required on the big naughty chair, so further disruption. Plus, of course, it was the Tahs’ first match since Tommy Robertson still had two ears that Michael Hooper wasn’t on the field. All that and they still won.
Meanwhile, the Sunwolves nailed the Bulls in SIN. A typical performance from the “home” team, leading, then losing the lead, then finishing well enough to do the job. So they’ll be excited.
WHY SHOULD I BOTHER?
It may be a dead rubber for the visitors, with their head coach back in NZ to try and fix his dicky back, but they’re on tour and they’re here to have fun and play some footy, and that sort of team can be dangerous – there is no downside for them. Cast your mind back to the Kings last year, and the angst they caused in a similar fixture.
Meanwhile, in the home dressing room, a win here can secure a home final. It also provides the basis for another home final in the second week, should the Tahs knock over the Brumbies, some other results go the right way and the Tahs win in the first week of the finals. A few “ifs” in there, but this is the starting point and the Tahs are focused. Much more settled this week too, and with the off-field crew making big efforts to draw a crowd, especially with the SFS nearing its end, there is some movement in the right direction in TahLand.
KB v Little. Look at any Trans-Tasman Test team of the past generation and see “Little” pencilled into the centres and you knew you were going to see some good footy, whether it was the brutality of Walter or the silkiness of Jason. Somehow, Michael sits somewhere in the middle, and like Kurtley, is a talisman for his team. KB’s defence will be tested, as will the Sunwolves’. The best match-up across the park.
The boots. Parker is on a roll and while Nard has missed some, he’s scored plenty more. They both work well in combination with their respective 12s too, so there’s plenty going on in midfield.
The wingers. Plenty of run metres to be expected, and the wingers on offer provide a real variety. The nimbleness and frantic chaos of Yamada, compared with Taqele’s beast mode, Cam Clark’s completeness, and Masirewa’s strength. Gold for the spectator!
The Breakdown. It will be fast, furious and over before you know it, but the work by the pigs here will set the tone for the game. Depending on the tactics used, it may look more like a game of 7s than 15s.
Izzy v the Laws of The Game. His first appearance since the Ireland Test at the same venue and the almighty stink both then and afterwards. Will he change? Will he contest in the air? How will our Argentinian referee, probably not the most composed of this year’s Super Rugby panel, cope with any contentious calls? Will Izzy be hunted, or the hunter? Fascinating to watch.
There’s a lot to like about the style of the Sunwolves. They play a hybrid style – a mix of the fast-paced, high energy Japanese game, along with the counter-attack of the Kiwi teams. No surprise really given some of the on-field personnel and the coaches. It means they can score plenty of points, but let in too many too. Their discipline is very good, their set-piece is better than many would expect and in Hayden Parker, they have a bloke who has missed only one kick at goal all season! He’s currently on a 35 goal streak, a record in itself, so any poor discipline from the Tahs, a known weakness, will be punished. Their Achilles Heel is their concentration – they’re more than capable of playing complete rugby, but I’ve yet to see them do it consistently over the course of an entire match, and that’s when other teams pile on the points, as the Tahs did in their first meeting this year. They’re missing a few bodies too, with Sam Wykes, Willie Britz and Hosea Saumaki all out, and they’ve used a LOT of players this season, so there will be errors and less than ideal cohesion.
Meanwhile, the Tahs will be looking to this week to get back their rhythm. Still no Hoopie, but a full week of prep at home, so that on match day they can iron out the bugs, refresh their patterns and start the run to the finals, and the all-important match against the Brumbies next weekend. The lineout work is strong, courtesy of Simmons and Fitzpatrick (one of the many reasons the latter continues to start ahead of Latu), and the scrum is still improving, with Robertson coming into form and providing a better platform. They’ve scored more tries from Phase 1 ball than any other phase, and despite the potential helter-skelter style of this match, this is an opportunity to further put such patterns to the test.
Hooper leaves a huge hole, but Miller has stepped up and had a blinder last week, scoring an outstanding backrower’s try, as well as nabbing a result critical pilfer at the death. He’ll be working hard this week given the pace of the game, but with someone like Phipps, who has a massive motor (the Tahs tell me his numbers are mind-boggling), providing fast service, the Tahs will be able to cope with that. It should create space for Nard and KB to create some magic, which in turn means the X-Factor players in the back three will be busy. Good busy.
The Moondoggies will be competitive and will put together some wonderful rugby, but the composure and relative completeness of the Tahs’ old heads means the home team will bring this home, eventually with a decent margin. Tahs by 20+
1 Tom Robertson 2 Damien Fitzpatrick 3 Sekope Kepu 4 Jed Holloway 5 Rob Simmons (VC) 6 Ned Hanigan 7 Will Miller 8 Michael Wells 9 Nick Phipps 10 Bernard Foley (c) 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro 12 Kurtley Beale 13 Curtis Rona 14 Cam Clark 15 Israel Folau
BENCH: 16 Tolu Latu 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes 18 Paddy Ryan 19 Tom Staniforth 20 Brad Wilkin 21 Jake Gordon 22 Bryce Hegarty 23 Alex Newsome
HEAD COACH: Daryl Gibson
1 Craig Millar 2 Jaba Bregvadze 3 Takuma Asahara 4 James Moore 5 Grant Hattingh 6 Michael Leitch 7 Ed Quirk 8 Kazuki Himeno 9 Yutaka Nagare (c)10 Hayden Parker 11 Akihito Yamada 12 Michael Little 13 Jason Emery 14 Semisi Masirewa 15 Ryuji Noguchi
BENCH: 16 Yusuke Niwai 17 Keita Inagaki 18 Hencus van Wyk 19 Wimpie van der Walt 20 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco 21 Fumiaki Tanaka 22 Rikiya Matsuda 23 Ryoto Nakamura
HEAD COACH: Jamie Joseph (Nathan Brown deputising)
Date: Saturday 7th July 2018
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 19:45 local (AEDT)
Referee: Federico Anselmi (ARG)
Assistant Referees: Will Houston (AR1) James Leckie (AR2)
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore