DYLAN JACK looks at three major talking points from the first round of action from Vodacom Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Impact of officiating
While there was some spectacular rugby on show over the weekend, much of the focus will also be on how both games were officiated. As part of the tournament’s innovations, it was announced that New Zealand referees will be enforcing the breakdown and offside laws in a stricter manner to create a faster and safer game while also allowing a fairer contest at the breakdown. Throughout the 160 minutes of rugby played this weekend, it became abundantly clear that players will need time to adapt as a total of 60 penalties were awarded. By comparison, the first two games of the regular Super Rugby season had just 39 penalties awarded. This is not to say that referees Paul Williams and Mike Fraser had bad games – they were just refereeing in the manner that they had been instructed. Of course, with a total of 11 tries scored this weekend, it did not necessarily have a negative impact on attacking rugby. It certainly made both the Highlanders vs Chiefs and Blues vs Hurricanes games faster as teams tried to avoid the breakdown. This is more a demonstration that players will need a couple of weekends to analyse and adjust to the new style of refereeing.
Return of the fetcher
One of the interesting side-effects of the stricter officiating of the breakdown was that it also benefited the defensive team insomuch as it gave fetchers a greater opportunity to win turnovers or penalties after a tackle. Over the last few years, the traditional openside flank has seen his role changed as referees have been far harsher on showing daylight after a tackle and surviving the initial cleanout at the breakdown. However, in the first two Aotearoa matches, referees Paul Williams and Mike Fraser were far more lenient in this aspect. The tackler or the first defender into the breakdown were certainly given greater freedom to get hands on ball after a tackle and even when cleaned out, were still awarded the penalty. As many pointed out tongue-in-cheek on social media, it would have been a paradise for someone like former Springbok flank Heinrich Brussow.
Blues find abrasive edge
One of the major challenges the Blues have faced over the last decade, is finding the substance to go with their stylish play. However, in their 30-20 victory over the Hurricanes, the Blues showed once again that they have grown and evolved under head coach Leon McDonald. It was telling that it was not debutant Beauden Barrett who grabbed the headlines after the match, but rather the performance of No 8 Hoskins Sotutu – who made 17 carries for 56 metres as well as nine tackles. He was ably backed up by captain Patrick Tuipulotu, experienced hooker James Parsons and loose-forwards Dalton Papali’i and Tom Robinson. Through some abrasive, in-your-face defence, the Blues forced the Hurricanes to make plenty of handling errors at crucial stages of the match.
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