If Super Rugby Aotearoa is a sprint – let’s call it a 100m race – when compared with the marathon of the old competition featuring teams from Japan, Argentina, Australia and South Africa as well as New Zealand, then the trans-Tasman edition, which kicked off at the weekend, is an even more intense and frenetic event; it’s the equivalent of a 60m dash where if you fall behind there’s no coming back.
With the Crusaders, Chiefs, Blues, Hurricanes and Highlanders all beating their Australian counterparts in round one, it’s clear that a defeat for any Kiwi side in this competition will almost certainly ruin their chances of making the final, and in fact bonus points and even points differential could prove decisive because it’s the latter that will be used to split teams tied on the same number of wins and competition points if necessary.
The New Zealand sides play all five of the Aussie teams – the Waratahs, Brumbies, Reds, Rebels and Force – with the top two teams automatically qualifying for the final. And yes, two Kiwi teams can (and almost certainly will) make the final. With round one over, the competition will be finished in another five weeks. Blink and you may miss it.
The Blues could perhaps be the most satisfied after running out 50-3 winners over the Rebels in Melbourne. The Rebels battled to a 3-5 record in Super Rugby AU this year so sit well behind the Reds and Brumbies in terms of quality but the Blues’ pacey, free-running style backed up by a solid set piece may be well suited for playing the Aussies, few of whom will relish playing at Eden Park.
The Blues as a collective also have a few points to prove after a good start to Super Rugby Aotearoa gave way to a slump, and one or two individuals may be starting to sweat on their chances of making the All Blacks squad for the July tests against Fiji and Tonga.
The Highlanders, minus head coach Tony Brown who has left to assist the Japan national team, also have reason to be happy with their start when beating the Reds 40-19 in Dunedin, the Hurricanes perhaps a little less so after putting a big score on the Waratahs at the Sydney Cricket Ground but at the same time leaking a worrying number of points themselves before prevailing 64-48 in a bizarre topsy-turvy match.
“We weren’t happy with the way we conceded points,” Hurricanes coach Jason Holland said. “We had only eight line breaks against us, but they scored seven tries, which was an interesting stat. There’s structural things with the defence, and there’s intent and doing things that are our habits around line speed. That’s a big focus this week.”
Those who made their respective New Zealand and Australian showpiece events recently – the Crusaders, Chiefs, Reds and Brumbies – struggled to back up their efforts of the weekend before, with the two Kiwi finalists extremely lucky to come away with victories.
The Reds were still celebrating on Monday, difficult week for them to have to back up on a six-day turnaround [before playing the Highlanders]. I think there’s got to be a week between the competitions.
Brumbies coach Dan McKellar
European players have become used to playing in concurrent competitions and perhaps returning to the coalface six or seven days after triumphing in a final – Kiwi and Aussie players less so.
After watching his side lose 33-31 in Christchurch, Brumbies coach Dan McKellar raised the point about whether it was fair to start a competition one week after finishing another.
“The Reds were still celebrating on Monday, difficult week for them to have to back up on a six-day turnaround [before playing the Highlanders]. I think there’s got to be a week between the competitions,” McKellar said.
“You talk to [Crusaders coach] Razor, I’m sure they struggled as well off the back of a high of winning a competition, having to back up seven days later.”
It’s a reasonable point to make, albeit one likely to get short shrift from administrators and rival fans alike, especially in New Zealand where the fatigue of seeing the Crusaders win five titles in a row is beginning to set in. “I know we’re disliked immensely,” Robertson said after his side beat the Chiefs in the Super Rugby Aotearoa final.
Robertson’s side, despite being in control for most of the game, were lucky to win at the end; they had to watch as Noah Lolesio dragged an attempted conversion, which would have drawn the game, wide after the final siren.
It was a tough pill for the visitors to swallow; but even tougher was the way the Force lost to the Chiefs in Perth. Domingo Miotti had a chance to win the game for the Force with a conversion after scoring a try after the final siren but he also pushed his kick wide.
A bit of a hangover from the [Super Rugby Aotearoa] final still there, we came crashing back down to earth tonight. To be honest, that feels like a bit of a loss. We’ll take it though, I suppose.
Chiefs captain Brad Weber on his side’s narrow win
“Geez, we were lucky there,” Chiefs captain Brad Weber said afterwards after watching Anton Lienert-Brown and Luke Jacobson spend time in the sinbin, with Jacobson eventually shown a red card for a ruck offence after getting a second yellow.
“A bit of a hangover from the [Super Rugby Aotearoa] final still there, we came crashing back down to earth tonight.
“To be honest, that feels like a bit of a loss. We’ll take it though, I suppose.”
“The boys dug deep, the ones that stayed on the field,” Weber said. “Geez, we need to sort our discipline out, that was horrific.
“We wanted to play at the right end of the field and put them under pressure, but when they hold the ball for long periods like they did, it’s pretty hard to do that.
“We just gave away penalties. We’d undo some good work, like we’d make some good defensive reads and get the ball back, but they were under advantage so it’s all for nothing, you know.”
Crusaders coach Robertson was similarly mystified with some of what he saw on the pitch. However, his frustrations were directed more at the regular collapsed scrums and penalties issued against both front rows by referee Paul Williams.
“We haven’t collapsed a scrum all year, I think,” Robertson said. “That’s frustrating – the boys admitted they were a little bit frustrated. We were all frustrated and that just didn’t allow us to get our rhythm.”
With the Crusaders’ lineout also under pressure, the home side couldn’t get into their usual flow, although first-five Richie Mo’unga did score a spectacular individual try in the first half, one that was outdone in the second half by fullback Tom Banks who ran in from halfway.
So the Blues, Highlanders and Hurricanes are on top with five competition points and the Crusaders and Chiefs are next with four. They all survived their various challenges in round one and it’s on to the next one – the key being to win and win well.
That imperative to win with a bonus point can bring its own challenges, however. Neglect the basics and get the balance wrong and you may slip and fall behind.
Of the games in round two, the Chiefs v Brumbies in Hamilton and Reds v Crusaders in Brisbane appear the most intriguing.