Best of the Weekend: Reds seal top spot in Super Rugby

On one of the quieter rugby weekend’s in recent months, here are the best bits from the action in the Churchill Cup and Super Rugby:

Queensland top the log with a gritty win over the Chiefs

Not quite hitting the high standards that they’ve set throughout this year’s competition, the Queensland Reds managed to grind out a 19-11 win over the Chiefs in Waikato to seal top spot in this year’s Super Rugby competition. The rise of the men in Red over the last two seasons has been impressive, with their relatively youthful squad building on their 5th placed finish in last year’s Super 14 to finish 1st this time out, winning 13 of their 16 matches.

Thanks to the boot of the maturing Quade Cooper (right), who notched 14 points, and persistent rumblings from the pack early on which led to the try from Liam Gill, the visiting team managed to ruin the party for the Chiefs as they said goodbye to Stephen Donald and Mils Muliaina, who are heading for Bath and Japan respectively.

Crucially given their extensive injury list, (Digby Ioane, Luke Morahan, Beau Robinson, Anthony Faingaa, Mike Harris, Ben Lucas and Peter Hynes are all crocked), the Reds now have a week off in order to recuperate and prepare as best they can.

The situation was so severe this week that former Crusaders and All Black winger Caleb Ralph was called up to the squad after being discovered playing domestic rugby in the region. Desperate times, but the Reds team spirit has seen them through. Their big wins over the Blues and Crusaders at home, as well as getting revenge on the Waratahs for their round two defeat in the return fixture, should keep their confidence levels running high. The other two teams to defeat them, the Brumbies and the Hurricanes, finished nowhere near qualifying for the play-offs.

To go from finishing 13th out of the 14 sides in the 2009 Super 14 championship to Champions in two years would be an incredible achievement, and given that many of the squad were around for that dismal finish two years ago, a lot of credit should go to Ewen McKenzie for the Reds resurgence. Whoever they face on July 2nd at Suncorp in the semi-final, they will definitely be favourites.

Sharks and Waratahs win to secure playoff spots,

Defending champions the Bulls were dumped out of this year’s competition after losing to the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld, only the second time in seven years that the side from Pretoria have failed to make the playoffs. The Sharks have struggled at times this season but had the physicality here to withstand the home side’s attempts to win the match after Lwazi Mvovo’s second try with seven minutes to go. Freddy Michalak (right) was pulling the strings for the Durban outfit and his boot, along with that of young superstar Pat Lambie, won the game for the Sharks with an early drop goal ultimately proving the difference.

Meanwhile over in New South Wales the Waratahs passed forty points as they took apart the Brumbies for a resounding victory, 41-7 the final score. Some of the games involving the Tahs this season have been mind-numbingly dull and showed a serious lack of quality. But the Brumbies have been even worse, so the result shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. Kurtley Beale produced some magic for the first time in a long time, sending Lachie Turner on his way for the first try with some great hands near the left touchline. The fans have not been happy for a long time in Sydney but in this final home game there were no complaints when the home team kicked on in the second half. Chris Alcock scored an absolute stunner in the second half, the replacement back rower humiliating the Brumbies defence as he ran through five for the line.

It means that the “Quarter-finals” next week will see the Blues take on the Waratahs in Auckland and the Crusaders face the Sharks in Nelson. Look out for our preview of the two games later this week and who we’re tipping for the semi-finals.

England Saxons win the Churchill Cup for the last time

With the USA and Canada set to face Tier One nations during the summer Tests over the next few years, the Churchill Cup has come to an end. The Saxons defeat of Canada should come as no surprise, but the 37-6 scoreline is damaging. If Canada can barely overcome a second string England side, how will they fare against Ireland or Argentina, let alone Australia or South Africa? The IRB’s hand seems to be forced on this issue. Yes the USA and Canada, just like Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and hopefully soon Georgia, Romania and eventually Portugal, all need to play against the best to improve their game. But given that the Churchill Cup has been running for ten years and the deficits are still significant, the USA and Canada haven’t developed at the rate that the IRB would have hoped. Neither nation have produced performances to suggest they will be a force at this year’s World Cup in New Zealand, hence the need for the IRB to act.

As for the final itself, plenty of players put their hands up for selection in the 45 man World Cup squad. Matt Stevens, Mouritz Botha (right), Paul Hodgson, David Paice and Tom Johnson have all put in significant performances throughout the tournament, and should expect to be in contention for selection. Miles Benjamin scored two spectacular tries on his home ground, but there are too many wingers ahead of him in the pecking order for him to be considered for New Zealand. One way to measure how good the strength in depth England have is to question how would a second-string Australian, South African or All Black side get on against Canada? From a personal perspective, the damage would have been far more catastrophic.

In the other matches, Italy ‘A’ beat Tonga by 27-19 to win the Plate Final, led by ex-Gloucester lock Marco Bortolami. Many of the side’s best players such as Tito Tebaldi and Andrea Pratichetti can be expected to be included in the final World Cup squad, and in a sense the Churchill Cup’s cancellation is unfortunate for the Italian management given their growing numbers and desire to give their players as much international experience as possible.

Finally, the USA won 32-25 against Russia to win the Bowl final, with fly-half and man of the match Nese Malifa seeing the Americans home. The USA edged the game thanks to their supremacy at the breakdown, and the match offered a tasty warm-up for the two sides before they face each other in the World Cup Group Stage in September.

England U20s beat the Baby Boks to head for the semis

Tries from Christian Wade, Alex Gray and Elliot Daly and 11 points from George Ford proved to be enough for England to defeat South Africa in their Junior World Cup campaign and saw them progress to the semi-finals against France. It took some impeccable defence, including one amazing try saving tackle from Joe Launchbury, to seal the win. The watching Martin Johnson will have certainly been impressed.

Try of the weekend had contenders in Gio Aplon and Miles Benjamin, but Ryno Benjamin of the Cheetahs takes the award for this effort here. The Cheetahs seem to win a lot of these awards, and that’s because for my money they’ve been the most entertaining side in this year’s competition. Sarel Pretorious, Sias Ebersohn and lastly Benjamin all combined for this excellent score.

The Hero of the weekend is England U20s hooker Koree Britton. Hookers don’t often get the praise they deserve, but Britton needed to hit his man when the pressure was on with a crucial lineout and with his pack down to 14 men in the dying seconds of the match against South Africa. He held his nerve.

This weekend’s Villains are the Brumbies. Oh the Brumbies. 41-0 down in their final game of the season, they have performed abysmally. Jake White is due to take hold of the reins next season, and good luck to him.

That’s all for this week, what were your highlights?

by Ben Coles.