Super Rugby: Best of the round from New Zealand and Australia
By James Gemmell
Last Updated: 13/07/20 6:14am
James Gemmell looks at the stand-out moments from the weekend's Super Rugby matches in New Zealand and Australia...
Crusaders 26-15 Blues
We will start in Aotearoa this week, where the two unbeaten sides promised the clash of the shortened season so far: the Crusaders and Blues.
After decades of provincial pugilism, of pitting north against south and city slickers against country boys, the rivalry had rather run dry in recent years.
Like in any contest, uncertainty of outcome is the key ingredient, and as we kicked off in Christchurch on Saturday it finally felt like it had returned.
Blue Da Ba Dee
First, a disclaimer. As a born and bred Aucklander, I'm Blue. If you're old enough to remember the song, then you're probably old enough to remember when the Blues were last any good.
And if there's one side whose prominence has embodied the seismic shift in New Zealand rugby's balance of power this century, it is of course the dynastic Crusaders. So forgive me for the heightened sense of excitement around the Blues' improvement this year, and if, just maybe, they are ready to test the best.
As it turned out, the answer is not quite. But what a game it took to confirm it, the most compelling proof yet that the Blues are fitter, smarter, harder working and with more self-belief than any side wearing the same jersey in almost 20 years.
It has been 16 years since they last won in Christchurch, and over three years since anyone did, and Saturday proved why.
The Blues executed their plan with near perfection for an hour, using all the attributes to put pressure on the champions and hold a lead through the three-quarter mark.
But in a few brief moments around this time we saw the difference between wanting to win and knowing how to, and most of it ran through a bloke called Richie.
No, not that one.
Mo'unga, Mo Problems
Following Reiko Ioane's second-half try, the tap-over conversion from Otere Black was charged down by hard-working Braydon Ennor, a play that not only kept the Crusaders within one score, but seemed to move the match into a higher plain of pressure, a place the home side thrive in.
Richie Mo'unga chose that very moment, in the restart that followed, to show the Blues what they weren't ready for. Combining razor-sharp vision, audacious skill and no little style, he slid to regain his own skidded kick-off and took off into the Blues' 22.
Momentum shifts can be hard to pinpoint in sport, but suddenly 60 minutes of dominance and a six-point lead felt worthless.
It was back to the traditional fly-skills, if you can call them that, to seal the Blues' fate: a delicious double-pump wide pass to George Bridge to find Mitchell Drummond inside to take the lead, followed by a deft pop for Will Jordan - whose contract stipulates a try a game - to deny the visitors even a losing bonus point. So cool, and so cruel.
Hurricanes 17- 11 Highlanders
With the eyes of the rugby nation on Christchurch, Sunday's match in Wellington rather slipped under the radar.
Super Rugby Aotearoa has already hit the halfway mark, and with no play-offs or final to contend, the Hurricanes and Highlanders are probably already jostling for a podium position at best. But you'll do well to remember the quality spread across these sides, irrespective of the log.
And it was on display early, as the infamous wind made ball-in-hand a safe option. The Highlanders' pivot Mitch Hunt, a man who touches the ball a lot and whose name you don't want to stumble on, spotted a midfield gap on the counter-attack, and scythed through.
Aaron Smith, AKA 'The Shadow', was on hand to take the final pass and run in, only for the initial break to be called back for obstruction. It was a harsh call, but when the 'Canes had their own first try disallowed minutes later for the same infringement, it felt like some form of justice for the visitors.
With All Black half-backs Smith and TJ Perenara opposing each other, both in captaincy roles, it was always going to be a 'chatty' affair.
But in the hot-stepper stakes, there was only one winner, as the Hurricanes chalked up the first legal score and a lead that they would never relinquish.
Jordie Barrett was yet again in the thick of things for the Hurricanes, influential from 15 in a way his brother hadn't been the night before in Christchurch.
Whether it's a year more maturity, or Beauden's absence at the club - perhaps a combination of both - but the youngest Barrett is having a fine season so far and is another name on a growing list of outside backs for the All Blacks to consider.
His line and pin-point wide pass for Kobus van Wyk - they're developing quite the little combo - was perhaps the moment of the match, although that combo came a little unstuck in the second half when Van Wyk found only Barrett's beak with the line open.
A. Smith - Dixon Line
Hope for the Highlanders - and redemption for Smith in the scrum-half scrap - came with a very-neatly-taken try down the blindside, the two co-captains combining from the base of the rolling maul to make things interesting heading into the final quarter.
It was ultimately fruitless, and now the Highlanders look to the Chiefs, away, next week to stay off the base of the table.
Rebels 18- 18 Reds
Super Rugby AU was Sydney-based this weekend, with two venues famous in other sports playing host. First up it was Brookvale Oval, traditional home of the Manly Sea Eagles in the NRL, and this weekend the temporary home of the Melbourne-based Rebels with the state of Victoria back under lockdown.
Fries With That?
Of course the Reds are no strangers to playing at a rugby league hot-spot, home-sharing as they do with the Brisbane Broncos.
But Suncorp Stadium this was not, as burger vans and fish 'n' chip stalls played backdrop to the action.
At least the Rebels got first dibs on the home changing room. A quick glimpse into the Reds' shed at half-time brought back some very fond schoolboy memories.
The sides took the first half to adjust to the very wet conditions, but Rebels tight-head Pone Fa'amausili decided to make his mark in the second with a crunching hit moments after the restart that woke everyone except victim Bryce Hegarty right up.
He continued the rugby league theme with a long-range ball return direct into the waiting defence and looks a blockbusting product to go alongside some of the other young talent getting airtime in the new competition.
For the lack of experience in their pack, it's worth noting the international names that make up the Rebel backline, and a handful of them combined for Reece Hodge's try.
Super Rugby centurion Matt Toomua, Wallaby weapon Marika Koroibete, Test full-back Dane Haylett-Petty and Hodge himself. If they can get ball in time and space, they'll cause problems for all Australian opponents.
A game of relatively poor quality probably didn't deserve a thrilling finish, but thanks to the individual brilliance of James O'Connor, who spied the 79th-minute gap, and Chris Feauai-Sautia who delivered a gravity-defying pop to Alex Mafi for the score and the 18-all draw, we strapped in for a our first-ever golden-point extra-time period.
Super (Waste Of) Time
The problem was, of course, two teams who couldn't be separated through 80 minutes were quite likely to stay level for 10 more. The initial surge of excitement at being spared a draw gave way to the realisation that one was coming anyway.
If the organisers are going to the effort of golden-point extra-time in the case of level scores, they need to commit to finding a result beyond that time period, through whatever means possible.
Waratahs 23-14 Western Force
The unplanned return to Super Rugby of the Western Force is a good news story, whichever way you look at it.
Cutting them adrift three seasons ago, despite improving results, a solid fan-base, and the committed financial backing of local billionaire Andrew Forrest, made little sense, particularly when you consider the perilous state of the national game.
Under Forrest, they had been part of the movement to grow 'Global Rapid Rugby', a breakaway league based in and around Asia, but that was in its infancy and, like everything, on hold due to coronavirus.
So, when the call came out from Rugby Australia to join Super Rugby AU, they answered with a little-known squad and very limited game time.
We Need To Talk About Byron (And His Team-Mates)
So it was a great sight to see the Force, through talented winger Byron Ralston, score the game's first try. It was a very tidy finish from a well-worked team build-up, evidence that a lack of competitive preparation hadn't dulled their skills.
SCG That Was Close
Unfortunately, they were never going to be fully match-fit, which in the end saved Waratah blushes.
Against the iconic back-drop of the Sydney Cricket Ground - one of the 'Tahs alternative homes as the Sydney Football Stadium next door is renovated - Michael Hooper's side had to fight back from 0-14 to eventually emerge 23-14 victors.