Two weeks into the Super Rugby season and we have already witnessed plenty of upsets, stars on the rise and reasons for Australian optimism ahead of the World Cup.
Here’s five big talking points from round two.
— NEW CENTRES OF ATTENTION —
Stephen Larkham is gone and Michael Cheika has a huge decision to make on his Wallabies centre pairing this year.
Since taking the reins in 2014, Cheika has consistently opted for a second playmaker at inside centre.
But the current trends in international rugby show that ball-playing No 12’s have been largely fazed out and replaced by direct running inside centres, with the outside centre and fullback positions instead filled by secondary playmakers.
The All Blacks have long opted for a bigger man at inside centre, with Ma’a Nonu laying claim as the most damaging No 12 of the 21st century.
That role has since largely been filled by Ryan Crotty.
England, under Australian coach Eddie Jones, has also shied away from two playmakers in favour of damaging runners Ben Te’o or Manu Tuilagi at No 12 and the skilful Henry Slade at outside centre.
So too Ireland with Bundee Aki or Robbie Henshaw at No 12, South Africa with Damien de Allende — and the list goes on and on.
Many of the Wallabies’ attacking woes in 2018 stemmed from them going too wide too early, with few players straightening the line of the attack.
The Wallabies weren’t helped by injuries to the bullocking Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani during the Rugby Championship, but that duo have predominantly played at outside centre.
Yet Kerevi, all along, has said his preferred position is at inside centre and that’s the position he has regularly filled at the Reds.
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On Friday night against the Highlanders Kerevi and boom Reds midfield partner Jordan Petaia delivered the type of commanding midfield performance that should have Cheika considering a rethink to his usual attacking strategy.
If he doesn’t, dual international and former inside centre Michael O’Connor — who last week was appointed as the Wallabies’ independent selector — will surely have a strong opinion on the midfield makeup.
Right from the opening whistle Kerevi made his presence felt in Dunedin, setting up a second minute penalty with a surging run through the middle.
Then in the 24th minute he passed beautifully from left to right to prop Taniela Tupou, who hit Chris Feauai-Sautia with a bullet pass as the winger burst through the Highlanders’ defence to score.
By mixing his attack between running at the line — making 98 metres from 12 carries — Kerevi also created space out wide by drawing defensive attention.
That created opportunities for 18-year-old Petaia, who took advantage of every bit of space afforded to him and made a game high 148 metres from nine runs.
“I obviously like the balance of it,” former Wallabies centre Morgan Turinui said on Fox Sports’ coverage.
“The yin and yang of Kerevi being really robust in the middle, Petaia we saw the flash straight away.
“I’m always dubious over NRC form and I like to see it come through Super, he’s had a couple of good involvements in Super, but this is a complete, commanding performance by a quality 13 in a Super Rugby game against quality opposition.
“This is an underline that this kid is a talent.”
Indeed, Petaia could have the same devastating impact in Japan as New Zealand’s Nehe Milner-Skudder did during the 2015 World Cup, winning World Rugby’s breakthrough player of the year award.
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— HEART AT LAST —
It’s been the big criticism of the Reds over the last five years — they don’t play with enough heart in defence and can’t go the journey.
There was a soft underbelly in the Reds’ squad.
Well, that was put to rest by the Reds in their first hit out of the year against the Highlanders, as Brad Thorn’s men delivered a rousing performance to give Queensland supporters hope that they’ve turned the corner.
Yes, the Reds lost 36-31 after conceding a try in the 74th minute and then failing to execute in attack from a promising position with a minute to go.
But the scrambling defence the Reds showed in the moments before Dillon Hunt scored the Highlanders’ matchwinning try showed this season wouldn’t be the same as years gone by.
After another poor kick from the Reds (Queensland’s biggest work on ahead of their showdown with the champion Crusaders on Saturday), the Highlanders had their Australian opponents on the back foot and scrambling.
The Highlanders went from left to right where Matt Faddes turned Duncan Paia’aua inside out, broke away, passed back in field to Ben Smith, where the All Blacks fullback found halfback Kayne Hammingotn seven metres out.
Hammington appeared certain to score, but Reds hooker Alex Mafi, of all people, made one last effort to pull him down and did so, just centimetres short of the try line.
It was the type of effort that can save a game.
The type of effort that we’ve seen New Zealand rugby sides show for years.
In the end, it mattered little, as the Highlanders scored three phases later as they sent the ball wide and found a two-man overlap.
But it showed the character and attitude developing at the Reds under Thorn, one of rugby’s toughest players during a two-decade career as a dual international.
Whether the Reds can make a significant impression on the Super Rugby competition this year remains to be seen, but the initial signs are positive that they’ll at least be competitive.
— BRUMBIES’ WIN A RETURN TO GLORY DAYS —
One hot day doesn’t make a summer, but the Brumbies delivered one of the best performances in Australian rugby in many years on Saturday.
Former Wallabies back-rower and club captain Stephen Hoiles described the win as the club’s finest in a decade.
It’s hard to argue with his assessment.
The Brumbies did a Brodie Retallick on Brodie Retallick.
They took the game to the Chiefs and didn’t simply try to protect their lead.
It helps when the passes stick, but the Brumbies forwards must take a lot of credit for laying the platform and providing quick ball for halves pairing Joe Powell and Christian Lealiifano.
Adding to the remarkable performance, the victory was achieved without David Pocock and after the Chiefs were bolstered by the return of Damian McKenzie.
After an underwhelming 34-27 loss to the Rebels, the victory was the perfect response and will give them the confidence to continue with their new all-encompassing style of play that began to develop in 2018.
— TAHS TO STILL BE A THREAT —
The Waratahs were poor, very poor, but let’s take stock of their performance for a moment before ruling a line through their season.
NSW won’t be the only team that struggles in Tokyo in 2019.
Last year the Sunwolves improved dramatically, pulling off three wins and giving a fright to others, including the Crusaders who led just 14-13 after 56 minutes at home before pulling away.
But what is concerning is that the Waratahs’ issues seemed to replicate the Wallabies’ in 2018.
They were found out for going too wide, too early.
While the Waratahs had said they wouldn’t be sucked into turning the contest into an open game of touch rugby, they were clearly keen to give their backs more room to use the ball after limited opportunities in their narrow loss to the Hurricanes a week earlier.
What’s concerning is that the Waratahs’ playmaking spine is similar to the Wallabies’, and the front-row struggles were a worry too.
A lack of depth and power in the tight five was the Waratahs’ major issue in 2018 and once again their shortage of dominant forwards is coming back to bite them.
They were beaten at the scrum for the second straight week.
Tolu Latu’s stupidity late in the match, which has seen him whacked with a six-week ban, won’t help them either.
But let’s remember that the Waratahs still have oodles of class in the backline and a back-row as good as most in the competition and will still be competitive in 2019.
— DID SOMEBODY SAY THREE-PEAT? —
The competition might only be two weeks old, but already the back to back champion Crusaders have to be considered favourites to secure a rare three-peat.
They may have been slow out of the blocks against the Blues a week earlier, but the Crusaders were frighteningly good against domestic rivals the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes managed to score twice at the death to add some respectability to the scoreboard, but the 2016 champions were smashed.
Making the 38-22 win all the more impressive is that it was done with Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Codie Taylor still resting on the sidelines.
The Hurricanes may have been missing Beauden Barrett and had TJ Perenara and Ngani Laumpae coming off the bench, but the gap between the Crusaders and the rest of the competition is stark.
Scott Robertson’s Crusaders have now won 17 games straight.
Next up is the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday.
The match promises to be a litmus test for Thorn’s baby Reds, who boast the youngest squad in the competition.