Ten talking points from this weekend's Super Rugby Aotearoa action between the Crusaders and Hurricanes and Blues and Chiefs, including the most freakish try I've ever seen, and a Sir Michael Jones story.
IF IT WOULDN'T END CAREERS, HOW GOOD WOULD IT BE IF SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA COULD GO ON FOREVER?
Blues coach Leon MacDonald was right on the money when he said the second half of his team's nailbiting 21-17 win over the Chiefs saw both teams slow down, as the pace in the first spell had been so great.
There's never been intensity in our rugby like this Covid-19 enforced competition, and the massive crowds, like the 33,324 people at Eden Park, show how much fans have fallen back in love with the sport.
Sadly the downside is that the body has yet to be built that can handle a local New Zealand derby week after week. The injury list is long already, so, to be blunt, there have to be some easybeat teams introduced, which means our cousins across the Tasman have to be flattered, coerced, and bribed, into retrieving the dummies they're spitting, and joining an expanded contest.
THE RACE IS STILL ON
No question that the Crusaders are still in the driving seat, but there's an outside chance the last game of Super Rugby Aotearoa between the Blues and the Crusaders could decide things.
If the Blues even start that August 16 game at Eden Park in contention it's a massive tribute to any number of people. A key man has to be Patrick Tuipulotu, who is in the best form of his career, as serious as a shotgun on the tackle, accurate in the lineout, and rampaging with the ball. The All Black locking stocks are suddenly looking strong again.
WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT BEAUDEN BARRETT AGAIN?
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For anyone who feels Barrett has been under-par for the Blues, a little advice. Watch a replay of his first 40 minutes as a first-five for the Blues. Then try to say he doesn't still have the goods and keep a straight face.
LEON NAILED IT
One of the most interesting sights in the Blues has been the way Akira Ioane, whose career seemed to have stalled, is realising all the promise he had as a schoolboy.
"He's playing a tougher game," said MacDonald, and that's a perfect summation of a player who has always had the size, speed, and skills to be a test player, and week by week is now adding the workrate to make the most of his natural ability.
GRACE NOTES FROM THE TRON
There will some Chiefs fans who will never feel that the penalty won by Josh Goodhue that allowed the Blues to end the game was fair. I may never be allowed back to the town of my birth, Hamilton, for saying this, but it looked the correct call to me.
It's small consolation, but well done to both Chiefs captain Sam Cane, and coach Warren Gatland, for taking the call on the chin. "We've got to accept it," said Gatland, without any obvious signs of angst. Who could not think more of both of them for resisting any urge to moan?
THIS IS HOW HISTORY SHOULD BE MADE
It was a perfect touch that the amazing record set by the Crusaders of playing 36 home Super Rugby games without a loss came to an end with their 34-32 defeat by the Hurricanes in a match for the ages.
From the ferocious, brilliantly organised defence of the Canes, to magic moments from Richie Mo'unga, to the slick backline moves by the Canes that put Wes Goosen in for two great tries, to the most freakish try I've seen in five decades on a press bench it was, as Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said afterwards, "a hell of a game."
THE PHOENIX MIGHT TAKE AN INTEREST
There have been weird tries, like Carlos Spencer crossing the Crusaders line in 2004, then running out to near the sideline to make his conversion more difficult, and thrusting a forearm at Christchurch fans. And there have been unforgettable tries like the Jonah "Oh, oh, oh, Lomu" try against England in 1995.
But Crusaders wing George Bridge's try in the 30th minute in Christchurch is surely the most extraordinary in the last 50 years of first class rugby.
When Sevu Reece threw a wild Hail Mary pass at Bridge's feet a promising move looked certain to peter out. Instead Bridge, running at full pace, kicked the ball off the top of his foot with the pinpoint accuracy of a Gisborne-born Ronaldo. An oval ball should never have travelled perfectly, then spun beautifully to give Hurricanes fullback Jordie Barrett no chance to turn, and allow Bridge to dive on the ball untouched. But it did, Bridge dived, and the try should be in highlight reels forever.
HE MAY BE A DAGGY GUY, BUT HE KNOWS HIS DEFENSIVE PATTERNS
As a player you always felt Cory Jane was just a step away from mischief, so it was perhaps easy to overlook that as a wing in the 21st century-style back three, where dealing with a high ball, and being fearless on the tackle, he was a rock.
No team in New Zealand tests defences like the Crusaders do, so it was a massive tribute to what Jane has instilled technically, and what the players in the Canes brought emotionally to Orangetheory Stadium, that although they conceded four tries to the Crusaders a lesser side would have leaked more, and lost the game.
If there had been a draw after 80 minutes the game would have gone to extra time. The greatest tribute you could pay the Canes ($4.30 to $1.19 underdogs at the TAB before kick-off) is that the extra 10 minutes would have started as an even-money bet.
THE NAME RINGS ALL THE RIGHT BELLS
Peter Umaga-Jensen has been a star in waiting since he was signed by the Hurricanes as an 18-year-old in 2016. Like his Uncle Tana he cut his rugby teeth at the Wainuiomata, and he was in the New Zealand Under-20 team that won a world title in 2017.
Injury has led to a slightly stop-start career, but with Ngani Laumape pinned down by intense, often two-man Crusaders tackling, it was Umaga-Jensen who shone in the Canes' midfield. Big, at 102kg, fast, elusive, skilled, and still only 22, his future is limitless.
THEN THERE'S MO'UNGA
Just when you think he can't show any more class, Mo'unga does. In a pretty crowded field, he's been the champion, week after week being an electric runner, an impeccable passer, and a reliable kicker. In other words, an inspiration.
ALMOST A PARABLE
Sir Michael Jones, without question not only one of the greatest players, but also one of most decent men to have been an All Black, chatted with myself and Simon Barnett on Friday on Newstalk ZB.
Having first interviewed him in 1987 it was a chance to ask a question I never had before: "Have you ever punched anybody on the rugby field?" Silence. A long silence. "No, I haven't." A smaller pause. "I've felt like it sometimes."
Later I remembered a story Peter Fatialofa told me when we were writing his biography. A provincial player made the bad mistake of kicking Michael on the ground in a game with Auckland, knowing Michael wouldn't retaliate. The villain failed to notice Peter was just behind him. Peter wasn't bound by religious strictures.
After the game Michael gently queried whether the terrible retribution Fats had dealt out to the kicker was really the right thing to have done. With a straight face Peter replied, "Well, you know what they say Michael, God moves in mysterious ways."