Rebels, Waratahs continue case for cautious Aussie optimism

Rugby

There were two big upsets in Round 5 of Super Rugby as the Rebels held off the Highlanders in Dunedin and the Blues handed the Stormers their first loss of 2020 with an impressive triumph in Cape Town.

Elsewhere there were wins for the Waratahs, Hurricanes, Sharks and Jaguares.

Read on as we wrap up some of the big talking points from the weekend’s action.

REBELS MAKE IT BACK-TO-BACK AUSSIE WINS IN NZ

The Brumbies last week ensured there would be no extended trans-Tasman drought for Australia’s Super Rugby franchises in 2020, though few people would have fancied the Rebels’ chances as they headed south to face the Highlanders last Friday.

But a blistering start, two runaway tries from winger Andrew Kellaway, and the assured game management and goal-kicking of Matt To’omua earned the Rebels a maiden win in Dunedin 28-22 – the Highlanders’ first loss at home to an Australian franchise since 2014.

This was easily one of the Rebels’ best victories from their nine-and-a-bit seasons of Super Rugby. It was by no means perfect – the inability of Australian franchises to shut games down inside the closing minutes again rearing its head – but the way they were able to reset for the second half after giving up a try just before the break speaks volumes for the growth in leadership within this Rebels outfit.

And they had guys like Anaru Rangi and Matt Philip to thank, the hooker in particular a never-ending source of energy, a fact no better exemplified than when he tore back to the corner to deny what looked a certain Highlanders try midway through the second half. While he can give away penalties for over-eagerness at times, Rangi’s all-round workrate will make it very tough for coach Dave Wessels to return Jordan Uelese to the No. 2 jersey anytime soon.

And then there is the case of Kellaway who after falling out of favour at the Waratahs, took his talents overseas to Northampton before returning to Australia via Counties Manukau and the Mitre 10 Cup.

Kellaway’s pace, game sense and finishing ability were all on show at Forsyth Barr Stadium as he scooped up a loose ball and ran 60 metres for the Rebels’ third try, before picking off an intercept to run away once more in the 52nd minute. It is fantastic to see Kellaway back in Australia and enjoying his rugby; earmarked as a future Wallaby from a young age, his five tries so far this season should not be overlooked.

HIGHLANDERS COUNT COST OF HIGH-BALL INACCURACY

Aerial contests have become a focal point of law-making within rugby over the past decade. As players seemingly leap higher and higher for the ball, so too does the level of danger they are in when off the ground.

It’s why World Rugby moved to protect the airborne players and therefore placed greater responsibility on the part of the “arriving” player – or the individual who is less likely to win the ball.

Twice on Friday night the Highlanders paid the price for getting aerial contests wrong, as both Scott Gregory and Jonah Nareki were yellow-carded for impeding Rebels fullback Dane Haylett-Petty who was in a far better position to catch the ball.

Given Haylett-Petty landed in a dangerous position following the contact of, first Gregory and then Nareki, referee Paul Williams and TMO Chris Hart worked through the specifics of the law before handing down the correct decision of a yellow card on each occasion.

It may be tough for Highlanders fans to swallow, but players need to be more aware of the high-ball situation, and either slow their progress if they’re not going to get to the contest in time, or remove themselves from the opposition player’s zone if they have arrived before the ball has.

It’s all about timing, and players have had enough time to realise that if they get it wrong they will rightly suffer the consequences.

SIGNS OF LIFE IN WARATAHS YET

The Waratahs at last got the dry conditions they were after on Friday in Sydney, and they responded with a superb opening flourish that set up their bonus-point victory over the Lions.

Three tries inside the first 17 minutes put NSW up 19-0, only for a foolish late shoulder charge from back-rower Lachlan Swinton to invite the Lions back into the contest. And the visitors did exactly that, closing to within nine points at halftime.

The Waratahs then found themselves on the back foot for much of the second half, yet they proved to be a far more resilient defensive unit than in each of their losses to the Crusaders, Blues and Rebels to start the season.

And when an attacking situation at last presented itself, the Waratahs moved the ball through 10 separate sets of hands on a sweeping counter-attacking move that finished in the left-hand corner and gave them the breathing room they needed to finish off a 12-point win.

Most pleasing were the performances of fly-half Will Harrison and prop Angus Bell, the rookie duo running confidently through the line as the Waratahs at last had success with what is a high-risk offloading game.

Harrison and Bell accounted for 4 of the Waratahs 17 clean breaks and while the prop himself still has plenty to learn at set-piece time, his ball-carrying and spatial recognition make for an exciting front-row prospect.

NSW will however need to step up considerably this week when the face the Chiefs in Wollongong, the New Zealanders posing far more a threat should the Waratahs take the foot off the pedal, as they did for a period at Bankwest Stadium on Friday.

REDS’ GROWING PAINS CONTINUE

Queensland Reds are capable of playing excellent rugby, that much has been clear across their opening five matches this season.

But it is nowhere near as consistent as it needs to be for the Reds to rise up from the bottom of the ladder where they have been stationed for the past six years.

Up 11-8 at halftime against the Sharks, the Reds couldn’t break down a Sharks defensive wall that made an incredible 94 percent of its tackles; Queensland instead made simple errors, struggled badly at the set-piece and had little repost to the visitors’ rush defence.

Scrum-half Tate McDermott at least gave the Reds a sniff with a smartly-taken quick tap try that reinforced his quality and likely Test call-up later this year, but it was sole bright spot in an otherwise hugely disappointing second-half performance from Brad Thorn’s side. James O’Connor’s departure through injury certainly didn’t help but the Reds had already shipped too many turnovers.

And it doesn’t get any easier for the Reds as they head across the Tasman to face the Crusaders – who will be fresh off the bye – on Friday. Another loss would put them 1-5 on the season and in a huge hole with only a worthless win over the Sunwolves to show for their efforts thus far.

There is no doubt there is talent in this Reds team but Thorn has so far been unable to give his side the tools they need to take control of matches when they remain in the balance. And until that day arrives, they will continue to reside towards the bottom of the Super Rugby ladder.

SHARKS ARE THE REAL DEAL

The Sharks are set for the best tilt at a maiden Super Rugby title in years after they wrapped up their four-week Australasian tour with an impressive win at Suncorp Stadium.

Having beaten the Highlanders, Rebels and Reds over the past month, the Sharks return home to South Africa just one point adrift of the Stormers but armed with the knowledge they have only a trip to Buenos Aires to confront outside of the Republic for the remainder of the regular season.

Using the same rush defence that has been so successful for the Springboks under Rassie Erasmus, the Sharks are able to starve opposition attacks for space and force them into playing further and further behind the gainline.

They also have an array of big, mobile ball-carriers with the likes Ruben van Heerden, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Ox Nche doing the damage against the Reds; add that to a backline that includes Curwin Bosch, who at last appears to be delivering on his talent, the powerful Andre Esterhuizen at centre and Springboks flyers Lukanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi and Lwazi Mvovo out wider, along with fleet-footed fullback Aphelele Fassi and it’s a compelling mix.

With the Stormers dropping their first game for the year at the weekend, the Sharks will arrive in South Africa with designs on the top spot in South Africa when they face the Jaguares in Durban on Saturday night.

And there is no reason now why top spot overall in June should not be the Sharks’ ultimate goal. They are certainly playing well enough to push for the title later this year.

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