In the opening weeks, it was the consistency of the refereeing directives at the breakdown that was under the spotlight in Aotearoa but in round four there was a more age-old rugby problem that came to the fore.
Both New Zealand and Australian rugby can claim that this past weekend was a good one for them. The Domestic AU competition got started in Australia with a good crowd belatedly allowed into Suncorp Stadium to see a number of new players impress as the Reds broke an 11-match drought against the Waratahs with a 32-26 victory.
While South African players are only just emerging from lockdown and there’s still no fixed date to a restart, though late August is now seeming likely, both the Kiwis and Aussies are unearthing new stars. In the Brisbane game, injuries and departures saw to it that a number of last year’s Australia under-20 team made their senior debuts, and most of them came through the baptism well.
BEST RUGBY MATCH THE PLANET HAS SEEN IN MONTHS
For New Zealand, the excitement should be centred on the high quality of play produced in the first match of the weekend.
Crusaders flexed their muscles to underline their status as tournament favourites with a compelling 40-20 win, but the game itself was never as one-sided as that scoreline might suggest and from an aesthetic and skill viewpoint it was the best rugby match this planet has seen in at least four months.
In a competition where we are seeing daylight rugby being returned to New Zealand (in the Sunday games) but the rain generally intervening to make the fact that the sun is above the horizon an irrelevance, the Forsyth Barr Stadium game was a good advertisement for indoor rugby.
The multi-phase play, particularly from the Crusaders but also the Highlanders, was out of this world and a significant step up from anything we have seen so far.
The Highlanders were tenacious and committed and were left to rue the gilt-edged try-scoring opportunity that Jona Nareki butchered when he had two players unmarked outside him on an open Crusaders try line and he delayed the pass.
Had the Highlanders crossed then they would have led with 25 minutes to go and it would have been an important psychological boost for them.
The Crusaders though, given how relentless they were on the attack, would more than likely still have come back to win on a night where they really started to hit their straps after drifting in and out of their two previous games.
PENALTY MALAISE WAS BACK IN HAMILTON
The penalties that blighted the opening weeks weren’t to the fore in Dunedin as much as they had been, but the malaise was back in Hamilton on Sunday, where the refereeing should definitely have been a talking point afterwards.
Ironically, the media focus, after the Hurricanes beat the Chiefs to win a scrappy game in Hamilton, was on a gaffe by Ben O’Keefe when it came to a penalty awarded to the Hurricanes on the stroke of halftime. Jordie Barrett kicked a long-range effort to strike another important blow against the Chiefs at the halfway mark, but he arguably shouldn’t have been in range.
The claim is that Barrett stole 10 metres for the kick, just putting him within the limit of his reach. Chiefs skipper Sam Cane joined the chorus of dissension against O’Keefe afterwards.
“I’m not going to lie, it was disappointing. It was a fair penalty and I can understand two metres, but 10… you wonder what they’re looking at,” said the recently newly appointed All Black skipper at the post-match press conference.
CANE SHOULD HAVE BEEN CARDED
What Cane should really have been wondering though is how he managed to finish the game. O’Keefe and the TMO watched a few reruns of a second-half incident where Cane blatantly shoulder charged Hurricanes scrumhalf TJ Perenara. The television commentators were quick to say that “Cane is in trouble here” and he should have been.
What was O’Keefe watching and why didn’t the TMO question why he thought it was just a penalty for a late charge, and no more than that?
It might not have appeared quite such a momentous decision had it not been for the fact that Hurricanes lock Scott Scrafton was red-carded a short while later for repeat offences (it was his second yellow card) that were completely innocuous by comparison.
So the Hurricanes ended the game with 14 men when it should have been the Chiefs down to 14, and that numerical disadvantage played a big part in the Chiefs coming back to claim a bonus point for losing by just seven.
The Hurricanes still managed to win the game but the incident did move the refereeing debate away from the refereeing directives over the offside and breakdown laws to something that has been a debating point for as long as rugby has been played. And if it is a debating point in New Zealand, perhaps the rest of us who live in a world where coronavirus has become an all-consuming concern should envy them.
CROWDS MORE LEGISLATED IN AUSTRALIA
And envy them we should, full stop, given they are playing their rugby in front of large and appreciative crowds.
In Australia, the crowds are more legislated, with just 1 500 people allowed to be on hand at the Gio Stadium in Canberra to watch the Brumbies resist a late fightback from the Rebels and 10 000 were allowed in at Brisbane to watch James O’Connor win it with his two late penalties.
But the fact they have rugby, and the franchises are giving opportunities to new players, is what is most important. Seeing rugby played in the Antipodes should add resolve to the South African plans to restart as soon as possible for if we don’t soon, the New Zealanders won’t be the only nation to have stolen a march on us.
On top of that, wouldn’t it be nice to start a Monday again with a good debate about a refereeing decision…
Weekend Results in Southern Hemisphere competitions
Highlanders 20 Crusaders 40
Chiefs 18 Hurricanes 25
Reds 32 New South Wales Waratahs 26
Brumbies 31 Melbourne Rebels 23