Reds back-row worth keeping an eye on
February 24, 2014
Super Rugby discussion with Brett McKay and Greg Growden
Ah, February. The month of the year when it's cricket by day and rugby by night, and when handling error tallies read like phone numbers as players attempt to break out of the pre-season training shackles.
I'm really happy to back on board for 2014, and we're into it straight away with Scrum5, looking at the talking points from the commencement of Super Rugby proper. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter to tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Welcome back, Robbie Fruean
The Australian media had us believing the New Zealand script would involve Benji Marshall this weekend just gone - and he still had his moment, don't worry, sparking the Blues late into action in Dunedin - but it was just as fitting that the other big story of the round was the triumphant and inspirational comeback of Robbie Fruean.
Returning to rugby after a break of almost a year - during which team he underwent a second (and bigger) heart valve replacement operation - Fruean had said coming into his debut match for the Chiefs that he was "probably in the best shape [he had] ever been in in the past four years."
And he didn't take long to show that to be true. The former Crusaders centre, playing on his former home ground in Christchurch, scored the first New Zealand try of 2014 down the left flank in that same devastating fashion of years previous, leaving a 60-metre trail of destruction and carnage in his sizable wake.
First he brushed aside Crusaders winger Johnny McNicholl, then first-five Tyler Bleyendaal like he wasn't even there, and then a contemptuous fend accounted for none other than All Blacks captain Richie McCaw with the try line in sight. A beautiful rails run to the line was provided by winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma - whose pass put Fruean into the space in the first place - and a great moment in rugby was realised.
Goal kicking: the February yips that can haunt in July
Marnitz Boshoff is showing his peers the way to the posts © Getty Images
If there's one discipline on the rugby paddock you want to start the season doing well, surely goal kicking is right up there. You only have to look at the remarkable start to the season for the Lions, on the back of rookie fly-half Marnitz Boshoff's 100% record off the tee, to see how important a point this is.
Yet in round two, some of the competition's best sharp shooters were spraying them all over the place.
In Christchurch on a Friday night, Tyler Bleyendaal missed five first half penalty goals before being dragged in the break, but then Tom Taylor missed another two penalties in the second half. A game the Crusaders lost by 10, could have been won by as many as 11 points.
Chris Noakes missed three penalties for the Blues, while his opposite, Lima Sopoaga, missed two penalties and conversion for the Highlanders. Quade Cooper missed three penalties for the Reds - two of them arguably well beyond his range - and Jesse Mogg missed two penalties and a conversion for the Brumbies.
It's not just the games themselves that hinge on such kicks - Mogg's last penalty miss sparked the 10-point turnaround that would become the final margin in Canberra - but it's the ramifications later in the season. The top four teams in 2013 had a points differential spread of just 45 points.
In a competition where the number of bonus points secured, tries scored, and the points differential are such important measures, it's easy to see how a few missed kicks in February can have a major effect in July. Some kickers around the competition might be having a few extra sessions this week.
Push the breakdown envelope if you dare
It happens every year. The competition starts, and it quickly becomes evident \the referees have all be reminded over the off-season that the breakdown needs to be cleaned up to ensure quick ball, and in turn to ensure teams have the opportunity to play some rugby.
And that manifests itself in the form of early breakdown warnings, which of course are not passed on by the captains, or get ignored by the players anyway, and we have the spate of yellow cards we've already seen.
Six of the eight yellow cards handed out thus far in 2014 have been breakdown infringements, with the extremes being the three handed out by either side of half-time by Chris Pollock on Friday night in Christchurch, and the one given to Reds prop Greg Holmes by James Leckie in Canberra. Holmes looked rather bewildered that he'd been pinged for being offside at the ruck, when it looked suspiciously like a back-rower who might have been at fault.
How does this compare this time last year? Very similarly. Six yellow cards were handed out in the first two rounds of 2013, the majority also for breakdown infringements. The question is, how long will to the focus last?
Reds back-row worth keeping an eye on
The Waratahs' and Brumbies' back-rows tended to get all the off-season headlines and online discussions - and hype, I suppose - but the young Queensland trio of Eddie Quirk, Liam Gill and Jake Schatz are more than capable of competing with the best back-rows in Super Rugby.
Quirk and Schatz did a great job of disrupting and slowing down the Brumbies' attacking ball, while Gill's ability over the ball is well known.
The various different stats sheets show that Gill probably shaded the returning David Pocock for the Brumbies, though both pulled a similar number of turnovers. That shows Pocock will quite possibly take some time to get into the season after a long lay-off, but also that Gill remains right up there with the best of the Australian No.7s.
All three were front and centre in the Reds' herculean second-half defensive effort, as well as playing a major role in their improved scrum. Queensland are in for a good year if their loosies can maintain this high level all season.
Season 2014: already a tipping nightmare
Chiefs hold on in a brutal thriller. Highlanders defy expectations. And then there's the Lions. Oh, the Lions! Who'd be a tipster? How do you head into round three this weekend coming with any confidence?
How do you pick between the Blues, who were largely outplayed by the Highlanders before hoisting the wet sail, and the Crusaders, who probably didn't deserve to lose to the Chiefs but were a good way off their best? How do you gauge the indifferent form of the Cheetahs on tour, against Melbourne Rebels, who are yet to play a game?
How do you possibly pick between the well-beaten Stormers and the well-beaten Hurricanes? Likewise the defensively impressive Reds and the ominously attacking Waratahs?
Welcome to Super Rugby, where anyone can beat anyone, and form lines and reputations count for nothing at this time of year. And good luck with your tips this weekend...
It seemed that I wrote something every week last year about Ben Smith's freakish try-scoring ability, so consider this the weekly mention. He's still got freakish try-scoring ability.
Ben Smith confirmed his freakish try-scoring ability © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
In the blink of an eye, a winger can go from a hero to villain. Hugh Godwin talks to Zac Guildford and David Strettle about life on the flank
Munster, No.8s, the imploding Australians, wonderful Glasgow and Lancaster's dilemma - it is Monday Maul time
As Ewen McKenzie exits stage left, the ARU remains under huge pressure, with CEO Bill Pulver feeling the brunt of Australian rugby's displeasure, Greg Growden writes
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the remarkable events in Brisbane and the first round of the European Rugby Champions Cup