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'Neanderthal rugby straight out of the 1950s': Why Super Rugby Aotearoa 'leaves the Six Nations for dead'

By Campbell Burnes

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I love the Six Nations for its history and the passion it engenders, not to mention the fact that Scotland periodically lowers a much better team to clinch the Calcutta Cup.

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The rugby? Not so much.

Super Rugby Aotearoa is frothy, bubbly and often loose, though the officiating can be a bit dusty, as it was last weekend. But the skill level, the passing and handling of the backs, in particular, leave the Six Nations for dead.

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Ben Foden Mic’d Up at training with Rugby United New York
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Ben Foden Mic’d Up at training with Rugby United New York

I can hear the gnashing of teeth out of the north now, crying that I’m not comparing apples with apples, test footy versus franchise footy. Yet a bad pass to the shoulder is a bad pass, a dropped ball is a dropped ball whatever level of the game you are looking at.

This writer took in every minute of the two Super Rugby Aotearoa games – can you believe they both ended in 39-17 scorelines? In the name of work, I watched every minute of the three Six Nations games. I tried really hard to enjoy all 240 minutes, I promise you.

The fourth round of the 6N is often pivotal. So it proved again. But the Six Nations is missing something, not just the crowds from which the players can feed off. The rugby is missing some verve, imagination, changes of angle, a liberal mindset.

The highlight was the double sidestep of Ireland prop Tadgh Furlong off his right foot against Scotland. It was joked that Phil Bennett had gained weight.

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All three clashes featured intent and intensity, heavy collisions and heated confrontations. Wales hammered Italy and continued on Wayne Pivac’s ambitious plan of expanding their game and their attitude. Italy too is seeking to play with more elan under Franco Smith, but the Azzurri lack the personnel and tackle like Andrew Mehrtens.

There was some good stuff, for about seven minutes, as Ireland edged Scotland. James Lowe, who loves to run, had to tackle, which he doesn’t like much, while Scots Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones had some heart-warming moments.

But, under fair skies, there was altogether too much kicking. Geez, it was repetitive and not often pinpoint. Still, Johnny Sexton was on one of his good days and that was helpful to the visitors. All too often however, a promising movement would break down due to a poor pass or a simple dropped ball. Frustrating.

Not as frustrating as the England-France encounter at Twickers. Billed as Le Crunch, it turned into Le Letdown. And yet the drama and energy levels were high in the first stanza. We saw offloads and semi-decent passing, but Jonny May, the destroyer of the 2012 All Blacks and the 2020 Irish, ran for his health on the left wing.

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Their kingdom for a change of angle! Or just exploiting some space or an overlap. Instead, that early promise degenerated into an extended session of forceback, and a poor game of forceback at that. If only there had been a crowd to boo with gusto.

The French were pulled into the gravitational pull of England’s game, despite possessing men of flair and no little skill such as Antoine Dupont, Gael Fickou, Mathieu Jalibert, Gael Fickou, Teddy Thomas and Brice Dulin. French flair, alas, is now almost an amateur era concept.

England’s 23-20 win was hard-earned and critical to the standings, but many viewers would have been thankful for the final whistle. That second 40 was Neanderthal rugby straight out of the 1950s.

Super Rugby Aotearoa, by contrast, is being played in front of decent crowds, and the first thought is to use the ball… unless you are the Blues, who will try to bludgeon you into submission before unleashing Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke et al.

Akira Ioane labelled his pass to his brother for the try that never was “a helluva seed.” Can you imagine Billy Vunipola firing that ball 25m infield to Henry Slade on the burst?

The skill level is demonstrably higher, and that does not just mean the forwards can throw a pass or pick a ball off their bootlaces. It means most sides have a bag of tracks into which they delve to break down the increasingly staunch defensive lines. It means if the counter is on, they have the licence to break out. There is no plodding from set-piece to freaking set-piece. The movements are sharp and dynamic. Now we just have to haul the officiating up to the level.

The Six Nations may be many things to many people. But it needs to sort out its main thrust: the footy. Until then, it ranks second best for entertainment value.

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'Neanderthal rugby straight out of the 1950s': Why Super Rugby Aotearoa 'leaves the Six Nations for dead'

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