We had two competitive Super Rugby matches this weekend to mark the start of the play-offs.
In the first, the Highlanders were undoubtedly the strong favourites given how they dismantled the Chiefs a few weeks previously. It was a tough game, with no quarter asked. The Chiefs absorbed a huge amount of pressure in the first half, but still found a way to keep their noses in front. They went in with the right game plan, despite being the underdogs and playing away from home. Their leadership group stood up and they were in it until the end. Similarly, the Highlanders were simply misfiring somewhat in the first half and were unlucky not to have scored a try right in the beginning. They later made a few adjustments in respect of ball retention and deservedly won a very good game of rugby.
The relief on the field was palpable and was matched by a boisterous crowd that backed their team the whole night! The stadium is a big plus for the area, and as much as I loved Carisbrook, this is even better! I remember a few years ago when Jamie Joseph was really battling as a rookie Super Rugby coach. The NZRU stuck with him, despite some poor initial results, and he has gone on to turn the franchise around. They have some hard workers and some star players, none more evident than their captain, Ben Smith, who really embodies the spirit of the Deep South. The Highlanders will be underdogs again when they travel to Sydney for the semi, but they don’t mind that at all and will relish a crack at a team that they have already beaten this season.
There was a very odd decision to penalise the attack backline for leaving early from a scrum, which I haven’t seen before, even though it may technically be in order. The general norm is that we allow the defensive backline to follow the attack. I thought Chris Pollock showed that he is a world-class referee. His minimalistic approach to and his maturity regarding his on-field work were clearly matched by his preparation prior to the game. The scrums were generally very good and there was a general acceptance from the players that he was going to get most of it right. He has had a tough season coming back from injury and thoroughly deserved his play-off game. If the door is open as the referees have not as yet been selected for the final, he must be considered.
The second play-off game was a demolition job. Not what most people expected of the home team, the Stormers, but rather by the visiting Brumbies. The Brumbies started the season really well, but have not really been at their best in the competition … until Saturday. What a romp it turned out to be. They scored four tries in the first half, a hat trick to Joe Tomane, and they were out of sight. They are a very well-coached team with a point to prove. In fact, at one stage it looked like men against boys.
We all know that’s not the case. The Stormers would have prepared well for this game, and I don’t buy the Duane Vermeulen story as a distraction. For whatever reason the Stormers’ intensity was lacking early on and they got well beaten at every facet of the game. It’s a pity they chose this game to produce such a poor performance as our conference winners, but perhaps it is a fair indication of where our rugby is at the moment. They were incredibly naive in certain areas and blew a certain opportunity to have a crack at finals rugby.
Now they have to start from scratch, and it is very disappointing for the supporters. I thought some players really left it out there on match day, none more so than Damian de Allende, whose work rate and carry were exceptional. Others tried hard too, but in truth, I think they need to take a good, hard look at their sourcing and selection as well as some major areas of their coaching.
I thought Scott Fardy showed great application at the breakdown, and he is a perfect foil for David Pocock. Steven Moore led outstandingly well. Soft spoken and intelligent off the field, he let his actions do the talking on the field. As much as the Brumbies deserve credit for their efforts, so the Stormers never seemed to ignite their fuse. So many line-outs wasted with lost possession and it was impossible to build any pressure. They have problems. One intercept try was never going to be good enough, and they have to take it on the chin. Simply, not good enough.
I felt Jaco Peyper did well on match day. He is clearly having a good season, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions. He was steady and practical in his work on Saturday and was incredibly patient with his explanations, although I thought there were a few too many of them. He rightly gave a red card to Henry Speight on review, and I thought that was well handled. Later he gave a yellow card to Scott Fardy for dropping a maul close to the Stormers line, which I agreed with, but it should have been a penalty try. That maul started just inside the 22m, and the Brumbies could not stop it legally. It progressed 15m and I believe they knew exactly what they were doing. The sanction from our senior referees HAS to be a yellow AND a penalty try. It’s common sense, and you need to try and take this type of negative play out of the game!
Good luck to all four teams this weekend. My tip is a Canes vs Tahs final.