Fathered by the same sire in SANZAAR, with players from both countries familiar to fans, the natural inclination is to compare Super Rugby AU with its three-week older half brother Aotearoa.
With the rider that one competition has been running for a month and the other a week, let’s call a spade a spade. New Zealand derby matches are faster, more skilful, physical, entertaining, and more atmospheric.
Although let’s put that last one down to New Zealand’s speedy exit from COVID-19 restrictions, while the Victorian government drags the chain, snowed under by applications from lusty opportunists hoping to become hotel quarantine security guards.
New Zealand franchises have dominated their Australian counterparts in recent years to such an extent that this conclusion is hardly news despite the Brumbies and Rebels turning the tables a little, by winning in Hamilton and Dunedin respectively, earlier this year.
After Super Rugby AU’s opening weekend, one of the competition’s benefits is immediately obvious. It’s domestic.
Yes, the two competitions provide a different watching experience. Chalk and cheese are two distinctly different substances. But there is no need for Australian rugby to tie itself in knots comparing itself to New Zealand when it’s not even in the same competition.
We can enjoy both competitions for what they are, and save the consternation and self-loathing for when the countries line up against each other later in the year.
Would an Australian franchise have kept the Crusaders in check on Saturday or Sunday? Would a New Zealand franchise defence have allowed space for Jack Maddocks to waltz through for his try on Friday night? Or allowed the Brumbies to score four tries from attacking lineouts?
Perhaps, perhaps not. But it simply doesn’t matter. These next nine weeks are an opportunity for Australian rugby to focus on itself, to enjoy the emerging, young talent that is coming through, and to celebrate the inclusion of the Western Force, without it all being shrouded in black.
Legendary Australian swimming coach Laurie Lawrence set the tone on the weekend, slamming the Olympic Games selection policy adopted by coach Jacco Verhaeren, saying: “It makes me want to spew. Jacco’s a wanker and you can quote me on that.”
The only thing more Australian than Laurie Lawrence is Australian rugby fans getting down on their game.
While all four sides exposed their flaws and played at times like they’d only just met each other, there was no lack of desire and combativeness, and positives to take away for each side.
In Brisbane, the Reds and Waratahs went at each other with plenty of old-fashioned, state-based passion and niggle, before the Reds – deservedly – emerged 32-26 victors.
The Reds’ scrum was as good as their lineout wasn’t, and it was that, plus a composed finish, and a more consistent and cohesive loose forward effort, which got them home in the end.
By comparison, the physicality of the Waratahs’ Lachie Swinton won him a few individual battles, although these were negated by a tendency to overstep the mark and concede penalties.
The Waratahs also had the better back line, with Jack Maddocks and James Ramm appealing as a likely combination, and Will Harrison again displaying the full range of skills at ten. But as much as it was nice to see Ned Hanigan fit again, they lack size and presence at lock, and weren’t able to sustain pressure for long enough to kick on in the final quarter.
Promising young prop Angus Bell had a tough night, but nothing that won’t hurt his long-term career prospects. His yellow card, which came after a third collapsed scrum near the Waratahs’ try line, seemed harsh.
Certainly, the Reds’ scrum demolished the Waratahs, but on the second and third occasions, Bell neither went to ground nor stood up early under pressure. He, along with the rest of his pack, were simply beaten on the shove.
As Nic Berry did, referees often seem to single out one player and make him the scapegoat for collective ills. Yet why does this apply to only the scrum, and not to other facets of the game?
Bell didn’t do anything unlawful. He was simply pushed back by his opposite. If the same logic was applied to the lineout, why weren’t the Reds’ hookers sat down for repeatedly missing their target?
Kudos to Bell for not complaining, and breaking the world record for a wind sprint to the naughty chair.
Despite the best of intentions, the Rebels failed to show any cohesion for the first 50 minutes in Canberra, falling behind by 24-6. Rushing up to apply pressure in defence is only as good as the ability to stick tackles with accurate, hard shoulders.
Winger Andrew Kellaway has enjoyed a strong season, but with the Rebels having had no field position and being awarded a penalty 20 metres out, from where they could either get back to 7-6 or kick into the corner, his decision to go it alone, tap and throw 20 metres backwards to nobody was bewildering in strategy and execution.
The Rebels’ renewal coincided with the receipt of some energy from the bench, and a tentative Ryan Louwrens finally upping the tempo. But at 24-23, their comeback was cruelled by two crooked lineout throws.
Also problematic was the tendency to give away too many penalties, which invited the Brumbies to play to their attacking lineout strength. Four tries came as a result.
The final one, which came with two minutes left on the clock, was a tactical masterstroke. With a one-point lead, a successful penalty would have given the Brumbies a four-point buffer and forced the Rebels to win the match with an unlikely try, instead of a penalty goal.
Their gamble paid off with a maul-drive try to Will Miller, providing the Brumbies not only with a try-scoring bonus point, but also denying the Rebels a losing bonus point: a double whammy, and just reward for their endeavour.
The Highlanders and Crusaders always seem to turn it on under the roof in Dunedin, and this match was no exception. Breathless action swept from one end to the other, right from the first whistle.
Highlanders winger Jona Nareki will still be having nightmares about his delayed pass costing his team a certain 24-21 lead with 25 minutes to play. But in the final stanza, when the sides inevitably ran out of petrol, the Crusaders had the fresher bench and the control to protect their lead, before adding a cherry on top courtesy of the electric Will Jordan.
A 40-20 scoreline represented a very harsh outcome for the Highlanders, who contributed mightily to what was an outstanding contest.
This match showed off the new breakdown interpretation in positive light, and also highlighted how halfbacks now require superior aerobic capacity to consistently be in position to clear ball that is being recycled so quickly. Aaron Smith was outstanding as always, but his opposite Mitch Drummond also caught the eye – his engine going almost the full distance, without any drop-off in accuracy.
When Lachlan Boshier sprinted in for a 75th minute try in Hamilton against a Hurricanes side down to 14 men, the Chiefs were within sniffing distance of a very unlikely result.
In the end, their final five minutes reverted to the same aimless, indirect rugby that served them so poorly for most of the game, and the Hurricanes came away with a deserved 25-18 victory.
The Chiefs seem caught in limbo, trying hard to adjust to the style of a new coach, while still carrying a torch for the instinctive type of rapid ball movement game that has served them well in recent years.
But without sufficient go-forward, that ball movement becomes too lateral, frustration sets in, passes are pushed, and cohesion is lost between forwards and backs.
The Hurricanes had a huge influence over that as well. Their aggressive defence was consistently rejecting attempts by the Chiefs to gain yards up the middle, forcing Brad Weber to play off back-foot or, at best, static ball.
Perhaps with an eye to the way Jordan is making every post a winner at the Crusaders, Jordie Barrett’s return was strong and incisive. And popping over penalty goals for fun from 58 metres isn’t a bad trick to have in your kit bag either.
After only two matches, it’s too soon to draw conclusions about the law variations in play in the Australian competition. Although it’s fair to say that when the Reds’ Bryce Hegarty cleared to touch in the second half, with nothing more than a regulation kick that just happened to bounce out, Jack Maddocks was far from amused when his quick throw-in was ruled out because it wasn’t the Waratahs’ ball.
I’m open to seeing where this all heads but, on first glance, I’m with Jack. It didn’t feel like rugby.
For a column that is urging Super Rugby AU to be allowed to move forward without the burden of week-to-week comparison to Super Rugby Aotearoa, please allow me the contradiction of making one final observation.
Despite the Australian law variations being introduced with the best of intentions, those who think the problem with the game in Australia are the laws are barking up the wrong tree.
The match in Dunedin highlighted exactly what is wrong with rugby’s laws. Nothing.
Super Rugby AU will prosper, not because of where a kick was made from and where it happened to bounce out, but because players demonstrate positive intent and match this with high quality passing and handling skills.
What we also know is that the desire and will is there on the part of all five coaches to not only win games of rugby, but to promote their players for Wallabies consideration, and to entertain long-suffering fans.
Week one demonstrated that there is a way to go yet to reach this point. But at least the journey is now underway.