Australia's best chance of bagging an upset against Kiwi opposition
With Super Rugby Pacific facing ongoing questions concerning the viability of the tournament, now would be an excellent time for the Australian sides to stand up and prove themselves capable of at least putting up a challenge against their rivals across the ditch.
During last year’s Trans-Tasman competition, the Reds and Brumbies were the only Australian teams to record wins. There has been talk that the Australian franchises will be better prepared this year having had a taste of the New Zealand medicine last season but that’s a questionable line of thinking given that NZ and Australian teams have been squaring off every year for the better part of the last three decades. A small break from going toe to toe in the latter half of 2020 and the early stages of 2021 should not have seen all that knowledge and experience forgotten.
If the Australian sides do fare better this season, chalk that up to their generally improving ability – primarily a product of young players getting plenty of runs on the board over the past two seasons. There’s also a growing suspicion that the New Zealand teams aren’t quite as strong this year with injuries and other disruptions making it difficult for squads to build their cohesion throughout the season to date.
This weekend, New Zealand’s five franchises have travelled to Australia for the inaugural Super Round and while the Kiwi sides will enter each of their contests as favourites, it’s not entirely out of the question that an Australian team gets an against-the-odds win – although key injuries suffered in recent weeks won’t help.
How, then, did this weekend’s matches play out during last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition?
Chiefs vs Waratahs
The opening trans-Tasman match of this year’s competition was also the final round-robin match of year’s, with the Chiefs taking on the Waratahs.
Last year was a true annus horribilis for the Waratahs, with the men from New South Wales failing to record a win in their 13 matches played. It took just two minutes for the Chiefs’ to get their first try on the board last year, with the recently deceased Sean Wainui touching down for one of his five tries from the afternoon – setting a new Super Rugby record in the process. It wasn’t until shortly before halftime that the Waratahs were actually able to themselves onto the scoresheet, with Mark Nawaqanitawase touching down in the 34th minute. At that stage, however, the Chiefs were already two tries up and they launched an onslaught early in the second half to secure the 40-7 win.
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The Waratahs’ fortunes have turned around this year and they already look an immensely better side. Factor in the significant walking wounded list for the Chiefs – Reuben O’Neill, Gideon Wrampling, Simon Parker, Brodie Retallick, Josh Ioane, Sione Mafileo, Laghlan McWhannell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Emoni Narawa, Shaun Stevenson, Brad Weber and Etene Nanai-Seturo are all unavailable – and Friday night’s only fixture might not be as one-sided as many suspect.
Blues v Fijian Drua
The first game of Saturday afternoon will see the Blues take on the fan-favourite Fijian Drua.
The Drua clearly possess talent in spades and have shown throughout their inaugural season that they’re capable of scoring tries from anywhere. Game management, however, has been a real issue for the team (perhaps that’s why they’ve named four halfbacks in their match-day 23 for this weekend) and if they play anywhere near as looses against the likes of Beauden Barrett, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane as they have been so far this season, they’ll be in for a world of hurt this weekend.
Of course, with the Drua being a new team, this is the first encounter between them and the Blues.
Hurricanes v Reds
The Hurricanes will take on the Reds on Saturday evening and although things haven’t all gone smoothly for the Hurricanes in this year’s competition, they’ll be hoping to lay down a marker in Melbourne.
Last year, the Hurricanes hosted the Reds in Wellington in the final round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman and, having surrendered any probably chance of making the final the week before after losing to the Brumbies, took their anger out on their opposition to the tune of a 43-14 victory. The Hurricanes took the lead early through Ngani Laumape and although the Reds were able to level up the scores at halftime with a try to Tate McDermott, it was mostly one-way traffic in the second half.
The Reds have lost just one game this season and as one of the top two Australian sides, would normally be hoping to push the fourth-ranked Kiwi team. Unfortunately for the Queenslanders, however, they’ve lost playmaker James O’Connor for the remainder of the season and will also have to manage without Jordan Petaia and Liam Wright this weekend. Without that experienced trio, a victory seems unlikely.
Highlanders v Brumbies
The early Sunday match between the Highlanders and Brumbies looms as the Australian teams’ best chance at a victory this weekend.
The Brumbies have dropped just one game this season and sit second on the overall ladder. As one of the only two Australian sides to pick up a win last year – in the second-to-last round of the competition – they’ll be confident they can upset the Highlanders in Melbourne and kick their trans-Tasman matches off with a bang.
The Highlanders, on the other hand, will be looking to ignite a season that’s never really kicked off and even though they had to travel to Canberra for last year’s fixture with the Brumbies, they still scored a relatively 33-12 bonus-point victory in the final round of the competition. That bonus point proved crucial as they would have finished third on the overall ladder without it and missed out on the grand final.
Crusaders v Rebels
The final match of the Super Round is another repeat of last year’s final week match-ups, with the Crusaders taking on the hosts of the one-off event, the Melbourne Rebels.
The Crusaders went into that match knowing that a victory by 33 points would have netted them a spot in the final but they fell one try short, winning 52-26. While the Crusaders will first and foremost be looking to start their trans-Tasman derbies off well after losing their most recent match to the Blues, they’ll also have revenge on their minds following last year’s shortcoming.
The Rebels have been poor this year and although the Crusaders might not quite be as strong as in 2021, it would take a very brave man to bet against the red and black machine on Sunday afternoon.
In the same fixtures in last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman season, the New Zealand sides scored a significant points win over their Australian opposition, winning by a cumulative margin of 168-59.
The Chiefs’ injuries coupled with the Waratahs’ resurgence could make the opening match of the weekend the best chance of an upset with the Highlanders-Brumbies clash another possible source of a victory for Australian sides but the odds will certainly still favour the Kiwi teams.
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