Leicester Fainga’anuku of the Crusaders celebrates his try with Richie Mo’unga. Photosport
From red cards, to the Blues finding their groove, to the finale in Wellington that was as welcome as the day was warm, Super Rugby Pacific had plenty of talking points.
Let the sunshine in
There couldn’t have been a better way to end the rugby weekend than the thrilling game in Wellington that saw the Chiefs hold off a resurgent Hurricanes and win 30-29.
The match began with an intercept try for Canes’ halfback TJ Perenara, and ended with a dazzling piece of quick thinking and huge athleticism from their captain, Ardie Savea who tapped and ran from 15 meters out in the 72nd minute to score while some exhausted Chiefs were still on the ground.
But between Perenara and Savea’s top flight efforts the Chiefs had star performances of their own, with an especially stellar role played by the first five Josh Ioane, who recovered from the embarrassment of throwing the pass Perenara picked off for his try, to set up attacks for his backline, and goal kick with huge accuracy.
Next Saturday night, when the Blues come south of the Bombays to play the Chiefs in Hamilton, will be an intense, old school, local derby.
Who will carry the ball up at the World Cup?
Ma’a Nonu, All Black analyst Aussie McLean quite rightly pointed out during the week, has left a vacant blockbusting role in the All Black midfield that seven years after he left hasn’t really been filled.
In the so far fruitless hunt for a potent ball carrier in the centers the experiment of playing Jordie Barrett at second-five for the Canes against the Chiefs looks hugely promising. Barrett’s defense is rock-like and tactically he reads the game expertly.
It would also be worthwhile to check out Crusader Leicester of Fainga’anuku, who looked unstoppable in Christchurch against the Highlanders as he smashed over for a 30th minute try. Even more impressive was his approach when faced head on, eight minutes from the end of the game, by Shannon Frizell, ferociously carrying the ball as if someone had insulted his whole family at the Oscars. Fainga’anuku didn’t pause for a deep breath, just sprung straight at his man and wrestled him to the ground.
Falling down like rain
“In rugby the head is sacred,” the great undefeated All Black captain Buck Shelford once said, after his scalp had been lacerated in a trial match. And that’s the reason for three red cards in five days in Super Rugby Pacific.
There won’t be any dissent about the cards dished out to Blues’ prop Nepo Singing after his shoulder slammed into Moana Pasifika center Fini Inisi’s head at Mt Smart on Tuesday. And video replays show clearly how Crusader hooker Shilo Klein’s tackle on Highlander prop Ethan de Groot in Christchurch was an almost textbook example of a red card offense, as he led with his shoulder into de Groot’s head.
On the other hand, on line comment is running hot over Blues wing Caleb Clarke being sent off after Moana Pasifika wing Tomasi Alosio had to leave the field obviously concussed when an attempt by Clarke to charge down Alosio’s kick ahead went horribly wrong.
Clarke leapt so high in the air his upper thigh and hip slammed into Alosio’s head. Was it, as Blues’ coach Leon MacDonald has noted, a rare, almost freakish accident? Yes. But was there any alternative for referee Ben O’Keefe? No.
In the immediate future our main concern should, of course, be for a speedy recovery for Alosio.
But looking to next year, where, barring injury, Clarke will be a key player for the All Blacks at the World Cup in France, the moment may serve as a scary reminder that the northern hemisphere referees are, quite rightly, very vigilant about potential head injuries. So making sure that not only tackling techniques are impeccable, but also the way players attempt to charge downs, should be front of mind when the All Blacks arrive in France.
As it always will, winning rugby starts up front
At the heart of the comprehensive 41-16 Blues victory over Moana Pasifika at Eden Park were three tries from lineout drives to Blues’ hooker Kurt Eklund.
Stephen Perofeta was commanding at first-five, while Caleb Clarke and rookie at second-five Corey Evans, who at 21 has future All Black written all over him, scored dashing tries. But the main difference was in the forwards, where the Blues have a pack who echo the hard edged commitment of captain Dalton Papalii who appears to have never seen the middle of a brutal breakdown he doesn’t like.
Come on Covid, give these guys a break
Moana Pasifika’s run of bad luck has gone way beyond a joke. Omicron wrecked their lead up to Super Rugby, and seeing photographs of their head coaches in the coaches’ box at Eden Park was a wry commentary on how much they’ve had to deal with this season. There were suggestions Moana were “a doomed token gesture” after they’d played just two games but even in the castle at Eden Park there were many flashes of the spirit that took them to victory over the Hurricanes. And it’s still worth remembering that in the first season of Super Rugby in 1996 the Crusaders were dead stone cold motherless last. Two seasons later they won the title.
Forget fluoride in tap water, check the stadium supply
The first half of the game in Christchurch between the Crusaders and the Highlanders was close, and had some good rugby to excite the 10,419 people who were at Orangetheory Stadium. Sadly the next 40 minutes made you wonder if Mogadon had been sneakily fed to both sides at halftime. Errors and aimlessness combined to make the final whistle, with the halftime score of 17-14 to the Crusaders unchanged, a relief.
When the moments you remember the now in a half are Mitch Hunt, the limitlessly gutsy and usually highly accurate Highlanders’ first-five, overcooking a penalty kick attempting to set up a lineout in the 63rd minute, and a red card being issued in the 77th minute to Crusader Shilo Klein, you know this wasn’t a finish for the ages.