With only two franchises in action in Super Rugby 2016 Round Seven it appeared as if it would be a quiet weekend for rugby in Australia. The Reds and the Force, however, had something to say about that and produced two matches of epic proportions highlighting the quality of rugby potential languishing at the foot of the conference. A meagre point separated each side from agony and ecstasy against their Kiwi foes, the Highlanders and Crusaders.
Force 19 Crusaders 20
First up on Friday night was a heavy dose of agony for the Perth based franchise who continue to find the cutting edge to win tight matches. In recent weeks the Force have pushed all who came before them, standing up in defence and attack only to wilt in the final quarter of the match. The Crusaders were made to wait a little longer, scoring a converted try on the 78th minute, for the Force defence to breach. As a neutral it is becomingly increasingly painful to witness as for close followers of the Force it must seem like a waking nightmare.
In the past four rounds they have competed and looked capable of beating four sides from the New Zealand Conference that is currently leading the way. Having only not played the Blues, the Force have played all of the top ranked Kiwi sides who on paper at least have the greatest player depth and are more than likely to be the ones competing at the end of the regular season. The manner in which they lost to the Crusaders, having the victory ripped away from the end, can have no doubt massively hurt the squad.
The case for the Force’s struggles in closing matches out in the second half suggests a potential lack of depth in the squad and the match day 23. A lack of experience is particularly telling in tight fixtures when it is composure as much as skill that will get a side across the finish line with a victory. The Force drastically need reinforcements at key positions including 9 and 10, a comparison of the benches from Friday night does not show any great advantage in terms of experience to the Crusaders. Besides one notable inclusion, Andy Ellis’ introduction for the away team ensured composure and guidance from an old head that is severely lacking for the Force.
With the bye in Round Eight, the Force will have time to look back and reflect on an extremely tough tour upon which they contended with the best Super Rugby has to offer. Only falling down at the final hurdle, from which it will be a task for the leadership groups and coaches to pick up a youthful, talented squad looking to realise their potential.
Reds 28 Highlanders 27
On the opposite coast of Australia, emotions could not have been further apart as the Reds edged their way to a first victory of the season. As expected against the reigning champions, the Highlanders, it was bruising encounter that could have gone either way. Despite leading ten minutes into the second half 28-6, the Reds were made to grind out a victory after a resurgent final quarter from the Kiwis.
In a first half completely unrecognisable to the rest of the season, indeed even further back into last year, the Reds treated home fans to fast, flowing running rugby to which they once had been accustomed to. The half back pairing of Nick Frisby and Jake McIntyre finally began to show the potential that had been locked away in previous rounds as they ran out into an early lead. The Reds stifled the Highlanders throughout the match but without taking too much away from a victorious Reds side, the Kiwis were bedevilled with unforced errors. For those that have seen the Highlanders in action this year, the team facing the Reds would have been unrecognisable. Despite this, it still took plenty of grit and skill from the home side to secure the win.
The Reds threatened to have a Force style final quarter capitulation as the Highlanders ran in three unanswered tries to provide a nervy finish. They, however, were able to hold on and will now head on their South African tour full of optimism and belief that they can compete with any side in Super Rugby.
Agony and ecstasy, so often the polar opposites of emotion in sport, witnessed here thousands of miles apart but with the rugby community of Australia watching engrossed in the outcome. These two sides will no doubt be fighting it out for the Wooden Spoon in the Australian conference but for one round at least they were the centre of attention with focused shifted from the Capital, Sydney and Melbourne. All of whom return to action in Round Eight to continue the battle for playoff qualification.
Round Eight Fixtures: Friday 15 April – Rebels vs Hurricanes, Melbourne | Saturday 16 April – Waratahs vs Brumbies, Sydney | Sunday 17 April Bulls vs Reds, Pretoria. Force (Bye)