Though the June tours have already been consigned to distant memory (and perhaps tactically forgotten altogether by Wales and Ireland supporters), there was still plenty to feast on over the course of a truly manic weekend of rugby.
Super 15 round-up
The final round of regular competition in the Super 15 proved to be typically frenetic; Saturday afternoon’s clash between the Brumbies and the Blues in Canberra undoubtedly providing the biggest shock as the Aucklanders – for so long the season’s down-and-outs – continued their resurgence by beating their hosts 30-16. Piri Weepu seemed back to his best and 20 year-old full back Charles Piutau sparkled as the visitors blew their complacent opponents away with three first-half tries, including an exceptional team move finished in the left-hand corner by Daniel Braid.
Just hours later, the Brumbies’ agony was compounded by a ruthless Reds outfit, who leapfrogged Jake White’s charges at the top of the Australian conference by snatching a bonus-point coup over the Waratahs at a muddy Suncorp. Making their intention of a five-point return clear from the off, the holders wreaked havoc around the fringes and displayed their pedigree in recording a 32-16 win. Scott Higginbotham, Liam Gill, Ben Slipper, Dominic Shipperly and – of course – Will Genia crossed the whitewash. However, ahead of their qualifier against the Sharks (who overturned a 15-6 half-time deficit to run out comfortable victors against the Cheetahs), the Queenslanders will sweating on the result of a high tackle citing for Quade Cooper.
In awkward conditions on a misty evening in Wellington, the Hurricanes and the Chiefs played out the pick of a helter-skelter round, both sides contributing wholly to an enthralling contest. Though Sonny Bill Williams and Aaron Cruden were sparky enough to suggest that the Waikato boys will be a handful in the knockout stages, it was the hosts, and effervescent hooker Dane Coles, who came out on top, benefiting from a last-gasp TMO decision to secure a stunning 28-25 victory. Despite not reaching the final shake-up, Conrad Smith’s charges have won plenty of hearts this season, defying significant losses of personnel – Cruden, Ma’a Nonu, Hosea Gear and Weepu – to forge ten wins. They can very proud of themselves, while the Chiefs must now regroup in time for the final four.
Elsewhere in the Land of the Long White Cloud there was more off-field officiating drama, the Crusaders being gifted two staggering try-line calls to pile up a 32-3 half-time lead over the Western Force. However, the seven-time champions were distinctly subdued after the break, allowing the Perth men to wrestle respectability with three scores. Eventually, to the excruciating frustration of Todd Blackadder and Richie McCaw, Nathan Sharpe escaped his 162nd and final Super Rugby tie with a 38-24 defeat.
Dan Carter and co. will now welcome the Bulls to the South Island, who ended the Brumbies’ play-off hopes by beating a brave Lions side 37-20. The pride of Pretoria were indebted to Springbok try-scorers Akona Ndungane, Bjorn Basson, Francois Hougaard and Jacques Potgieter for their maximum-point haul, although special mention should be made to their opponents – and talismanic skipper Josh Strauss – who have handled themselves well in spite of adversity behind the scenes.
Finally, the Rebels made plucky underdogs everywhere proud by plundering three scores to give the Stormers a considerable scare, eventually going down 26-21. Shorn of stellar names once more, the Melbournites were only sunk thanks to a brace from outside centre Juan de Jongh – one of the few attacking weapons that seem to be functioning for the table-toppers. Having ended at the summit without looking nearly as coherent as they would like – evidenced by a grand total of zero four-try bonus points in 14 wins – the Cape Town franchise must find guile to add to their grunt.
Remaining fixtures. July 21 – Qualifiers: Reds (3rd place finish) v Sharks (6), Crusaders (4) v Bulls (5). July 27/8 – Semi-finals: Stormers v Winner with lowest ranking, Chiefs v Winner with lowest ranking. August 4 – Final.
JP Morgan Sevens shimmies back into town
A raucous atmosphere and an abundance of electric running at the Twickenham Stoop greeted the return of the J.P Morgan Asset Management Sevens Series on Friday night. After an exciting round-robin, it was defending champions Saracens and an impressive squad full of internationals from London Irish that went through to finals day at Bath on August 3, ousting hosts Harlequins and London Wasps. Two tries across the evening brought Exiles’ Alex Gray the Player of the Night award. Next stop is Edgedly Park for a tussle between Sale Sharks, Leicester Tigers, Northampton Saints and London Welsh.
Fittingly, on a controversial weekend of borderline refereeing decisions, Try of the Weekend goes to this flawed but fantastic collective effort from the Sharks, ‘finished’ by scrum half Charl Macleod. It had it all: vision from Freddie Michalak, JP Pietersen’s immense pace and presence of mind…and a blatant knock-on. See what you think – and watch out for Macleod’s guilty attempt at a low-five that is brutally denied by Bismarck du Plessis:
Although Dane Coles was superb in the ‘Canes defeat of the Chiefs, it is impossible to ignore Nathan Sharpe as our latest Hero, the gnarled lock ending an amazing stint for the Western Force. He can now look forward to one last hurrah in The Rugby Championship, then we can say goodbye properly.
Jonathan Kaplan’s flash-happy interpretation of the tip-tackle law on Friday evening put him in the mix for Villain of the weekend but Zimbabwe Under 20s surpassed themselves as it came to light that 13 of their 26-man squad tested positive for banned stimulants during the Junior World Rugby Trophy finals in the United States, a hugely damning indictment. Incidentally, they lost each of their matches – to Japan, Georgia and Canada. Even more bemusing.
by Charlie Morgan (@Charlie Felix)