It’s been well documented that bonus points will likely decide the finalists in this year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition and the Chiefs were able to nab one in the final minutes of their clash with the Reds on Saturday night.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the type of bonus point they were after, with the Queenslanders triumphing 40-34 in front of a healthy Townsville crowd.
The nature of the competition means the Reds have minimal chance of actually progressing to the title-decider, but the win is still a huge boon for the Australian teams and ensures that they won’t go through the season winless against New Zealand opposition, as they did in 2017.
It’s also the kind of result that could inspire a few copycat performances in the weeks to come.
Yes, the Reds weren’t entirely convincing throughout the full 80 minutes, managing just 19 points while the Chiefs had their full complement on the park – but teams often fall away late in games when they all but have the result sewn up.
That won’t be any consolation for Reds coach Brad Thorn, who didn’t crack a smile even when his charges were up 33-3 at halftime and looked ready to explode when the Reds almost lost the encounter in the dying stages.
But, at the end of the day, it’s a shot in the arm for a competition that so desperately needed an upset result, or at least another tightly fought tussle.
The Reds will enter next week’s match with the Blues in Brisbane with plenty of confidence that they can foot it with the New Zealand teams, provided they play to their potential and don’t get shell-shocked early in the game.
Their final fixture will see them travel to Wellington to take on the Hurricanes, who finished fifth in Super Rugby Aotearoa. It would take a brave man to bank on the Queenslanders to secure two victories from those matches, but it no longer looks entirely out of the realms of possibility.
All that being said, it’s impossible to ignore the impact that Damian McKenzie’s red card had on the fixture.
Saturday’s match was arguably the first time that a red card has actually altered a result in the various Super Rugby spin-off competition that have taken place in the past two years
The diminutive fullback’s dangerous tackle on the even slighter Tate McDermott was a fairly clear-cut sending off.
World Rugby have made it painfully clear that direct contact to the head with no sudden drop from the ball carrier or other mitigating factors is always going to result in a red card and while McKenzie’s tackle was probably on the lighter end of the scale, the punishment was appropriate given the laws of the game.
It was the first time in a competition involving Kiwi sides that the new red card rules were brought to the fore, with McKenzie able to be replaced after 20 minutes. Shaun Stevenson took the field following halftime and once the Chiefs had been restored to their full contingent, they slowly built some ascendancy and fought their way back into the game.
Last year, Hurricanes lock Scott Scrafton was handed a red card late in the Hurricanes’ win over the Chiefs in Hamilton while Blues prop Alex Hodgman was sent off following a dangerous tackle in the dying stages of his side’s loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin this year.
Neither player was replaced in those matches as the cards were both dished out past the 60-minute mark.
The rule was added to Super Rugby AU in 2021 and while there were eight red cards handed out in total, half of those were issued after 60 minutes.
On the four occasions that sent-off players were able to be replaced, the team that had to cope with being a man down for 20 minutes lost just two matches – but neither of those results were surprises.
In the first instance, the Waratahs were hammered 41-7 by the Reds in the opening round of Super Rugby AU 2021 with Izaia Perese marched from the field shortly before halftime for a lifting tackle on Hunter Paisami. The Waratahs were already down by 20 points when the card was issued, however, so they actually performed better with 14 men on the park.
Then in the Super Rugby AU qualifying final, Western Force wing Toni Pulu was sent off and the Brumbies triumphed 21-9, but scored just 10 of their points with the one-man advantage.
Regardless, those results both ended as expected.
You look at it from an entertainment perspective as well, the people who are there to watch, they’re there to watch not only the Reds, but there to watch guys like Damian McKenzie so I’d like to see him back out there.
Wallabies centurion Will Genia on McKenzie’s red card
It was a similar story when the Chiefs managed to hold out to beat the Western Force by a point in the opening week of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman. They had Luke Jacobson sent off for receiving a second yellow card – in the 66th minute – but the result still ultimately fell their way.
As such, Saturday’s match was arguably the first time that a red card has actually altered a result in the various Super Rugby spin-off competition that have taken place in the past two years but it was only due to the new rule, allowing a substitute to come on after 20 minutes, that the game was still able to develop into somewhat of a thrilling contest.
In the half-time coverage from Stan, Wallabies centurion Will Genia lamented that despite the fact that the Chiefs weren’t down a man for the full match, the early end to night for McKenzie was still a cruel blow to not just the Chiefs, but to the game’s sizeable audience.
“I understand the law and the rulings and the parameters … but also I don’t agree,” Genia said. I think we can go too far with things.
“To me, I see that, I think yes, penalty, yellow card, you get him back in the game. You look at it from an entertainment perspective as well, the people who are there to watch, they’re there to watch not only the Reds, but there to watch guys like Damian McKenzie so I’d like to see him back out there but … I do understand the rules.”
Genia’s former Wallabies coach, Michael Cheika, had a similar take.
“I don’t like it at all. The force is not brought by Damian McKenize, the force is brought by the ball-runner,” he said.
“I think McKenzie’s a great part of the game. We’ve taken the game to Townsville for the first time. They want to see a player like McKenzie as well. I think the Reds even want him out there, to be honest, because they’re playing well.”
Their sentiments were similar to comments delivered by Waratahs co-coach Jason Gilmore following his side’s loss to the Rebels earlier this season, in a game which saw the Rebels replace the red-carded Isi Naisarani after 20 minutes and go on to win 36-25.
“It’s good for the fact it doesn’t wreck the contest; it’s great for the fans,” Gilmore told ESPN after the game, despite suffering from the law change.
It’s a result that will ultimately cost [the Chiefs] a place in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, but one that will at least take a small amount of heat off Australia.
Gilmore did suggest that if a player is invalided due to an act of foul play, however, the team who losses their man to injury should perhaps be allowed to bring an extra substitute onto the bench so as to not be too unfairly hindered – something that the NRL has adopted for the current season.
While most would agree that egregious foul play should result in a sending-off, there’s evidently still a divide when it comes to less significant, perhaps unintentional reckless acts and the rules may need further tweaking down the line.
Ultimately, however, the Chiefs will be left to rue how easily they were dominated when having to cope with the high-paced Reds while playing with a man down.
It’s a result that will ultimately cost them a place in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, but one that will at least take a small amount of heat off Australia.
There’s understandably been plenty of criticism levelled at the competition to date due to the lopsided nature of many of the contests and while the Reds’ six-point victory won’t change many people’s perceptions on the matter, it’s a step in the right direction.