What we learned from Super Rugby round 18
July 1, 2013
ESPNscrum reporter Brett McKay analyses five key talking points of the weekend's Super Rugby action. Plus a little something extra from the Lions Tour. 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.
In New Zealand, scrum-halves must grow on trees
Tawera Kerr-Barlow is just one of many No.9s in New Zealand © PA Photos
Just consider the first-choice scrum-halves for the five New Zealand sides in 2013: Piri Weepu, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Andy Ellis, Aaron Smith, and TJ Perenara; all but Perenara from the Hurricanes have worn the black jersey, and it probably won't be long before he gets his.
The word when Smith and Perenara burst on the scene together was that Perenara was going to be the man to eventually oust Weepu from the All Blacks' No.9 jersey, talk fuelled largely by his starring role in New Zealand's IRB Junior World Championship win in 2011. Injuries cruelled his chances, and even allowed Highlanders half-back Aaron Smith to leap-frog him in the pecking order, but the more we see of Perenara the more the feeling of "when, not if" becomes evident.
And so it was on the weekend, when Perenara went head-to-head with the Chiefs' Kerr-Barlow, who added to his own All Blacks Test tally during the June International recess. Two young scrum-halves having a red-hot crack at each other and having a major bearing on matches.
Oh, what a wonderful problem it must be for New Zealand selectors. Contrast the Australian situation, with the third-choice scrum-half sitting on the bench in his full tracksuit while his colleagues sit next to him keeping themselves loose, ready to play at a moment's notice.
"TKB" probably took the honours in Hamilton, where Perenara was again hit by injury - this time a friendly-fire ankle impact, by Kerr-Barlow, ironically, in making a tackle. But you just know these two and Smith are going to be battling over the black No.9 jersey for many years to come.
The Crusaders are coming ...
It should be no surprise that the seven-time champions are storming home, with spinnaker set. They've just always made a habit of it over the 17-year history of Super Rugby. Along with the seven championships, they've been beaten finalists on three other occasions and semi-finalists four times. That's 14 play-offs appearances in 17 years so suggestions "the Crusaders look like they'll make the play-offs again" should be met with a retort of, "well, duh!".
The real sign of the danger these guys present came when they disposed of the Highlanders so clinically after Ma'a Nonu had been red-carded for his tip tackle on Tom Marshall. Until that point, the Highlanders had threatened to draw level with the Crusaders, and were on a Hosea Gear-inspired roll that saw the teams separated by just eight points. Not two minutes later, Nonu upended Marshall into an unquestionably dangerous position, and was shown a red card by Steve Walsh.
From that point, the Crusaders added 20 points in 23 minutes and what was shaping as a bottler of a South Island derby game suddenly became a 28-point thumping. And surprise, surprise, Dan Carter was front and centre leading the demolition. Telusa Veainu's 95-metre special to finish the match could well be the individual try of the year, one that had Sky Sport NZ's Scotty "Sumo" Stevenson exclaiming "that's ridiculous" as Veainu crossed the stripe.
It was ridiculous. So is tipping against the Crusaders at the moment.
The Crusaders put the Highlanders to the sword (video available only in Australia)
How good is the 3pm kick-off?
Everyone loves afternoon rugby in the sunshine: the fans love it; the players love it. The broadcasters and those who sweat on ratings numbers might not love it so much. But there we were in Durban, at 3pm on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with the Sharks hosting the Blues.
The corporate realities of professional sport mean the traditional afternoon kick-off is a rarity. The networks pay top dollar to gain the exclusive broadcast rights, and they will get their return on investment via television ratings and advertising revenue. And people just don't watch TV mid-afternoon in the same numbers they do at night time. Thus, Super Rugby (and most professional sports, for that matter) is played almost exclusively when the sun goes down.
But those same corporate realities also make the rare 3pm fixture such a treat now, and perhaps even what makes such games so much more enjoyable. When something you used to love now pops up only every so often, you're inclined to seek it out. What's more, a 3pm kick-off in South Africa equates to 11pm on the east coast of Australia - a much friendlier timeslot than 1:05am or 3:15am for watching rugby from the Republic.
So I wonder if this is something that should be considered for 2014, particularly when the Australian teams tour South Africa? Why not try to entice more viewers in a friendly timeslot?
When taking five steps and passing from outside the field of play is perfectly fine
Funny goings-on in the Bulls-Southern Kings game in Pretoria. From the kick-off immediately following the Bulls' second try to Chiliboy Ralepelle, winger Akone Ndungane forced the Kings' restart into touch by catching the ball with one foot out of play.
At this point, if you weren't a student of the Laws of Rugby, you started seriously questioning what unfolded in front of your eyes. Ndungane proceeded to run up field, taking at least five steps outside the field of play before passing just before the halfway line to Jan Serfontein, who in turn found Zane Kirchner outside him; Kirchner passed outside again to Ndungane, who then threw the ball back inside basketball-style to Serfontein, who crashed over the line.
Referee Lourens van der Merwe referred it all up to the TMO, but he asked only about a forward pass. No mention of Ndungane being well into touch. The SuperSport commentators, including the legendary Hugh Bladen, made no mention of it either.
"How can it be?" I received Twitter messages along those lines, and wondered the same when I finally saw it myself; I was halfway through a scathing critique of officialdom when I consulted the rule book. The answer, it turns out, lies in Law 13.8: 'Ball goes directly into touch'. If a restart goes directly into touch, one of the three options the receiving team has is to accept the kick-off. The Law then says: "If they accept the kick, the lineout is on the half way line..."
So Ndungane effectively accepted the kick and ran to the halfway line for the lineout, which he then took correctly (from outside the field of play) and quickly, allowing play to continue as it did.
We still have the small matter of the TMO deciding there was "no clear evidence" of a forward pass, despite the fact Kirchner was a good yard in front of Serfontein when the young outside centre threw him the pass, and that Serfontein's fingers were pointed forward as well as the passing motion going forward. On this point, Hugh Bladen did say as much in commentary. So they got the Ndungane being out bit right, but, in my humble opinion, got the forward pass call wrong.
The Cheetahs ...
If you read the words "I find myself sniffing an upset" in one of my preview articles again this year, do yourself and your tips a massive favour and ignore this advice completely. Honestly, I couldn't have got things more wrong in the Stormers-Cheetahs preview if I'd substituted another team completely!
About five weeks ago, I drew up the run home for the teams in contention and made some projections on where they might finish, based on the remaining games and some "guesstimations" on how things might play out. In those projections, I had the Cheetahs taking 12 points from the final four rounds - meaning they'd beat one of the Bulls or Stormers - and finishing fifth overall. Now, they've lost both of those games and, even with the bye to come in the final round, there is a slight danger they might yet fall at the final hurdle after being on the verge of a maiden play-offs appearance.
It means next weekend's clash with the Blues is all the more vital for both sides, as the Blues could be the beneficiary of the Cheetahs' tardy finish to the season. And it means that my tips should be taken with care.
Lions Tour bonus point: rugby's come home
Sydney gets the much-needed decider between the Wallabies and the British & Irish Lions. And I'll be there. That's perhaps more brag than talking point, and I'm sorry for that. Sort of. Not really. Prepare for more of this behaviour this week. If someone's walking around with a stupid grin on their face, it's probably because they've got a ticket for the biggest rugby event in Australia since the Rugby World Cup 2003 final.
Two consecutive ground records - 52,499 in Brisbane for the first Test, and 56,771 in Melbourne for the Second Test - sets things up for the roof at Homebush to be lifted by well over 80,000 people on Saturday night. Could we see rugby setting new ground records at three major stadiums around Australia? Now that would be something.
Enjoy the occasion and the atmosphere if you're at the ground (did I mention I'm going?), and soak up the noise at home if you're not. We're in for another thriller whatever the result ...
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand
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