The Wrap: Crusaders’ shot clock fiasco and shhh, don’t put the moz on Darby


Now feels like a good time to bemoan Moana Pasifika upsetting my weekend footy tipping. Their 17-14 win against the Reds in Whangarei fell disappointingly short of the five-point margin I tipped.

Speaking of tips and betting, what were the odds of Tate McDermott and Fraser McReight – probably the two leading figures in the Reds team – both being sent off in the same match for foul play?

McReight was a little unlucky; fairly passive in contact and turning his head away in a vain effort to avoid a collision. Nevertheless, he entered the tackle zone in an upright position and everyone knows that once that happens, it opens up a range of possibilities. All of them bad.

McDermott, however, only has himself to blame. Upset at being held at bay by a high fend, he determined to administer some home-made justice on the ground. In all of the years I’ve been playing and following rugby, one rule has always held firm: halfbacks don’t make good hitmen.

(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Given last week’s judiciary schemozzle with the Drua offenders thrashed to within an inch of their lives with a wet bus ticket, expect McDermott to produce evidence of himself tending to sick kittens and helping little old ladies across the road, in order to be eligible for a heavy discount.

Even so, back-up halfback Kalani Thomas looks set for some serious game time over the next few weeks.

This was a match that for most of its journey, lacked fizz and skill. Harry McLaughlin-Phillips failed to make the distinction between a free-kick and a penalty before hoofing the ball out, while William Havili did similar, wasting a huge scrum tighthead by kicking the ball out, thinking his side was under advantage when it wasn’t.

Havili is one of those mercurial ‘rocks or diamonds’ players, with a sweet left foot when he is on song, and a propensity for simple errors when he isn’t. His was the vital late contribution though, pushing through a disappointing tackle to score the match-winner.

Don’t discount the achievement of Moana Pasifika – coming off some decent hidings in recent weeks – to regroup for this gutsy win. Playing without a regular home base is a massive disadvantage in an already brutally tough competition.

Julian Savea of Moana Pasifika scores a try. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

With their fast recycle game taken away, the Reds have slipped back into the pack, and badly need a good performance at home next week against the Highlanders to restore their confidence, and that of their fans.

In another crazy ‘what odds?’ situation in Sydney, imagine what the return would have been on the Waratahs winning just two of their first eight matches, but those two wins being against the Crusaders?

The rugby wasn’t always perfect, but it was highly entertaining throughout, as both sides threw punches and counterpunches at each other.

The Waratahs hurt themselves with repeated ill-discipline at the breakdown, but when they got their attack right, they were a real handful. Julian Heaven’s 71st-minute try was one of the best seen in the competition this year; the home side showing impressive pace and intent off a lineout to set up the score.

Let’s hope he doesn’t get any more, though, with Stan’s commentary team unleashing a torrent of agonising puns that sounded suspiciously pre-prepared.

What wasn’t so pre-planned was Crusaders replacement flyhalf Rivez Reihana’s conversion of a try scored by Christian Lio-Willie, which put his side ahead by 40-37 entering the final minute.

Referee Nick Berry could be seen and heard checking with his TMO about the precise moment when the try was scored, before confirming – within earshot of Reihana – “So, he can drain the clock”.

At that point, all Reihana had to do was stand there and do exactly that; drain away. The Crusaders had won the match; a timed-out non-kick, was all that was needed to confirm it.

But seemingly spooked by Berry calling out “eight seconds”, Reihana inexplicably kicked the ball with two seconds remaining on the match clock, leading Berry to then say, “Restart, he’s kicked it before (the 80 minutes is up).”

Even then, the Crusaders should have been good enough to tidy up the kick off, with the Waratahs inexplicably sending only Charlie Gamble – their shortest forward – to contest the restart.

Somehow, it fell back onto the blue side, Johnny McNicol instinctively stuck out an arm which he couldn’t withdraw in time, and Will Harrison was ‘cool as you like’ from the 40m penalty; then even cooler with the follow-up drop-goal in extra-time, to cap off a remarkable win.

It’s always heart-warming to see players come back successfully after a long injury lay-off, and the talented Harrison deserves every reward for his tenacity and dedication.

It’s compulsory to take ‘learnings’ from every rugby game, and there were some important ones here. Always – and that means always – elect to take the kick off in extra, golden-point time.

And, if you no longer have the experience of Sam Whitelock or Richie Mounga in your team – who would have ensured that the clock was run out exactly as they were invited to let it – at least make sure that you have one player on the field with the presence of mind to understand the match situation, so as not to lose a game you’ve already won.

Will Harrison of the Waratahs celebrates kicking the winning field goal in golden point during the round eight Super Rugby Pacific match between NSW Waratahs and Crusaders at Allianz Stadium, on April 12, 2024, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Just to cap that issue off, the shot clock was introduced as a mechanism to speed up play, not to be worked as tactical routine; like an NBA or NFL side does as an integral part of those games. As it currently stands, without precise, transparent timing, it’s not fit for purpose in situations like this, at the end of matches.

For starters, 90 seconds is a ridiculously long amount of time in which to take a conversion after a try is scored under the posts. Also, it potentially reduces matches to 78 minutes, 30 seconds long, instead of 80 minutes.

Lastly, nobody wants to see matches ended with players sitting on the ball, running the clock down, like Matt To’omua did a couple of seasons ago. Which, ironically, even though he would have been booed all the way to Sydney airport, is exactly what Reihana should have done.

The other big winner on the night was the assistant referee who stood toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball with Lachie Swinton, and, despite sporting an unconvincing moustache, emerged triumphant. Well done, too, Ned Hanigan, for pulling Swinton out of an argument he should never have been in, in the first place.

In Wellington, the Hurricanes made it seven wins from seven matches, powering to a 36-23 victory over the Chiefs. As they have done all season, the Hurricanes blended aggression and power, with skill and speed.

This was the kind of match where every metre was hard fought for, and while the ‘Canes still have the personnel and ability to tear apart teams in the backline, it is their willingness to win the dog-fight that sets them apart from recent Hurricanes’ sides.

It seems crazy to suggest that they wouldn’t welcome back Ardie Savea in a heartbeat, but Savea’s departure has proved a blessing, forcing the other loose forwards to cover his work-rate, allowing them the opportunity to shine.

Ardie Savea of the Hurricanes (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

And my second favourite moment of the weekend, after the touchie giving it back to Swinton? Take another look at the Hurricanes’ final try, scored by Asafo Aumua, and the final pass off his left hand by Ruben Love. That, children, mums and dads, is how you play rugby.

The Chiefs now enter their bye week locked into fifth position; likely in my view to still make the top three, but still some way off the giddy heights it was looking like they were headed to, early on.

Just like the Reds, they need to figure out how and when to switch things, when confronted by a side successful at slowing their recycle down, and crowding their ball runners.

Above them in fourth place are the Rebels who – despite the familiar spells where they lose composure and form in attack – convincingly beat the Highlanders, 47-31.

I’d gladly cop another barrage of Julian Heaven puns if it meant not having to sit through Darby Lancaster being talked up as the new Wallabies hero-in-waiting; he’s 20 and has now played three Super Rugby matches.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to deny Lancaster’s potential and the impact he had on the match. Fresh, innocent and positive to a fault, Lancaster brings terrific energy and spark to the team environment. Not to mention a compelling blend of pace, skill and bravery on defence.

I just wonder though; is it possible to talk a young player up, and enjoy what he brings, without immediately mozzing him with the Wallabies stick?

Darby Lancaster of the Rebels celebrates scoring a try during the round eight Super Rugby Pacific match between Melbourne Rebels and Highlanders at AAMI Park, on April 13, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Josh Chadwick/Getty Images)

The Rebels are worth watching for Carter Gordon’s passing game alone, although there was plenty of good stuff going on inside him. Hard-running Josh Kemeny made an impressive return from injury, while Vaiolini Ekuasi’s work-rate over 80 minutes typified what this side is all about.

After their week off, the Rebels face a tougher run of matches, and the off-field turmoil is close to reclaiming the headlines. But with the team already on the cusp of a finals spot, the season is most definitely about this group realising its full potential, not falling over the line into a forlorn eighth versus first mission to Wellington.

There is far more to the Rebels’ situation and their future prospects than a simple win/loss record. But their on-field success so far this year – throw in the impressive win by their Super W team, 34-21 against the Fijiana Drua, their first since 2020 – speaks to a club with a spirited, beating heart, that is promoting plenty of talent.

It would be far easier for Rugby Australia to cut the Rebels off at the knees were they floundering in 11th or 12th place, had nothing to offer the women’s comp, and didn’t have a financial solution in place.

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Now, even if the Moore Park bean counters still demand their liquidation, it’s a much more difficult exercise.

With Rebels’ back end slowly taking shape, and about to be publicly disclosed through the voluntary administration process (and in the process almost certainly be popularly received), it would be peak Australian rugby for the national body to move against a franchise that, on field, is doing exactly what has been asked of it.

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