A few teams in the mid to lower regions of the Super 12 table went into this weekend with hopes that they might keep the outside chance of making the semi-finals alive.
Welcome to the sharp end of Super 12 2001.
First up this week was the Highlanders vs The Brumbies in the fastness of Carisbrook.
Having seen the Hurricanes deal to the style of rugby The Robo Masters play, the general feeling was that the Brumbies would come prepared this time around. Happily for New Zealand rugby (but not my competition picks), this game proved to be an excellent showcase for Highlanders Rugby.
The home side won this one hands-down with a huge team effort lead by halfback Byron Kelleher who burned so brightly in this match that George Gregan seemed to be absent for long periods, eclipsed by the glare. The highpoint of this occurred when Gregan grabbed the ball from a ruck just outside his own 22m and was totally creamed by a horizontally flying Kami-Kaze Kelleher. Although he was caught in possession it didn’t bring any points, but it did bring tears of joy to the eyes.
Others were gigantic in this game for the Highlanders. Stepping forward with Kelleher to receive the Medal of Brumby Humbling First Class are Simon Maling, Kelvin Middleton, Tom Willis, Vula Maimuri, and Carl Hoeft.
The last name on the list is a surprise, given his previous form, and we will keep an eye on the erstwhile slacker to make sure this isn’t a flash in the pan before believing it completely.
Back to the game and the Brumbies never looked like winning this, despite being in contention on the scoreboard. Their Plan A (their only plan) was shut down even more completely than the Canes managed, although a wet evening must have levelled things much more.
It was surprising how completely the Robo Masters capitulated though, even allowing for excellent teamwork in the Highlanders’ defence. It was all capped off by the last incident in the game. With a chance of drawing the game on offer with a seven-pointer, the Brumbies had possession when the full-time hooter went, and he proceded to punt the ball into touch and end it all as if saying “thank God for that! Let me get a hot shower..”. I wonder how much he’s getting paid for that?
The next game was played in the thin air of Loftus Versfeld, where the Chiefs met the Keepers Of The Super 12 Wooden Spoon. Ever vigilant of their hold on this prestigious trophy, the Bulls were on their mettle, and didn’t disappoint.
With the tinny echoes of the pre-game musak dying in the Loftus 1950′s Vintage PA system the Chiefs started well and showed they meant business. Exchanges in the tight were close, as expected, but out wide the Bulls were made to rue the power of Roger Randell and the incisiveness of Bruce Reihana on more than one occasion. Early tries saw them first at 25-10, and then out to 32-10 at half-time care of a Randle spurt down the right, followed up by Deon Muir for a dot-down under the sticks.
A fight-back in the second half saw the Bulls frighten their supporters by getting to within a couple of points before Jackson slotted a nice droppie 7 minutes from time. The first-five then made doubly sure with an intercept try and conversion. The crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief – The Spoon was safe.
Down at sea-level in Durban The Blues were visiting The Stormers. Judged by their recent exploits the Blues were no-hopers in this contest but then, as old-timers would put it, it’s a funny old game.
Having seen the same light as the rest of us finally, in Whangarei, Blues coach Oliver picked Glenn Taylor again. You have to make allowances; Oliver is only an ex-All Black lock himself, so he couldn’t be expected to get this right first time around. Taylor toiled mightily alongside Robin Brooke and only re-emphasised how silly it was to leave him out all these weeks. Ho-hum.
The game was a story of frustration – for the Stormers that is. The Blues defence was 100% better than it had been, and the Stormers were pressured into making mistakes. Another aspect was the fact that Matua Parkinson seems to have finally understood how to behave at the breakdown, and didn’t get penalised 500 times. The lad is obviously a quick learner; it’s only taken him 8 rounds.
However the main difference was the platform that youngster and No.10 James Arlidge has given them. Unlike Carlos “Fruit-Loop” Spencer, who reacts to broken confused phases of play by trying to make it even more confused, Arlidge has the ability to settle things down when needed. He provides the team with a solid base of territory, and points-gathering from penalties and conversions; something missing from Carlos’ game, for all his erratic brilliance.
For the most part this match-up was a fairly boring arm-wrestling contest, with little gained by either side. The difference was that Arlidge nailed his penalty attempts, and Blues pressure brought enough of them.
Later on a couple of nice tries, one from a lovely Vidiri chip and chase down the left and another from a Hayden Taylor burst down the right earned the Blues some Super 12 respectability at last, even it it came much too late.
Back home the most gut-wrenching game of the lot took place at Trafalgar Park in Nelson between the Crusaders and the Cats, with the Crusaders having to win to keep their hopes alive.
The short summing up of this one is pretty simple. Basic defensive lapses early on left the Crusaders with far too much to do, and they were forced to play catch-up rugby. This they did with gay abandon (apologies to Mainlanders for that one, but of course I use the term in it’s original sense – “abandon”, as in free-spirited) in the second half, and ended up torturing the crowd and the TV audience alike by scoring a last second try in the left corner and having the conversion to win by one point, which they missed .
Talk about feeling like sombody’s been pulling your chain – I’m thinking of suing them for taking a couple of good years off my life.
But the Crusaders didn’t deserve to win. Using the kindest language possible, in the first half they allowed the Cats to score what I would have to describe as two “soft” tries. You know those sporting movies where the hero runs through the deliberately feeble defence of a few paid extras? Well this was kind of like that.
Even so Mehrtens was having a good ‘un and kept his side in the hunt. Then just before halftime Canterbury threw the kitchen sink and all at the Cats, but failed to score. Instead they turned over possession and everyone was so knackered that the Cats scored at the other end to make it 9-27. Great.
The second half saw them all come out with vicious looking red marks around their ears where Robbie Deans had lashed them with his tongue. The defence was better, and Rueben Thorne went over in the left corner for a try which Mehrts converted. A penalty was also taken getting the home team to 19-32, but then Norm Maxwell put paid to all of that.
In his early days Maxwell was known as a bit of an over-aggressive idiot, but this seemed to have been channeled properly as he got into the All Blacks. Well the news is he’s suffered a relapse. It was all so stupid. As the Cats ran the ball off a ruck he decided to take one of them out with a blatant shoulder-charge. As if this wasn’t enough, the guy wasn’t even carrying the ball at the time, so this little piece of brilliant thinking earned him a trip to the bin for 10 minutes. During this time the Cats scored a try, and so Maxwell effectively lost the game for his team, and knocked them out of the Super 12 all in that one brain-dead moment.
He might like to reflect on that during the coming week, and whilst he’s waiting for the All Black squad to be named later on.
The Crusaders kept on trying and Managed a late try to Brad Thorne, converted by Mauger to bring them to 26-32, and then Vunibaka’s try in the corner in injury time.
Agony wasn’t in it!