Ratings for the games:
Blues Hurricanes: 6/10
Rebels Reds: 6/10
Bulls Crusaders: 4/10
Highlanders Jaguares: 5/10
Chiefs Sharks: 8/10
Lions Waratahs: 7/10
Brumbies Sunwolves: 2/10
Blues 12 – Hurricanes 22: This had all the makings of a classic Kiwi derby, and sort of lived up to the billing. Surprisingly low scoring for two teams not known for their defense. The Blues, for their part, put on massive pressure but were largely unable to make anything of it. On the flip side, the Canes controlled but did not maximize their chances either. Their defense with one in the bin was particularly impressive; that said it was impressive throughout. Most notably the Barrett brothers and TJ Perenara did well to stymie the Blues attack. BB’s fingertip intercept try was at least a 7, if not 14 point swing as the Blues looked to exploit a gaping hole in the midfield. All Blacks watch :Jordie Barrett’s form has been hot of late as well, with Damian McKenzie and Ben Smith injured he has emphatically raised his hand for selection. Nonu went well, but showed his lost pace as he was caught at the line on a carry where 2015 Nonu glides over easily.
“leave your starters on the bench until the last 20 and call them ‘finishers'”
Bulls 13 – Crusaders 45: With Richie Mo’unga back at first five eighths, the Crusaders ran rampant over the Blue Bulls in the high veld. Sevu Reece was right back to his best with a hat trick for the winning side, Not too much else to say about this one. Crusaders imperious, though they still got clipped for a fair few penalties. For the Bulls, there was really not much they were going to accomplish with the Cantabrians a week off a poor showing and a more or less full strength side.
Highlanders 32 – Jaguares 27: The Jaguares went deep with a Eddie Jones “leave your starters on the bench until the last 20 and call them ‘finishers'” strategy that did not quite pan out for the visiting side. Another strong game from young first five Josh Ioane for the ‘Landers, putting him further and further into contention as the third best 10 in New Zealand in a RWC year. Maybe he should get to whitebaiting. This should have been a more enjoyable game, but late the Jaguares copped a fair few penalties and that stunted the flow. Truth be told, the Jags really should not have played it as close as it was to begin with, and a stronger starting side may have turned the tables. Notable is Liam Squire’s absence after being listed as a replacement loose forward for the Highlanders.
Rebels 30 – Reds 24: A necessary win for the Melbournites, but they will not be too chuffed with how they went about getting it. Rebels did well to punish the infringing Reds’ two cards, putting 17 points up in those windows to win by 6. A win is a win, but QC and co will have wanted to really put down a marker on their conference opponents here. Speaking of QC, the tired man is now out with concussion. Matt Toomua to return in the nick of time, but Wallaby supporters will be watching closely. Much like the Rebels he leads, Cooper’s form was blinding to start and passable since. The incumbent Bernard Foley has not exactly lit the world ablaze, however, though Cheika’s established Waratahs preference holds some sway. For the Reds, Taniela Tupou put in a good shift after having slept through the season to now. A trademark strong scrummaging effort with punishing carries in the loose, including a try of the week back-and-forth with replacement fullback Isaac Lucas. Defensive and work rate questions still linger. A notable detail of the result is the losing bonus point for the Reds via a penalty after the 80 were up. Could be pivotal in the playoff chase.
Chiefs 29 – Sharks 23: For me the game of the week, though Waratahs Lions was not far off. After their improbable draw at Crusaders, the Sharks were content to stick to their guns of thumping with big men and having Curwin Bosch handle the rest. Speaking of, Bosch has to be getting considered for Springbok duty as he has been pure class the past few weeks. He is only 21! Opportunity for Rassie Erasmus to develop a game changer for now and years to come. The injury depleted Chiefs saw stand in captain Brad Weber take in a brace, including a wonderful kick off return try sparked by the Alex Nankivell break. ALB put one over for the home side as well. Canadian Tyler Ardron had another huge shift including a try (and game) saving tackle on Bosch late. Leading late, then giving up the lead, the Sharks did not quit and ran into almost 5 minutes of extra time before giving it up for good. The losing bonus point feels inadequate for the work they put in.
Lions 29 – Waratahs 28: A weirdly entertaining game with a competitive close. I am not ready to name Egon Seconds man of the match for the Lions, but with the count 11-2 against the Waratahs, with many of those penalties coming late with the Lions down, he sure put in his worth. With lots of air behind the front lines in the first half, lots of weird action highlighted by lock Rob Simmons going in essentially untouched from 30 meters out for the Tahs. Lions rake Malcolm Marx, who has been good but not headline grabbing this year, gave a standout performance for the winning side.
Brumbies 33 – Sunwolves 0: The Sunwolves conceded their second bagel in three weeks and are the only side to have been held scoreless this year. Comprehensively defeated by the Canberrans, the absence of Michael Little in the midfield is taking a toll. After much complaining and maligning, the Brumbies scored five tries from distance through their backs. Tevita Kuridrani in particular stood out, with the T-train running over defenders left and right. Tom Banks also strong from the back. Folau Fainga’a being held off the score sheet surprising given the magnitude of the Brumbies victory.
Glancing ahead, the NZ conference toilet bowl between the Blue and Chiefs should prove a worthwhile watch. Rebels Bulls and Lions Highlanders may be interesting as well.
The final whistle: For me, the difference between Australia and the other southern hemisphere teams can be typified by the Champions’ cup final in Newcastle. With high performing Kiwis Sean Maitland and James Lowe on the run out sides, it is not at all clear either would make the AB squad given availability. However, Wallaby selectors will have been sad watching Will Skelton and Scott Fardy play for their clubs and be unable to suit up in gold. It’s been said before, but the next man up is of a different class in Kiwi land than it is elsewhere.