The Waratahs have surged to the top of the Australian conference thanks to their best start to a season in 12 years.
Elsewhere, the Hurricanes escaped the jaws of the Sharks despite Beauden Barrett’s absence, and the Lions found their attacking mojo.
Read on for some of the major talking points from the weekend’s action.
Waratahs to repeat 2014 heroics?
It may sound unbelievable, but this is the best start the Waratahs have had to a Super Rugby season in 12 years. One loss, one draw and five wins – including a bonus-point 37-16 victory over the Reds in Sydney on Saturday – have put the Waratahs top of the Australian conference.
It’s an unfamiliar feeling for the Tahs who won just four from 15 in 2017, a record they’ve already surpassed in just seven games in 2018. They’re also only one of two teams to have only one loss to their name.
Saturday’s thumping over the Reds was their fourth-straight victory, and their fourth over Aussie conference rivals this year. It comes as a morale booster as they take on the Lions on Friday.
The Tahs still have plenty of work to do, however, if they hope to push for their second title in four years.
Enjoying three times as much possession as the Reds in the opening half hour, the Tahs suffered from poor ball control — an issue that has continued to plague the side throughout 2018 — to keep the visitors within the contest.
It wasn’t until the 36th minute that the Tahs opened their try-scoring account as the Waratahs fumbled and bumbled their way through the first half. Luckily for them, the Reds could do little more with the ball.
The Waratahs gave themselves plenty of opportunities to put the Reds to the sword, producing several attacking raids, but sloppy execution yet again hampered them.
It came down to another barn-storming Taqele Naiyaravoro display to put the New South Welshman on top, with a second half double. Running a huge 185 metres, with 16 runs and seven clean breaks, the rampaging wing made his mark on the match.
But the Tahs will need a much cleaner performance agains the Lions if they are to the end their two-game losing run against their South African opponent, and with a four-week stint against New Zealand opposition only weeks away, the men in sky blue will need to produce a more rounded performance to end Australia’s losing streak against their Kiwi rivals.
New Zealand Conference
All Blacks production line keeps on pumping
Every year punters sit back and watch as at least one New Zealand Super player stands up and proves themselves as a new All Blacks candidate. In 2018, it’s the Hurricanes try-scoring whizz Ben Lam.
The competition leader in tries (9) and line breaks (12), and one of the top tackle busters, Lam has been a weapon for the Hurricanes on the left wing since their opening game of the season, and with another strong performance against the Chiefs on Friday, the 25-year-old is continuing to stamp himself on the ‘Canes game.
In the sixth minute, Lam opened the scoring after running into space off Laumape, finding the space before dusting off three defenders over 40 metres to dot it down under the posts.
It’s not the first time Lam has busted through three defenders for the score, with the wing treating fans to similar performances against the Highlanders and Crusaders only weeks ago, including an incredible double against the Highlanders that featured Lam barging through Waisake Naholo before he stretched his frame, slid and placed the ball over the line.
But on Friday he produced what is by far his best performance of the season, proving he’s more than just a finisher, using his speed and power to produce three line breaks and make a stunning 139 running metres, demonstrating his game-breaking ability.
Only weeks ago Lam played off the hype surrounding his name after he scored four tries as they Hurrcianes destroyed the Rebels in Melbourne.
“I try not to pay too much attention to all that noise, I guess for me it’s about performing for the Hurricanes. I mean you’ve still got Nehe [Milner-Skudder] to come back, we’ve got Jules [Savea] in our back-three so there’s a lot of competition out there,” Lam told stuff.co.nz. “For me it’s about trying to play good every time I do plat and put on a performance for that team.”
Lam wasn’t just being modest when he talked about the competition for the All Blacks’ wing position, with Solomon Alaimalo for the Chiefs also stepping up in 2018 and also produced one of his best performances of the season on Friday.
Another dangerous player with the ball, Alaimalo clocked up 157 metres with four linebreaks, while he produced the play of the game when he stopped Jordie Barrett in his tracks, dislodging the ball, forcing a knock-on and saving a try.
Alaimalo sits second behind Lam for line breaks, while Alaimalo has the most defenders beaten for a wing, Lam coming in third. Alaimalo leads all wings in run metres, while Lam is the comp leader for tries. Going on their current form, they’d be hard pressed not to make the All Blacks side.
South African Conference
Gelant can be a difference-maker for Bulls, Boks
In 2017 Allister Coetzee made a few terrible selection blunders that contributed to him losing his job as Springbok coach.
He made the mistake of backing a number of players even though they were struggling for form. In an attempt to build cohesion and a good team environment, the players were given an extend run past a certain point without repaying the coach’s faith.
You tend to put a lot of pressure on yourself as a coach by ignoring the sort of performances fullback Warrick Gelant was putting in for the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup, while the incumbent No 15 Andries Coetzee was off his game.
Gelant eventually got his chance during the end-of-year tour, but as a substitute and then started his first Test on the wing, as Coetzee stuck with his namesake at the back.
This year, though, new Bok coach Rassie Erasmus is unlikely to ignore Gelant following another couple of top showings in Super Rugby, which includes a hat trick of tries in the Bulls’ win over the Sharks this past weekend.
Gelant is a special player on attack, and the type of game breaker Coetzee could have done with last year.
The fullback has got that X-factor, the speed and the stepping ability to beat defenders, but he also has a lovely feel for the game, as he showed with all three his tries on Saturday.
The Boks need players like Gelant, who can be the difference in a tight match. Giving the 22-year-old kid exposure to international rugby this year will help him grow even more ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan.