The Wrap: Opening round of SRP a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same

It seems that the more things change – and we are in the midst of a period of profound change for rugby in this corner of the world – the more things stay the same.

Any thoughts that the usual post-World Cup player movements might see the leading New Zealand franchises come back to the pack were quickly put to bed on Super Rugby’s opening weekend.

In an entertaining – and highly willing – opening match in Hamilton, the Chiefs reversed the result of last year’s final, edging the Crusaders 33-29.

Despite marquee players like Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock, Richie Mo’unga and others having moved on, it was a familiar story; skill, intent, toughness, pace and teamwork, all blended into a compelling package.

A solid enough crowd seemed to be having a time of it too. Perhaps all of the ‘I don’t watch rugby anymore because the game is too boring/over-refereed/slow/not fun’ folk have been flushed out, leaving the rest of us to get on with enjoying it?

Making predictions as early as Round 1 can be fraught with danger, but it doesn’t feel like pushing my neck out too far to suggest that both sides will again be featuring late into the playoffs.

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In Melbourne, the final play of the match saw a wide pass from Carter Gordon fail to connect with Glen Vaihu and instead, roll over the sideline. It was wholly indicative of the lack of execution that marked the performance of the home side throughout.

Entering the match with high expectations, the Rebels failed to settle and, down 17-3 at half-time, never got any better when forced into playing catch-up rugby.

Winning the penalty count and dominating territory for large chunks of time, it wasn’t as if the Rebels lacked for opportunity. But repeated, clumsy execution took its toll.

In the match that followed from Perth, a statistic was highlighted showing the Hurricanes average per game, 10 visits to the attacking 22 or ‘red zone’, and average a try for every two of those visits.

The Rebels managed 16 separate red zone visits while in possession. There were four line-outs lost, three penalties conceded, five dropped balls, two wayward passes, one penalty kick slammed against an upright, and one successful penalty. In addition, Carter Gordon kicked a penalty dead in goal, denying a further opportunity for a five metre line-out.

More line-out feeds were squandered in other parts of the field. No rugby side has any business executing so poorly, not being able to spark any ‘go forward’ without a line-out platform, and expect to remain competitive. No prizes for guessing for what the Rebels will be working on this week.

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

By contrast, the Brumbies were their familiar, efficient selves; particularly well-organised and stingy in defence, pushing referee Angus Gardner more than what they would have liked, but offering the Rebels very little to work with.

At flyhalf, a spritely Noah Lolesio looks to have returned in great nick, while Charlie Cale was not only a menace at line-out, but showed Corey Toole-like pace to score a spectacular second-half try. 30-3, four tries to nil, told the tale of the night.

The Hurricanes took the Perth crowd out of the equation early on, and were too polished for the Force, winning comfortably, 44-10. What impressed was their balance, blending power up front with speed on the outside.

A clumsy challenge by Harry Potter started things off on the wrong foot for the Force, as the visitors took full advantage of a lopsided early penalty count.

The third quarter was the home side’s best, although coach Simon Cron later pointed to concerns around needing more impact and cohesion from his bench. With the Rebels and Force certain to be throwing everything at each other this coming Friday night, getting full value across the 23 will be essential.

As an aside; on what was a good weekend for referees, full credit to Damon Murphy for trusting his eyes and sitting Potter down immediately, without stopping the game to initiate a needless video session and conversation with his TMO.

Whangarei doesn’t get many Super Rugby games but players and crowd alike seemed to enjoy the sunny, afternoon festival atmosphere, as the Blues comfortably held the Drua, 34-10.

New coach Vern Cotter is widely tipped to bring a harder, more clinical edge to the Blues this season, and they will be relieved to get this one out of the way nice and early, against a Drua side that still lacks fizz away from home, and whose scrum – while improving – is still developing at this level.

It appears that some things have changed in Dunedin; not the zoo full of students celebrating orientation week by singing along to a 45-year-old drinking song by ‘Th’ Dudes’, but in that somehow, wearing Speights merch has become cool.

New fullback Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens disappointed commentators by getting so involved in the match. Not the local fans though; as delighted with his two tries and silky skill-set, as they were well pleased with how hooker Henry Bell, handled his first step up to Super Rugby.

It’s a long time until Round 12, but keep an eye out for a mouth-watering face-off at hooker between Henry and brother George, when the Highlanders take on the Crusaders.

Also lively was combative No.8 Hugh Renton. Thinking back to the 1996 film Trainspotting, is there any player in world rugby who so accurately resembles their younger, fictional self?

I’m not convinced that 12 is the optimal place to park a bus, but even if Julian Savea isn’t the inside centre he’d like to be, and even if Moana Pasifika came out on the wrong side of a 35-21 score-line, they showed enough to suggest that they’ll be improving on their one-win 2023 season.

They also have Miracle Fai’ilagi, a hugely talented player who, if he was at a different franchise, would surely be one of the headline stars of the competition.

Speaking of commentators, job well done to Sky Sports’ Grant Nisbett for not calling Makazole Mapimpi even once, during the Dunedin match!

Even though things were damp in Brisbane, and errors accrued as a result, the final match was enthralling throughout; the Reds pulling away in the second half to sweep aside the Waratahs 40-22.

The win was built of the back of the Reds’ effective, first-choice loose forward trio, with Fraser McReight in particular looking strong, fast and hungry. This opened up a sweet ride for the playmakers, with Tate McDermott and Tom Lynagh both enjoying strong matches.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The match took a pivotal turn right on half-time when Jordan Petaia, running on to a nifty infield grubber by Suliasi Vunivalu, was ruled to have been tackled early by Max Jorgensen.

A penalty try and a sin bin for Jorgensen resulted; harsh, but under the laws of the game, entirely just. There wasn’t much in it, but there didn’t need to be.

The Waratahs, overcoming the loss on Thursday of Lalakai Foketi in a nasty training accident, showed some nice glimpses. But they also had more of the unforced errors, particularly when forced into chasing the game in the second half.

They now face an awkward month where they face three New Zealand teams, then the Drua, away in Fiji. If reports are true that coach Darren Coleman will face judgment day at or before the end of this period, then this would only serve as yet another symptom of what is wrong with Australian rugby; the unhealthy fixation on head coaches.

If there are Waratahs board members who don’t want Coleman as coach, they should either have not appointed him in the first place, or at worst, replaced him during the off-season.

To set him up for failure by announcing interim win/loss targets, against sides that they historically have poor win/loss records against, feels disingenuous. Bad enough, but to have this information doing the rounds in public is just another example of rugby politics at its worst.

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

For all of the flak thrown at the Rebels board members in recent weeks, let us not forget that it was the Waratahs who had their financial dirty linen – debt totalling many millions of dollars – hastily swept under the carpet by Rugby Australia.

Yes, everyone connected to the Waratahs longs to repeat the success of 2014. But if 2024 proves not to be their year, they will do well to consider what exactly are realistic expectations, and to reflect on the performance of everyone in the franchise; not just one person.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

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