There were home wins for the Chiefs, Highlanders, Brumbies, Lions and Stormers in Round 5 of Super Rugby but the Reds were the shock away victors in Buenos Aires.
The southern derby certainly didn’t disappoint in Dunedin, either; the Highlanders maintaining their unbeaten record in another thrilling showdown with the Crusaders.
In Johannesburg, it was a case of so near yet so far for the well-travelled Sunwolves. Coming off a heavy defeat by the Sharks last week, the Japanese outfit pushed the Lions right up until the final whistle only to fall by two points.
Read on for some of the big talking points from Round 5.
Thorn effect notches third straight victory
Written off in the preseason, Queensland Reds on Sunday [AEDT] made it three straight wins with yet another gritty defensive display in an 18-7 victory over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
It was by no means pretty, just like their previous two wins, but there is no doubt the Reds are playing with a hardened edge under Brad Thorn as he encourages a love of contact and a never-say-die attitude to tryline defence.
The Reds defended their patch superbly on Sunday, twice repelling extended periods of Jaguares attack, crucially on halftime and then again between the 50th and 60th minutes; their resistance typified by one final effort from replacement fly-half Hamish Stewart when he and teammate Ben Lucas forced Juan Manuel Leguizamon into touch as the Jaguares back-rower looked to snatch a late consolation try in the right-hand corner.
“Defensive effort was huge, the full squad was pretty much used again,” Thorn said. “It was good to see guys get off the bench that haven’t had time recently; Hamish [Stewart] got his first taste tonight, he was a bit rusty here and there but good for him to get out there.
“I thought the pack was big at scrum time, we’ve been working hard on our lineout D [defence], on our own ball and all sorts of stuff…but to come here and to have that massive travel, to have a good week and to get the job done, is pretty special.”
While the Reds’ attack is still very much a work in progress – too often they were caught crabbing across field in Buenos Aires – Thorn’s decision to cast Quade Cooper aside has been justified. The former Wallabies fly-half was back in action himself in a club rugby trial in Brisbane on Saturday night but in Jono Lance and youngster Stewart, Thorn instead has two solid playmakers he can build a game plan around.
And the Reds did in fact score a beautifully crafted set-move try from a lineout; Stewart putting back-rower Caleb Timu through before the 65-metre sequence moved through three more sets of hands to be finished by Fijian winger Filipo Daugunu.
But it’s the Reds’ set-piece and defensive attitude that are Queenslanders’ major strength this season and a testament to what Thorn has built at Ballymore in just a few shorts months in charge. The Jaguares’ lineout was chaotic under the Reds’ pressure while the visitors also forced a number of scrum penalties. Thorn was a master of the set-piece in his time with the All Blacks and evidence of his cultural overhaul in Brisbane has already shone through.
“I keep going back to Under 20s, Queensland Country; I just wanted to see something: could you change a culture [in Queensland rugby]…and the next one was: could they respond? And they’re responding in spades, aren’t they?
“We’re a work in progress, everyone can see that; we’ve got many things we need to get better at and whatever. But there is ticker there, there is fight; you don’t walk away from the ground of the TV set and say ‘those guys don’t have a go’.”
New Zealand Conference
Smith & Smith: Highlanders tread fine referee line
The role of the Television Match Official continues to be a discussion point throughout the game while the role of the captain in dealing with the referee was a major talking point following the Highlanders’ 25-17 in the southern derby in Dunedin.
Highlanders captain Ben Smith saved his side five points – and possibly seven – when he convinced referee Nick Briant to have a second look at a try to Crusaders back-rower Jordan Taufua. TMO Glen Newman eventually overturned the decision, confirming the ball had previously been lost forward by Tim Bateman.
Smith managed the situation with composure, ensuring he didn’t charge at Briant but instead approach the referee with purpose. He was also smart to put himself in line with Crusaders kicker Mitchell Hunt, ensuring the fly-half couldn’t act on the situation and take the kick quickly.
Given the number of replays, and the power of the host broadcaster in controlling what is played on the big screen, few questionable tries avoid the eagle eye of the TMO nowadays. But the game must not become beholden to the captains either; referees must treated with reverence and be quick to put any player who oversteps the mark in their place.
And that is something that should probably happen with All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith. The world’s best No.9 is currently treading an incredibly thin line with his on-field manner. Seldom does a decision not go the Highlanders’ way that Smith doesn’t immediately remonstrate with, offering abrupt and out-of-order advice to the referee. Halfbacks have always had their say, but Smith has already this season been well beyond the point of what is acceptable.
The news is otherwise good for the Highlanders who have almost flown under the radar a tad this season. Aaron Mauger’s side are now three from three, but now face back-to-back games on the road in New Zealand.
In the Smiths, fly-half Lima Sopoaga and hooker Liam Coltman, the Highlanders have arguably the strongest spine in Super Rugby. In his first season in charge, Mauger has an excellent opportunity to add to the Highlanders’ lone title before Sopoaga heads north to Wasps.
South African Conference
It’s astonishing to think that Stormers flyhalf Damian Willemse is only 19 years old. On Saturday, against the Blues, he certainly didn’t look like a kid who only two years ago was still sitting in Paul Roos High’s school benches.
Willemse is arguably one of the most naturally gifted players South Africa has ever seen. His attacking prowess from the No 10 position has come to fore this year, with his running and stepping ability making him a dangerous payer to defend against.
But he also has an underrated boot, as his long touch finders helped the Stormers to win the territory battle against the Blues, while his goalkicking was excellent. He is also a strong defender, and is not afraid to get his hands dirty at ruck time.
Willemse has all the tools to become a top international player, but he needs the right guidance. South African rugby has a long history of handcuffing exciting young players like Willemse, who take the odd risk to get the reward. But Willemse must be given the freedom to express himself.
Credit to Stormers coach Robbie Fleck for giving Willemse a blank canvas to do his own thing on the field. The kid is still young, but he has that ‘Dan Carter look’ about him. He has the potential to become a South African great.