The Wrap: A slap, three trips and a telling slip of the tongue


Believe it or not, the Crusaders can still make Super Rugby’s finals series. Granted, they will need some help from the Highlanders and Rebels, and must beat the Blues next weekend – highly unlikely on current form – but crazier things have happened.

They will also need to avoid deliberately slapping the ball over the dead ball line. Quinten Strange was the unwitting artist thrust into the villainous Sonny Bill Williams/Israel Folau role, batting away a late Noah Lolesio penalty kick that had rattled the upright and stayed out.

Admittedly, Strange was under intense pressure; that’s credit to replacement halfback Harrison Goddard chasing hard after the kick, a lost art in today’s rugby.

You have to get up early however to slip one past referee Ben O’Keeffe; as ever, cool under pressure in deeming Strange no master of disguise, and getting his call spot on. Instead of taking the match into extra-time, Strange had succeeded only in bringing matters to a crashing halt.

There were grumbles about the penalty try, but in his determination, O’Keeffe was obliged to take Strange out of the equation. If Strange wasn’t there committing the foul, then it was reasonable for O’Keeffe to assume Goddard’s desperate one-handed lunge at the ball would have been two-handed, with a far higher probability of success.

With the penalty try sealing the Brumbies’ 31-24 win, it was a bizarre end to what was a splendid contest. That is if one is prepared to look past hookers forced to throw into lineouts with a ball that must have been unevenly weighted, such was its tendency to skew towards the halfback.

The Crusaders had fought manfully to recover to 24-24 and might feel as if the world is conspiring against them, but the Brumbies held a slight edge throughout and had the best three players in the match on their side.

The confidence fullback Tom Wright brought to the table was impressive, even if he did stray into over-confidence running into contact with the ball in one mitt. Noah Lolesio displayed similar assurance; his kicking, running, distribution and decision-making all highly impressive.

Best of all was the beating heart of the Brumbies, their consistently best performer, Rob Valetini. From a hot show reel, check out his 37th-minute track back to snuff out a sweeping Crusaders attack with a powerful counter ruck. Seconds later, Wright was scoring at the other end, his spectacular finish not possible without Valetini putting in the huge ones to stave off a try at the other end.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA – MAY 18: Tom Wright and Len Ikitau of the Brumbies celebrate victory during the round 13 Super Rugby Pacific match between ACT Brumbies and Crusaders at GIO Stadium, on May 18, 2024, in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

When it comes to defence, Reds’ winger Suliasi Vunivalu attracts his fair share of sceptics. Looking to answer those critics, Vunivalu thought he’d saved a try early in the match against the Drua in Suva. Unfortunately, jagging out his leg meant not a try saved, but a penalty try conceded and ten minutes to have a think about how he might use his arms next time.

Evidently, those ten minutes weren’t used productively. Vunivalu pulled the same stunt in the second half, and this time was given the rest of the match off for more thinking time.

These days, statistics are kept for all kinds of things, but deliberate leg tripping isn’t a sought-after metric. If there is such a record, this must surely be the first instance of a player being sent off in Super Rugby for two separate leg-trips in the one match.

Despite all of that craziness, it would be wrong to finger the Reds 28-19 loss on their Fijian winger. Their tackling early on was abject, their line-out was close to dysfunctional, and when they eventually got some flow into their game, they would either make handling errors, or run into some highly committed and well organised Drua defence.

The Drua now face two critical matches against sides just above them on the ladder; away to the Highlanders and home against the Rebels. All results are possible – two wins, a win and a loss, or two losses – with a final finishing range of sixth to 10th in play.

SUVA, FIJI – MAY 18: Kitione Salawa of the Fijian Drua with the ball during the round 13 Super Rugby Pacific match between Fijian Drua and Queensland Reds at HFC Stadium, on May 18, 2024, in Suva, Fiji. (Photo by Pita Simpson/Getty Images)

The bloated finals format, where eight of 12 teams qualify for post-season action continues to draw justifiable criticism, along the lines that ‘everyone gets a prize’ belongs in the under-sevens, not a premier professional competition.

But rugby in this corner of the world is not representative of a historical, financially secure, perfect market, like the NFL, NBA, MLB or English Premier League. At just 14 matches, the competition is short – too short – and it makes good sense to provide fans of four teams with an extra week of action.

Further, with rugby struggling to attract sufficient numbers of eyeballs, a competition format that provides more teams with something to play for, for longer, whether that be a home final or any kind of final, also makes good sense; particularly given that it’s a long time until February comes around again.

In Auckland, the Highlanders played with purpose in the first half, but were no match for the Blues in the second, fading out to 47-13. Numerous personnel changes had no negative impact on the Blues who impressively cranked their power game into action, at times proving almost impossible to halt.

New All Blacks coach Scott Robertson seems to be playing his selection cards close to his chest so far, but it’s impossible to believe that Caleb Clarke, in the form of his life, won’t be the first back picked.

Since returning from New Zealand, and with Izack Rodda playing a prominent role, the Western Force have been playing some good rugby; albeit the second half of their 27-7 win against the Waratahs fell away alarmingly in quality.

Spare a thought for Waratahs replacement prop Bradley Amatuanai, who didn’t even have time to raise a sweat before being made a scapegoat for his side’s inability to be competitive at the scrum. Let’s hope he banked some frequent flyer points as a consolation.

Like the Crusaders, the Force are still in business, albeit with a tough finish – away to the Reds and home to the Brumbies – in prospect.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA – MAY 18: Ben Donaldson of the Force runs in for a try during the round 13 Super Rugby Pacific match between Western Force and NSW Waratahs at HBF Park, on May 18, 2024, in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Friday’s opening to the round saw a strong effort from Moana Pasifika still not enough to beat a re-jigged Hurricanes outfit, 32-24, while the Rebels fell agonisingly short against the Chiefs, 26-23.

Nobody needs reminding about the talent and strike power in the Chiefs backline, so it was interesting to note how the Rebels scored three tries, all to their wingers, against the Chiefs’ two, which came from a lineout maul drive and a pick and go.

That spoke to a committed defensive effort around line-speed and at the tackle and breakdown; far more a reflection of the work going in at Rebels training, than any lazy connection made to a supposed emotional uplift from playing their final match at AAMI Park.

The Rebels have also been heavily impacted in their last two matches by injury and disruption; this time Isaac Aedo Kailea lost in the pre-match warm-up, Josh Kemeny and the excellent Vaiolini Ekuasi forced off in the first half, as well as Carter Gordon for a period before half-time.

But no matter a deeper Rebels squad gaining in self-belief through spirited performances against higher ranked sides, a loss is a loss. The ability of sides like the Chiefs and Blues to respond with points immediately after being challenged and placed under pressure remains a key point of difference.

One talking point emerging from the last fortnight is how sides suffer inequitable outcomes through the HIA and sanction process, with respect to head injury and foul play. I use the Rebels as an example, but readers will be able to think of similar cases affecting their own team.

Last week the Rebels lost Andrew Kellaway and Taniela Tupou for the Chiefs match, those players forced into an extended concussion stand-down protocol. Now, Kemeny and Gordon will be missing from action this weekend against the Brumbies.

Carter Gordon of the Rebels kicks the ball during the round four Super Rugby Pacific match between Melbourne Rebels and Queensland Reds at AAMI Park, on March 15, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Setting aside how Sef Fa’agase got off scot-free for his direct head contact cleanout on Tupou, two of those incidents were a result of foul play. The perpetrators and yellow card recipients, Hunter Paisami and Tupou Vaa’i, missed only ten minutes of rugby. Not only is that far less than the time their victims lost in the original match plus the following match, that’s less than the 12-15 minutes it takes to complete an off-field HIA! Something feels – excuse the pun – out of whack.

Is it time to look at a modification whereby in the case of a player suffering a concussion as a result of foul play being forced to sit out the next week, the offending player who received the yellow card is also sanctioned to miss the following week?

Also in Melbourne, the Wallaroos led 17-3 early and looked well on top against the USA. But increasingly, the USA got good pay from their lineout maul and not only worked their way into the match, but beyond, to win 32-25.

While it was an improved performance from the Wallaroos from their loss the week before to Canada, there remains deficiencies in strength, conditioning and pace, as well as the lack of a ruthless, clinical finishing edge.

All of that is the inevitable outcome of Australia experiencing a painful transition from amateur to professional. And while lack of money is an issue, it’s not an excuse. USA Rugby has far less money than Rugby Australia, and a highly competitive sporting environment, yet the USA has been able to develop women’s participation at grassroots club and college level far in advance of Australia.

For as long as Rugby Australia flounders around, unable to build and sustain meaningful, sustainable junior participation, and delivers a high-performance competition that comprises a measly five rounds, it is very difficult to envisage the Wallaroos being competitive against the best women’s teams.

As it happened, Rugby Australia’s ‘money man’ COO Richard Gardham was in attendance, speaking at a function where he welcomed “past Jillaroos” players.

It’s entirely fair to ask, if the decision driver who has stepped into the vacuum created by Hamish McLennan’s exit is an unelected financial toe-cutter, an ex-NRL man to boot, who doesn’t know the difference between the Wallaroos and the Jillaroos, what hope is there for sound, balanced, strategic decision-making around the Melbourne Rebels and the best long-term outcome for rugby in Australia?

Ironically, Waugh was present in Melbourne the night the Rebels played their first home match; a member of the Waratahs side that won 43-0. On Friday night with the Rebels supposedly playing their last home match, in addition to there being a Wallaroos Test match, he and chairman Daniel Herbert were on a trip to Perth.

Anyone wondering where Victorian and women’s rugby sit in the big scheme of things might already have their answer.

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