Highlanders vs Hurricanes
The beginning of this game set the tone for much of the weekend and was in stark contrast to what was on offer in a magnificent afternoon of rugby in the Six Nations the following day. For the sake of the southern hemisphere, let us hope that England, Ireland and Wales forget how they played on 22 March. Aaron Smith, of all people, kicked the ball out on the full three times in the first two minutes! Three Hurricanes players knocked the ball on in the same movement. There were errors of handling, kicking and ball retention in contact all over the field in the early stages. The second half was better, with the defence of both sides being impressive. Nonu had his best game for a while in this area and one of his big hits led to a try. The scrums were even, despite the Highlanders being without three props. In the end the Hurricanes probably deserved the win, which kept them undefeated but as always, the Highlanders never stopped trying, with Ben Smith, Fekitoa and Osborne all impressing. Edmonds was outstanding at the breakdown and for the Hurricanes, Blade Thompson had his best game this season. Ardie Savea was also in a class of his own but left early with an injury. Highlanders 13, Hurricanes 20.
Rebels vs Lions
This was yet another match which the dominant side lost. The Rebels began well and were 10-0 up in seven minutes. They could have been 20-0 not much later but the Lions gradually came into the game in yet another performance founded on a defence which was greatly superior to that of the Rebels. In this area, Whiteley, as usual, was outstanding, and the lightweight Lions scrum much stronger than the opposition scrum. The Rebels should have wrapped it up earlier but a late try to the Lions brought them a second victory on tour. Against a weak Reds side next week they have a great chance of their best ever Australasian visit. Rebels 16, Lions 20.
Crusaders vs Cheetahs
With eleven All Blacks in the team, the Crusaders did nothing much more in the first half than scrum the living daylights out of the Cheetahs who, astoundingly, led at half time. After the interval, scrum penalties and yellow cards knocked the stuffing out of the Cheetahs and they appeared to lose interest. The issuing of yellow cards as if they are business cards is not doing rugby any favours. For the Crusaders, Nadolo, who has now added offloading and kicking skills to his power and pace, was a massive presence. In the forwards, Read was good as always, well supported by Crockett, Sam Whitelock, Todd and Taufua. At the back, the decision making of Crotty was excellent. Laulala, when he came on, was far more impressive than Franks. Crusaders 57 Cheetahs 14
Bulls vs Force
Neither this nor the subsequent game at King’s Park was a good advertisement for rugby. The Force, down near the bottom of the log, started fast and found holes in the Bulls defence, where both Godwin and Morahan made clean breaks before the tallest man on the field, Coleman, went over between the posts. Pollard, once again exhibiting the calm control which belies his tender years, kept the Bulls in touch and despite numerous mistakes, the home team finally hit the front. Even against 13 men, their attacking game was not much better than their defence, which let in two further tries. A 58 metre penalty from Sias Ebersohn seemed to have secured an unlikely victory for the Force, until Coleman, a candidate for man of the match, despite a yellow card, indulged in a monumentally stupid tip tackle in front of the posts and Pollard kicked the winner. Bulls 25 Force 24. Why Ebersohn had not been the elected kicker earlier in the match, only the coach can answer.
Sharks vs Chiefs
Three red cards in the first 27 minutes, a humid first half and torrential rain in the second meant there was plenty of drama in Durban. However, rugby skills were in painfully short supply. The Chiefs backs, who were brilliant in Cape Town last week, could not even get close to scoring a try in 53 minutes of rugby against a backline short of a player, after the sending off of Steyn, a man fast becoming infamous for this sort of behavior. Already hit by injury, the Chiefs could ill afford Rennie’s penchant for making wholesale changes to the team, game after game. There is no continuity and it causes uncertainty. Some of the players looked as if they had never played together before. The Chief’s old bugbear of failing to retain possession through the tackle was largely responsible for this defeat, together with Cruden’s continued mis-firing as a kicker. At this stage the All Blacks do not have a reliable goal kicker. Despite a few mistakes, Lambie did well for the Sharks and made a good fist of the captaincy, once Bismarck du Plessis had been dismissed. Sharks 12 Chiefs 11.
Waratahs vs Brumbies
This was a better match, featuring a wonderful performance from Israel Folau, who is absolutely indispensable to any Wallaby backline. His one weakness is the odd careless pass. Although the Brumbies scrum held up well, with Scott Sio being particularly prominent and incisive running from Tomane and Toomua, the Waratahs gradually gained control. The Phipps/Foley halfback combination was important and Potgieter continues to take every pass at pace, maximizing his chance of getting across the gain line. Kuridrani had his poorest game for the Brumbies and suffered an injury, while for the Waratahs, Skelton needs to work on his ball skills and retention and Palu both his work rate and discipline. Waratahs 28 Brumbies 13.