The Best of the Weekend column makes a return as we take a look at the best action from the opening weekend of Super Rugby, along with the Aviva Premiership and around Europe:
Reds grab a one point win over the Force in Brisbane
A bit of a surprise result was on the cards going into the final ten minutes early on Sunday morning as the Force through wonderboy James O’Connor led 20-16. A smart score from Saia Faingaa with a dummy lineout leading to a blindside burst kept the Reds in the game early on the second half, before a near-falcon (if you’re unaware of what an actual “falcon” is, look here) from Quade Cooper set James O’Connor hacking and then scorching his way up the pitch for a superb runaway score.
After last year’s form and high skill levels you would automatically associate the Reds with silky back play, but it was power that saw them home on 74 minutes, substitute hooker James Hanson the hero as he burrowed under plenty of bodies to grab the winning score, 21-20 the end result. A quick note must be made on James O’Connor, who notched all 20 points for the Force – world class.
Rebels given no easy introduction as the ‘Tahs look strong
Welcome to Super Rugby gents. 0-43 does not read well and nor should it, as after a very bright opening 20 minutes the Melbourne Rebels fell apart in their first competitive game. Admittedly the Waratahs were not the ideal first team to face, but even so there were too many errors in defence and too blunt an attack from the Rebels for them to really threaten. The over-committing of men to the rucks in particular stood out, suggesting a lack of confidence in believing they could win the ball with three of four forwards.
As a result they lost options in attack. Losing James Hilgendorf obviously affected their game plan significantly, but as a side they looked very threadbare. But, at the same time it cannot get much worse, and they’re more likely to pick up a result against the Brumbies next week than they would have been against the ‘Tahs.
As for the Waratahs themselves, they definitely look like playoff contenders already. Composed in attack, their set-piece worked brilliantly. Everyone knows how brilliant the likes of Kurtley Beale, Drew Mitchell and Berrick Barnes are, but it was the other lesser knowm guys in the side who really put their hands up. Luke Burgess at nine relished playing behind such a dominant pack, of which Dave Dennis and Kane Douglas were both excellent. All in all, they looked frighteningly lethal.
Blues stun the Crusaders, Champions driven close, and Ma’a gets an early bath
Starting at Eden Park, the Blues stunned the Crusaders with a great comeback through a match-winning score from captain Kevin Mealamu. The All Blacks number 2 had been biding his time at the back of the maul before he burst up the shortside, absolutely bulldozed his way through Andy Ellis, and dived over to grab the winner. Given that the Crusaders have been touted as title contenders, this was quite the surprise, though they did score a beauty through Sean Maitland in the first half following a great kick through from new signing Israel Dagg. A great result though for the Auckland side.
Meanwhile in Johannesburg the Lions nearly produced a massive turnaround as they ran the Bulls close, eventually going down 20-24. The Bulls were full of their trademark power and precision, and Gerhard Van Der Heever scored a sizzler which is a contender for Try of the Weekend. But this was a far improved Lions outfit to the one we’ve come used to seeing being whipped over the years, and this result will have given them a huge confidence boost.
Meanwhile in another surprise result at Westpac Stadium, Ma’a Nonu saw red for two yellows following a barge on All Black number nine Jimmy Cowan on about 50 minutes. The New Zealand centre can really have no complaints, even if Cowan’s wry grin afterwards meant he might have milked the incident. I predicted the Highlanders as real strugglers for this tournament, and one result won’t drastically alter that outcome, but this was a great start to their campaign.
Back in the beautiful north… Leicester move ten points clear
Conditions were suitably foul this weekend in the Premiership. Director of Rugby-less Wasps travelled to Welford Road looking for a very rare win against the Tigers at their fortress, and whilst they gave it a very good go, they didn’t have enough in the scrum or upfront to be able to compete with Leicester’s power.
Sky before the game showed a nice montage of the best encounters between the teams over the years, whilst watching it became increasingly apparent of how things have changed at Adams Park. Great players have been replaced by good ones, unlike at Leicester where the success of the academy, and the cheque-book, has seen the club maintain their unique level of success. Wasps defence was certainly admirable at times during the match, especially when camped on their own line at the end of the first half with the scrum creaking, but where they end up this season will be interesting.
It was a boost to see Tom Croft return unscathed, his inclusion with England this week along with the return of Lewis Moody will be intriguing given that Martin Johnson now seems blessed with options. As for Wasps, with Shaun Edwards ruling himself out of the top job, the interviewing process shall begin.
Big wins for Bath and Saracens as Leeds and Newcastle struggle
Bath and Matt Banahan were rampant against a weakened Northampton side at the Rec on Saturday afternoon. A hat-trick for the big England winger/centre will have done his selection chances no harm. Saints looked very out of the ordinary but with many key stars absent and Stephen Myler playing particularly poorly at fly-half, they just never got going.
However Bath are on a hot streak right now, and the hands in the build-up to Banahan’s first score were some of the best seen anywhere in the world this weekend. Banahan was there again for a lovely second Bath score, providing the perfect mix of “bosh” as he rumbled through, and then skill as he flicked an out-the-back offload to Aussie Matt Carraro. Perhaps he’s not just a big lump after all. Saints tragic defence did make him look good though.
Saracens were also very impressive against Leeds, with their backs grabbing five tries and a bonus point with just 50 minutes gone on the clock. Chris Wyles scored the pick of the tries, dancing his way around six flailing Leeds defenders to waltz over for the fifth and final score. It was an absolute humiliation for Leeds, and now next weekend’s game against fellow strugglers Newcastle, who also lost this weekend at home to Exeter, feels absolutely enormous. You get the sense whoever loses that one will almost certainly go down.
Try of the weekend had contenders in Drew Mitchell (Waratahs) and Sean Maitland (Crusaders), but the winner is Gerhard Van Der Heever of the Bulls, who’s lightning break from his own half saw him cut up the Lions defence, with no one getting even close to him as he ran in from 60 metres.
Hero of the week had to be Ruan Pienaar of Ulster for his last-minute winning penalty kick against the Scarlets in Llanelli. Horrendous conditions, over 50 metres out, and well into overtime, the former Springbok nailed a seriously difficult kick to snatch the win, their first ever in Llanelli.
Villain of the week? Nonu may have got the red card but I think Jimmy Cowan’s playacting in the follow-up after the sending off was pretty atrocious. A tweet from Green & Gold Rugby’s Matt Rowley summed it up nicely; “Fave Super Rugby weekend moment #1: Ma’a Nonu proving what we all thought – that even the ABs themselves would love to t*** Jimmy Cowan.” Nicely put.
That’s all for this week, keep tuned for all the build up for the next round of RBS Six Nations matches as well as more from Super Rugby and the Premiership. What were your highlights of the weekend?
By Ben Coles