Last weekend, I expected that, considering tradition, the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman rivalry will be closer than people expected.
Of note, I honestly confess that I did not predict the two razor-thin margin outcomes of the first round to occur in the games that they did. Though the New Zealand teams were swept 5-0 in the games played around the ditch, the Brumbies and Force came within a convert of making big claims against this year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa finalists. The other games were, to be sure, one-sided, but they did have a few talking points.
It was obvious on Friday night that the Reds were probably still feeling the effects of the hangover they earned after their Super Rugby AU title win the weekend prior. It took the Highlanders less than a minute to score a try, and despite a brief fightback by the Queenslanders, they were rightfully dominated. The hiding dished out was probably the worst way the new competition could start, given that the Reds were the Australian champions and the Highlanders have played their usual battler role in the Aotearoa edition.
But then came a bizarre game played, fittingly, at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The Hurricanes clearly showed up thinking it was going to be a glorified training run, given how awful the Waratahs have been lately. And to some extent they were right as they managed to rack up 64 points, their highest score in years. The problem was the Canes almost to a man forgot how to tackle, shipping 48 the other way, and leading all of us (old enough) to think somehow both teams had been sucked into a wormhole and spat out in 1997, the golden age of defence-optional Super Rugby. Despite scoring their highest total in a long time too, the Tahs were ominously pathetic on the other side of the ball, which does not bode well for their trip to Eden Park next weekend.
That’s because, in the course of 40 minutes, the Blues reverted to the massively optimistic and exciting squad that the majority of us want them to be. The Rebels owe a debt of thanks for that, when they stood back in the second half and let Auckland run wild. Their first try, to Tom Robinson on the stroke of halftime, will go down as one of the best you’ll see in any game this season, with their fifth to AJ Lam coming in a close second.
So far, so grim for Australia. The Brumbies almost pulled off a huge surprise against the Crusaders in Christchurch, a game no one imagined they would come close to. The Brumbies should have taken the lead well before Rob Valetini crashed over for his last play try in the corner if it hadn’t been for a very harsh penalty for offending at a lineout inside their 22. Noah Lolesio, who had suffered a torrid test debut last year against the All Blacks in Sydney, watched his conversion slide away to the left and dropped his head in defeat – reminiscent of the iconic picture of Springbok Jack van der Schyff’s missed winner against the British Lions in 1955. In a lovely moment, Lolesio was immediately embraced by his team mates regardless of the 30-29 scoreline.
Rate this from the Brumbies. Noah Lolesio narrowly misses a conversion that would have earned a 31-31 draw with the Crusaders. Whole team around him very quickly. pic.twitter.com/2llutXAMXd
— Charlie Morgan (@CharlieFelix) May 15, 2021
Then, in Perth, the Chiefs made it look like business as usual by scoring in the first five minutes of their match against the Power. The next series of events, on the other hand, would be a very strong rebuttal of why red cards do not, in practise, spoil sports. The Force stormed back after Luke Jacobson was sent off for a second professional penalty, scoring a try by Richard Kahui of all citizens. The former Chiefs player and perennial pretty boy narrowed the margin to six points before Argentine Diego Miotti scored what seemed to be the game-winning goal after the hooter rang.
Miotti’s kick, like Lolesio’s, faded away to make the score 20-19, but after violently hurling his mouthguard to the ground, he found himself bundled in the arms of his laughing teammates. After a week of rugby failing in other places, this was a sight that no one minded seeing repeated.