Entering the final round of Super Rugby 2013, there was nothing left to play for but pride, as it turned out, a great incentive for those that have already lost their chance to advance. First up we saw the Crusaders having to work hard against the Hurricanes to secure home ground advantage with a 25-17 win. The Hurricanes were uncharacteristically patient on the attack and defended really well as they kept up with the Crusaders to stay within striking range up to the final minute which saw a piece of individual brilliance by Tom Marshall result in a try to the hosts.
Up next the Highlanders traveled to Melbourne in an attempt to save some face and continue their thrilling efforts of the last couple of games. The Rebels seemed to be blown out of the water after trailing 31-7 at half time, the but the script was far from finished as the home team cam back to win the second half 31-6, clinching a one-point win over the visitors as the scoreline read 38-37 when the siren sounded. The game of two halves entertained with high paced rugby from both sides, the exodus of players, axing of their coach and shock sacking of James O’Connor proved to motivate the men from Melbourne just that bit more to provide a fitting farewell to the departees.
For the second week in a row the Chiefs looked far from their vintage selves as they took on the Blues in Auckland. The game between the neighboring franchises was very physical, but equally messy, riddled with poor handling and off-the-ball incidents. Early in the match an error in judgment by Blues second rower Kane Barrett saw him sent off with a red card for reckless use of the boot and shortly after the restart the hosts were reduced to thirteen men when flyhalf Baden Kerr got sin-binned for a professional foul. Even with all these factors going against them, the Blues continuously made life hard for the Chiefs, who would by no means feel satisfied with the result. Even though the 26-16 victory means they’ve won the overall conference, they come forth too anxious to be considered champion material.
The first of the two Australian derbies was one of those matches we’ve come to expect when the sides Down Under go head-to-head; very little running into space, lots of contact. The Waratahs put a lot of pressure on the Reds, especially targeting playmaker Quade Cooper in the absence of his partner in crime, forcing him to do things he didn’t feel comfortable with, thus making mistakes. A multitude of handling errors dominated proceeding as the Reds squandered plenty of opportunities. But even though the Waratahs managed to outscore the visitors two tries to one, their inability to convert their kicks at goal, allowed to Reds to leave Sydney as 14-12 victors and a lot of work to be done ahead of their qualifier against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Any ideas the Brumbies had of coasting through their final match of the season soon evaporated. Fitting in with the theme of one upset a week, the boys from the West walked away with the crown as they’ve done so often this season. It was a stop-start first quarter between the Force and Brumbies, and Jake White may well blame the British & Irish Lions tour for disrupting their preparations, but at the end of the day they got outplayed by a team that was determined to reward the Sea of Blue for their continued support. Three tries in thirty minutes saw the Force take a well deserved 21-3 lead before the Brumbies struck back with two tries of their own to narrow it down to 21-15 with fifteen minutes left on the clock. After butchering an opportunity to get their first 4-try bonus point from twenty-five outings, the Force got the put in to a scrum five meters from the try line and a second go for gold – sadly they opted to boot the ball into touch and take the win instead of even trying to dot down their fourth.
Clearly now focused on the upcoming relegation match against the Lions, the debutants rang the changes in order to spare their stars. A much depleted Kings side went to King’s Park knowing that they will be up against a side looking for some retribution in terms of their ruined season. If the Sharks are to cop any criticism from their final display, it could be said that they weren’t as clinical as they could’ve been, missing six shots at goal and maybe being a little too adventurous and impatient at times. Nonetheless, the Durban outfit that took to the field this past Saturday surely made for enjoyable viewing as the forwards and backs shared ten tries between them to give the Kings a 58-13 thumping they wont soon forget.
I’ve been hearing this on the radio for the past two weeks, hoping for an opportunity to quote this Stormers fan, and so the stars aligned for me to say the following: “The Stormers are like dark clouds, when they come together, it thunders down!” And so it did on Saturday against the conference winning Bulls. Whether they were inspired by the fact that it was Springbok wing Bryan Habana’s last match before heading to France or a case of leaving the best for last, the team that came to the party for this classical clash between North and South took everybody’s breath away. Stormers pivot Gary van Aswegen played better than I’ve ever seen him play and fittingly Habana celebrated his departure with a try, seeing him off with an emphatic 30-13 triumph over his former team.
Quite a few rugged men played starring roles in their teams’ endeavors, making the selection of Round 20’s Super Trooper a rather difficult one. Ben Tameifuna steamrolled his way to two more tries for the Chiefs, Keegan Daniel stole some more vital lineouts as he lead the Sharks to a run-away victory, the Reds forwards and Rebels backs pulled out all the stops to edge past the opposition. But the man of the moment in my opinion was Stormers flyhalf Gary van Aswegen. For it seemed that he almost single-handedly sparked more life into their backline than we’ve seen all season. He dictated play like a master, getting the ball wide quickly and effectively putting the players outside him into space.
When two teams take to the field with nothing to lose, the audience usually has everything to gain. As with a similar fixture last weekend, the match between the Rebels and Highlanders produced all out running from left, right and center, with the Highlanders taking the first set by its horns before the Rebels got into the act to clinch the second set and therewith the match. Not much value in terms of defence, but who cares about that, the Best Battle is the one that entertains the most.
Both Steve Walsh and Chris Pollock got themselves on my radar for over-reacting and handing out punishments far too harsh for the crime, in one case without a crime being committed, but then the match between the Force and Brumbies delivered a stunner. After an unsuccessful penalty is fielded in the in-goal area, Brumbies pivot Matt Toomua then made the fatal error of passing the ball forward before dotting it down. This humiliating Howler of the Week act resulted in a five metre scrum for the Force and had they showed a bit more guts, they could’ve truly rubbed the loss in the faces of their peers by scoring a fourth try.
By Jackie Smit