As A Hurricanes fan I watched the Chiefs demolish my team on Friday evening amidst feelings fairly common to fellow supporters of Wellington et al over the years. “Here we go again” I thought, as the guys dropped the ball, missed tackles and generally looked like a bunch of blokes from an unemployment queue who’d been invited to spend the weekend “running around on a paddock for a bit”.
Of course there was more to it than that. The Chiefs had done their homework, and effectively nullified the Canes style. They took them on in the tight, outplayed them in the loose, and shut them down out wide. When Holwell and Steinmetz were forced to kick with no other options on, there was always a Crichton, or Randle waiting in the right position to field it and run it back.
In the end it was easier for me to watch it than you might expect. Mitchell has shown himself, in my opinion, to be the best coach in New Zealand during this Super 12. To take the Chiefs and turn them around; forge them into a hard-nosed, technically effective squad, from the state they have been in over the past six years is only slightly less impressive than the legendary turning water into wine trick which Jesus did for his mates when they ran out of Monteith’s one Sunday arvo.
In short, the way the Chiefs played in this game was so good and so much better than their opponents, that I could only sit and admire it. If Deon Muir and Marty Holah don’t get All Black jerseys this season I’ll eat my hat, and do it without any barbeque sauce.
On the Canes side a few players are worthy of mention. Christian Cullen played the first forty minutes as if he’d scoffed a mogadon sandwich just before running on. The lights were on but nobody was at home as he bumbled around missing tackles and contributing nothing in attack whatsoever. Look out Cully! That All Black 15 jersey doesn’t have your name on it permanently.
In the midfield the Canes missed Umaga enormously. Jason O’Halloran is now a shadow of his former self, seemingly lacking confidence and ideas. He and Steinmetz were totally shut down in this game.
In the loose-forwards, Muir outplayed Tiatia with ease, and led his team by example for the full eighty minutes. Holah remains the best openside in New Zealand this season and is an easy choice for Smith. His opposite, So’oialo has bags of talent, but showed enough inexperience to be left to mature for another season, I think. At blindside for the Canes, Jerry Collins had a strong game, and must also be in contention for a Black Jersey.
In the end, it was a case of there being too many Chiefs whenever the Hurricanes looked to create chances. The outcome was predictable, despite a late second-half resurgence where three very questionable tries were scored by the home side. The first involved some pushing from behind and the others came from blatant knock-ons. A score of 51-5 would have represented the difference in the sides, but it ended up as 51-27 which flattered the home team.
The next day, we settled in to see what The Blues could do with the Brumbies up at Eden Park. Not a lot, was the answer.
Fresh from the ignominy of losing to The Spoonistes, The Bulls over in Pretoria, a team everyone else has beaten, The Blues spent the whole first half defending. They were so completely outplayed, I can’t even remember a time when they had the ball and did something with it.
This was set against the backdrop of Frank Oliver’s team selection, announced in the week prior, which had most knowledgable fans wondering whether Big Frank had psychiatric problems; a split personality maybe: one week he’s a rugby coach, the next a small brain-damaged hampster. Guess which one we think he was this week?
It’s not as if we don’t know how to beat The Brumbies is it; the Hurricanes and the Highlanders have shown how. You take them on up front and suck them in with big powerful commited forwards. Then you make Gregan and Larkham’s life a misery using the halves and loosies. Above all, suck in their forwards and don’t let them fan out across the park.
Leaving out Glenn Taylor for Flavell, which essentially conceded the lineout, and de-powering the front row was to say the least unexpected. Most of us considered it suicidal. If we’d told him, we could have said “we told you so”, but we didn’t. Next time maybe we should.
Back to the game. In the second half things were different, but not much. Eddie Jones was interviewed wearing an expression which made it look like Smithy had dropped an eggy one, and pronounced that he wanted “more intensity” from his team. Fuck, they’d been playing like men possessed for forty minutes; the guy must be a right bugger to work for.
As it happened, the Brumbies must have thought he said “more mistakes” (they must sound similar in an Aussie accent) because they dropped off their game and did the same with the ball. This gave the Blues some hope. Unfortunately it was just that, “some hope”.
However instead of just defending, they managed to get the ball and ruck it through several phases at a time. I counted 12 phases once, and they managed to gain 15m, all somewhere around halfway. The ineptness of their play and utter cluelessness in terms of how to try and break a defence is a testiment to the Blues coaching staff, who have had four solid professional months to bring their team to this peak of performance. I hope they gave the fans at Eden park their money back at the gate, and added $10 and an abject apology for wasted time, because that’s what this performance deserved.
Later on in the evening we were treated to some real rugby, which was a welcome antidote to the earlier rubbish. The Crusaders visited the Waratahs in their stronghold over in Sydney, and their mission was to regain some pride and perpetuate the slim mathematical chance of gaining the semis.
The succeeded in the former, but narrowly lost the game which puts them out of Super 12 2001 contention. But the match had plenty of good honest rugby in it, and it would be wrong to focus only on the end result. In the Crusaders forward pack Chris Jack contrinues to impress, and Ruben Thorne had another good game at blindside. Although playing at openside, Robertson also put in a solid eighty minutes, and was effective. Back at fullback, Leon MacDonald was the Crusaders best, making several telling runs, including a burst into the line to score a late second half try.
On the Waratahs side, at times they looked confused by the Crusaders aggressive defence, which was back to near its best, but they stuck to it. In the end it required some brilliance by Matthew Burke, who had recovered from his debacle last week, and an awesome lineout drive to break through.
The latter was the most impressive, and points the way back for rugby union in this country. From the lineout the Tahs grabbed the ball and drove. Their tighties assembled a flat-backed maul in seconds, and shear strength and control rumbled them forwards for a classic try. The sequence ought to be enshrined in a coaching video, it was that good.
A late try from the Crusaders brought them close, but in the end, although they could have won this game, there could be no complaints about the result.
For three seasons the Crusaders have reigned supreme as Super 12 Champions.
We salute that amazing achievement.