10. How close is the comp this season? Of the seven games on the weekend, six were decided by a converted try or less. This has been the case for every round, with multiple games going down to the wire each weekend. Already three have been decided by tries off the last play of the game. It’s a tipsters nightmare, but a rugby fan’s dream. The historical ‘minnows’ are all putting forward good showings, while sides written off in pre-season (eg Hurricanes and Brumbies) are making a few pundits (myself included) look pretty stupid.
The moral of the story? This comp is wide open, and no team should feel out of the running. This is good news for the Tahs and Reds fans, as it seems you will need less wins to be around in the finals in 2012. Who would you tip to take out the title though? The Crusaders don’t look too crash-hot, the Stormers are still undefeated but have struggled at times, the Chiefs and Highlanders started strong but one wonders if they can sustain their runs. I can’t wait for the coming rounds, this has been the best comp in years.
9. Not too many people will be shedding tears over the departure of Paddy O’Brien from the IRB Ref’s job. The job should be fairly simple- work out who the best refs are, give them the biggest games, publicly support their decisions and then critique their performance behind closed doors and promote/demote accordingly. Yet at various times Paddy stuffed up every fucking step of that process. He thrust a young Wayne Barnes into a high-pressure World Cup QF he was ill-equipped to deal with. He persisted with Bryce Lawrence long after his use-by date had expired. He made baffling apologies to the All Blacks on numerous occasions, yet kept his mouth firmly shut after ref clangers cost other nations crucial games. He should have stepped down years ago.
8. Along with Paddy stepping down (or more aptly shifting to the 7s circuit with an eye on the Olympics) there have been some interesting changes to the top level refs panel. Gone are Jonathon Kaplan, Wayne Barnes, Bryce Lawrence and Dave Pearson, and in comes Jaco Peyper. Good decisions all, except maybe the axing of Barnes. He has come a long way since the infamous night in Cardiff and is one of the few international refs who views his role as one of facilitating a free-flowing entertaining fixture, rather than policing every facet of the game.
7. I was happy for the Rebels after their tightly-fought win over the Force. They started like a house on fire with some great tries and they probably deserved the win in the end. The signs of improvement from 2011 are there, but they are still conceding too many points to be truly competitive. The pressure will be on in the next couple of weeks to show the defensive performance seen against the Reds at Suncorp was not a one-off. This week they have the Highlanders in Dunedin, who are vulnerable after suffering a spate of injuries to key players. A good showing is vital.
6. My favourite side to watch this year is undoubtedly the Hurricanes. Much like the Brumbies they have cleaned out their ranks and introduced a lot of new blood, and boy has it paid dividends. They have a backline chocked full of talent and they have unearthed a few young players who will be around for a long time to come (Andre Taylor especially is one to watch). At the start of the season they looked like easybeats, but now they are anything but. They play with an enthusiasm I would love to see from certain Aussie teams…
5. The Tahs are back and nothing can stop their march to the title. Or at least it seems that way from reading the online commentry this week. Well, maybe no-one has predicted them to take the title (although the $12 about them at the moment has certainly tempted me), but nonetheless there is a renewed optimism about the Tahs that seems so January 2012. Sure it was a good win but Christ they needed it. Now they face a trip to Hamilton to face the Chiefs, the form side of the comp so far. The scrum battle will be a thing of beauty- the uncle and nephew combination of Sona Taumalolo and Ben Tamiefuna taking on Robinson and Kepu. Not to mention TC lining up against SBW in the backline, or Cruden facing up against Barnes. Hopefully the weather holds up because this promises to be a cracker, and will be a far better test of where the Tahs are at this season.
4. So now we know what Tony McGahan will be doing with the Wallabies this season. Namely, everything. According to the man himself: “I’ll be dealing with the totality of the strength and conditioning, the medical, the rugby side of things, strategy, the review, preview of the game itself and also the individuals.” Apparently he also has his eye on the #13 jersey. But seriously, I can sort of understand all that, except for the ‘medical’ side of things. Will he be assessing injured players and recommending treatment options? Will he be performing procedures himself? I know McGahan wants a hands-on role with the team, but surely this is taking it a bit too far…
3. Michael Hooper has attracted a lot of attention for his ‘Pocock-esque’ performance against the Highlanders on Saturday. And it was undoubtedly a great one. But everyone has seemingly glossed over another titanic ‘Pocock-esque’ effort- from the man himself. He is carrying the Force at the moment- taking pilfers, making tackles, trucking the ball, scoring tries. With his contract up at the end of the year I am expecting a feeding frenzy like nothing we have seen. He may not bring in the chicks like JOC or Quade but fuck me he can play rugby. I hope he stays at the Force, he has already done good things for rugby in the West and you get the feeling he’s on the cusp of something great.
2. The future looks pretty bleak for the Reds. The game against the Force this weekend is pivotal. Lose and that means they have gone down three times on the trot, and return from their tour empty handed. They still have a very classy forward pack and this now must become their focus. With their backline injury toll reaching disastrous levels, there is one name on the Reds roster that is worth keeping an eye on – Chris F’Sautia. This young bloke was probably the most talked about schoolboy since Kurtley Beale, and it will be interesting to see if and when Link decides to give him a run (although he is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury). Hopefully he resists the urge to throw him in the deep end and instead lets him ply his trade in colts for a season or two. So now I’ve written off the Reds they will win ten straight and take the title. You’re welcome Reds fans.
1. Rugby season is finally here. Trial games have begun, training is getting more intense and the air is rich with the sounds of rugby- posts going up, lines being marked, whistles being blown. What a great time of the year to be alive!
Did I miss anything? What are your observations from the weekend?