It took commitment to see it, but the early risers on Saturday morning were rewarded.
Just two weeks in and Super Rugby sparked to life with a contest of such quality that those who missed it should find a way of seeing it.
The scene was already set for a decent spectacle. A South Island derby between the Highlanders and Crusaders is always spirited, and with the off-field troubles of Otago Rugby combining with a first ever Super Rugby run-out at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, there was a strange mix of cynicism and optimism bouncing around under the roof.
Even in a television studio on the other side of the world, a sense of heightened emotion was evident.
Ironically enough, the reasons this fixture stood out have little to do with any of that.
This was a game that will be remembered not for the history or backstory, or even the nailbiting finish, but rather for confirming that we are on the right track with the sport we all love.
From a viewerʼs perspective, the amount of time the ball is in play increases, as does the speed of that play, and as a spectacle, the game is far more engaging
Quotes of the week
As the northern season slowly emerges from the restrictions of the winter window and the southern season kicks-off in the height of summer, the inevitable comparisons between form and style are drawn. How the referees adjudicate the breakdown, and how the players respond to the rulings, remains the single biggest point for debate in our game.
On Saturday I felt South African referee Jaco Peyper and the players from both sides produced a game of rugby just as the current rules intended.
This was our sport as it is meant to be played, and it was an absolute joy to watch. Iʼll explain why I think so.
Peyper gave advantage to the attacking team at the breakdown, as is his brief, but not to the point that there was no competition. He was vocal, and the players on both sides knew where they stood when it came to the legality of their actions.
From this, the players could contribute. The Highlanders and Crusaders possess intelligent athletes, and to play rugby at the highest standard both brains and brawn are essential.
On multiple occasions throughout the match, defenders were seen to approach a breakdown situation, only to make an informed decision not to compete, given the number of attackers within support of the ball carrier, and the fact that the ball was in the process of being recycled.
When made correctly, this decision allows defenders to then rejoin and strengthen their defensive line. Of course it also means the attacking team can clear the breakdown more quickly, increasing the speed of their strike play and therefore their potential for a linebreak.
From a viewerʼs perspective, the amount of time the ball is in play increases, as does the speed of that play, and as a spectacle, the game is far more engaging.
But I can hear the detractors now. With a bias towards the attacking team at the breakdown, defending teams will in time simply do away with competing for possession, and the game will lose its identity, and its key distinction from rugby league.
But this is where the athleticism of Saturdayʼs teams came to the fore, and where this particular game proved so compelling.
With quick ball from the breakdown, more creative opportunities emerged for those on attack. Half gaps became half breaks through quick handling and sharp vision, and suddenly breakdowns were taking place beyond the advantage line.
Cue the defenderʼs opportunity. As the attacker attempts to take his chance, he often steps beyond the immediate grasp of his supporters, and into the vicinity of the fittest, fastest and smartest defenders.
This sequence of events occured throughout the game in Dunedin, and Peyper identified the different nature of those breakdowns, immediately allowing the defenders their right to compete.
If the attacker held on under the pressure of the defender he was penalised, or, as was the case on a number of occasions, possession was turned over and a counter-attack opportunity presented.
A competitive rugby game played with skill, and at speed, was the result. It really was a fantastic spectacle for the casual fan and the purest alike and, I believe, it was the sort of contest the rule makers had in mind.
Take a referee who has an empathy with the flow of the game and an understanding of momentum at the breakdown, and two intelligent, skillful and fit teams with an attacking attitude, and you have the recipe for the best team game on earth.
Granted, these factors might rarely combine, particularly in perfect indoor conditions, but Saturdayʼs contest should give the reassurance that we are on the right track towards a compelling end result.
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