Phil Gifford: Six talking points from the weekend’s rugby

Six talking points as the favourites in Super Rugby Aotearoa kick away from the field.

This howler would have been worth spending time on

The most bizarre incident of the round was in Christchurch, when Paul Williams, the TMO in both games in the weekend, rejected Sam Cane’s captain’s referral for a blatant forward pass by Richie Mo’unga seconds before a 43rd minute penalty try was awarded to the Crusaders.

What was extremely unusual was how quickly Williams made his decision. Usually TMOs watch replays more often than your grandmother has seen The Sound Of Music.

But Williams took just 25 seconds to decide that the Chiefs’ Brad Weber had knocked the ball towards his own goalline while tackling Mo’unga from behind, so there was no forward pass. By contrast, he took 1m 25s, and five replays, to decide the spectacular dive by Leicester Fainga’anuku for a 15th minute try to the Crusaders should stand.

With the captain’s referral for the forward pass, if Williams had watched just two more seconds of only the second angle he was shown, he would have seen daylight between Weber’s hand and the ball. Weber jolted Mo’unga’s arm, not the football. The pass was forward out of Mo’unga’s hand.

The way the Crusaders played in the second half, the decision, which jumped the score from 11-10 to 18-10 to the Crusaders, almost certainly wasn’t the winning or losing of the game.

But it definitely made for a huge wind shift. With a knock-on ruled there would have been no penalty try. The Chiefs wouldn’t have played with 14 men in the next 10 minutes, during which the Crusaders really found their groove. Like starving lions spotting a limping wildebeest in Kruger Park, nothing sparks the brilliance of the Crusaders more than a hint of weakness in an opposing team.

Let's hear it for the man

Mo’unga, by his own high standards, had a quiet start to Super Rugby Aotearoa. All that changed against the Chiefs.

He’s a fearless runner, and a nightmare for the Chiefs defensive lines was that Mo’unga constantly threatened to cut them to shreds on the inside. And, yes, the no-look pass he slipped to Will Jordan to score in the 54th minute was one of those rare, brilliant touches when for a moment sport becomes high art.

You never can tell

On-field interviews at the end of a game are usually, in a favourite phrase of a long-departed friend, as useless as an ashtray on a motorbike. So to say Chiefs co-captain Weber broke the mould after the game in Christchurch is to wildly understate the case. To stunned silence he summed up the Crusaders as succinctly as a noir crime novelist: “Like robots really. Scrum for a penalty. Kick to the corner. Drive. Pretty boring really, but geez, they’re bloody good at it. Tough to stop.”

Hello one horse, meet the only other horse in the race

Two big wins, by identical scores, 39-17, for the Blues over the Highlanders in Auckland, and the Crusaders over the Chiefs in Christchurch, underlined how the America’s Cup isn’t the only sporting contest in New Zealand where only two teams now stand a chance of winning.

There won’t be a more fervent wish for a Covid-free week than at the Blues headquarters and at Eden Park, where the dream match-up next Sunday afternoon against the Crusaders should be a game for the ages.

Last year the Blues showed massive promise. This season they’re realising it, from a scrum that at times overwhelmed the Highlanders, through the skill and matured decision making of Otere Black and Harry Plummer in the five-eighths, to the world class strike power of Rieko Ioane and Caleb Clarke in the three-quarters.

This is team with heart, spirit and class, all of which they’ll need against the Crusaders, whose crop have a test match-level ability to soak up pressure and then jump up to another level.

Weirdly, the best try of the three involving Rieko Ioane was disallowed

Ioane’s blistering speed laid the foundation for Black’s try in the 10th minute, and he ran in Clarke in the 16th minute with the timing of a born centre.

But the barnburner came seven minutes before halftime, when brother Akira Ioane, doing the hard yards as a blindside flanker, still had the energy to run almost 40 metres like a wing, before throwing a long pass infield to Rieko, who reminded us all that the pace that induced Steve Hansen to take a chance on him as a raw kid in 2017 for the All Blacks against the Lions hasn’t gone anywhere.

Oddly, the try was denied by television match official Williams, who believed the pass had gone forward out of Akira’s hands. It certainly floated forward, but to most of us it seemed to have started moving backwards, inside the law. Still, unusual call or not, the movement was one for the Ioane family highlight reel.

A strong bench can make the difference

The depth the Blues now have in their squad is probably best illustrated by the fact Northland dynamo Tom Robinson usually has to come off the reserve bench to get game time. With three All Black loose forwards in Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane, and Dalton Papalii available, there’s a good reason Robinson rarely starts, but, as he does every time he plays, he was on fire when he replaced an injured Papalii against the Highlanders.

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