The Force did everything but win this encounter at nib Stadium last night, even throwing the kitchen sink at the Blues.
But it was not to be, as Auckland fought back from a 12–22 deficit at the business end of the match, scoring a converted try to Keven Mealamu in the 78th minute and a penalty after the siren for a draw.
It was a cryin’ shame for the Force because this was a game they should have won — but a lack of composure right at the end proved costly.
The Force were magnificent in defence against a squad who man-for-man were, on paper at least, a superior outfit and definite Finals contender. There are overt signs that the Force are building and I think it’s only a matter of time before they start notching up a few wins.
The Blues forwards are essentially an All Black pack and their backline is to-die-for. The Force took the battle up to these jokers all day and gave their explosive backs no room to move. Joe Rockocoko was not allowed to smoke, Rene Ranger was corralled and Benson Stanley knifed!
You’d be hard pressed to define a Force Man-of-the Match because they all contributed to this entertaining and exciting encounter. Even Tucky Dunning stepped up when, instead of eating a few pies on the bench, he was called in to replace Tim ‘The Fox’ Fairbrother after the latter hurt his ribs in the warm-up.
Of course, James O’Connor starred with both ball and boot. He kicked five penalties and a conversion and was outstanding at No. 10. His chip, chase and retrieve that lead to a Sam Wykes ‘no-try’ (good one, Mr Ayoub) was Gilbert-like….
The loose forward trio outshone their opposites, with Richard Brown’s 50th Super Rugby match a corker. Matt Hodgson and Daniel Braid battled all day with the former taking the honours, and Ben McCalman replicated his Test form at No 8.
Speaking of the breakdown, one of the issues for Australian teams is that none of them have the wherewithal to counter-ruck, whereas it’s in Kiwi teams’ DNA. And the Blues are no exception to this, winning a number of turnovers in this tried and true manner. “When will we ever learn,” as Pete Seeger once famously sang?
The Blues looked tired and out-of-sorts after their mini-tour of South Africa. Maybe there was a hint of complacency as well, or perhaps too much kina?
The Force continually pressured them in the red zone and were rewarded with a string of penalties, which JO’C duly punched over. They scored just one try in the game — to Nick Cummins. This was the next play after the George Ayoub TMO howler in the first half (39 min). Maybe George had been busy watching Glee on the other channel or thinking about the delicious entrée menu at the Hilton Perth, where he was staying. But on my channel, when a forward falls over the line with the ball under his arm it’s usually a try. I wonder what Mr Kaplan would have made of it?
The Cummins experiment at outside centre worked, and he formed a capable midfield partnership with a busy Gene Fairbanks. In this game, the ball got out to David Smith and an enterprising Alfi Mafi on the wings and they revelled in it.
Tight forwards like Pek Cowan, Nathan Sharpe and Sam Wykes toiled manfully all day and they’ll be disappointed with the final result. It came down to substitute Jono Jenkins being carded in the 77th minute for a professional foul, which probably contributed to the Mealamu try. In the last minute of the game, the Force had possession and were winding it down in their half when one of the forwards was penalised for going off his feet at the ruck. Substitute Stephen Brett kicked the goal to draw.
You know, one of the things that really pisses me off is when the home town kicker (in this case Rabbit) is booed by ignoramus ex-pats in the crowd as he takes a shot at goal. Why don’t those whanau just f*ck off back to Nobodies-ville where they belong. Oh, I forgot — life’s just too good in Australia; the money is great and there are plenty of opportunities — unlike back in Waikickamoocow….
Coach Woody said: “Reflecting on the performance, I thought we were very brave as a group and we’re pretty gutted to be honest. I thought we worked really well there for 80 minutes and controlled possession when we had it and we defended exceptionally well.
“They’ve got a lot of very good one-on-one runners in the outside backs and they can stretch teams but some of our cover defence was outstanding, it was indicative of the character of the group.”
The Force are off to South Africa to meet the Lions and Stormers next. It seems Willie Ripia is close to a return (to be decided tomorrow). Mitch — here we come….
Put his hand up: What a fantastic utility Ben McCalman has turned out to be at lock, blindside flanker and probably his best position, No. 8.
Did himself no favours: Nobody underperformed.
Bolter watch: I don’t know about a bolter but you’ve got to give Gene Fairbanks (former Wallaby) his due. For a small guy coming back from Japan he’s playing well above his weight and perceived classification (journeyman).