Keep a sneaky eye on Hurricanes, Blues
Brett McKay
March 31, 2014
Alapati Leiua of the Hurricanes skips out of the tackle of Sam Whitelock © Getty Images

When do we start to question the Crusaders?

If Super Rugby round six saw the table condense, the competition outdid itself in round seven with a couple of upsets and the Bulls-Chiefs draw meaning just two points separate second and seventh place on the ladder now - and fewer than two wins overall splits second from 12th. Round seven also saw the Sharks extend their lead in both the South African Conference and the overall log, while the Australian and New Zealand conferences tightened up that much more.

Here are the talking points from the weekend, as I saw them. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

Kudos, Melbourne Rebels, kudos to you

In hindsight, the seeds of victory were sewn the week before. Just as they did against the Brumbies on Friday night in Melbourne, the Rebels withstood everything the Waratahs threw at them in the first half in Sydney in round six and they went to the break trailing only by three points.

There was one major difference in the games, however: where the Waratahs scored two converted tries in the first 10 minutes after oranges in Sydney, the Brumbies, even with their set-piece penalty try, were well off their best execution-wise, a problem that plagued them all match. So while the Brumbies failed to convert their opportunities, and while they kept infringing at the breakdown, the Rebels kicked themselves back into the game to the point that they took the lead when Jason Woodward converted his own try in the 61st minute.

Melbourne Rebels 32 - 24 Brumbies (Australia Only)

And with the lead came confidence; because the belief was there throughout the game. But they took confidence out Woodward's try, and with that their home crowd went with them.

When Jaco Peyper decided enough was enough at the breakdown, and dismissed Brumbies lock Scott Fardy to the sin-bin in the 64th minute, the Rebels capitalised and added 10 more points while Fardy was off. The Brumbies would score a late try, but even that challenge was repelled, with Woodward kicking one final penalty; that penalty kept the Brumbies out of bonus-point territory, and saw Woodward claim the Rebels' scoring record with his 27-point haul for the night.

The Rebels showed up for 40 minutes in Sydney, but we saw an 80-minute effort from them on Friday; we also saw a breakdown presence that overcame one of the very best breakdown games in Super Rugby. And it was further confirmation that all five Australian sides are now capable of playing that same attacking game off the back of the hard-nosed, give-no-quarter breakdown pressure with which the Wallabies finished 2013.

Just on that, to finish, the Brumbies also showed the risk of constantly contesting the breakdown. The Brumbies conceded 11 penalties for the match, eight at the ruck. Woodward turned six of them into three points on the scoreboard. The Brumbies will say they always want to be attacking the ball, and that's fine; but it's also fine to be a bit pragmatic if your tactics are letting your opposition back into the game.

Hurricanes: the chase masters

Crusaders 26 - 29 Hurricanes (Australia Only)

If there's one area in which the Crusaders erred on Friday night, it was to turn their match with the Hurricanes into an unstructured, broken-play arm-wrestle in the second half. Because if there's any team you don't want to invite to play that kind of instinctive rugby, especially in New Zealand, it's the Hurricanes.

I'm sure the Hurricanes probably don't want to be known for playing unstructured rugby, and I'm quite sure they work extremely had each week on reinforcing their structures and patterns, and work just as hard at being able to play the game the way they like it. But it just so happens that when it comes to chasing games like this one, and being able to find points from nowhere, the Hurricanes are the masters.

Having scored the first try of the second half to regain the lead they had established midway through the first, you just knew the Hurricanes would have the final say even if the Crusaders managed to hit back. And so it turned out, when, after a Tom Taylor penalty had put the Crusaders ahead again, Hurricanes winger Alapata Leiua produced a "special" out of nothing and from nearly 60 metres to give them the lead again.

Keep a sneaky eye on the Canes from here on, too. They've been to South Africa already, and they have some very winnable games coming up before the June recess.

Keep a sneaky eye on the Blues, too ...

Blues 30-12 Highlanders (Australia Only)

The Blues have already got their South African tour out of the way, like the Hurricanes, and their impressive three-tries-to-none, 30-12 win over the Highlanders vaulted them into the last wildcard spot on the table. They're now one of six teams with three wins, but take a closer look at the stats and you find the Blues leading the competition in tries scored. You'll also find that they're right up there in ball-carries, the metres made from them, and the number of offloads and defenders beaten along the way.

Their set-piece isn't brilliant, admittedly, and they've also let in more tries than any other team in 2014, but these attacking figures show they're starting to have great success with ball in hand. Over the next month, they take on the Brumbies, Hurricanes, New South Wales Waratahs, and Queensland Reds; while you might think they will conceivably drop at least one and maybe even two of those games, they're more than capable of winning all four. If this were a stock market advice column, I'd definitely be suggesting a "buy" order on the Blues right now.

Off-message Waratahs play into Sharks' hands

Highlights: Sharks 32-10 Waratahs (Australia Only)

In the build-up to their first match in South Africa, Waratahs coach Michael Cheika spoke in aggressive terms of how he wanted his team to take on the competition-leading Sharks. Unfortunately, it seemed at times during the match that the Waratahs' players go so caught up in the need to "front-up" and face the Sharks head-on that they forgot about playing rugby, not to mention the little detail that they were trying to out-muscle the most aggressive team in the competition.

The contest never really got going, such was the amount of dropped ball and number of passes not going to hand, but the Waratahs also found themselves shut out of the contest by a team that had done its homework while the Waratahs were still out bashing tackling bags.

And while the Waratahs thought the answer was to go super-aggressive on the Sharks, Jake White looked no further than his old team, the Brumbies, and instructed his charges simply to shut off the supply of ball to the Tahs' outside men.

So Kurtley Beale found himself being swamped by Sharks for 80 minutes, meaning Adam Ashley-Cooper, Peter Betham, and Rob Horne didn't see much clean ball all night. Bernard Foley's second quiet game against top opposition didn't aid things and, with the two key playmakers effectively shut down, the Waratahs didn't pose a lot of threat. While all that was happening, the Sharks just went about their business, kicked for poles when regularly offered; they were never really in danger throughout the match. And Jake White, again, has got one over Michael Cheika, something he rather enjoyed last year.

Tempers flared during a feisty encounter in Durban © Getty Images

Remember the white card?

The respective high and dangerous tackles of Rob Horne and Francois Steyn in Durban reminded me of something I'd been wondering about for the first few weeks of Super Rugby. And a question to SANZAR on Sunday confirmed it: the white card, used by referees last season to place dangerous play "on report" for post-match review, is not in use in 2014.

The increased replay powers afforded to the on-field referees may be a reason for its abolition, and no doubt SANZAR will insist their judicial process is all over foul play incidents anyway, but there was still something curious about both these tackles in the aftermath.

Up front, I can't work out how Horne, particularly, stayed on the field after a pretty clear-cut stiff arm to the head of Steyn. At the very least, it warranted a yellow card. And furthermore, as the Super Sport commentators pointed out, a yellow card at that moment from Mike Fraser might have pre-emptively quelled the spot fires that broke out on numerous occasions during the heated match.

For both incidents, the television match official and the on-field referees correctly penalised Horne; likewise for Steyn after his "sling tackle" on Kurtley Beale resulted in the Waratahs No.12 going off the ground briefly for a concussion test before returning shortly afterwards.

Neither Horne nor Steyn received a yellow card, yet when both tackles both when the players were cited post-match were the deemed in the opinion of the SANZAR citing commissioner to have "met the red card threshold for foul play".

So it kind of begs the question: if the tackles were of such an effect to meet red card thresholds post-match, why did neither attract even a yellow card at the time?

What did you think of the weekend's Super Rugby? Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

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