Well, to use a wonderfully appropriate phrase coined by that prodigiously analytical mind in the game, Phil Kearns, it was “3-Zip to New Zealand” this weekend. In case he hadn’t noticed.
The Super 12 finally opened, after a series of rather meaningless dress rehearsals this weekend.
We have had five previous weeks of watching Australian teams play the weakest New Zealand teams in the very first rounds, and then the South African bunnies in the rounds following, and listening to Australian commentators smugly telling everyone who would listen (mainly just other Australians) that the results confirmed they were World Beaters.
So the Leading Lights Of The Game all played in New Zealand this weekend. The result? In case you didn’t hear, all three Australian teams were sent back home with a beating.
It wasn’t so much the fact it happened either, but how it happened. Two of the victorious New Zealand teams are thought, over here, to be fairly disorganised and without much hope of getting to the playoffs of the Super 12: the Blues and the Hurricanes.
The Blues were the expected rabble in the first half of their game against the Waratahs. Ah, the Waratahs. They remind me of British Boxer Joe Bugner in the 1970′s and 80′s. Bugner was a magnificent specimen, well over six foot, with muscles on his muscles. When you saw him sparring in a ring, or boxing a guy put in the ring as cannon fodder, he looked like all the World’s best heavyweight champions rolled into one. Trouble is once he got in the ring with a real boxer it was obvious to everyone that he punched like a powder puff, and fought like a girl.
That was the Waratahs to a tee. All impressive busy-buzzy razzle-dazzle in the first half when they got plenty of ball care of the Blues not being able to control it for more than 3 seconds at a time, but look at the halftime scoreline: they went in leading by 6-3.
In the second half, the Blues played some old-fashioned rugby, something New Zealand teams have been getting back to this year. The forwards rammed it up the guts, and Troy Flavell rampaged to the extent that the Waratahs looked scared of him by the end. The momentum allowed backs like Dougie Howlett, Carlos Spencer and Mils Muliaina to hit the line at speed and they caused havoc out wide. Well supported by opensider Parkinson, and all the other forwards, they slashed holes in The Pretenders flanks, then forced through the tatters to score some excellent tries, none moreso than Kees Meeuws who dragged 4 Waratahs over the line.
Good in-your-face up-the-guts rugby, capped off by some sparkling stuff out wide saw the little boys from Sydney, Australia sent home packing.
The only blemish on the night was the refereeing of Andre Watson. Some inconsistent rulings at the ruck were compounded by an awful mistake at the end when he and his touch judges missed a blatant foward pass which handed the Woeful Waratahs an undeserved bonus point.
The Hurricanes were expected to lose to the Reds, and lose badly. After all these Reds were the ones the Aussie commentators had been eulogising about for the past five weeks weren’t they?
Well somehow it didn’t seem like the same team, coz a bumbling set of patsies from Wellington and Taranaki beat them. Of course I do the Canes a disservice. They played well, as everyone could see. But it was unexpected. They played with intelligence, using the wind in the second half wisely, and keeping the Reds pinned for long passages of play in their own half and 22m when ahead. This hasn’t been seen from them for several seasons, so forgive us if we’re surprised.
The Super 12 Marketing Unit, stupid bunch of oh-so-predictable morons that they are, tried to tell us that the meeting of Jonah and Wendell Sailor was The Event Of The Year. Hello? They play on opposite wings for goodness’ sake. The “match-up” was between Jonah and ex-Wallaby winger Ben Tune. Can’t these people read a team-sheet?
As it happened even this match-up was predictable. Jonah was attended by at least three defenders every time he got the pill, and when Tune got it he ran around the Big Man’s defence (surely an oxymoron) with disdain. Ho hum, yawn.
The real interest was elsewhere. The Canes front row fronted. The loosies did their job, though once again Collins was as slow as a wet week, and missed too many crucial tackles in defence, and the backs found some form.
All in all a good day (night) at the office for the Hurricanes, and a well-deserved victory.
The final New Zealand versus Australia game was The Biggie. The Crusaders v The Brumbies at Jade Stadium.
Well I don’t know whether it was because it was played in daylight and it was so unusual that the Crusaders were all dazzled by “that thing up in the sky” but they played the crappiest rugby I’ve seen from them in many a day.
Of course this was still good enough to win against an Australian team, but that isn’t the point. An on-form Crusaders unit would have put this bunch of predictable wankers from Canberra to the sword. As it happened the match was a close one, and was all but lost when Chris Jack missed yet another crucial tackle to let in a soft try and give the Brumbies the lead after the conversion with only 3 minutes to go. A Mauger droppie saved the day, but it was so close.
The two mainstay elements of Crusaders rugby were missing in this game: staunch defence, and reliable support for the ball carrier on attack.
Why this was is anyone’s guess. The end result was that, from the outset, the Brumbies were allowed to make easy ground through players who dropped off their tackles. In particular Andrew Mehrtens, Greg Sommerville and Chris Jack should all be made to hit the tackle bags for two hours every evening for the next week. Not that they were alone, just that they featured in some of the high-profile misses.
On attack they looked hesitant and lacked the confidence for long periods to really attack. Whether this was because of the poor support or the poor support came from the hesitancy we have no idea. The end result was that just about every time a Crusader made a break and went to ground they had to wait an agonising 1-2 seconds for the first support player to come in to for the ruck. Ample time for Brumbies ace openside George Smith to run his fingers through the dreads, wet his eyebrows and look good for the camera as he went in for another steal.
Just to bring their shortcomings into high relief the Crusaders showed the other side of the coin for 15 minutes after half-time. They hit the ball and the opposition hard, and probed on attack creating holes and scoring tries. Watching it on TV, it all looked to have been worked out in the dressing shed at half-time by an apoplectic Robbie Deans. But for some reason it didn’t last, and the original Crusaders team re-asserted itself. They went back into their shells, and ended up defending a 6-point lead.
With three minutes to go an awful missed tackle by Chris Jack put the Brumbies in for a try which Andrew Walker calmly converted to put his team one point up. But the Crusaders of old surfaced one last time. The moved the ball patiently upfield and put pressure on near to the Brumbies 22m, forcing the penalty for hands in the ruck. Mauger didn’t wait for the stoppage and used advantage to slot a neat droppie to win the game.
A nailbiter alright, but the best team won in the end, despite playing at about 50% of it’s true potential. The Brumbies remain the Brumbies: a committed rugby machine which does everything it does very well, but without much in the way of a truly creative spark. They will always be near the top of the round-robin, but hopefully this year a team which plays Real Rugby will win the title.
The 3-Zip New Zealand vs Aussie weekend, fittingly enough, had as it’s best game, a fixture between two New Zealand teams: The Highlanders versus The Chiefs.
The Chiefs, underdogs to the tune of at least a Great Dane, came out on Rugby Park, Invercargill and savaged the home team in front of its own supporters. The inspiration was the return of their captain and No.8 Deon Muir, who had a superlative game. He was joined by Marty Holah, surely the best opensider in the country at the present time, and No.6 Jonno Gibbes in totally cleaning out the Highlander loose-forward trio, and making every 50-50 ball theirs. They were backed by a great effort from their tight five, who matched the more illustrious Highlander tighties in the set piece, and outplayed them around the park.
In the back division, Bruce Reihana shone. His speed and elusivity on attack brought him a brilliant solo chip and chase try which must have had even Jeff Wilson nodding in grudging admiration. In the centres Mark Ranby ran straight and hard and never failed to recycle the ball, whereas Keith Lowen probed and pressured in the No.13 jersey. Jackson and Lee in the halves showed why they must be the starting pair from now on, Lee especially as he tied All Black halfback Byron Kelleher up in pink wrapping paper and ribbons, and mailed him home to his mum and dad for an Easter present.
Even as The Highlanders found their feet a little, it did no good. At no time in the game did it look like they could win even when inching closer to the scoreline required. The Chiefs were just too good, too quick and too hungry to be denied.
Wonderful stuff from a game which garners the accolade Game Of The Round, despite the other matches all featuring victories over Australian teams.
That says it all. Australian rugby just isn’t what Australians crack it up to be. Never has been, never will be.