Another mixed bag of rugby confronted us last weekend with some exhilarating attacking play, staunch defence and a boring kick-a-thon on display. Given we have reached the quarter stage of the tournament, it is becoming slightly more clear who will be contesting the six playoff spots and who will be starting their preseason early. The Brumbies, Bulls and Sharks still remain undefeated, however, the men from Canberra are currently en route to Durban to face the Sharks in what will be the match of round five. The Chiefs, Reds, Blues and Kings have only recorded one loss, but I can see the latter two fading towards the business end of the competition.
Last week’s action opened up with the winless Hurricanes playing the struggling Crusaders. The Hurricanes lead at half time as a result of some poor discipline from the Crusaders, however, their game lacked accuracy and their inability to maintain possession cost them on the scoreboard. In a unique, but engrossing battle, Owen Franks (Crusaders) came up against his brother Ben Franks (Hurricanes) in both the scrum and in open play on a number of occasions and it was no holds barred. As you would expect from two backlines laden with All Blacks, there were a number of tries scored with deft touches, nifty footwork and even off the boot. Julian Savea of the Hurricanes scored a Jonah Lomu-like try, by bullocking down the sideline and dropping his shoulder on two Crusaders defenders before crossing the chalk. The Crusaders looked to have it in the bag before a late intercept try stole it for the Hurricanes and the Crusaders are becoming synonymous with slow starts.
The second match saw the staggering Rebels and the improving Reds clash in Melbourne. The Reds dominated the possession stats in the first half (70%), but the home team managed to go into the break with a three point lead after James O’Connor showed his class in setting up a try. In the second spell, the Reds turned up the pressure through some great footwork from Ben Tapuai, confronting defence by James Slipper and great ruck presence from promising youngster Liam Gill. The Reds ended up coming away with a ten point win on the back of some great defence. Quade Cooper is still a shadow of the player he has been in recent seasons, however, things might change with Will Genia returning this week. The Rebels are battling and their lack of depth is evident, however, Lachlan Mitchell is a shining line being one of the Rebels most durable and consistent players over the past two seasons. In all honesty, their best fifteen wouldn’t and haven’t competed well with the Reds or the Brumbies and with talk of Kurtley Beale moving at the end of the season and Nick Phipps already signed for the Waratahs, there isn’t a lot to look forward to from the Melbourne franchise.
The third match of the weekend saw one of the biggest upsets in recent memory as the Cheetahs dismantled the supposed tournament dark horses, the Highlanders in Invercargill. The Highlanders have a promising roster, however, they have started their campaign with consecutive losses and are current wooden spooners. The Cheetahs had an incredible first half jumping out to a 30 – 7 lead, as a result of some excellent defence and enterprising play. Lima Sopoaga of the Highlanders had a disastrous first half costing his team 14 points off two kicks and was replaced at the half hour mark. Winger Kade Poki scored three tries and fellow outside backs, Hosea Gear and Ben Smith were lively in attack but didn’t receive much support elsewhere. The Cheetahs who are led by inspirational skipper Adriaan Strauss, turned the tables after being comprehensively beaten by the Chiefs the week before, but their back row was a key catalyst. The game really fizzled out after half time and the Cheetahs were simply too powerful and dominated the collision zones across the park. A week is a long time in rugby, and the Cheetahs will be over the moon having recorded their first victory over the Highlanders since the inception of this competition.
The Brumbies put on another show at home in front of one of the biggest Canberra crowds in recent memory against the wobbling Waratahs. After a spring clean of players and management alike, you would expect for things to be slightly different, however, the ‘Tahs are playing the same old rugby that they have failed with for the past two seasons. What is most frustrating is that they have the talent to play an attractive brand, however, as the old saying goes, a game isn’t played on paper, it is played on grass. Poor discipline has cost them so far and Michael Hooper was overshadowed by the David Pocock and George Smith show. Unfortunately for the Brumbies and Australian rugby, Pocock tore his ACL and will miss the rest of the year, so George Smith’s arrival couldn’t be timelier. Tatafu Polota-Nau of the Waratahs also went off early and their scrum and lineout self-combusted as a result. The Brumbies played a complete game, with a solid scrum, pinpoint kicking and exciting backs that helped secure a four try bonus point. Fullback Jesse Mogg is an exciting young talent and resembles a mix between Stephen Larkham and Joe Roff. The Brumbies eventually won 35 – 6 and once again, captain Ben Mowen received praise from all angles for his leadership and general play.
The Stormers and Chiefs faced off in the match of the round in Cape Town on Saturday night and after a lot of pre-match hype, both teams delivered on expectations. For once the Stormers gave the ball some air and managed to score three tries, while the Chiefs with undoubtedly the most potent attack in the competition, recorded their third four try bonus point in succession. The Stormers have had the more difficult start to proceedings this year and another loss would have really stifled their playoff aspirations. The tallest man in the competition, Andries Bekker had a storming game, both in the tight and the loose, and Siya Kolisi continues to impress in the back row and should achieve higher honours in the next few years. The Stormers did suffer an injury blow with Bryan Habana being ruled out for ten weeks, so their outside backs depth will be tested. The Chief’s discipline really was the costly factor against the Sharks and despite a late resurgence, they lost 36 – 34. Charlie Ngatai scored a brace of tries and Tim Nanai-Williams continued his fine form with a touch down of his own.
The final match of the round doesn’t really deserve much of a mention. The Springbok-ridden Sharks travelled to Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth to try and rip shreds off tournament newcomers, the Kings. What actually happened was far from all predicted outcomes, as the Kings defended gallantly for a second game in succession. They managed to make 107 tackles and only missed one, which any defensive coach would be more than satisfied with. Their offence left little to be desired, but this will improve as the combinations gel and the team becomes more cohesive. The Sharks have some attacking issues of their own having failed to score a try in the last two encounters, but the reliable Patrick Lambie continues to turn pressure into points off the kicking tee. The Sharks eventually won 21 – 12.
Round five has a few more ‘one-sided’ matches than usual, but all eyes will be on the Brumbies clash with the Sharks in Durban. Both teams are undefeated and contending with injury woes, but it will be a good gauge to see just how good both of these teams really are.