It is only one round, but the early signs indicate it will be a long season for Australia’s Super Rugby teams. That is scary for a code battling to maintain its relevance in a hyper-competitive sporting environment.
The Waratahs’ 43-25 loss to defending champions the Crusaders in Nelson was oh-so predictable; the Rebels’ upset 36-27 defeat to the Sunwolves in Fukuoka was hugely disappointing; and the Brumbies’ 27-24 win over the Reds in ridiculously hot and smoky conditions in Canberra was difficult to gauge.
Notwithstanding the odd bright moment, the overall impression was one of gloom, another season of mediocrity coming this way. It was certainly not the collective performance that will bring back the fans, which is what the game in Australia so desperately needs. There are many things that separate New Zealand rugby from Australian rugby – talent, depth, skill, fitness and perhaps most important of all, culture.
To be fair, the Waratahs were missing a lot of big name players who departed in the off-season, but so were the Crusaders. Gone were the likes of their world class captain and No 8 Kieran Read among others. Yet, the Crusaders were able to fall back on their rich cultural heritage to produce an almost perfunctory six tries to three victory against a Waratahs side that, strangely, did not take them on up front, where they were supposedly vulnerable.
It would have been interesting to see what might have happened had Kurtley Beale’s try not been disallowed at a crucial time in the first half, but it is doubtful it would have changed the result. There were too many unforced errors and missed tackles by the Waratahs, sadly two common features of Australian rugby over the last four years.
Strategic kicking, support play and the ability to keep the ball alive in the face of defensive pressure are hallmarks of the Crusaders style of play, which started to evolve when the Waratahs’ new coach Rob Penney was running around on the Canterbury plains. Penney’s task is to re-create the Waratahs’ culture, or identity if you like, something the club has lacked since winning its sole Super Rugby title under Michael Cheika in 2014.
The two-try debut of 19-year-old winger Mark Nawaqanitawase will no doubt please the Waratahs, although rookie five-eighth Will Harrison was heavily targeted by the Crusaders and received little protection from his forwards. The Waratahs appeared to deliberately downplay Harrison’s role to take pressure off him, but that only increased pressure on Beale, who had to assume much of the playmaking responsibilities while remaining the side’s main strike weapon. Beale will be worn out before the end of the season if he keeps that up.
The Australian team with the strongest culture is arguably the Brumbies, who achieved a mini dynasty between 2000 and 2004, including two titles. It obviously still means something to be a Brumby, which no doubt helped them to come back to beat the Reds. The most pleasing aspect of the win was the performance of rookie five-eighth Noah Lolesio, who directed the side around the field confidently.
The Reds have enough talent to challenge for the Australian conference title, but they seem to lack the wherewithal to win. Ominously, there was some poor defence by both sides which led to tries, which better teams would have prevented.
It was also hard to judge the Brumbies and Reds because they were two Australian teams playing each other. We will not know how good or bad they are until they play New Zealand and South African opposition.
The jury might be out on both, but there are already deeply worrying signs for the Rebels, who showed less enthusiasm than the Sunwolves, a team that is being kicked out of the competition next year. The Rebels usually start the season well only to falter at the end, but for most of the game in Japan they looked flat-footed and lethargic, out-played by a Barbarians-style team that only assembled three weeks ago.
Rebels coach Dave Wessels admitted before the game that he thought about quitting, but instead tried to re-invent himself as a coach. He certainly cut a dejected figure in the coach’s box. Wessels was coach of the Western Force when Rugby Australia kicked the Perth side out of Super Rugby and he has tried to hold the Rebels together the last few years. Maybe he needs a break.
But it was only round one. You would be foolish to get too carried away or too despondent with results at this stage. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, but the season will start to drag for the Australian teams if results and performances do not improve markedly over coming weeks.