We were all entertained by some of the best rugby players on the planet last weekend with records broken, some tightly contested matches and a few massive hits that really spiced things up. Notably, the Sharks, Crusaders and Reds all achieved important victories and the Chiefs returned home to face the Highlanders after a tough African tour. Let’s have a more in-depth look at the aforementioned matches to see where the teams are positioned leading into the Easter period.
The Chiefs and the Highlanders opened up round six in Hamilton in what was an important fixture in terms of conference rankings. With both teams at the opposite end of the standings, one could have expected this game to be a blow out, however, it was clear the Highlanders were going to fight fire with fire by starting strongly and throwing the ball around inside their own half. This strategy doesn’t always pay off, hence the reason for most coaches to play a field position game early on. The Chiefs managed to capitalise on an early infringement by the Highlanders to get the scoreboard moving, before the Highlanders poor ball security saw try scoring machine, Tim Nanai-Williams swoop on a loose ball and stroll away for the opening try. When you make mistakes against good teams, more often than not you are going to get punished and that was surely the case last week. The Highlanders managed to break through the Chiefs defence on a few occasions, however, they were either held up or guilty of pushing the final pass. Eventually after a wealth of possession, All Black’s halfback Aaron Smith darted over from a five metre scrum turning their pressure into points. Their momentum was finally stifled when Jarrad Hoeata who generally plays the game with reckless abandon, was given a yellow card for a high tackle. At the half, the score was 13 – 7 with the Chiefs making over 80 tackles to the Highlanders 20-odd. In the second half, the Chiefs had all the possession and Richard Kahui made his entrance back into Super Rugby after a long injury lay off. In a quiet second term, the Chiefs compounded the Highlanders woes and ran out 19 – 7 winners.
Saturday’s triple-header began with the brave Kings playing their first match on New Zealand soil against a Crusaders team that had finally hit their straps the week before. Zac Guilford also made his return to Super Rugby after a series of personal issues when Israel Dagg pulled out of the match in the warm up. The Kings were the first to score with their accurate kicker Katrakilis punishing the home team with an early penalty. The Crusaders replied quickly with great rhythm and second waves of attack through George Whitelock – one of the four Whitelock brothers in the match day 22. It really was a classic Crusaders try and one that was great to watch. They continued to play the game at real pace and they were relentless with all of the possession and territory they had. The Kings were guilty of watching the Crusaders play and failed to apply any pressure at the breakdown and with the home team’s tails up, they went over for their second try from a rolling maul. The Crusaders scored again soon after but to the King’s credit they scored a try of their own at the end of the first half. The second half started much like the first began and the Crusaders managed to cash in and Daniel Carter was faultless with the boot. The two smallest players in the Kings, Katrakilis and Sergeal Petersen defended valiantly and well above their weight, but in the end it was very much a case of the men versus the boys. Engelbrecht and Van der Walt were very good in a losing team and battered forward pack and the Kings showed real character by scoring a great try at the end of the game. In the end, they managed to be on the wrong side of a 55-20 score line.
The next match saw the Reds host the Bulls at Suncorp Stadium. It was also pleasing to see James Horwill make a strong return after being out of the game for almost a year in front of 30,000 screaming Reds fans in Brisbane. The opening 20 was far from a spectacle as both teams went tit-for-tat in an attempt to assert early dominance. Reds fullback Jono Lance was yellow carded for bringing a player above the horizontal in a tackle, but upon his return the crowd was treated to some Quade Cooper magic for the first time in a long time when he used his brilliant footwork to dance his way around three defenders and offload to Lance for a try. It was a classic villain to hero situation. The Reds ended up going into the break with a 13 – 6 half time lead, however, they gifted the Bulls three kickable penalties in six minutes at one stage in the second half. The yellow card ledger was levelled when Bulls winger Lionel Mapoe was yellow carded for a tip tackle soon after. You have to reward the consistency showed by the referee, as that is what all fans, players and coaches demand. Quade Cooper was the hero of the night scoring 18 points through a well crafted try, two conversions and three penalties. It is evident that he really revels when Will Genia is inside him, but Genia did look slightly rusty with a few kicks going directly into touch. Despite this, there were some positive signs with his running game and a few flashback moments of past seasons. Teams need to beware of giving Quade Cooper and Will Genia space. The Reds eventually hung on for a five point win, however, Suncorp Stadium was silenced as the Bulls progressed 90 metres up the field and almost scored, being denied by the TMO after the siren as JJ Engelbrecht had one foot in touch just prior to placing the ball. The Reds returned to their winning ways and took a step in the right direction after beating an understrength, but relentless Bulls outfit. There are some injury concerns however, with Digby Ioane, Ben Tapuai and Mike Harris all struggling to be fit for this week’s matchup with the Highlanders. The Bulls play the weary Brumbies in their final match on tour.
Next up, the Force hosted the Cheetahs in a newly renovated NIB Stadium in Perth and in front of a big sea of passionate supporters. The Force were riding high after beating the Reds the week before and the Cheetahs has won their previous away encounters against the Highlanders and the Waratahs. In a game that really failed to set the world on fire, both teams looked evenly matched. The Force dominated most of the match and were leading 10 – 6, until fly half Rian Smith kicked two late penalty goals to take the lead by a solitary point. The Force were once again hot on attack, but the Cheetahs showed great character in defence and at a point when you thought the four week tour was going to catch up with them, the Cheetahs pounced on a loose ball and chipped down field for utility back Willie le Roux to score their only try of the match. It must be mentioned that Willie le Roux has been one of the Cheetahs shining lights in the past two seasons and without having blistering pace or a huge frame, he is a good footballer and a player that can create something from nothing. The Cheetahs ended up prevailing winning their third consecutive match against the Force, their first in Perth and their third consecutive match on tour. The Force will look back on this fixture as one they should’ve won and will be ruing their poor goal kicking accuracy.
The Sharks hosting the Rebels was always going to be an interesting game, with the Rebels not performing to their expectations to date and the Sharks being taught a rugby lesson by the Brumbies last week. The Sharks had only scored three tries so far in five rounds of rugby, so questions were being asked about their offensive efficiency. They silenced these critics early on by scoring a try after some great lead up work by Keegan Daniel (who they have missed and man of the match), Marcell Coetzee and young gun Pieter Steph du Toit, who we will hear a lot about in the coming seasons. The Rebels looked to mimic the successful Brumbies approach by going wide early, however, they just didn’t have the strength in the forwards to dominate the collisions and get over gain line. The Sharks forwards were dominant in the scrums winning a tighthead and dominated the breakdown. Their maul was firing and they managed to score a number of tries through this very fine art that is almost impossible to stop once set up. The Sharks opted for an attack, attack, attack mentality and they managed to get the bonus point by the 34th minute, something the Brumbies did against them last week. The Sharks continued to play at a high tempo throughout the course of the match and the Rebels were rudderless and were guilty of falling off too many tackles. Scott Higginbotham of the Rebels eventually crashed over the Sharks line after they had defended astutely, but the final score was the Sharks highest in Super Rugby history cantering home to a 64 – 7 victory. Don’t forget to check out the hit by Rebels centre Luke Inman who levelled Lwazi Mvovo and I have no doubts it will make the highlight reel at the end of the season. To add insult to injury, Cooper Vuna and Kurtley Beale were involved in a scuffle on the team bus over the weekend and have both been sent home early as a result.
The match of the round saw the undefeated Brumbies travel to Newlands Stadium in Cape Town to face their toughest challenge yet, the Stormers. The Brumbies have developed into a team that plays good rugby both home and away and the Stormers knew they were in for a huge contest. The Brumbies were hit with a late injury to superstar Jesse Mogg and he made way for the pint-sized livewire Robbie Coleman. Both teams played field position early on and the collisions were enormous given the 913kg forward pack the Stormers chose to field. Fullback Joe Peterson kicked an early penalty goal before Gio Aplon scored a brilliant individual try side-stepping a few defenders and leaving Coleman for dead in the process. The Brumbies had a shaky start but eventually kicked a penalty to be down 10 – 3. The Stormers then regathered momentum using their impressive rolling maul, which has been labelled as ‘legalised obstruction’ in some circles, to score a try through giant Andries Bekker. The Brumbies came out with renewed vigour after half time and completely dominated the Stormers and pegged them back slightly through some penalty goals of their own. A late intercept try to Gerhard van den Heever wrapped the game up and secured the Stormers a four-try bonus point and a 35 – 22 victory. Notable standouts were George Smith (4 pilfers) and Fotu Auelua for the Brumbies who knocked Gio Aplon out cold with a barnstorming run. Elton Jantjies finally hit his straps for the Stormers and Duane Vermeulen was ever present on attack and defence. Additionally, Stormers coach Alastair Coetzee, formerly an assistant under Jake White would have slept well knowing he got one over his old superior and friend.
The final match of the round took place on Sunday when the struggling Waratahs hosted a rested Blues outfit in Sydney. The Waratahs wanted to start strongly given they have leaked more points than any other team in the opening twenty minutes of a match. The Blues got on the scoreboard early through a Chris Noakes penalty, before youngster Michael Hooper made a great steal at the breakdown and off the ensuing lineout, the ‘Tahs put together a great backs move off first phase with Drew Mitchell going over in the corner. The Blues hit back straight away through hooker James Parsons, who regathered a lost lineout and showed express pace for a hooker to go over in the corner. The Waratahs then managed to play with great continuity and maintained possession before a huge Rene Ranger hit altered momentum and Chris Noakes went over for a try of his own. It wasn’t long before the Blues went over again with Charles Piutau scoring an opportunistic try, courtesy of a trademark Rene Ranger steal, reiterating that he is one of the best centres in world rugby on the floor. The Waratahs finally kicked into higher gears in the second half and ended up scoring seventeen unanswered points through Israel Folau and Bernard Foley five point maximums. The Blues were a shadow of the team that they were in the first half and with 15 handling errors, the Waratahs pounced and ended up getting a late penalty in front of the sticks for a much needed win.
With another full round of fixtures (with the Sharks having the bye) to look forward to this week, don’t miss the Stormers versus Crusaders clash and I’ll be back next week to wrap up all the action.