Nine talking points from Super Rugby, a few words about Israel Folau, and a team picked only on form in the weekend.
YOU'RE NOT IN PARNELL NOW DOROTHY
"I hate these (annual) Queen's Birthday games with Waikato," an Auckland player told me in the 1980s. "You go on the bus to Hamilton. Get booed onto the field. Get the crap kicked out of you for 80 minutes. Get booed off the field, then get back on the bus and have two hours to brood about what just happened." Nearly 15,000 people in Hamilton on Saturday night got a taste of what it used to be like when the city slickers came to town, when, in the game of the season to date, the Chiefs beat the Blues, 33-29.
WHAT MADE IT THE GAME OF THE SEASON?
Let's check the reasons. Two teams fiercely playing themselves to a standstill? Tick. Brilliant tries, including one scored by Melani Nanai for the Blues that saw the ball moved 80 metres with 22 passes, and one for the Chiefs by Lachlan Boshier that involved 14 phases? Tick. A very agile streaker? Tick. Any downsides? Only that local derbies are brutal on the bodies of all the players.
DEFENCE WINS GAMES TOO
Over the last decade we've become used to seeing the All Blacks win by constant attacking, kicking for lineouts to score tries, rather than taking three points from the penalty. The Chiefs have some of the best runners in the country, from Damian McKenzie to Anton Lienert-Brown, but the win in Hamilton was based on defence that was as unyielding as the wall of Donald Trump's dreams. The Chiefs had a horror start to the year. They're back, and the Lions could be in a lot of trouble on Friday.
DOES THIS MEAN THE BLUES' BUBBLE HAS BURST?
Not if they can lift themselves up and beat the Highlanders in Dunedin next Saturday. The body language of captain Patrick Tuipulotu after the game suggested a man disappointed, but by no means terminally dejected.
PLAYER OF THE WEEKEND
How can anyone not love Karl Tu'inukuafe? His story, as reported by Patrick McKendry in the weekend, of playing every game for the Chiefs in 2018 as if it was his last, desperate to make the 10 games that would win him a full contract, and the money he wanted for his family, was as touching as it was real. With a smile that could light up the national grid, he's Everyman, if Everyman weighed 135kg, and had a backbone of steel. A catch on his hip, and slick transfer, played a major role in Melani Nanai's try, and in the scrum he was, as always, a wrecking ball.
DOCTOR WHO BRINGS A SPECIAL MACHINE INTO THE CRUSADERS' CHANGING ROOM AT HALFTIME
If you didn't know better you'd swear that for their own amusement the Crusaders allowed other teams to take the lead before humiliating them in the second half. Nobody would have expected the Highlanders to lead 10-7 at halftime in Christchurch. By now plenty wouldn't have been surprised when the Crusaders then scored 36 effortless points in the second half, and won 43-17.
DOES BEN FROM ACCOUNTS HAVE A SECRET LIFE AS JACK REACHER'S RIGHT HAND MAN? In the endlessly impressive career of Ben Smith you can understand his aerial skills, and his speed. He is, after all, built like a sprinter who might also high jump. What's forever startling is how he bumps and fends off hulking opponents, who look as if they should be easily able to rip his arms off and pick their teeth with them. Pound for pound, as they used to say, he just may be the strongest man in rugby.
OKAY, IT'S SUPER RUGBY NOT TEST MATCHES, BUT GEE, HE LOOKS THE GOODS
Even better than the unfussy way Braydon Ennor took his try against the Highlanders was how, in the 56th minute, he caught a cross field kick by Richie Mo'unga, and then stood tall in the tackle of Tom Franklin as coolly as a commuter who knows he needn't sweat it because the 8.10 bus will be along soon. Sure enough, Sevu Reece was on hand for a lovely Ennor offload, and a stroll to the tryline. Ennor's been so good since the season opening match with the Blues he might as well be wearing a sign on his jersey saying "Future All Black".
WHEN A SECOND CHANCE WORKS
Last year Sevu Reece's rugby career was almost over before it had really started when, after being discharged without conviction in Hamilton after pleading guilty to an assault charge, the Connacht club in Ireland withdrew his contract. Remorse and counselling meant the Crusaders were prepared to give him another shot at professional rugby. He's rewarded their faith with electrifying form, and an on field work ethic like Richie McCaw's.
TALKING OF SECOND CHANCES
Israel Folau can believe whatever he likes. But a year ago it was spelled out to him by Rugby Australia, in what I'm sure was great detail, that if he wanted to continue to collect the massive amounts of money they were paying him he had to stop spreading in public his belief that gays go to hell. The hypocrisy of agreeing to zip it, and continuing to take the cash, then saying it again, and still wanting to save his contract, is staggering.
Finally a team picked only on form in the weekend
Fullback: Ben Smith (Highlanders).
Right wing: Sevu Reece (Crusaders).
Centre: Jack Goodhue (Crusaders).
Left wing: Rieko Ioane (Blues).
Second five: Ma'a Nonu (Blues).
First five: Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders) .
Halfback: Brad Weber (Chiefs).
No.8: Akira Ioane (Blues).
Flanker: Matt Todd (Crusaders).
Flanker: Shannon Frizell (Highlanders) .
Lock: Brodie Retallick (Chiefs).
Lock: Sam Whitelock (Crusaders).
Tighthead prop: Tyrel Lomax (Highlanders).
Hooker: Nathan Harris (Chiefs).
Loosehead prop: Karl Tu'inukuafe (Blues).
Reserves: Braydon Ennor (Crusaders), Marty McKenzie (Chiefs), Bryn Hall (Crusaders), Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs), Scott Barrett (Crusaders), Ofa Tuungafasi (Blues), Joe Moody (Crusaders), Andrew Makalio (Crusaders).