The first round of Super Rugby AU kicked off last weekend, with both home sides getting their campaigns off to a good start.
Two James O’Connor penalties in the last five-minutes saw the Queensland Reds end a seven-year and 11-game drought against fierce rivals New South Wales Waratahs, edging them by 6-points.
It was a standout display from the forward pack in particular, with the Reds dominating the Waratahs scrum before getting the better of them in the breakdown.
The ACT Brumbies also won a tight match against the Melbourne Rebels. The Brumbies ran out to a 24-6 lead early in the second half before a 17-0 run from the Rebels made for a tight final ten minutes with the teams only separated by one-point.
Both the Reds and Brumbies had players who stepped up when the going got tough, which ultimately proved the difference in an exciting first weekend of rugby back Down Under. Let’s see who those players were.
Fraser McReight (Reds)
The two-time Junior Wallaby of the Year finally got his chance to start a match at Super Rugby level, and the 21-year-old didn’t disappoint.
McReight looked right at home in the number seven jersey, winning four turnovers in an impressive display. Notably, McReight all but ended any hope of a Waratahs fightback late in the match, earning his side a crucial penalty at the breakdown with just three minutes left.
He was also very impressive in defence, making eight tackles and missing none. Did his job in attack as well but made his mark where he needed to.
The 2019 Junior Wallabies captain carried plenty of expectation into his first start, but didn’t look out of place. He’s here to stay and could push for higher honours if he can develop some consistency.
Both captain Liam Wright and Number Eight Harry Wilson also had impressive performances, with the future seemingly bright for not just the Reds but potentially the Wallabies backrow. Would be surprised to see all three not in and around Dave Rennie’s Wallabies squads over the next few years.
Jack Maddocks (Waratahs)
Maddocks had big shoes to fill on Friday night, with Waratahs equal games record holder Kurtley Beale leaving for Racing 92 last month.
The 23-year-old took advantage of his opportunity, appearing settled and impressive despite the six-point loss to the Reds. A brilliant line through the middle of the Queensland defence saw him cross for a five-pointer early in the second half, which handed his side the lead at the time.
The fullback ran for the most metres of any player in round one of Super Rugby AU, with his 16 carries seeing him run for 139 metres. No other player in either Australian match reached 100.
Maddocks was also comfortable under the high ball, and was desperate in defence, chasing down Tate McDermott to keep the Tahs in the game during the first half.
Noah Lolesio (Brumbies)
Lolesio held his own when he came up against Wallaby Matt Toomua. It was a collected display from the 20-year-old, who led his team around the park without Tom Banks’ support.
Lolesio was impressive when taking the line on, running for 71 metres which was more than any other player on the park. Standout moment was a 40-metre burst from inside his own half which set up Tom Wright just after the break.
Also controlled the tempo with an impressive kicking display, both out of hand and from the tee. Handled pressure well to slot a conversion in the dying stages to stretch the lead out to eight to secure the win.
Was a similar tale for Waratahs flyhalf Will Harrison, who was impactful in a losing side. Both 20-year-olds could push for national honours if they can prove their consistency by seasons end.
Taniela Tupou (Reds)
The Prop known as the ‘Tongan Thor’ lived up to that mantle on Friday night, dominating Angus Bell and the Waratahs scrum with sheer strength to set the platform for a promising Reds victory.
The Waratahs simply had no answer to the Reds scrumming display, with Bell conceding four penalties and a yellow card courtesy of Tupou.
With the Reds up by three with 15-mintues to play, Tupou put his side under immense pressure after a late hit on Will Harrison saw him sent to the sin bin for 10-minutes. It was his second penalty for a late charge down attempt.
But it was still an impressive performance from the 24-year-old that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Tate McDermott (Reds)
McDermott was arguably the standout player of round one, who now seems relatively certain to don Wallaby gold sooner rather than later.
The scrumhalf was at his best on Friday night, occupying a skillset that created plenty of uncertainty for the Waratahs defence. McDermott setup captain Liam Wright for the opener with a brilliant inside ball, proving a handful for the opposition all night.
The 21-year-old scored a try of his own in the 29th minute, with a cheeky tap and go that would make any scrumhalf proud. He came close to scoring his second with an impressive burst through the Waratahs defence from halfway, being fullback Jack Maddocks stopped him 5-metres from the chalk.
McDermott also stood out for his kicking display, securing the first 50/22 in Super Rugby AU with a clever box kick from halfway.
As he continues to impress with performances like that, McDermott simply can’t be left out of Dave Rennie’s Wallabies plans.
Honourable mention has to go to Brumbies scrumhalf Joe Powel. Just like McDermott, Powell was fast, effective and smart on the weekend. Any combination of McDermott, Powell and Nic White could prove to be a perfect one-two punch that the Wallabies have longed for.
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