Super Rugby

Round Seven Review

As a rugby fan, I despair at the direction that our game has taken. 

Round Seven of Super Rugby 2019 was yet another weekend of mediocrity taken to new depths.

During the week I listened to Andy Marinos, CEO of Sanzaar, explain the decision to dump the Sunwolves and talk about the future of Super Rugby. 

It was a massive tsunami of “business-speak”as we heard him talk about “the process”and the “material considerations”and “obligations to stakeholders and broadcasters” and “putting value on the table” and “growing the game into new markets”and “strategic approach to grow the competition”and “additional content” “product value” “vertical expansion”and all sorts of other financial terms.

There was very little about rugby itself and the quality of the game being played. It was all about “stabilising the metrics”and the number of TV viewers per year, and engaging people, and energising the fans…

Mr Marinos, you and your friends in the suits are missing the most obvious of all the facts – the game itself has become a slow, stagnant misery. The quality of the rugby being played out on the field is the single biggest issue, at the moment it is akin to thin, cold porridge, something best left out in the dog’s food bowl. Even my Labradors do not get excited about that!

Stuff the business speak and all your strategies and deliverables and quantum shifts and other verbal obfuscation  – fix what is so obviously wrong with the game itself, and the fans and viewers will come flooding back!

Sanzaar has the muscle to do this, and if you do not work for positive changes to the way the game is played, you will fail in your mission to provide a Super tournament worth watching. Methinks you are already a long way down that slippery slope!

The Referees, Again!

The Referees Need A Kick Up Their Collective Ar*es!

Way back in my younger days one of the favourite catcalls from the terraces at a rugby match was “Wake-Up Ref! You are missing a good game!”

The modern equivalent of that catcall must be “Ref! This game is not about you!”

This last weekend was again littered with controversial or poor refereeing decisions, some of which had a direct impact on the outcome of games.

I watched Angus Gardiner completely ignore the offside line on at least two big occasions as the Chiefs laid siege to the Jaguares goal line. The first was late in the game and the Chiefs were desperate for a score as they were behind on the board at that moment. A Jaguare player made an attempt to play the ball in the ruck, clearly coming in from the side and thus instantly penalisable. He then went down on his knees as he reached in for the ball, another instantly penalisable offence as he was very clearly off his feet when he laid hands on the ball. 

Gardiner yelled “No! Get Back!” 

The Jaguare completely ignored the instruction to get back and, as the Chiefs passed the ball, took off after the ball and tackled the receiver. He was at least 1m offside at the moment the ball was played, and he was right in front of Angus Gardiner. 

So, three penalisable offences in a matter of some five seconds, and Gardiner did nothing at all. 

Later in the game, the Chiefs were again pressing for a score and this time for the probable win, a ruck forms two meters out from the Jaguare line, and the first five Jaguare defenders all line up at least a half meter past the line of the last feet. A penalty anywhere in the world. But not for Gardiner, who was again within 2 meters of the offending players but ignored their blatant disregard for the law.

Over in New Zealand we watched Nick Briant deliver a superb performance of home-town refereeing as he favoured the Blues in almost every decision he made on the field.

To start with, he allowed Melani Nani to go unpunished for an elbow strike to the face of Dillyn Leyds. Instead of a TMO review of the incident of foul play, a review that would in all likelihood have seen a red card issued to Nanai, Briant opted for a warning….

Throughout the game, as the Stormers dominated the collisions and the ball on the ground, Briant allowed the Blues to play beyond the edge of legality time and again. He ignored the offside line more often than not as he allowed the defensive line to creep forwards. In contact he allowed the home side plenty of leeway to hang on in the tackle without releasing and rolling away, he gave them carte blanche to slow the ball by either laying hands on it, or going off their feet and diving over the ball to smother it. Cleanouts were allowed on fringe players who were not in contact with the ruck, and Blues forwards were allowed to go past the ball and then stand, unbound, beyond the ball in clearly obstructive positions.

This would have been good and fair if he had allowed both sides to transgress in similar fashion. However he hammered the Stormers time and again for the very actions that he allowed the Blues to get away with constantly.

It was a demonstration of clear favour, perhaps even bias!

Moving over to Durban where we saw yet another demonstration of muddled refereeing when both Schalk Brits and Akker van der Merwe were shown red cards for their scuffle.

It was a nasty incident that started when Van der Merwe drove his head into Schalk Brits who was pinned on the ground. Brits retaliated, somewhat ineffectually, and then Van der Merwe was all over Brits, pinning him to the ground and landing blow after blow to the head.

Somehow referee Mike Fraser came to the conclusion that Schalk Brits started the fight! 

How? 

By being the target of a head butt?

Without a doubt Akker van der Merwe deserved the red card, but I totally disagree with Nick Mallett who suggests that Brits also deserved the red card. Brits was clearly the target as Van Der Merwe drove into the ruck, head first. Then he was pinned to the ground as Van Der Merwe went to town on his face and head. There was more than a hint of an attempt at eye gouging, and numerous closed fist blows to the face and side of his head.

Somebody suggested that Van Der Merwe was taking revenge for Brits having taken his place in the Springbok squad! Whatever the cause, the officiating left much to be desired.

Earlier in the piece Mike Fraser had already attracted some comment when he penalised Handré Pollard after the Bulls’ flyhalf took a shoulder to the head from Ruben van Heerden. Somehow Fraser decided that it was Pollard who was in the wrong despite the illegality of Van Heerden’s contact. Many other referees would have thought long and hard about a possible red for Van Heerden!

Another moment that reflected poorly on Mike Fraser’s officiating was his referral of the Sharks “try” by Mapimpi that was eventually disallowed. Fraser asked the TMO to check whether the ball had gone out when the Sharks kicked ahead, saying “I’m happy that a try was scored”. 

Having made that statement, Fraser had laid down the marker.

 For his on-field decision, that a try was scored, to be overruled there has to be very clear evidence that the ball was on or over the line. There was certainly no such evidence. I have replayed the moment in ultra-super slow motion over and over again, and I cannot see whether the ball actually touched the line or not. Somehow the TMO found “clear evidence” – which was neither clear nor evident!

Based on the visual evidence, the try should have been awarded.

Sadly, the referees are getting it wrong whether they are ruling on foul-play incidents or those “lesser” offences that tend to shape the flow, and even the eventual outcome of games.

Perhaps the worst of this trend is the way the so-called “minor” infringements are being ignored.

I have mentioned the disregard for the offside line. The closeness of the offside line at the rucks is already a blight on the game and now it is being ignored more often than not, slowing the game to a stultifying crawl.

I have spoken of players going off their feet at the ruck. I have spoken about the players who take up obstructive positions beyond the ball, I have spoken of the practice of clearing fringe players next to the ruck, when such players are not part of the ruck. Often the latter “clearance” takes the players eight or nine meters away from the ruck, which in my way of thinking is worse than obstruction, it is a deliberate attempt to create a hole for the extra man. It is cheating.

Add the number of marginal forward passes, especially at the offload, that are simply ignored. The skewed ball into the scrum?

The referees are being allowed to influence the outcome of games, and certainly no longer apply the laws the way they are written! 

It has to stop!

On the Up:

The Blues

The Blues havewon three games on the trot for the first time in some years and are looking better and better as they learn to overcome those inner demons that have feasted on their confidence and devoured their collective brains so often in the past decade. 

Somehow they have found a more consistent, harder edge to their game, and they are causing a lot of teams to sit up and take note!

A year ago, the Blues reduced to 14 men in the final ten minutes of a game, would likely have rolled over and kicked their legs in the air.  Not this week when Tanielu Tele’a was red carded against the Stormers. 

They managed to keep the pressure on the Stormers and force them to make errors as they chased the game. 

The Hurricanes stuttering and stumbling. The Chiefs down at the bottom end of the log. The Highlanders struggling. Perhaps we are seeing a changing of the guard in New Zealand?

A Bit Of A Downer:

The Jaguares are their own worst enemies

Coming back from 20 – 6 down early in the second half, the Jaguares fought back and managed to be in the lead with six minutes left in the game. 

It all looked like it was going to be a much-needed win for the Argentinians. 

But then, with just three minutes to go, the Chiefs scored the winning try and the Jaguares’ hearts were broken. 

All they had to do was shut the game down, and they did not have the discipline and nous to do that!

Players Worth Watching:

Jesse Kriel (Bulls)

Somehow, in 2019, Jesse Kriel has finally discovered the art of running close support on a ball carrier and then taking the offload through the smallest of gaps. In previous years Kriel was often guilty of running at an opponent, ala Andre Esterhuizen and Jan Serfontein, but in 2019 he has learned to run at the gaps, and it is showing. 

He outplayed the form 13 in SA at the moment, Lucky Am on Saturday.

Semisi Masirewa (Sunwolves)

When the Force were given the Order Of The Boot by Australian Rugby, Masirewa’s contract was up for grabs. Somehow the rest of Australia ignored him, so the Sunwolves signed him up. Yes, he is unpredictable, and yes, his penchant for running with the ball in one hand is technically wrong on so many levels, but boy, is he exciting? Explosive acceleration over the first 10 meters and an ability to cut through the smallest of gaps. He might not be in line for a Wallaby call-up, but they could do worse! 

Hayden Parker (Sunwolves)

Boy, the Highlanders must rue the day they allowed him to slip from their grasp. He plays with a certain calmness and tactical focus, yet produces moments of sheer magic as he guides his foreign legionnaires around the field. And then there is that unbelievable goal kicking. If I have it correctly he has not missed a kick in the last 35 attempts. Certainly in 2019 his stats are 27 out of 27. 

Sam Whitelock (Crusaders)

He does not cover the same amount of ground as his All Black second row partner Brodie Retallick does. There is no flamboyance or grandstanding. He is not the flash player. But watch him carefully and you quickly realise his value right in the engine room of a rugby match. His set-piece play is superb, and the hard-yards work he does in the rucks, mauls, and clean-outs is exemplary.  World Class!

Bongi Mbonambi (Stormers)

Bongi Mbonambi is playing some very good rugby in 2019!  On field, he has grown into a leader who barks instructions at the lineouts and scrums, telling his troops exactly what he wants from them, and then he leads from the front. He looked confident and assured in every aspect of his game as the Stormers finally gave the ball some air. His support play was superb. The hooker made 11 carries, 39m and six tackles as part of an industrious individual performance in a losing team cause. South Africa are lucky to have him and Malcolm Marx as their two premier hookers. (The two red-carded warriors are also in the mix, but as third and fourth choice, I would suggest.)

 

 

The Games:

 

Friday 29th March

Hurricanes 8 – 32 Crusaders

This could, and should, have been the match of the weekend – Hurricanes vs Crusaders – a game where there was more talent on display than you see in many Test matches.

Sadly, it was a match that simply did not live up to expectations.

The Hurricanes promised so much – the talent in that backline is capable of delivering the rugby equivalent of the New Year’s firework display on Sydney Harbour Bridge – sadly they seemed more of a cheap sparkler bought from a third-world market stall, sparkling briefly, and then fizzing and popping like a damp squib.

There were so many unforced errors and pushed passes, poorly directed chips and kicks that it reminded one of an exhibition match by a bunch of retired men at a Golden Oldies tournament.

It was intercepted passes, forward passes, missed catches, misting kicking receipts, knock ons, dropped balls with the goal line in sight……

In fact the whole effort ranks as bizarre!

While the Hurricanes did manage to turn the Crusaders defenders a couple of times, they would then go for the Hollywood play, all flamboyant stepping and swerving instead of taking the tackle, recycling and playing on with disciplined ball. Invariably the glamour play broke down and the Crusaders were able to recover and clear. 

Beauden Barrett had a bad day at the office, but he should not shoulder the sole blame for a misfunctioning team.  The Hurricanes can’t base the success or failure of their season on just one man. 

The Crusaders’ defence was outstanding, and they seemed to simply wait for the Hurricanes to gift them the ball and opportunities – taking them with aplomb when they were on offer.

And it was no great game of rugby.

Waratahs 29 – 31 Sunwolves

I really really do not understand this Waratahs outfit.

With more Wallaby talent than any other Aussie team, with more big names than any other team in Australia, they somehow contrive to lose games against teams that they should beat with their eyes closed and one hand tied behind their backs.

Do not tell me that the enforced resting of Bernard Foley, Jack Dempsey and Adam Ashley-Cooper was the root cause of this horror show. The Waratahs back line still started with Israel Folau, Karmichael Hunt, Kurtley Beale, and Nick Phipps – Wallabies one and all. The other three starters, Cam Clark, Alex Newsome, and Mack Mason all represented Australia at Schools, U/20 and/or Sevens level.

Amongst the forwards you will find Wallabies Michael Hooper, Rob Simmons, Ned Hanigan, and Sekope Kepu…

This is not a team of rookies, it is a team of seasoned internationals, with a couple of youngsters coming through the ranks.

On paper they should be one of the better sides in all of Super Rugby – on the field of play they are more like paper tigers…….

On Friday they were simply outplayed by a Sunwolves outfit as they coughed up possession time and again, executed poorly, made basic handling errors and miskicked more balls than one expects from your U/14D team at a rural school.

In the first 15 minutes it was all Waratahs, and it looked as if they would be building on last week’s victory over the high-flying Crusaders, but that was about it, once those 15 minutes had ticked into history, the rest of the game was a comedy of errors….

And where exactly was the aerial game that Israel Folau spoke so fondly of in the week? Why was his obvious relish for the kick-and-chase not used at all?

I simply do not understand this Waratahs outfit at all.

The Sunwolves were not great, they simply did what they have done in all of their history – they played a hustling, counter-attacking game that used every scrap of possession they got to launch attack after attack.

Even a cursory glance at the match stats will tell you that the two teams were fairly evenly balanced out on the field of play, with the Waratahs edging most of the stats. Sadly, the difference is found in the focus and instincts of the two teams. The Waratahs seem to believe that they should win based on their pedigree, whilst the Sunwolves know that their only chance lies in using every opportunity that comes their way. They used their opportunities, the Waratahs did not.

Saturday 30thMarch

Blues 24– 9 Stormers

Stormers coach Robbie Fleck has finally confirmed something that many have thought for a while. He is absolutely and seriously delusional. He says that he believes his side’s 9-24 defeat to the Blues was their “best of game of the year” so far!

The Stormers’ 12th consecutive defeat on New Zealand soil, in a game where they simply could not turn possession and territorial advantage, together with dominance in the collisions and in almost every set piece into a single solitary try, and Mr Fleck thinks it is their “best game of the year”????

Pull the other one Robbie!

In this modern game your team’s inability to score tries is more than alarming, it is positively frightening! Carrying the ball 159 times, and making 938 meters with the ball in hand, and your team could not construct a single solitary try? Oh, I know that there was a close one, but Steven Kitshoff’s pass was so obviously forward that I am staggered that the winger actually kept on running……….

Perhaps there are some positives – for the first time this year the Stormers showed some serious intent on attack, and they created loads of opportunities, but they also made loads and loads of errors!

When they had the home-side down to 14 men, it was still the Stormers’ errors that gave the Blues their bonus point try!

The Blues will be happy with their staunch defensive effort, but they must know that most of their other opponents will not miss out of the scoring opportunities that the Stormers wasted. 

The Stormers had enough chances to put 50 past the Blues, but poor decision making and shocking skills were, at the root of their inability to take a victory that was there for the taking! 

Reds 13 – 32 Rebels

No 2 on the Aussie log took on No 4 on the same conference log. One team coming off a surprise win, two surprise wins actually, and the other coming off the plane from South Africa and two losses. Some said that it could be an exciting game, especially with the home-coming of Quade Cooper and his half-back mate Will Genia. There was talk of revenge, and showing Brad Thorn the error of his ways, and the like.

And that is about all the excitement this game could generate.

Brisbane in late-March – it rained, and it was humid, and there was dew….

I am trying to find an excuse for the atrocious handling, the horrible skill levels, and the poor decisions that were the highlight of a game that really only served up lowlights.

The first half was scrappy. 

So was the second……

The Reds scrum wasn’t working, their lineout was abysmal, they couldn’t catch, they couldn’t pass and their kicks were positively ugly. The Rebels simply had to wait for yet another Reds’ mistake, pounce, and score.

The Reds gave up trying to play rugby and started to pick fights. That made it even easier for the Rebels. It gave Quade Coper the opportunity to blow a raspberry at Queensland and Brad Thorn as he kicked the resultant penalties for territory and also slotted two penalties aimed at the crossbar. He also converted three of the four Rebel tries.

Bluntly, that is 80 minutes of my life I will never get back.

Sharks 16 – 19 Bulls

Local derbies in South Africa often tend to become hugely confrontational and physical as the teams go for the jugular like angry bull elephants fighting for their position at the top of the pile.

Sometimes the rugby produced when the elephants clash can be enthralling, sometimes not.

Durban saw some of the “not”…….

As expected there was some fire and brimstone, and a couple of whiffs of cordite as the Sharks and the Bulls went for each other. Sadly, their effort was not ever going to produce the best quality of rugby. It was a dour, humdrum affair that simply failed to spark into life. Pushing and shoving does not equate to good rugby.

About the only excitement in the entire game was when the two hookers produced that whiff of cordite I mentioned earlier. They will both be facing the disciplinary committee for that effort.

About the only remarkable thing to happen in this game is that the Bulls have now extended their undefeated streak over the Sharks to nine matches. 

On Saturday the Sharks did have their opportunities, and they could have won the game, but they again allowed their emotions to get in the way as their disciplines deteriorated as the pressure ramped up. 

A couple of weeks ago, against the Stormers, Akker van der Merwe was shown a yellow card as he allowed the pressure to get to him and he transgressed the laws right in front of the referee.

This time it was a red card as he again short-circuited and something popped inside his head.

(I have commented on this incident elsewhere in this article.)

One wonders how long it will be before coach Robert du Preez realises that nepotism must be put aside and that his namesake son should not be the starting flyhalf for the Sharks? Why is Curwin Bosch and his considerable talents sitting on the bench?

Handre Pollard did not have his best day of the year, but was still sufficiently calm and collected to run the game for long periods, and to gather 14 points onto his personal tally, enough to help his side to an important win.

Personally, I was bored stiff.

Jaguares 27 – 30 Chiefs

There is not a whole lot that I can say about this game. I watched most of it live, but constantly distracted by the 4 hours and 17 minutes of the movie Gettysburg on an alternate channel. I finished watching the Chiefs beat the Jaguares, but I still have 1,5 hours of Gettysburg to go, I recorded that portion and went to bed…

The Chiefs won, albeit by a close margin, and we all know what happened at Gettysburg.

What more can we say about the game of rugby in Argentina?

Marty McKenzie seems to have answered the Chiefs questions about who would play in the No.10 jersey, which frees up brother Damian to cause his own special kind of havoc as a free agent playing out of the fullback position. And boy, does he cause havoc!

The McKenzie brothers’ ball carrying, kicking, and passing aside, the rest of the game was pretty dour and error riddled, with the Chiefs often looking as if they were running on empty after their stupidly long travels to get to this game. The Jaguares just did not have the disciplines and nous to exploit the visitors’ weary legs.

And that is about all I can say about this game.

I am now off to snaffle the remote back from my daughter who is visiting us from university. I want to finish watching Gettysburg before bedtime!