ANY GIVEN MONDAY
There was plenty to like about rugby's return, and the odd thing worthy of a whinge.
JUG OF GRAVY
Sunday afternoon footy. More please. Everything about it was better. The sun on the back, the smiles on the faces, the colour in the stands. I've never understood why Sanzaar in all its forms has stood back and let the NRL and AFL have Sunday afternoons. It never made sense. Whatever shape/s Super Rugby comes back in, let's have more of this please. One slightly niggly thing – kickoff at 3pm at the latest please.
• Dylan Cleaver: Rugby has much more to lose than a few games of footy
• Dylan Cleaver: Why now is a good time for the two 'rugbys' to start talking merger
• Dylan Cleaver: Rugby saved from itself thanks to late drama
• Dylan Cleaver: The glorious golfing greens of New Zealand are under threat
The crowds. Sport is just better when people are there to watch it. It has a beat to it, something palpable. Watching the NRL at the moment is like listening to Led Zeppelin without drums. Close to 20,000 in Dunedin and 40,000-plus at Eden Park. There was a big reason for this beyond rugby, which everybody appreciates. People were waiting for a reason to come out of lockdown en masse and rugby just happened to be the right thing at the right place. I suspect that if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had announced a concert at the same place on the same day, they would have sold 30,000 tickets, so it would be wrong for rugby to rest on its laurels. The key will be keeping them there – the aforementioned afternoon footy will help.
The first quarter of the Blues-Hurricanes. Superb. It had all the clichés: thrust and counter-thrust, blood and thunderous tackles, tries and near misses. There was a vitality and flow to it that was instantly recognisable as the best bits of rugby you had missed over the past couple of months.
The last 5-10 minutes of the Highlanders-Chiefs. It had not been a great game. There were a couple of beautifully worked tries, but for more than 70 minutes, rugby's grand return was a showcase for stringent officiating in line with the new World Rugby diktat. But it had something going for it that the Sunday game didn't – a close finish. So it was high drama at Forsyth Barr where Damian McKenzie thought he'd won it for the Chiefs with a late droppie, only for Son of Warren to land a trickier effort even later. The game finished, appropriately enough, with a ruck penalty the Chiefs thought they had earned which would have given them a shot at goal. It went the other way.
Second-generation heroes. We've already mentioned Bryn Gatland above, but there were sons of footy stars doing their bit all over Eden Park. Beauden Barrett, son of Smiley, added class and security at the back for the Blues, while Hoskins Sotutu, son of Waisake, was the standout player. His good mate Caleb Clarke, son of Eroni, looked pretty sharp, too. For the Hurricanes, Jackson Garden-Bachop, son of Black Fern Sue Garden and All Black Stephen Bachop had his moments, as did Tyrel Lomax, son of league star John.
Otere Black. It's been a long and involved search, but it looks like the Blues have finally found their first-five of the future. He might not have a CV with the fancy gold trim of some of the other pretenders to Carlos Spencer's crown who have tried and failed, but he has the requisite poise. He kicks a decent goal, too. In this instant gratification era, Black might be the slow-burner we've all been looking for.
Derbies. It might seem redundant given the travel restrictions that have necessitated Super Rugby Aotearoa, but it is worth mentioning that the excitement generated by reopening weekend would have been impossible to replicate had it been the Blues versus the Stormers, or the Chiefs away to the Reds. It worked because this is the rugby we want to see. There will be a lot of broadcast deal disentangling to be done but surely NZ Rugby knows the appetite for a cross-border competition has never been lower.
Highlanders' ticker. By rights, that squad should struggle to win one of eight games. They're one from one.
CUP OF COLD SICK
Sixty-one penalties. Do the maths. It's a penalty every 2 minutes and 37 seconds. That's not sustainable beyond a couple of weeks. It's literally a turn-off. The standard practice here is to blame the coaches and players for a lack of ability to adjust, but at the same time, the referee needs to have a touch and feel for the game, not just the laws. You can easily see rugby turning into the wretched affair we had at the end of the noughties, when teams didn't want a bar of playing with the ball in their own territory because the risk never matched the reward.
Second half of Blues-Hurricanes. The over-sugared crowd and general sense of anticipation and occasion managed to mostly mask the fact that watching the last half of this game had all the fun of a pub with no beer. The match needed the Hurricanes to look even halfway capable of mounting a comeback but the extent of their rust and the presence of Mike Fraser was never going to allow that.
Chiefs' decision making. They did some weird things in weird parts of the field that ultimately cost them victory. Most notably, they discussed at length before calling for a scrum off a penalty in a great attacking position, but the No 8 and 9 weren't just singing off different hymn sheets, they weren't talking at all.