Seven thoughts from the first weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
FRANK SINATRA WAS RIGHT. LOVE CAN BE LOVELIER THE SECOND TIME AROUND
Having, like many people I know, more or less convinced myself I hadn't missed rugby, the adrenaline jolts when the game in Dunedin ended in a dropped goal shootout, or when Caleb Clarke was set free by Rieko Ioane at Eden Park for a sensational try, were reminders that once you're a rugby tragic, you're one for life.
And while the big, noisy crowd at Forsyth Barr Stadium was great to see, a sold out Eden Park transported me back to the halcyon days of the 1980s when a brilliant Auckland side held the city in thrall.
How fantastic that, after 13 weeks away, the Blues made seeing live rugby again feel like welcoming back an old friend.
THE BLUES ARE BACK IN TOWN
As of this Sunday afternoon the Blues are the real deal, and while superstars like Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane played very well, the 30-20 win over the Hurricanes was largely down to a forward pack that now has true grit.
Patrick Tuipulotu is a steel girder in the middle of the pack and Hoskins Sotutu a wrecking ball in boots, but if one man epitomised the massive upswing in power in the Blues' forwards, it's Dalton Papalii. The guy looks the way author Lee Child describes Jack Reacher, basically a raging but focused slab of granite, and some of Papalii's tackles were the kind that don't so much stop a player in his tracks, but make him wonder why he didn't see the Mack truck before it hit him.
IT TURNS OUT HE'S NOT JUST A GREAT PLAYER, HE CAN TAKE A JOKE TOO
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If there was a moment that deserves to be used to show kids what sportsmanship means, it was in the 14th minute, just after Dane Coles had run his legs off to score a try, when Beauden Barrett found himself caught in the middle of a group of ecstatic Canes, one of whom ruffled Barrett's hair in celebration.
Barrett didn't pout, swear, or complain. He grinned. As the game went on, he continued to play with world-class finesse, and, when the Blues took control, it was a perfect case of the last laugh always being the best one.
AT THE HOLLYWOOD SCRIPT CONFERENCE THEY SAID IT WAS TOO FAR FETCHED
If one of the reasons you love sport is that it throws up stories more extraordinary than fiction, then Bryn Gatland's dropped goal that secured the Highlanders their 28-27 victory over the Chiefs team his father Warren coaches would have been right up your alley. In passing, kicking a dropped goal to win the game would have been alien to Warren when he was a player; a hooker most at home buried in the dark hearts of scrums and rucks. But it runs in the genes for Bryn. Way, way back in 1962 in Te Aroha his maternal grandfather, Terry Shaw, dropped kicked, as Bryn did in Dunedin, a 35 metre goal, to take Shaw's Thames Valley side to a huge upset victory over Australia, 16-14.
THE GREAT GAME HE HAD AGAINST THE CHIEFS WAS NO FLASH IN THE PAN
Marino Mikaele Tu'u may be a newcomer to the starting No 8 position for the Highlanders, but at just 22, he already has an impressive rugby pedigree. In 2017, after being the back-up to Luke Jacobson in an early-season tournament for the New Zealand Under 20s, he won the No 8 jersey in the team that won the world title in Georgia. His progress over the next weeks may even pique the interest of the All Black selectors.
THIS YELLOW CARD LOOKED MORE LIKE A WINNING LOTTO TICKET
In the 31st minute of the game in Dunedin the Highlanders' fullback Vilimoni Koroi provided an almost textbook example of dangerous tackling technique when, with his arm inside Naitoa Ah Kuoi's left leg, he tipped the big Chiefs forward upside down and Ah Kuoi smacked into the ground. There are good reasons tip tackles are banned. The potential for serious injury is the main one, but not far behind is the fact they are such a terrible look for rugby, bad enough to possibly sway a decision by parents wavering over a choice of sport for their child. Koroi was incredibly lucky that he wasn't shown a red card.
YES THERE WERE TOO MANY PENALTIES, BUT HOW ELSE DO YOU GET THE MESSAGE THROUGH?
There were 29 penalties awarded in Dunedin, and 31 in Auckland. So that's a penalty every 2m 40s over both games.
But it was noticeable that after a string of penalties against them in the first half at Eden Park the Blues worked out that breaking the rules at the breakdown isn't being allowed now. Hopefully other teams will learn that lesson from the weekend.