The Wrap: Super Rugby AU comes of age in Canberra thriller

I woke indecently early on Sunday morning, at 4:45am, restless and still trying to comprehend the Reds’ 24-22 loss to the Brumbies on Saturday night.

With nothing invested in the match other than a frittered point in The Roar tipping panel, I wondered if Reds coach Brad Thorn – someone to whom the loss actually mattered – was sleeping, and how he was coming to terms with the injustice of his side doing so much right, but losing the match?

Staring into the darkness, it wasn’t hard to figure out the reasons why.

Trademark Reds ill discipline in the first half yielded field position to the Brumbies, and two of their trademark, lineout maul tries. Put simply, sides that don’t have a counter to the Brumbies’ maul must stay onside and keep their tackles low.

Right on halftime, a period of sustained Brumbies pressure brought a brilliant counter response from the Reds and a superb try to the returning Jordan Petaia that was rubbed out on review.

Technically, referee Nic Berry couldn’t be faulted, but given that Tom Wright fell into Lukhan Salakaia-Loto’s shoulder, and that it occurred in a neighbouring postcode, the Reds could count themselves desperately unlucky.

Given such a break, why the Brumbies spurned the opportunity to go to their lineout maul again was mystifying, with Bayley Kuenzle’s missed penalty looking for all money like an act of sympathy. Nevertheless, the damage had been done.

The second-half replacement of hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa with Alex Mafi coincided with a total breakdown of the Reds’ lineout. Up by six points and with the Brumbies ripe for the picking, the inability to sustain possession in the attacking half and add to their lead proved crucial.

With five minutes remaining, the otherwise excellent James O’Connor spilled an easy catch, then compounded the error by playing the ball from an offside position. A third Brumbies line-out maul try ensued.

Entering the final minute, the Reds only needed to secure a final attacking line-out to run out the match. The two lines compressed forwards and inwards, at which point Mafi should have walked away and demanded that Berry ensure correct spacing. Instead he rolled the dice into what was never more than a 50-50 contest, and lost.

Inexplicably gifted possession back from the lineout, Reds winger Filipo Daugunu stood still with the ball, as if willing the clock to run out, before being pushed to the touchline, then throwing a loose pass infield, which gifted the Brumbies their final possession. Definitely not ‘Closing out a match 101’.

Fraser McReight could count himself unlucky to have given away the final penalty, shoved into the contest and not actually appearing to play the ball, but given how dominant the Reds’ defence was in general play, there was no reason for him to be in so close, pushing the envelope.

There was no luck about how Brumbies replacement flyhalf Mack Hansen stepped forward and nailed the match-winner from 40 metres to ice what was a thrilling contest.

Brumbies

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

A satisfying blend of endeavour, physicality and skill, this was certainly the best Australian derby I can remember for some years, and is an important marker for the Super Rugby AU competition.

The Brumbies cemented their lead at the top of the table because they held their nerve, made fewer mistakes, conceded fewer penalties, and converted their few genuine opportunities into points.

Debate will no doubt rage about their over-reliance on the lineout maul, but perhaps consider why The Fast and Furious movie franchise has taken nearly $6 billion in box office, approaching its ninth instalment. People know what’s coming, and while there’s something strangely unfulfilling about seeing too much of it, it’s legal and its brutally effective.

The Brumbies’ recycle and ball retention was efficient, although their back line was pushed deeper and deeper by the Reds’ defensive line. Tevita Kuridrani often operated 20 metres behind the advantage line, where he and wingers Wright and Solomone Kata, who were well held.

The Reds’ back line looked the more threatening, with Daugunu and Jock Campbell slippery, but it was the hard, straight running of number eight Harry Wilson that really caught the eye.

Along with strong 80-minute performances from Salakaia-Loto and Taniela Tupou, once the Reds’ forwards gathered their breath after the first half hour of repeated tackling, they worked their way on top and would have felt that they did enough to win.

But this was a harsh lesson in how the winning of rugby matches is not determined on work rate alone. Instinctive decision making and accurate execution are required – qualities that also happened to be in short supply at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night, where the Rebels sneaked home in super time against the Force, 25-20.

The Force’s main qualities are an ability to scrap hard and stay in the contest, and they have also finished off some of the best back line tries in this competition. Against that, they lack the conditioning of the other sides and possess a shallower bench.

Once they worked themselves into the lead, the Rebels should have finished the Force off comfortably, but not for the first time this year, their propensity to play too far within themselves hurt them. With Force captain Jeremy Thrush sent to the sin bin, and a dominant five-metre scrum bringing a repeat penalty and the promise of a try or penalty try, captain Matt Toomua inexplicably took his foot off the throat and lobbed over an easy but safe three points.

Matt Toomua reacts after a loss

(William West/AFP via Getty Images)

Then, as they had done in Round 1 against the Reds, the Rebels shut up shop too early, kicking too much good ball away in the attacking half. As a tactic to maintain field position, that’s only as good as the discipline not to concede penalties, and when Pone Fa’amausili tried to attract the attention of the Russian judge in cartwheeling over a maul, all of a sudden Jono Lance was lining up a shot at goal to potentially win the match for the Force.

The Fox rugby commentary team found great hilarity in Fa’amausili’s antics. But with the ball nowhere in his sight, it represented poor decision making, the kind that costs good coaches their jobs.

Thankfully for the Rebels, Lance hit his worst kick of the night, Thrush muffed the super time kick-off, and with the benefit of a breather and tactical re-set, the Rebels once again switched to direct rugby and came up with the winning try to Isi Naisarani.

It’s a win that they will gladly grasp, but on the evidence of what we saw in Canberra, if they are to challenge the Brumbies or Reds for the title, the Rebels will need to play more rugby.

Thrush cut a forlorn figure afterwards, describing the defeat as “guttering”. At 35 and approaching retirement age, perhaps a post-rugby career as a roofing contractor awaits.

In Hamilton, the Chiefs put up their best performance of the year, but were still no match for the Crusaders, who weren’t about to lose twice on the hop. Bad fortune seems to be following Warren Gatland’s men, this time still very much in the game at 20-19 when referee Ben O’Keeffe turned a knock-on by Quinten Strange into a try to Sevu Reece.

O’Keeffe otherwise had a good match, but sometimes officials are better advised not to overthink things and outsmart themselves, and just go with the obvious.

There were to be no late heroics this time for the Highlanders, who struggled all day to put hard defensive shoulders into the big Blues ball runners, led by Patrick Tuipulotu and Caleb Clarke.

The 32-21 scoreline was comfortable enough for the Blues, and sets up an intriguing battle for second place with the Hurricanes.

Beauden Barrett celebrates with Blues teammates

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Dunedin match was preceded by a tribute to All Black Andy Haden, who passed away last week aged 69. Haden was a giant of the sport in every respect, although perhaps not so fondly remembered in Cardiff for his gamesmanship in attempting to influence referee Roger Quittenton into awarding the All Blacks a crucial penalty, which ensured a late 13-12 victory against Wales in 1978.

In many respects Haden was ahead of his time, an advocate for better rewarding players, paving a path for the transition to professionalism that followed his retirement.

I met Haden on a few occasions, once in 1999 in the aftermath of the All Blacks’ shock World Cup semi-final loss to France. Emerging from a post-mortem beer tent on Harlequins’ Stoop and tumbling into a minibus, Haden somehow squeezed himself into the back seat, and held court for the trip back to the centre of London.

It is no understatement to say that Haden was so unhappy with the selection of Christian Cullen out of position at centre, that if All Blacks coach John Hart had accidentally stepped into the bus, we would have been witness to a horrible and gruesome murder.

Haden’s biography, Boots and All, was released in 1983 and on the promotional circuit he stopped in one night to speak at our King Country rugby club. Refusing to answer direct questions about whether he had received royalties for the book or not, Haden angered one of the local figures, an ex-president and life member of the club, Don ‘Spunky’ Lawson, who was a staunch advocate for keeping rugby amateur.

An unfortunate public slanging match ensued, which, it must be said, Haden won with ease. Immediately afterwards, the gents was abuzz with reaction, including that of a young local by the name of ‘Grasshopper’, who coincidentally happened to be an apprentice joiner, indentured to Spunky.

Waiting his turn, Grasshopper excitedly told everyone how brilliant it was that his boss had made such a fool of himself with Haden. After which there was the sound of a toilet flushing, and Spunky emerging from the cubicle.

“Seven thirty start tomorrow, don’t be late, and don’t expect to be paid,” he said. Humiliated as he may have been, Spunky proved to be a man of his word.

It is worth noting how Haden’s All Blacks career spanned 13 years, 1972-1985, during which he played 41 Tests. Today, it would take an equivalent All Black just three years to reach the same number.

It is ironic how Haden’s motivation to better reward for players for their effort eventually turned the game on its head to such an extent that elite players are required to play so many more Test matches just to help keep their national union solvent.

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