The action got underway with the boys from Auckland making a very clear statement that the team’s performance in Round 2 had been no fluke and that Frank Halai is no one-hit-wonder. The Blues comfortably smashed the Crusaders 34-15 in what was a one-sided affair, bar the boot of Dan Carter. Frank Halai again dotted down twice on the right wing while George Moala reaped the benefit of a chip that was chased down by fullback Charles Piutau who had another strong performance. The Blues looked really good around the fringes as well with warhorse Luke Braid and Steven Luatua also getting in on the action. Piri Weepu fulfilled his halfback duties well enough, but again couldn’t find the posts and if he doesn’t up the ante with his goal kicking, the boys in blue will have to keep scoring tries like a machine or they might run into some trouble when faced with stronger defence.
Next up we had the Waratahs hosting the Rebels whilst staring down the barrel of a 10th consecutive loss although they had the advantage of an unbeaten record against the Melbourne side. The Rebels through James O’Connor and a better-looking Kurtley Beale seemed to be on track to their first win over the Tahs, but then came a late charge by the home team as they held onto possession in the last quarter and stepped on the gas. It was very much a team effort helped on by Brendan McKibbin’s cool-headed control and accurate goal-kicking that saw the Waratahs edge a 31-26 victory.
Every week has seen a team bite the dust when their goal-kicker failed and this week was no different as the generally reliable Beauden Barrett missed too many shots at goal that left the Canes stranded. The “strangest game ever” was a combination of appalling performances and a comedy of errors. With 30 minutes remaining on the clock and trailing by six points, it was all about the Hurricanes and the Queenslanders had to defend for dear life. In the end the Reds got an ugly 18-12 win over the Hurricanes who only have themselves to blame as they made costly errors and failed to convert their second half efforts into points.
What happened in Waikato on Saturday is something the Cheetahs would want to forget as soon as possible. For the first 60 minutes the Cheetahs were right up there with the Chiefs, but they just couldn’t execute and had Johan Goosen managed to slot a few more penalties, the story might have had a different ending,. On the other hand, Aaron Cruden seems to be relishing the pivot position even more without the kicking duties and Gareth Anscombe had another extremely influential game when he joined the line. The Chiefs didn’t take long to realise that the Free Staters were running out of gas and pounced on their good fortune, running in 4 tries in the final quarter as they crushed the Cheetahs 45-3.
The game at Fort Loftus was expected to be a run-away victory for the Bulls, but could easily have ended in tears for the too-cocky and below-par home side as a very different looking Force team took to the field and actually managed to get themselves in the lead with 10 minutes to go. Unfortunately for the visitors the Bulls were able to regain their composure and tighten the screws to take the game away from the Force with 2 tries in quick succession (36-26). Commendation must go to the two fly-halves with Morné Steyn running play for the Bulls very efficiently, including a linebreak and try of his own which is almost as rare as hens’ teeth, and Sias Ebersohn apparently very much suited to living up-side-down as he successfully slotted every available shot at goal and slipped in a dropgoal or two to keep the scoreboard ticking – something else the South Africans aren’t used to.
And then it was time for crash ball, kick and chase. I wouldn’t necessarily call the Sharks’ 12-6 defeat of the Stormers boring, it was just very frustrating, a real let down for players and spectators alike after all the anticipation. Considering that these teams racked up about 70 kicks from hand and fumbled the ball a collective 20 times, you can see that there really wasn’t much time for anything else. A run here and there, a linebreak or three, all came to no avail as the score was eventually settled from the tee.
The only team that can still cry about early season jitters are the Crusaders, and they should probably milk it after their haphazard start to the season. The Saders are notorious slow starters, but I think few really thought they would end up playing second fiddle to the Blues. Best Battle award for Round 3 goes to the Blues-Crusaders match, another extremely entertaining end-to-end display of pace, awareness and skill delivered by the New Zealand conference.
This week sees another fullback standing out above the rest. My Super Trooper for Round 3, is Gareth Anscombe. Not only did he have another almost faultless day with the boot, he seems to really blossom from the back and makes a real nuisance of himself for defense lines.
Howler of the Week this time around goes to Liam Gill for his skewed attempt at kicking the ball away from out of his own 22, creating a situation that nearly cost his team the game.