The Wrap: Topsy-turvy round throws up so many questions

With fans around the world having risen as one to demand the excommunication of ‘Sweet Caroline’ from the match-day experience, the eclectic music selection at Leichhardt Oval on Friday night featured gems such as the theme from the US quiz show, Jeopardy.

It was an apt choice given how many questions the Rebels asked of the Brumbies, who frankly, never looked like coming up with the right answers.

There were more questions asked the following night at the SCG. Where had this Waratahs side been hiding all year? How could the Reds, so full of endeavour and energy the week before against the Brumbies, be so reluctant to tackle and appear so disorganised?

For the answer to those and other questions, who better to turn to than Rugby Australia’s Director of Rugby, Scott Johnson, for his thoughts.

“Yes, there were a couple of surprises this weekend,” he told The Roar yesterday, “but what we’re really liking, particularly in both first halves, is that we’re seeing some high-quality rugby being played, and it’s obvious that the skill levels are improving.”

Johnson is clearly delighted that the competition continues to gain momentum. “We actually expected things to start slowly, considering what we went through to get to the start line, compliance with bio-security aspects and so on, which hindered teams in their ability to prepare and train properly.”

“What’s pleasing for me is the amount of new talent, and the way some of those kids have stepped up. And the expectation from here is that these lads will only get better. I think this has been a really good period for us, and as a result, we’re going to see a lot of names that are new to many fans in this competition, become household names.”

Scott Johnson.

Scott Johnson. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

So, what are Johnson’s expectations for the balance of Super Rugby AU? “We’ve set a bar now, and what we’re seeing with the entertainment levels increasing, more ball-in-play, better quality passing, better accuracy in the tackle area, everyone getting used to the new laws, that has to become the norm. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely improving, and we need to keep getting better again, from there.”

Looking beyond Super Rugby, how difficult is it to plan ahead, not yet knowing what the program and the opposition will be? Johnson explains how, “we can only control what we can control. Now that Dave (Rennie) is on the ground, the coaches are starting to get together more regularly, and we can start to drill down deeper into the detail of how we want to play.”

“But as far as the actual schedule goes – whether it’s a Rugby Championship format with South Africa and Argentina involved, or a series of matches against New Zealand, that’s in the hands of others. We’ll just get on with having the best preparation we can.”

That preparation will include a camp that will – in the first stages at least – include a wide range of coaches and players, including contenders for the Test match 23, plus a number of promising players and some from the Under 20’s program.

“It’s important at this stage,” says Johnson, “that we don’t get hung up about who is in the run-on Test side, but rather that we introduce a wide range of players, and get them used to how we want to go about things. This isn’t just about what happens this year, but it’s about taking Australian rugby forward over the next few years, and more.”

“That said, there’ll be no stone left unturned in us having a complete preparation for whatever matches lie ahead this year. There will no doubt still be grey areas around exactly what we will and won’t be allowed to do, but whatever we are allowed to do, we’ll take it to the utmost.”

As for fans who focused in on which players might have made Rennie’s April list of ‘players of interest’? How have things changed since then?

“The thing for people to realise is that assessment and development of players is a moveable feast. We develop plans for certain players and work together with the franchise coaches on areas of their game where we’re looking to see further development. And obviously while that is ongoing, some new players come into view, lads who put their hand up just through the strength of their performances in Super Rugby.”

“But the other thing for people to realise, is that most of these players, they might look like they’ve come out of nowhere, but they’ve been in the system and on our radar for some time, and have been working very hard with the franchise coaches. So for some of them, guys like (Harry) Wilson, (Hunter) Paisami, (Jack) Ramm, (Trevor) Hosea and a few others, it’s more that they’re just getting regular football at this level, they start to get more comfortable and confident, and so everyone can start to see the talent that is there, starting to come through.”

Hunter Paisami of the Reds

Hunter Paisami of the Reds. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Johnson stresses the importance of the Wallabies selectors and coaches working closely with the franchises, so that the players aren’t given mixed messages, and can continue to play with confidence, within the whole system.

“The dialogue is really good, and we really can’t afford to have a silo mentality. If we do happen to disagree on something, well we know that those coaches have a competition to win, but as long as everything is out in the open between us, we’ll continue to get the best out of the players, and they’ll be more ready if and when they get the opportunity to take the step up.”

And what about overseas based players, will they come under consideration this year? Johnson, understandably, plays a very straight bat to that question.

“There’s a regulation in place (the so-named Giteau Law) and that’s what we’re working to, and will continue to work to, until things change, if they do. But obviously, there’s so much up in the air right now, in terms of rugby overseas and here, and nobody really knows what’s possible until there’s more clarity around schedules and so on.”

That’s definitely a ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it’ answer, which is typical of Johnson. He and his coaching team are clearly well attuned to the importance of a deep and thorough preparation, but he is also pragmatic and versatile, knowing that there will be more hurdles and obstacles to overcome over the coming weeks and months.

It’s a challenge that you sense he and Rennie are well up for. And while the future of rugby in Australia doesn’t sit solely on their shoulders, there is also a sense that they not only relish that challenge, but also the opportunity to take the Australian rugby public along for the ride.

The Rebels may have surprised a few people with their four-try, first-half blitz against the Brumbies, but not themselves. Now having gone four matches without defeat – a franchise record – they are enjoying the touring experience and have been building nicely.

Coach Dave Wessels explained to me before the match how his selection of Andrew Deegan at 10 was designed to give them two dual-footed, kicking playmakers on a wet night, and that’s exactly how things panned out; the Rebels superior kicking game helping them dominate the territory battle throughout.

Of course, it was much more than that. They also played with enthusiasm, won the collision, and showed much improved connectedness and accuracy in the defensive line.

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Brumbies coach Dan McKellar was prepared to write things off to the opposition playing better on the night, and it’s far from a despondent ‘back to the drawing board’ situation in Canberra. That said, this competition is far from the foregone result many people thought it was, a fortnight ago.

The Waratahs enjoyed a huge night out at the SCG, Jake Gordon all zip for his three tries, Ned Hanigan all hustle and bustle in the pack, and Michael Hooper clearly relishing his role as stand-in skipper.

If 38-0 at halftime was an outcome nobody saw coming, what was more predictable was the Reds lineout – five throws lost in the first half alone. No team can continue to give up possession to that extent, and expect not to go unpunished. In that respect alone, the Reds got everything they deserved.

They were of course without Jordan Petaia, whose father Tielu suddenly passed away on Wednesday. Coach Brad Thorn would never grasp at such an event as an excuse, but in a young, tightly knit side, one can only imagine how that sadness will have impacted on his side’s preparation.

As Super Rugby Aotearoa draws to a close the one big question remaining is whether or not New Zealand Rugby pulled the wrong reign in determining that no final series would take place?

Certainly, the Crusaders don’t believe so – predictable and deserving winners despite a rare home loss to the Hurricanes along the way. And a straw poll of players would show that, no matter how much they have enjoyed the intensity of the competition, its freshness, and the way the games have been embraced by fans, another two weeks of finals would be a bridge too far.

George Bridge of the Crusaders

George Bridge of the Crusaders (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

There is the secondary matter of who will finish second, a consolation prize that you get the feeling is anything but a consolation for the Blues and Hurricanes. The Blues sit one point ahead on the ladder, but the Hurricanes get first crack next week, a trip to Forsyth Barr Stadium to face the fourth placed, and highly entertaining, Highlanders.

In the absence of a true grand-final, next Sunday’s concluding match, the Blues at home versus the Crusaders, shapes as a fitting finale, with the Blues desperate to confirm their credentials as a resurrected force in New Zealand rugby, and reward what should be another bumper home crowd.

Ahead lies the intriguing prospect of a North versus South fixture – essentially an All Blacks trial match, but another opportunity to showcase New Zealand rugby and recover some lost revenue.

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Beyond that, attention will again turn to the make-up of next years’ competition. Cue again the Jeopardy theme music, and today’s final question, bought to you by our sponsors, New Zealand Rugby and Rugby Australia… what will Super Rugby look like in 2021?

It’s no sure bet, but my money is on a few more hand grenades being tossed back and forth across the Tasman, with increasingly less ferocity, before both parties shake hands like old friends and agree on a ten-team competition, comprising five sides from each country.