Phil Gifford's nine takeaways from the first round of Super Rugby
Possibly not fake news
"We've said the Blues look better so often over the years," said a fellow journalist at Eden Park after the Blues pushed the Crusaders desperately hard, but still lost 24-22, "will anybody believe us now?" Maybe not, but they might believe Crusaders' coach Scott Robertson who noted "clearer structures" in the Blues. Or in other words, the 2019 Blues look like they know what they're doing.
The decision in the last minute of the game with the Crusaders by Blues' halfback Augustine Pulu, with an attacking line to his left that included Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane, to run right, into a blindside so tiny he was soon pushed into touch. Any chance of the Blues achieving an upset tumbled over the line with him. The Blues have suffered for years from players wanting to win the game on their own, and screwing it up. Pulu's abortive run was at once a grim reminder of that, but also, hopefully, a picture prefect illustration for them of what needs to change.
It's the weather
Sir Graham Henry has often noted that a massive difference between northern and southern hemisphere rugby is down to the weather, which in turns affects the grounds, and the state of the ball. Given that the first weekend of Super Rugby was played on fields that are basically barely grassed billiard tables, it's perhaps no wonder we saw more brilliant running and passing in the last 40 minutes of the Crusaders-Blues game than in the whole 160 minutes Wales, for example, have played in the Six Nations so far.
Mad as hell
.... and not putting up with it any more. Hurricane Du'Plessis Kirifi (his Dad, Jack, a terrific flanker for Ponsonby in the 1980s, was a huge fan of Springbok Morne Du'Plessis) led with a forearm into the tackle of Waratah Michael Hooper, so a try he set up for Ardie Savea at Brookvale Oval in Manly was disallowed. The disappointment transformed Kirifi into The Incredible Hulk. His run to claim the winning try a few minutes later was a thing of incandescently angry, bucking, bashing, irresistible, beauty.
Aaron Smith, whose form last year was occasionally erratic, not only looked sharp and refreshed, but also reminded us of his cheeky brilliance with a huge dummy and a dive for the try that took the Highlanders to a 30-27 win over the Chiefs.
Playing like an All Black
Blues No.8 Akira Ioane is a massive talent with the ball in hand. His try against the Crusaders was a perfect illustration of why he could be a great impact player at the World Cup in Japan. What was heartening on Saturday night was how he also raised his work-rate when it came to the dark work needed at breakdowns. More of the same would surely have the All Black selectors ticking his name.
I see red
The sending off of Highlander Sio Tomkinson by Glen Jackson was a reminder for players and coaches that by and large, if a shoulder hits a head, referees will be reaching for a card, and it may be red. I saw no evil intent by Tomkinson, but the fact is that in world rugby you can apparently only tackle without leading with your arms if your name is Owen Farrell.
Player of the round
Crusader Braydon Ennor. Born in Auckland, educated at St Kentigern College, a super star in the making in Canterbury. Given how outstanding Jack Goodhue is Scott Robertson may have decisions to make for his midfield as the season goes on that other coaches would kill for.
Promising player of the round
Highlanders' rookie first-five Josh Ioane (a friend from the Auckland schooldays of all three, but no relation to Akira and Rieko) was as cool as a veteran in Hamilton, and his six for six goal kicking was a massive bonus. The loss of Lima Sopoaga can't be underestimated but the Highlanders may have found the man to fill the considerable gap Sopoaga left when he went to The Wasps in Coventry.