Colin Slade's kicking key for Crusaders
May 12, 2014
Super Rugby podcast: Brett McKay and Andy Withers review round 13
Round 13 of Super Rugby saw the Brumbies and Western Force consolidate their credentials in the Australian conference, while the Chiefs and Crusaders made similarly strong statements within the New Zealand conference. We might just have seen the try of the year, and we saw a nomadic coach head back to the patch of turf he once called home. Here are the talking points from the weekend, as I saw them. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Chiefs showing signs of life after Cruden
A lot's been written about the methods of the Chiefs in the absence of Aaron Cruden, but I reckon Gareth Anscombe had probably his best game in the No.10 jersey for the reigning Super Rugby Champions on Friday night.
Chiefs 32-20 Blues (Australia only)%]
Though it was the Blues asking all the early questions as the Chiefs hosted their first ever game in New Plymouth, the reigning champions ran away with the game to record the four-try bonus point win. More importantly, the Chiefs re-found that dangerous ability of theirs to attack from anywhere, while also reveling at the opportunity to get in and do the hard stuff.
Anscombe's game management is improving every game, and while he perhaps doesn't possess Cruden's length off the boot his kicking game remains effective thanks to the return of the Chiefs' excellent kick-chase. Importantly, Anscombe is becoming more comfortable in the first-five role, and that in turn is producing a backline more comfortable with him and happy to make the most of opportunities he sees or creates.
I wondered what sort of support the Chiefs would get at their first game in their new territory - Taranaki switched from the Hurricanes to the Chiefs in the off-season - but the familiar "CHIEFS, CHIEFS, CHIEFS" call early in the first half told me the transition had been smooth, and the Chiefs were indeed playing a home game.
Ink in 'No.10 B.Barrett' for the June Tests
If Beauden Barrett has played better rugby in his career, I've certainly not seen it. And if the sign of a form New Zealand first-five is the number of Aussies wishing out loud that he had an Australian link - as colleague Greg Growden did on Friday night - then All Blacks coach Steve Hanson can just confirm Barrett as a starter for the England series now.
Barrett has always impressed me with the way he plays bigger than he is. Barrett, 23 years of age in a few weeks, is listed as 92kg in all the official guides, though you can't help but wonder if he might've smuggled a few bricks into the weigh-in. However big he is - or not - he never shirks away from tackling the constant traffic of hulking midfielders coming his way, nor does he give a second thought to taking the ball into contact whenever required.
Rebels 15-25 Hurricanes (Australia only)%]
But it's also that he's such a smart player. In Conrad Smith's try on Friday night, which has surely taken the lead in Try of the Year discussions - and yes, we will be pulling it apart for The Whiteboard on Thursday - all the press has been around the skills of Andre Taylor, and even of Cory Jane in fielding the kick and offloading to his skipper.
But if you watch it again, have a close look at Barrett's kick-pass to Jane. Though he had a deep backline set, and though putting the ball through hands might have netted the same result, Barrett recognised that Jane was in space and needed the ball "right now". Never mind a speculative bomb, Barrett's drop punt was centimetre perfect (borrowing legendary AFL commentator Dennis Cometti's famous description seems appropriate, given the game was in Melbourne), finding Jane in space and giving him enough time to take the contact and get the offload away.
A wonderful try, but it's nothing without Barrett's superb skill. And he's surely an All Blacks certainty now for the England series.
Jake White finally gets his goodbye
The South African press were apparently writing up Sharks coach Jake White's return to Canberra as a "media frenzy", but the whole thing was rather underwhelming in the end. And in fairness, that was always going to be the case; it's not like a coach can make a match-saving tackle, or kick the winning goal from distance against his old side. Once the whistle blew, it was always going to be about the two teams out on the paddock.
Brumbies 16-9 Sharks (Australia only)%]
But after the Brumbies' 16-9 win in soggy conditions, White went into the home dressing room before he went into his own team's, and made a point of talking to each and every player in the side he walked out on two years early at the end of last season.
"I feel a lot better, because it's done and dusted now," White said post-match. "To go into their change room, and see them, you know, now it's over. Now we can move on. A lot of those players were all very supportive, were very understanding. A lot of the ones who I hadn't had time to see [since his departure] I've obviously seen them now. It just makes me feel a lot better that everyone can just get it behind us now and move on.
"I think there's a great possibility we'll play each other again [this season]. When I say it's over, it's over from the point of view that I've been to Canberra now, I've walked into their change room; that point of view. It's not like I'll need to revisit that.
"David Pocock, when I saw him in the change room, it was a big hug, and he was very happy to see me. He's one guy I really worked hard to lure to come to Canberra, and as I said to him, 'You'd know better than most how tough this is, but I'm here and just wanted to say to you guys well done, good luck overseas, and I hope we'll get to play each other again this season.'"
It was a pretty classy end to what, at times, has been an awkward chapter for both the Brumbies and White.
Western Force one win away from target
There was almost universal scoffing when it was reported early in the season the Western Force had set themselves a goal of eight wins in 2014, with some suggestion even that Michael Foley's continued employment was reliant upon the target being met. Even the "Sea of Blue" who are loving life currently must have wondered about the likelihood of such a target being achieved.
Cheetahs 16-23 Force (Australia only)%]
Yet here they are, the Force, with seven wins from 10 games played,and a draw over the remaining six rounds of the season that could certainly see them secure their maiden finals appearance. Foley told me last week, in an interview to be published on ESPNscrum this week, that the club has since reset some goals; he's still not talking in terms of finals just yet, but you have to expect playing deep into July is now something to want to achieve.
And good on them.
Their win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein was precisely the sort of game they'd have shelled in seasons past; but in yet more signs that Foley and his captain, Matt Hodgson, have created a wonderful rugby environment over in the west, the Force got in and did the hard work up when it counted.
Hodgson was superb yet again, and his cheeky easier-than-it-should've-been pilfer in the first half led to Jayden Hayward's try that consigned the Cheetahs to chase a game in which they were struggling to stay competitive. The Force out-defended their hosts on the first game of their South African tour, and enjoyed dominance at both the breakdown and scrum throughout.
A tip of the hat also to scrum-half Ian Prior. I'm sure I wasn't the only person to be just a tad worried when Alby Mathewson's name wasn't listed in the tour squad, but Prior's service was very good throughout the match, allowing the Force back to take advantage of quick ball laid back by their forwards.
Eight wins will mean nothing for the Force now, if they don't finish the job and qualify for the finals; and in all honesty, it will be a major disappointment if they don't make it.
The Crusaders have played us ... again
Looking back at things I'd written about the Crusaders in the early rounds has been humorous.
Reds 29-57 Crusaders (Australia only)%]
"A good way off their best," I said after round two. "At which point does the red-and-black faithful in and around Christchurch start pulling out the stress balls and worry beads?" I wondered after round three. "The Crusaders stole a win over the Stormers," I suggested a week later.
But somewhere around round seven or eight I started suggesting the Crusaders were back. And just last week in the crystal ball gazing over the remaining rounds, I concluded, "...the Crusaders will go on with the job and get to 11 wins and top the conference."
The conclusion? Clearly the Crusaders played us for mugs for the first month of so of the competition - like they do every season, it seems - and now their quality is there for all to see.
There's many reasons for the turnaround (and for the slow start, I suppose), but here's one certain contributing factor: goal-kicking. In the first seven rounds of the competition, Tom Taylor and Tyler Bleyendaal were spraying them everywhere, kicking just 20 from 33 attempts (60.6%). Since Colin Slade became the first choice goal-kicker, against the Lions in round eight, he's kicked 36/44 (81.8%) on his own. In the last two games, against the Brumbies and Reds, Slade has slotted 19/21 overall, and 12/13 penalties.
Not only are the Crusaders back to punishing teams in attack and defence, they're being particularly clinical in the way they punish opposition ill-discipline. And dare we say it, that's the difference between contenders and those making up the numbers.
Have your say on the talking points via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
The latest Week in Pictures takes in a fiery East Midlands derby and all the action from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14
The rolling maul is becoming an increasingly potent attacking weapon. Conor O'Shea looks at the difficulties of stopping it
The news of James Horwill, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dan Carter's respective transfers will open the floodgates, writes Tom Hamilton