In what was a chaotic weekend, six teams fighting for three finals spots became five teams fighting for two, with the Waratahs emerging from the ruck, courtesy of their fourth win in succession.
Realistically, five teams might well be four, with the Rebels, in the wake of their controversial 20-17 loss to the Highlanders, now needing a minor miracle to force their way in.
Permutations are many, but with the Reds and Force currently occupying seventh and eighth, those spots are theirs to lose, no matter what the Highlanders and Drua deliver in the final fortnight.
The argument that an eight-team finals series in a 12-team competition is borderline ridiculous is soundly based. But there can be no denying that such a format helps maintain interest for fans of more franchises, for longer. And that’s no bad thing.
One team without any such concerns is the Crusaders, who opened the weekend with a 41-7 defeat of Moana Pasifika, and a brilliant try that deserved much more than the faint “good one” praise offered up by Sky NZ commentator, Jeff McTainsh.
Triggered by a superb pass by Will Jordan, the ball travelled through 22 passes, involving 11 different players, before the movement was finished off by loose-forward, Christian Lio-Willie.
Perhaps McTainsh’s blasé reaction spoke to how Super Rugby viewers have been spoiled over the years; immune to something that once would have been hailed as brilliant and special? Or too jaded to care?
Also falling into the ‘good’ category was young Crusaders halfback Noah Hotham, crowning his best game so far by returning to the field late in the match, and overcoming a significant weight disadvantage, to impressively sit the human barrel, Timoci Tavatavanawai, on his backside in a covering tackle.
In Brisbane, the Blues edged their way into the top four, comfortably putting away the Reds 45-26. Unsurprisingly flat after the heroics of last week, the Reds were too passive in defence, and unable to slow down the speed of the Blues’ recycle.
Just after half-time, with the Reds down by only 17-14 and pressing hard on attack, the ball spilled free out of Fraser McReight’s grasp at the base of a ruck. The culprit was Blues hooker Ricky Riccitelli – laying on the ground and supposedly out of play – but what was instructive wasn’t just the officials caught asleep at the wheel, but what happened immediately after Hoskins Sotutu snaffled the loose ball.
Blues winger Mark Telea’s urgent intent to shift the ball quickly into space, to recognise the opportunity from quick turnover ball, was plainly visible. He didn’t even need to pass it, he just ran hard to where he knew the space would be, and in the blink of an eye, he turned what should have been a penalty and yellow card against his side, into seven points, 95-metres away, at the other end.
The Blues’ win pushed the Hurricanes down to 5th, after they were unable to match the Chiefs, going down 23-12 in the ‘sideways rain’ of Hamilton. On the positive side for the Hurricanes, the match was another step forward, a coming of age of sorts, for 24-year-old loose forward Brayden Iose, now looking to deliver on his undoubted potential.
It’s hard to know where to start with the Highlanders’ 20-17 win over the Rebels in Dunedin. It was a day of frustration and anger for fans of both sides, and bemused neutrals too, all trying to make sense of two sides seemingly unable to deal with the weight of the high stakes, sudden-death nature of the contest.
Let’s start with Sky NZ’s commentary team, where veteran commentator Grant Nisbett began by referring to “Julian” Uelese, before descending rapidly downhill from there, misidentifying players with regular abandon.
It got worse, with sideline comments man Joe Wheeler informing viewers that Matt Philip had been replaced at lock by (utility back) Nick Jooste, and prop Matt Gibbon by (loose forward) Tamati Ioane.
The fact that so-called expert commentators have no idea who visiting players are and clearly aren’t prepared to put in the work to sufficiently engage with the competition to identify players by sight, is bad enough. But it’s the charade – the pretence that these ‘experts’ are providing information of value to viewers – that grates the most.
Testing the patience of their fans, the Highlanders were hamstrung by equal measures of tactical ineptness and lack of midfield penetration. Freddie Burns tapping and running a kickable second-half penalty, into an area where the Rebels had plenty of defenders, was – even for this crazy match – the height of stupidity.
For their part, the Rebels turned over far too much ball, and with lineout thrower Alex Mafi getting the yips, they were never able to enjoy sustained periods in attack, gaining only 3.5 percent of possession in the attacking 22, compared to the Highlanders’ 24 percent.
For all of the progress the Rebels have made this year, they are still without the hard edge and clinical prowess needed to occupy a higher spot on the ladder.
That said, the officials had a notably poor match, with most of the key mishaps going against the visitors. On the advice of his assistant, referee Paul Williams’ denial of an early try to Scott Gregory seemed to defy logic, after which he then went on to award two Highlanders’ tries that, on second viewing, were shown to be anything but.
Inexplicably, TMO Richard Kelly chose not to examine Ethan de Groot’s ‘try’, nor foul play by Jona Nareki with only 40 seconds remaining; an act that if correctly penalised, would almost certainly have seen the Rebels win.
Instead, the penalty came at the other end, with Williams, already having harshly dispatched Uelese, and having allowed a willing contest at the breakdown all night, cruelly cracking down for a second time on Richard Hardwick, who appeared to have latched directly onto the ball, prior to being dragged down by the neck, by Highlanders’ captain, Billy Harmon.
If the measure of a successful game is one where the match officials aren’t said to influence the result, then this match was a resounding failure on all counts.
Doing their finals chances a heap of good were the Force, whose fast start and strong finish allowed them to see off the Brumbies 34-19.
That represented an important outcome for both teams, with the Brumbies – having chosen to leave a number of key players at home – slipping to 3rd on the ladder, currently out of a potential home semi-final slot, and the Force now within sniffing distance of the finals.
The best match of the weekend was in Sydney, where the Waratahs and Drua played it hard, fast and furious throughout. In the end, 32-18 to the Waratahs represented a difference in finesse and experience; the Drua ball runners, in their eagerness to initiate heavy contact, consistently too upright in the carry.
Conditioning was a factor too; some tired defensive kicking from the Drua in the second half inviting trouble, which Mark Nawaqanitawase and Joey Walton were only too happy to provide.
Walton’s in-pass for Nawaqanitawase’s second try was a stunning piece of work, albeit with an interesting link to news last week that World Rugby is trialling new ball technology that promises the ability to rule definitively on forward passes.
This is a so-called ‘technology improvement’ that has ‘be careful what you wish for’ written all over it.
Think about the half-dozen or more forward passes not called in any given match. Does rugby – a sport searching for ways to enhance its entertainment value – really need more reasons to impede continuity? Not to mention the additional six scrums?
You can forget all about the ‘passed out of the hands backwards” interpretation too. Show me a ‘smart ball’ good enough to know what occurs outside the ball, and I’ll show you someone who will come up with a reason to go the whole hog and do away with referees altogether.
Proponents of the ball technology should consider one question. In their search for absolute perfection, are they prepared to see thrilling tries like Nawaqanitawase’s – where in the strictest sense, mapped onto a hi-tech grid, Walton’s brilliant pass would almost certainly have been decreed to have travelled slightly forward – be rubbed out?
And what about the try scored in Perth by the Brumbies’ Charlie Cale, following a pass from Andy Muirhead to a flying Corey Toole?
Rugby is an imperfect game; ask anyone who saw what played out in Dunedin. The notion that it can be made perfect is fatally flawed. The cost of that would be to turn rugby into something it isn’t or was never intended to be.
Another thing not envisaged – at least until recently – was Melbourne Rebels’ Super W captain Ash Marsters’ transition from hooker to Test breakaway. Off the leash, Marsters’ ball skills and athleticism proved perfectly suited to the wider commission, throwing the final pass for no less than three of the four tries scored by the Wallaroos in their 22-5 win over Fijiana.
In Dublin, it was more heartbreak for Leinster, starting like a house on fire, but edged out by an impressive comeback by La Rochelle, who claimed their second Champions Cup, 27-26. Expect another wild week of celebrations in rugby’s most renowned sleepy fishing village.
Hanging over the weekend’s action was the death last week, by suicide, of halfback Billy Guyton, aged 33. Guyton played 26 Super Rugby games for the Hurricanes, Crusaders and Blues, and also was selected for the Maori All Blacks in 2016.
A popular figure, Guyton was known to have struggled with a bipolar disorder prior to being forced into retirement, due to the debilitating effects of multiple concussions suffered in his career.
It is not the intention of this column to draw conclusions on Guyton’s death other than to say that this represents a fork in the road for rugby in New Zealand.
We are shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Billy Guyton. He was a talented rugby player, who made 24 appearances for the Blues between 2016-2017. We cannot imagine the heartache his family and friends must be feeling at this difficult time. To everyone who knew Billy, we… pic.twitter.com/fEKpx4hazr
— The Blues (@BluesRugbyTeam) May 15, 2023
One path has already been marked by well-meaning commentary around the need for men to “call a mate”, to help ensure that the scourge of depression isn’t allowed to fester in dark and lonely places. It will also recognise how the science on brain injury and CTE is inconclusive, particularly with respect to isolating the effects of injuries obtained playing sport from other possible contributing factors.
An alternative outcome would be to seize the opportunity for everyone involved in rugby – administrators, referees, coaches, players, media and supporters – to confront the concussion issue, and to expedite the conversations and actions necessary to make the game safer for participants.
Guyton’s age renders this an extreme and uncommon case where Super Rugby, specifically, is concerned. But it is far from uncommon with respect to the suffering of players in other rugby, rugby league, AFL, football, and other contact sports.
Inherently conservative by nature, it is no surprise that Rugby administrators have to date aligned themselves with scientists and academics of a similar conservative bent; all cautiously unwilling to draw conclusions and implement actions that aren’t supported by an unimpeachable evidence base.
This is a false premise. Sports bodies like Rugby New Zealand are free at any time to unshackle themselves from any such self-imposed constraints, to deal in the bleeding obvious.
Guyton, Tu Wylie, Geoff Old and Carl Hayman are just some of the prominent New Zealand rugby players whose dire situations speak to the extent of the problem. There are countless of others suffering; players from elite and club backgrounds.
It is true that, over time, more research, and scientific and technological advances will better inform rugby’s lawmakers. But that is no reason not to act today.
To secure rugby’s future, it is incumbent on everyone involved in rugby to contribute to making the game safer; to ensure that rugby retains a balance between acceptable risk and the skill and physical elements of the game that make it so attractive to play and watch.
Guyton’s death highlights that the time to do this is now; through science yes, but more immediately through law adjustments, coaching, training load minimisation, minimum ages for contact play, injury management, return to play protocols, widespread education and so on.
Failure to act in a decisive and timely way will only invite politicians and fearful parents to define rugby’s future. Rugby can, and must, do better than that.