What we learned from Super Rugby round 16
June 2, 2013
Nic White is in sensational form © Getty Images
Cheetahs 25 - 30 Bulls Stormers 19 - 11 Southern Kings Reds 33 - 20 Melbourne Rebels Highlanders 38 - 28 Blues Brumbies 30 - 23 Hurricanes Crusaders 23 - 22 Waratahs
ESPNscrum reporter Brett McKay analyses five key talking points of the weekend's Super Rugby action. Tell us your thoughts by leaving a comment at the foot of the page, and discuss the talking points with Brett on Twitter @BMcSport using the hashtag #ScrumFive.
What more can Nic White do, Robbie?
That's the question on the lips of Wallabies and especially Brumbies fans after another stellar match from the scrum-half against the Hurricanes in Canberra on Friday night amounted to more anguish. Rated by many a pundit as the clear No.2 to Will Genia in terms of Australian scrum-halves, White was overlooked for Nick Phipps when Robbie Deans called on injury replacements over the weekend.
Nic White will train with the Wallabies this week in Sydney, in some consolation, but it comes with no guarantees that it will lead to an official selection. Indeed, with Luke Burgess firmly in the frame while on his way back to Australia to join Melbourne Rebels, White could find himself the fourth-choice scrum-half in Australia come June 11, when the final six names are added to Deans' squad for the series against the British & Irish Lions.
The Brumbies hung on to beat the Hurricanes (video available only in Australia)%]
White, to his enormous credit, has knuckled down and played some superb rugby since the initial 25-man squad was released two weeks ago, with his display against the Hurricanes only a struck match behind that of official Man of the Match Colby Faingaa.
His superb vision and fast feet were highlighted no better than by his short-side snipe immediately after half-time, with not much more than a metre of room. A clean break from his 22 and a chip kick ahead resulted in the Brumbies launching the attacking waves that led to the disallowed tries of Ben Mowen and Tevita Kuridrani. And that's just one example in one game. Couple that with his quick service and flat passing (and compare both to the players evidently in front of White), and you can only reach the same conclusion.
Seriously Robbie, what more must White do?
The Waratahs lost more than the game against the Crusaders (video available only in Australia)%]
Remember my suggestion in Scrum Five a few weeks back that Wallabies coach Robbie Deans would've been excused, having just watched carnage in the New South Wales Waratahs-Brumbies derby in Sydney, if he had requested that Will Genia and James Horwill be put in cotton wool for Queensland Reds' tour South Africa, on the eve of his naming his preliminary squad for the Lions series? How must he be feeling after round 16, then, with new injury concerns hovering over players now in his squad?
The Reds won an arm-wrestle against the Rebels (video available only in Australia)%]
Possible inclusion Fotu Auelua then suffered a suspected dislocated shoulder in the Brumbies game in Canberra, while Scott Higginbotham did dislocate his right shoulder in the Reds- Rebels game in Brisbane and fringe lock Hugh Pyle had scans on his return to Melbourne. Pyle "will be reviewed by a shoulder specialist ... to determine if further action will be required", the Rebels said in a statement. Reds scrum-half Will Genia also received attention for a shoulder complaint during the match, as well.
Yet more juggling will be required within the Wallabies squad, with Timani and Higginbotham replaced in the squad by Kane Douglas and Ben McCalman, and Nick Phipps called in for Digby Ioane.
With the casualty ward nearing capacity, the coach might find himself having a run at training this week to boost the numbers. And there's another two games for fringe players to survive this weekend coming.
The Highlanders were sensational for 60 minutes against the Blues (video available only in Australia)%]
It's the biggest mystery of the weekend, and an absolute giveaway to what's in store for tomorrow's Team of the Week. In arguably the most complete 40 minutes of the season, the Highlanders were ferociously clinical in their first-half demolition of the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday. The contest was essentially over when Hosea Gear scored the Highlanders' fourth try in the 33rd minute, to make it 29-0, and it allowed coach Jamie Joseph to get some serious game time into his bench players after the break.
The players to impress were too numerous to name here - that's what tomorrow's for - but it was absolutely fantastic to see Japan international Fumiaki Tanaka not just doing well in the No.9 jersey, but excelling. It was great, too, to see footage of Tanaka and Highlanders hooker Andrew Hore towards the end of the game sharing a joke on the bench, a wonderful illustration of the truly international game of rugby.
Of course, the Highlanders' impressive win will only frustrate fans further, with performances like this having been expected of such a collection of high-quality players since before the season was underway. And their performance is yet another example of the narrow gap between teams in 2013, and how even a slightly off night can really hurt you on the scoreboard. The result hurts even worse than that for the Blues; their season is essentially now done.
Cheetahs dealt a lesson
The Bulls have surely locked up the South African conference (video available only in Australia)%]
I suggested in the Super Rugby round 16 preview that the Cheetahs might "need the game of the franchise's history to overcome the Bulls, and I sensed their confidence growing as they kept pace with the South African conference leaders in the first 40 minutes in Bloemfontein. But Morne Steyn penalty goals either side of the break, and another just on the hour, put the gap out to 10 points, at which stage the errors started to mount for the home side as they chased points and their first win over the Bulls in Super Rugby.
The pursuit of points meant playing in the Bulls' half, of course, and the Cheetahs often found themselves sucked into kicking duels and tactical battles for territory in the hope that mistakes would bring possession where it was needed. In short, they'd been corralled into playing the Bulls' own game, at which they were never going to win. Regardless, it was a worthy lesson in game management that can only aid the Cheetahs in the future.
The Bulls, meanwhile, now sit two wins clear on the South African conference table; with only two games and a bye to come for the Cheetahs, only catastrophe over the final three rounds will prevent the Bulls taking conference-winner advantage into the play-offs.
Who'd be a referee?
The Stormers survived against the Kings (video available only in Australia)%]
A few weeks ago, we had Ewen McKenzie suggesting officials were "pulling angles out of their bum" to find a Quade Cooper forward pass. Blues technical advisor Sir Graham Henry, no less, then left his manners at the door with suggestions after his side's loss to the Crusaders on May 18 that the television match official was "blind", that a penalty try awarded was "ludicrous", and that Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett had "got away with murder" at scrum time. Just proving that Sir Graham has been spending too much time in internet rugby forums in semi-retirement, he also suggested, positively un-knightly, that a deliberate knock-down penalty was "bullshit"!
Then on Friday night, we find out that New South Wales Waratahs coach Michael Cheika was so annoyed at Glenn Jackson's performance in the middle against the Crusaders that he'd already tried to call SANZAR referee's boss, Lyndon Bray, between full-time and the post-match press conferences.
Yet, we should probably start getting used to these public airing of refereeing grievances, even with the threat of fines or a beat-down with a slightly moist feather (as Sir Graham Henry received) for the outspoken. We're now at the point of the season were a single decision in a game - such as Jackson's 80th-minute scrum penalty against the Crusaders - could end a team's season.
So with this all in mind, it was simultaneously refreshing and amusing to hear Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett giving referee Jaco Peyper a bit of a wrap on Friday night, and dismissing with a big grin on his face suggestions the Brumbies should have been penalised harder in their own 22 late in the game "because we were probably doing the same thing earlier in the half".
British & Irish Lions Tour bonus point
Welcome to winter in Australia ... via sub-tropical Hong Kong. We all know the Lions-Barbarians match in sweltering conditions in Hong Kong was more about corporate relations than a convenient stopover en route to winter in Australia, but, regardless, it is great to finally see the tour underway.
Paul O'Connell scored the tourists' first try of the tour, in the 59-8 demolition of the Baa-Baas, while Welsh pair Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips both showed the form we've all heard of but unfortunately have never really seen in matches against the Wallabies.
It was interesting to see the Lions' use of the cross-kick, too, and it will be fascinating to see if they persist with that in the Tests, should Israel Folau get the nod on a wing or at fullback for the Wallabies.
The Baa-Baas were well short of the contest in the end, with very few standout performers, though it must be said that Joe Rokocoko in open space is still a truly wonderful sight.
The British & Irish Lions made a winning start to their tour (video available only in Australia)
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter