Super Rugby AU is alive and kicking after two huge upsets in Round 6.
First, the Rebels completely dominated the previously unbeaten Brumbies on Friday night. Then, seemingly from nowhere, the Waratahs wound back the clock to 2014 with an astonishing first-half display of running rugby to set up a huge win over the Reds.
Read on for some of the major talking points from the weekend’s action.
REDS WERE ROCKED, BUT KNOW THEY MUST BE BETTER
It’s completely understandable why the Reds might not have had their minds completely on the job against the Waratahs on Saturday night.
Rocked by the death of Jordan Petaia’s father during the week, the Reds made a number of rudimentary errors in the first half against the Waratahs; passes hit the deck, their lineout was a mess and their defensive line was leakier than a weekend fisherman’s dingy.
The Waratahs took full advantage too, producing their finest 40 minutes of rugby under Rob Penney and probably their best half of footy since 2014 when Michael Cheika took them to a maiden Super Rugby title.
About half an hour after fulltime, sitting only a cut-out pass from the Long Bar in the SCG Members Stand, Reds coach Brad Thorn admitted it had been a difficult final day’s preparation.
“That was a tough one, yeah, that was a tough. On Thursday night we had some players who supported Jordie around that; I probably don’t want to talk about it too much because it’s been a hard one,” Thorn said.
“We’re really feeling for him, for his family, his dad was a wonderful man…it was a shock, we’re just thinking of Jordie. And maybe it gives a bit of balance to the game tonight, the score.”
Rattled from the outset, the Reds were unlucky not to concede a penalty try or at least see Filipo Daugunu sin-binned when he tackled Will Harrison on the tryline from an offside position. The visitors survived and only conceded a penalty, before James Ramm produced a brilliant play down the sideline to set the Waratahs alight and supply the first of Jake Gordon’s three tries.
At that point, the Reds leaders needed to come together and reset the team’s focus. In what is still a youthful outfit, skipper Liam Wright and veteran Wallabies utility James O’Connor are the men who needed to lead the Reds in that space, but it didn’t eventuate.
Thorn wants to continue coaching the Reds beyond this season and has certainly built a strong rapport with the playing group; his policy of not carrying dead weight or troublemakers, and instead backing younger players who might have otherwise been set for a slower transition at last looking like it might start to pay dividends this season.
But he also needs those same players to show the same mental growth, so that when unique situations arise like they did last week, the team is not completely rudderless once the game kicks off.
“As I’ve been saying since the start of this competition, we’re working away, we just keep chipping away to try and find a complete game,” Thorn said when asked whether he could pinpoint why the need was still struggling for consistency. “Sometimes it’s running rugby, tonight there’s a fair bit to do with mindset. Mindset, I think, drives the rugby and mentally we weren’t there; that was pretty obvious to see.
“It’s hard at halftime, you say ‘come on, guys, we’ve got to go out’ but I feel like the guys are feeling really down. So it’s a credit to the lads, they really found something [in the second half] and they battled it out. That’s important because you can just throw the towel in, but they fought to the end.
“That consistency [though], good teams have it, they front and sometimes they win ugly and sometimes they have good wins. often you don’t turn up as a team feeling awesome to play, there’s time when you feel flat or times when you’re tired as a team, or whatever. So that’s an ongoing thing that we’ll look for.”
The Reds now sit fourth on the Super Rugby AU ladder, with games against the Rebels, Force and Brumbies to come, two of which are at home while the game against the Force is only down the road on the Gold Coast.
They will no doubt rally around their backline star Petaia, but also must reset after Saturday night and plot a course through a competition that is really still anyone’s to win.
HODGE, DEMPSEY HIT FORM FOR RENNIE REMINDER
Established Wallabies Reece Hodge and Jack Dempsey hadn’t exactly been setting the world on fire this year.
Members of last year’s World Cup squad, the duo has been in and out of the Rebels and Waratahs starting teams respectively, and largely well below their best when they had been out on the paddock.
But that all changed over the weekend as both men were arguably their team’s best in their upset wins; Hodge in particular appearing to relish a return to fullback while the man many have tipped will wear the Wallabies No. 15 jersey, Tom Banks, had a night to forget on a soaked Leichhardt Oval.
Hodge scored two of the Rebels’ four tries, his chase of Matt Too’mua’s grubber kick turning what looked like an easy grounding for the Brumbies, into a vital five points. The Wallabies utility was otherwise assured at the back on a tough night for fullbacks, and also used his booming boot to kick the Rebels out of trouble on several occasions.
Hodge has spent much of his time at the Rebels either at outside centre or on the wing, while the majority of his Test rugby has come on the Wallabies right. But fullback may in fact be his best position, giving Wallabies coach Dave Rennie yet another name to consider for the No. 15 jersey.
Dempsey, meanwhile, suddenly regained the footwork and offload skills that have been a hallmark of his rise to the Wallabies over the last three years, but also had been missing for much of this year. The back-rower’s ability to beat defenders and then find a pass in traffic is unmatched across Australia’s forwards contingent, which he demonstrated in setting up Jack Maddocks’ try on Saturday night.
Amid the performances of Harry Wilson, the return of Isi Naisarani and even Liam Wright’s form at both No. 6 and No. 7 for the Reds, Dempsey had just slipped off the back-row radar a touch.
But he will be firmly back in consideration after his game on the weekend.
KOROIBETE’S RUGBY IQ HAS NEVER BEEN HIGHER
Marika Koroibete had a fair bit to learn when he first joined the Rebels after five seasons in the NRL.
But after a sensational Rugby World Cup that earned him the John Eales Medal as Australia’s best player in 2019, the Fijian-born winger’s transition to bona-fide rugby star was seemingly complete.
He is, however, taking his game to even greater heights in an improving Rebels side that now sits second in Super Rugby AU following Friday’s brilliant win over the Brumbies.
In setting up a try for Brad Wilkin, Koroibete showed incredible patience and awareness in horrible conditions to turn a half chance into a vital Rebels five-pointer. He first toed the loose ball ahead, twice, then when it spilled from Andy Muirhead’s grasp, Koroibete scooped it up, pivoted and found a supporting Wilkin with a delicate popped pass.
Koroibete has become so much more than just a pure finisher in the last 12 months. He loves to go looking for opportunities in and around the ruck to catch out some tight forwards, just as he did against the Waratahs a fortnight ago. Friday night’s performance was just more evidence of the evolution of his game.
He will surely be Rennie’s left winger later this year.