The Wrap: Five-try Wainui reveals Super Rugby’s bald truth

Sean Wainui scoring five tries on Saturday night – a Super Rugby record – was impressive enough, but it was what he said afterwards that was the real story. Asked what lay ahead for him, Wainui said he was looking forward to playing provincial rugby for Bay of Plenty and was hopeful of a call-up […]

The Wrap: Five-try Wainui reveals Super Rugby’s bald truth

Sean Wainui scoring five tries on Saturday night – a Super Rugby record – was impressive enough, but it was what he said afterwards that was the real story.

Asked what lay ahead for him, Wainui said he was looking forward to playing provincial rugby for Bay of Plenty and was hopeful of a call-up next week for the Maori All Blacks. In other words, Wainui will spend his next few months in professionally run rugby programs, playing intense, high-level rugby, before enjoying an off-season ahead of next year’s Super Rugby competition.

What about Wainui’s equivalents in Australia? Players who are solid, talented professionals without being of genuine international standard? What is their rugby program for the rest of the year?

Without a domestic semi-professional competition there are three options: rest, club rugby or a contract in the northern hemisphere, none of which is likely to improve Australia’s lot in Super Rugby in 2022, whatever the format.

The right noises are being heard from Rugby Australia about the resurrection of such a competition, perhaps from 2023 and beyond, once private equity investment in Australian rugby can be secured. With Australia’s top two sides, the Reds and Brumbies, comprehensively outplayed on the weekend by Super Rugby Aotearoa’s bottom two sides, the Hurricanes and Highlanders, that day can’t come quickly enough if Australian teams are going to match the intensity and consistency of the best professional franchises.

Happily for Wallabies coach Dave Rennie focus will now shift away from ‘the gap’ to Australia’s top 38 players, where issues of comparative depth compared to nations like New Zealand and France are less pronounced.

Yesterday’s Wallabies squad announcement was met with the usual debate about players on the fringes of selection missing out or making the cut, Liam Wright, Trevor Hosea, Izack Rodda, Irae Simone among the former, and Rob Leota, Michael Wells, Andrew Kellaway and Lalakai Foketi among the latter.

With some players already knocked out of the equation because of injury – Tim Anstee, Suliasi Vunivalu and Jordan Petaia) – Izaia Perese has been named but is doubtful, while Ryan Lonergan has been included as temporary cover for Jake Gordon.

With the extent of any suspension still to be confirmed, Lachie Swinton was also included, with Rennie stating that while he was looking for Swinton to be “more accurate”, he wasn’t overly concerned that Swinton posed a potential liability for the Wallabies.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Over the next three weeks expect Rennie’s squad to hit the ground running with a focus on lineout execution, tackling efficiency, kicking (exit and general play) and a “dark side” intensity at the breakdown, all of which were noticeably poor in the Reds’ 43-14 loss in Wellington.

It was as if the Reds believed their superior scrum was all they needed to carry themselves to victory, although once the game was out of reach, even that withered away in line with the rest of their game.

Yes, they were hard done by when referee James Doleman in awarding the home side a penalty try, somehow got inside the mind of Bryce Hegarty and determined that Hegarty’s intent was to bat the ball over the dead-ball line instead of forcing it. That was as ungenerous as it was creative to assume that a full-speed, diving Ngani Laumape would have been able to securely force the same high bouncing ball.

But even with key decisions not falling their way, such was the Reds’ lack of cohesion and unwillingness to support each other in the tackle area, the overwhelming feeling was one of a side that has gone backwards since their Super Rugby AU win.

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Unfortunately much the same conclusion can be drawn for the Brumbies, who fell away in the second half to lose 33-12 at home to the Highlanders.

Perhaps the seeds had been sown earlier in the week when the Highlanders manager phoned his Brumbies counterpart:
“What colour jumpers are you blokes wearing on Friday night?”
“White. What about you?”
“No worries. See you there!”

The best that can be said about this sorry farce was that referee Mike Fraser, in blue and orange, stood out like a Melburnian fleeing to Queensland.

The win was particularly sweet for the Highlanders, lifting them into a virtual final slot, which was confirmed less than 24 hours later. They are a side that has learnt where its strengths lie and how to play them, and they will go to Eden Park with plenty of momentum.

Their reward came at the expense of the Crusaders, who fell short of the 33-point winning margin against the Rebels required to lift them ahead on points differential. It’s a cruel competition where a side can remain undefeated and be sent packing, but such is the nature of compromised rugby competitions in a COVID world.

The Crusaders will perhaps reflect on not playing directly enough, and also the Rebels showing plenty with the ball, managing to score at regular enough intervals to keep the asking rate just out of the Crusaders’ reach.

Despite a string of losses, it has been a good three weeks for the Rebels, gaining confidence and rhythm off the back of much-improved go-forward and quick recycling. On one hand this feels like a wasted year; on the other, if a couple of judicious signings can be made to strengthen the back three, there is a sense of optimism about what next year holds.

Frank Lomani of the Rebels in action

(Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

There is also positivity around the prospects of the Force in 2022, who planted the seed of more game time for some talented Brumbies squad members and secured the returning Izack Rodda to bolster their list.

With 28-0 at halftime effectively securing the Blues home ground advantage for the final, the Force really knuckled down for the fight in the second half, showing what has become trademark grit and resilience to close things to 31-21 at the finish.

While nobody enjoys a second-half drop-off, this outcome was actually a silver lining for coach Leon McDonald, giving him far more to work with in the week leading up to a final than a 50-0 scoreline would have. If Tom Robinson is fit and Hoskins Sotutu continues his fine form, they will be very hard to toss next Saturday.

Not content with helping Wainui to his Super Rugby record, the Waratahs created one of their own, a 13th-straight loss underlying their season from hell. Problems around administration and list management have been discussed enough times they don’t bear repeating here, suffice to say that unless there are a couple of high-quality second rowers, backrowers and wingers about to be signed up, whoever lands the coaching gig for next year is still going to have their work cut out for them.

The Waratahs after conceding a try

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Other than Wainui’s effort, this match featured two major talking points: the red card issued to Swinton and a yellow card shown to Tupou Vaa’i for head-to-head contact with Waratahs flyhalf Will Harrison.

Vaa’i’s punishment was roundly pilloried, with the players clashing heads as they came into contact in a high-density situation. Interestingly, World Rugby’s laws and guidelines are at once helpfully instructive and confusingly contradictory when it comes to assessing the incident.

Law 9.20.b states that “a player must not make contact with an opponent above the line of the shoulders” and further emphasises that this includes head on head.

However, in providing the referees with a decision-making process to step through, referees are invited first to ask, “Has head contact occurred?”, and then “Was there foul play?”. If no foul play is determined, then it should be play on.

Further, the guidelines provide some ‘trigger words’ to apply to various high contact situations. Under ‘play on’ we find the terms ‘passive action’ and ‘involuntary collision’.

In summary, Vaa’i was potentially subject to sanction under law 9.20.b, but a more intuitive reading of the situation would have determined the matter an incidental head clash, passive and involuntary, with play allowed to continue.

Moving forward, if the threshold for high contact is to now be set at this level, the game is in for a tumultuous period ahead, as players, coaches, fans and media struggle to come to terms with any contact to the head – no matter if innocent or low grade – being vetoed.

A week late, but congratulations to the Dunedin Rugby Football Club, who last weekend celebrated their 150th anniversary at their Kettle Park clubrooms. Such events will become more commonplace in coming years, a reminder of how much rugby has changed in 150 years but also, when looking at the essence of the game, how much it has stayed the same.

The Dunedin clubhouse and fields are located on top of sand dunes at St Clair beach, exposed to the full brunt of southerlies whipping straight up from Antarctica. On the wrong night, training sessions would resemble tortuous SAS exercises, with icy sand pellets stinging the face, testing one’s commitment to both the club and the game.

For many, including this writer, plans to attend the event were scuttled by COVID. Nevertheless, many tales, tall and true, will have been recounted, involving Easter tournaments, illicit after-hours sessions behind closed curtains at the Beach Hotel and stories about celebrated New Zealand swimming coach and Dunedin rugby coach Duncan Laing.

Moving into a flat around the corner from Laing’s house proved useful for getting a lift to matches until one Saturday when I found him at his kitchen table, teatowel jammed into his collar as a napkin, tucking into a massive feed of mutton neck chop stew.

“Gary Cooper, my favourite,” he said, nodding towards the television. Larger than life in every sense, here was Laing in his element, with a top-of-the-table clash against University A, now less than an hour away, the furthest thing from his mind.

It was everything a pipsqueak 19-year-old, freshly promoted to the senior side, could do to get him to wriggle things along, hurry his lunch, forget the movie and get to the game, which we eventually did with barely 15 minutes to spare.

Aside from learning more about the history of Hollywood westerns than I ever cared to know, two memories stand out from that day: being so rushed and panicked I could hardly tie my bootlaces, and Laing calling the team together and nonchalantly delivering a last-minute pre-match team talk as if everything was perfectly normal.

Speaking of special rugby clubs, congratulations to Julian Savea, who this weekend joined Kurtley Beale in the club of backs who should never again be allowed to grace the scrum after his underwhelming effort packing down against the Reds on Friday night.

Reds halfback Tate McDermott must have thought all his Christmases had come at once, popping around the side of a five-metre scrum to find newly converted blindside flanker Savea, still with his head down, wondering if he should message Kurtley to see if he had his shoulder in the right position.

The gift seven points didn’t really help the Reds cause, but at least it provided some light relief on yet another tough weekend for Australian franchises.

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Five talking points from Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, Round 5

And then there were two – and perhaps not the two we all expected. The final round of the trans-Tasman competition has been and gone, and the suffering of Aussie fans can finally stop – well until the Bledisloe at least. The results this weekend might have been expected – another clean sweep for the […]

Five talking points from Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, Round 5

And then there were two – and perhaps not the two we all expected. The final round of the trans-Tasman competition has been and gone, and the suffering of Aussie fans can finally stop – well until the Bledisloe at least.

The results this weekend might have been expected – another clean sweep for the Kiwi sides – but there’s plenty to talk about, so let’s get stuck in.

Brad Thorn will be ropeable
You wouldn’t want to be around Brad Thorn much this weekend after Friday night’s game. Take your pick of reasons why. My best guess is that while he might want to rip the referee a new one for the two yellow card decisions – more on them later – it’ll be his own players that he’s most frustrated by.

Forty-eight missed tackles – 48! Just think this through for a second – the Hurricanes had only 41 per cent of the possession. The ball is in play for roughly 35 minutes out of the game. The Canes therefore had the ball in hand for 15 minutes in the whole game. In those 15 minutes the Reds missed a tackle at a rate of one every 20 seconds.

A Brad Thorn-coached side that misses a tackle every 20 seconds is in for a brutal conversation on Monday morning.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

How in the name of all that is good and pure was that a penalty try?
The Queensland players might be quite glad that their coach’s fury at them will be diluted thanks to some incredibly poor decisions from the referee.

The penalty try against Bryce Hegarty was absolutely bonkers. You can agree that the 28-year-old knocked the ball out of play deliberately, you can even agree that this behaviour deserved a yellow card, but you simply cannot be sure that Ngani Laumape was going to score.

It just doesn’t make sense. To award the penalty try the referee has to believe that if Hegarty had not committed the illegal act, then Laumape would have scored. But considering that the act was that Hegarty knocked the ball out deliberately, you are saying that the Reds player got to the ball and was able to touch it.

So if he got there, how can you say that Laumape would have scored? Surely you have to say that actually if Hegarty had chosen not to knock the ball out, then he still could have stopped Laumape from scoring and therefore no penalty try can be given.

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Will Rugby Australia feel the Force to changing their minds?
No Australian side has really covered themselves in glory over the past five weeks, but the Force should look at the trans-Tasman competition and take a lot from their progress. Just like in the Australian competition, they finished behind the Reds and Brumbies but ahead of the Rebels and the Waratahs. They had the least bad points difference of any of the Aussie sides and conceded the fewest points of all their domestic opponents, partly thanks to them also having the best tackle completion rate of any of them, at 85.8 per cent.

Their discipline was good and their set piece not too bad, and they managed to perform at roughly the same level whether home or away.

The area they struggled with was racking up points and really punching holes and gaining metres when they had the ball. They didn’t make too many errors, but they never really scared defences either in close or out wide.

But there is talent among the backline players and experience in key positions. If they can add some more effective ball carriers in the forwards, then the future will be looking good.

It’s worth remembering that the Force brought in a load of new players this season, and to see them perform in this way in their first campaign together should give hope to Force fans. They have shown that they can be difficult to beat. Next season they need to add in some more attacking threat – if they do, they will trouble the Brumbies and Reds again.

Meanwhile, over in Melbourne, the management must be a little bit worried about what’s happening. Not only have they had a shocking season – poor on the field in another season of no progress, and they’ve lost a coach and have had to be away from home far too often – but the powers that be must be looking at the structure of the competition again and wondering whether the Rebels really have a future at the top level of the domestic game.

The Waratahs have had an even worse season than the Rebels on the scoreboard, but they have the advantage over their Victorian cousins of being able to claim that they’re in a genuine rebuilding period and that they have a far more attractive market around them in New South Wales than the Rebels do in Victoria.

With two new Pacific sides joining the competition soon, the Rebels will know that they can’t afford another season at the bottom.

Tomas Cubelli of the Force passes the ball

(Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

A Super Rugby final without the Crusaders
The Crusaders are without doubt an incredible side – they would run most international sides close and pick up a number of wins if they went on a world tour.

But having a Super Rugby final without them is actually pretty exciting – even for Australian fans. It’s not that the machine from Christchurch plays boring rugby – they have some wonderfully creative players throughout their ranks – but sometimes it just gets a bit boring to see the favourites play well and win over and over and over.

With the Blues and the Highlanders coming together in the final we’ve got a much more exciting story. The Blues haven’t won a title for 18 years and the Highlanders have so often been cast as the plucky underdogs who everyone likes but no-one bets on to get the win.

The Highlanders are more of a surprise presence in the final, with the Blues finally living up to expectations. But when you look at the stats, it really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

They’ve scored 30 tries in the trans-Tasman competition and averaged almost one more try per game than the Blues backed by having two of the top four try scorers in the whole tournament.

They have a higher tackle completion rate, they’ve won the most lineouts in the competition and they have the best discipline out of any of the ten sides.

So the Blues might go into the final as favourites, but the combination of pressure and an in-form Highlanders side could well be their undoing at the final hurdle.

And the brain fade of the round goes to Lachie Swinton
Is Dave Rennie the only one who thinks that Swinton’s hit on Lachie Boshier didn’t deserve a red card? The Wallabies coach tried to justify the Waratahs backrower’s behaviour by saying, “He certainly didn’t have a big run-up in and he’s just trying to get in”.

Come on, Dave. It was a terrible hit. The guy had already hit the ruck and then reloaded and hit Boshier clear in the side of the head.

Now, of course we all know that one of Swinton’s plus points is the aggressive style he brings to the game, but his hit against the Chiefs wasn’t the aggression the Tahs or Wallabies need. It was a dog hit late in a game when the NSW side had already got the penalty and that the Tahs had already lost by miles. There was nothing to be gained other than hurting one of the opposition, and he must have known that there was a chance that he would make the final five minutes of the worst season in the club’s history that little bit harder for his teammates.

Opposition sides won’t have looked at that and thought, “Wow, I hope we don’t have to run out against him!”.

They’ll have seen it, smiled and started thinking about how quickly they can wind him up and get him off the pitch. Fortunately Rennie has other good options in the back row, but it’s such a shame to see the Tahs’ season end on such a sour note.

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