A massive clash in New Zealand, the Sharks and Sunwolves look to get off the mark, the Rebels strive to stay top of the Australian conference, Mario Ledesma faces his old team the Waratahs and Beauden Barrett set to join an exclusive club. Here are five things to look out for in another huge weekend of Super Rugby this weekend:
BAKE-OFF AT THE CAKE TIN
Reigning champions Crusaders suffered only one defeat last year, and that was against the 2016 Super rugby winners the Hurricanes in Wellington’s Westpac Stadium, affectionately known as the Cake Tin. They head back for the great New Zealand bake-off depleted by the loss of fly-half Richie Mo’unga, who has undergone surgery on the jaw he fractured against the Stormers.
The Hurricanes jumped straight on a plane after beating the Jaguares in Buenos Aires last weekend for the long journey home across 16 time zones as they aim to conquer jetlag and extend their home stranglehold over the Crusaders, who haven’t won in Wellington since 2012.
SHARKS OR SUNWOLVES OFF THE MARK?
Japan’s Sunwolves swap Tokyo for Durban as they look for a first victory of the season against the winless Sharks. The sides have met twice before with the Sharks, who drew at home to NSW Waratahs last week, coming out on top both times. The Sharks are desperate to get off the mark before a tough trip to face Brumbies, Melbourne Rebels and Blues in consecutive away matches. ”
We know we have a lot to work on after last week and this game against the Sunwolves is one that we need to really nail down so that we can gain some confidence,” said kicking coach Braam van Straaten on the Sport24 website.
STAR-STUDDED REBELS ON THE ATTACK
The new-look Melbourne Rebels are hoping to make it three wins in a row for the first time at the start of a Super rugby season when they host the Brumbies on Friday. The Rebels ran in six tries in last week’s 37-17 win over the Sunwolves, but coach Dave Wessels thinks his star-studded backs featuring Wallabies Will Genia, Dane Haylett-Petty, Reece Hodge and Sefa Naivalu can do more.
“We’ve got some firepower in our team and we need to come up with a mindset that we want to attack games,” said Wessels on the team website. “There’s a subtle difference between playing to win versus playing not to lose. And we want to be a team that plays to win.”
SUPER MARIO TURNS ON ‘TAHS
The Jaguares have suffered three straight defeats under their new coach, the Argentine forward great Mario Ledesma, but the NSW Waratahs are expecting a torrid examination from the team drilled by their former scrum guru. Ledesma was credited for turning around the Wallabies’ international scrummaging woes when he was brought in by Michael Cheika from the ‘Tahs, whose prop Tom Robertson is expecting a tough time in Buenos Aires.
“The Argentines love their scrums so we are definitely expecting a big battle up front there,” Robertson said. “Mario is one of the legends of the game. You don’t play in four or five World Cups and play for your country at such a high level without learning a few things.”
‘SPECIAL’ MILESTONE FOR BARRETT
Beauden Barrett will make his 100th appearance for the Hurricanes in front of his home fans when he lines up against Mo’unga’s replacement, Mitch Hunt, on Saturday. The world player of the year in 2016 and 2017, Barrett made his Canes debut in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs in 2011, and has scored more than 1,000 points in Super rugby.
“It was always a dream to play a game for the Hurricanes and for it to be my hundredth this weekend is very special,” the 26-year-old said. He is the 12th Hurricanes player to reach the milestone after Dane Coles, Andrew Hore, Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Rodney So’oialo, Jeremy Thrush, Neemia Tialata, Tana Umaga and Victor Vito.
Another night of Super Rugby down under saw the heavily written-off Reds grinding out a shock win while the Blues once again pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.
Here are our three takeaways from Friday’s matches.
Reds are the dark horses in Aussie conference
It’s clear new Queensland coach Brad Thorn has got some real spirit in the new-look Reds.
The former All Blacks lock made some huge calls in jettisoning the unpredictable Quade Cooper as well as fellow Wallabies scrum-half Nick Frisby, instead opting for the youngsters and no names who he led to the NRC title with Queensland Country last year.
It’s the “no d***heads” policy that has worked very well in Australian and New Zealand rugby in the past and it’s clearly working up north.
This young Reds team will clearly run through a brick wall for Thorn – already – and as he teaches them more skills and techniques they will only get better.
Look at the improvement in a player like Taniela Tupou – the Tongan Thor – who has had potential to burn for years but it’s taken Thorn to bring it out.
The Reds no-try 18-10 win over the Brumbies was a big result for Thorn’s team and don’t be surprised if there are more Ws in the result column as the Australian Conference becomes a duel not between the favoured Tahs and Brumbies, but the upstart Reds and Rebels.
The Brumbies now head down to Melbourne and don’t be surprised to see a similar result next weekend against David Wessels’ Force-laden Rebels.
The Blues are Super Rugby’s most frustrating team
Tana Umaga’s dread-locks must soon be in jeopardy, as it can’t be long before the Blues coach starts tearing them out in frustration.
The Blues had the under-strength Chiefs on the rack at Eden Park on Friday night but some blindingly stupid options by the home team saw the 2012 and 2013 premiers sneak back home to Hamilton with a win.
It was a similar story for the Blues last weekend in the highly entertaining loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin – 41-34.
The Blues have the playing personnel to be winning these matches – Rieko and Akira Ioane, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Bryn Gatland, George Moala – even All Blacks legend Jerome Kaino on the bench.
But they just cannot win an NZ derby.
The Blues have now lost their last 13 matches against NZ teams on the bounce and after just two games they are already slipping out of contention for the New Zealand Conference.
Next week the Blues head to South Africa to take on the Lions in a match that is already shaping up as a must-win.
Aussies derbies are slow train to Dulls-ville
Australian Rugby has a real issue trying to promote itself in one of the most competitive sporting market places on earth – with Aussie Rules, Rugby League and now even football surpassing union in popularity and viewership.
One of Aussie rugby’s great selling points should be Super Rugby with its fast style of exciting, open play.
The only issue is that when two Aussie teams meet they are more often than not deadly dull slog-a-thons.
The latest example was the Reds and Brumbies clash at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
There was lots of courage and effort on show – as well as some desperate defence – but with the Reds not scoring a try it’s hardly going to win the code new fans.
It’s a big problem for Rugby Australia and one particular to Australian derbies.
New Zealand and South African derbies are usually up-tempo, high scoring affairs such as the Highlanders-Blues try-fest last weekend – but not so in Australia.
There are three reasons for this.
Firstly the execution of skills by Australian teams are very poor under pressure, so in tight contests the error-count sky rockets and the try-count disappears.
Secondly Aussie refs are more officious than NZ and South African refs and do not let the game flow – this is something Rugby Australia can tackle.
Thirdly, Australian teams have done so poorly in Super Rugby in recent years they are desperate to win at any costs – so it’s low-risk, tackle-anything approach that again does nothing to promote a free-flowing game.
Australian league has long been worried about the future of their code as star after star deserts the three-nation game for the lures and riches of European or Japanese or even Australian Rugby Union.
So when there is the faintest hint of a big name returning to the nest, the league world not surprisingly goes into meltdown.
But their latest half-baked click-bait has stretched credulity even further.
This extremely long-bow was supposedly given credibility by former player Jimmy Smith on Sydney radio because he once played for the same club – about ten years before SBW (but what’s a decade or two in the rumour mill.)
According to Foxsports Australia, who not surprisingly own the rights to the NRL and would benefit greatly from SBW’s return, Smith claimed the Roosters and Williams had agreed to a deal which would see him back in Australia in August at the completion of the Super Rugby season.
That would mean Williams would give up an end of season tour with the All Blacks, including a virtual world championship against England at Twickenham, to play a few matches with a league club in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
SBW, a committed Muslim, took to Twitter himself to scotch the rumour.
“I love being apart of the (Auckland Blues) & (All Blacks). God willing I’m apart of another successful World Cup campaign next year in 2019!” he wrote.
Pretty categorical but not for the Sydney league media who deemed the tweet “somewhat cryptic” because he wrote “apart” not “a part”.
Williams then went further by confirming via text to senior News Corp reporter Phil Rothfield the rumours were false and Roosters chairman Nick Politis even spoke out denying the story.
But no doubt the hope-filled rumours will persist.