This weekend’s final round of Super Rugby trans-Tasman series represents the last time local fans will see the five Australian sides in action in 2021.
Sadly, their only role to play in proceedings at the top of the table is to impact the ability of aspiring New Zealand sides to finish in the top two.
Certainly, it appears a three-way battle between the Blues on 19 points, and the Highlanders and Crusaders, both on 18, to secure a top-two finish. With the Highlanders facing the Brumbies in Canberra, the Blues and Crusaders look to be in the box seat, playing the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels, respectively.
No doubt after the Hurricanes tripped up in Canberra last weekend, the Highlanders will similarly find the Brumbies hard to overcome in the nation’s Capital. But, they have done it before.
It was the Highlanders who found an 83rd minute try to pip the Brumbies in Canberra in early 2020, only weeks before the world came to halt due to the pandemic, killing off the old Super Rugby format in the process. It was a heartbreaking loss for the Brumbies that ended a 10-game winning streak at Canberra Stadium, and they tend to have long memories about this sort of thing.
Behind the unbeaten trio, the Hurricanes would need a big win over the Queensland Reds in Wellington, and would still need some results above them to go their way, to be any chance of sneaking into next Saturday’s Final.
The Chiefs sit two points further back, and do face the winless and defensively worrying Waratahs, but hold too low a points differential to gain ground even if the rugby gods smile upon them.
So while Australian teams will be looking to go out on a high this weekend, and may even win a couple of games, rugby fans on this side of the Tasman will be looking beyond the results this weekend for some glimmers of hope.
Young guns give Aussies future hope
While overall, our teams have taken too long to come up to speed with the intensity needed to match the Kiwi sides in a five-week sprint competition, some of the brightest moments for Australia rugby have come from young players shining on the biggest stage of their rugby lives.
Some of them are only just staking their infant steps in professional rugby too, making their performances all the more impressive.
Things haven’t gone well for the Melbourne Rebels this year, missing the AU finals after finishing third last season, and resulting in Dave Wessels stepping down as head coach before the trans-Tasman series kicked off. His long-term assistant Kevin Foote took over, and one of the early changes he made to the side was to install highly regarded young flyhalf Carter Gordon at no.10.
The move has given the Rebels attack a bit more width, with captain Matt To’omua shuffling out to inside centre straightening up the attack, which in turn has brought a lot more of Stacy Ili at outside centre and the backfield. Marika Koroibete went tryless all through Super Rugby AU, but he now has looked far from dangerous in recent games.
Gordon was a schoolboy prodigy in Brisbane, and his signing with the Rebels at the end of last season still irks Queensland fans now, particularly with James O’Connor currently out of action. Now relishing his chance at this level, he’s got better with each outing and produced a number of entries for the growing highlights reel against the Chiefs last weekend, in particular.
There’s still a lot of uncertainty around the Rebels next season, but it seems obvious on a couple of outings that Gordon is going to be a player to build a team and a gameplan around.
He’s been struck down with a groin strain in the last week or so, but Waratahs flyhalf Ben Donaldson stood up in the injury-enforced absence of Will Harrison toward the end of Super Rugby AU and enjoyed some strong showings through trans-Tasman to the point that Harrison returned on the bench initially, and then at fullback.
In a team that has been badly beaten in the contest in that time, Donaldson showed a definite preference to pay at the line when many a flyhalf behind a beaten pack would be playing from deeper in the pocket and running sideways.
There hasn’t been a lot go right for the Waratahs in 2021, but the emergence of Donaldson is one. To the point that it feels like he’s one of those players that you just make room for, even if not his preferred position.
Similarly, centre Isaac Henry has been a revelation in midfield for the Queensland Reds for much the same reason. He’s shown to be a fantastic straight-running hole runner, which the Reds have quickly started playing toward with good reward.
The try he scored from a scrum set play against the Chiefs in Round 3 had promo clip written all over it the moment he exploded through the hole, running the try in from near halfway as the Reds jumped out to a big halftime lead.
We probably feared a bit for the Reds as injuries have hit in key positions of late, but the likes of Henry coming through show that the Queensland pathways remain alive and well.
While plenty of doubt about where Jordan Petaia fits into the picture remains, and whether he has the game to be effective at outside centre, Henry and Hunter Paisami in the midfield have been enjoying something of a live audition for the future. There’s no doubt it’s giving coach Brad Thorn something to think about.
Homegrown backrower Ollie Callan has come through the Western Force pathways, and earned a Super Rugby starting debut last week against the Crusaders in Christchurch, scoring a try to boot.
In a pack that has competed well at the breakdown all season, Callan showed to be every bit as effective and mobile around the park as team-mates, and perhaps more importantly for future development, didn’t at all look out of place at this level.
The Force may not have the same number of experienced senior players next season, so any experience gained by young players this season is going to be crucial.
But perhaps the most impressive young performer over the last month has been Brumbies lock Nick Frost.
Frost has been slowly gaining experience over the last season and a bit, mostly off the bench with a few starts here and there, but with regular first-choice lock Caderyn Neville kept out of the trans-Tasman series with a shoulder injury, Frost has been thrust further and further into spotlight.
Quickly becoming a starting player, Frost has gradually taken on more and more responsibility around the field, including leading the Brumbies lineout when Darcy Swain was forced from the field last weekend against the Hurricanes.
Frost’s set-piece work continues to improve, but his ball-carrying is having more and more impact, regularly getting his nose through the gain line and looking to set up second-phase chances, and even showing some genuine athleticism in the wider channels when required.
The rapid development of Frost is a wonderful welcome sign for the Brumbies going forward, and as is the case with all five players mentioned here, his coaches will be thrilled going into planning for 2022 knowing that one of their bright young stars is well ahead of schedule.
Super Rugby trans-Tasman – Round 5 (all times AEST)
Hurricanes v Reds, Wellington 1705
Brumbies v Highlanders, Canberra 1945
Rebels v Crusaders, Sydney 1435 * (relocated match)
Blues v Force, Auckland 1705
Waratahs v Chiefs, Sydney 1945