The Blues have wrapped up top seeding and home advantage for the Super Rugby Pacific finals, after their dramatic win in Canberra moved them six points clear at the top of the standings.
Elsewhere there were wins for the Crusaders, Reds, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Waratahs, who picked up the upset of the weekend defeating the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Read on as we review some of the Super – And Not So Super – action from Round 14.
Coleman vindicated as Waratahs’ cease second-half slides
The Waratahs on Sunday scratched a 14-year itch, winning for the first time at Forsyth Barr Stadium and ending a long run of outs against the Highlanders in Dunedin that stretched all the way back to 2008, when the southerners were still playing out of the famed “House of Pain” – Carisbrook.
It was a victory that was set up during the week, with coach Darren Coleman taking the opportunity to rest a few players but also stack his bench with Angus Bell, Charlie Gamble and Ned Hanigan, who all came on and made huge impacts during the game’s closing quarter.
Hanigan, in particular, was superb, the Wallabies back-rower providing the line break and try assist for Tane Edmed’s try, which ensured NSW would head back to Sydney with the four competition points.
Earlier, it had been Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper and his back-row teammates Will Harris and Langi Gleeson who had helped the Waratahs settle and then get themselves into the match. The visitors then capitalised on the red-carding of Sam Gilbert – which we’ll touch on later – to take a lead they would never relinquish.
But the biggest change in the Waratahs’ recent fortunes came in the second half. After they had almost been run down by a 13-man Crusaders and then blew a 15-0 lead against the Hurricanes, the Waratahs at last got their second half right, with Coleman lauding the game management of his team.
“It was probably one of our more clinical ones, we’ve been horrible in those third quarters and I thought the momentum had swung there and a bit of deja vu happening, but we got great impact from our bench … and obviously six fresh forwards helps you finish faster and we knocked over three points every time for the most part.
“And I was just pleased with the clinical nature of it, that was probably the best bit.”
Clarke, Barrett superb as Blues pip Brumbies
It was a dramatic 80 minutes at GIO Stadium, a match that would have made a fitting competition decider in a few weeks’ time.
And that may still happen, too, although the Brumbies are likely to have to go via Christchurch if they are to get another crack at the Blues.
Leon MacDonald’s side are going to take some beating whoever it is that travels to Eden Park through the playoffs, particularly with Beauden Barrett in such good form. The All Blacks veteran enjoyed a sparking night in Canberra, scoring a try in the first half before he then stole the result with a drop goal while the Blues were playing under advantage.
As the battle to wear the All Blacks No. 10 jersey intensifies, Barrett finished the match with 12 runs for 76 metres, and generally steered the Blues around soundly behind what was a dominant pack.
Further out along the Blues backline, Caleb Clarke also enjoyed one of his best games of the season, at least until he was desperately chasing Nic White back and injured his hamstring.
Clarke had earlier given the Brumbies defenders all kinds of headaches with a series of tackle-shedding runs that suggested he is getting back to the form that saw him destroy the Wallabies at Eden Park in 2020.
While the Blues are flush with backline depth, they will be hoping Clarke’s hamstring injury is on the lighter end and he may yet be able to play some part in their finals campaign.
Barrett, meanwhile, can edge closer to the No. 10 jersey against Ireland with more of the play he produced against the Brumbies.
Campbell’s two-try effort keeps heat on Banks
Jock Campbell might not have been on the radar as a potential Wallabies fullback at the start of the year, but he now very much appears to be right in the mix following a string of strong performances in a Reds team that has struggled through the back half of the competition.
A two-try effort in the Reds’ 34-22 win over Moana Pasifika has only enhanced that, while Campbell’s combination with James O’Connor could prove pivotal when the Wallabies selectors come together ahead of the first Test with England.
After backing himself on a determined run to the line in the first half, Campbell grabbed his second after the break when he chased through on an O’Connor grubber, wrangled the bouncing ball and touched down 15 metres in from touch.
In a fullback race that appears wide open, despite Dave Rennie’s confirmation that Tom Banks won’t be punished if he decides to sign with Japanese rugby, Campbell’s performances must be mounting some form of case for an opportunity against England.
NOT SO SUPER
Terrible tackle should end Gilbert’s Super season
Highlanders fly-half Sam Gilbert’s season is likely over after he produced one of the worst tackles of the season and was rightfully sent off in Sunday’s loss to the Waratahs.
What made Gilbert’s tackle so bad was the fact that Hooper didn’t even have the ball, the Wallabies captain was simply just trying to counter-ruck when he was picked up and thrown back to the ground and ended up landing on his neck.
While Hooper thankfully avoided injury, Gilbert’s tackle could have resulted in a horrific injury and that is exactly why it has been outlawed in the game for decades.
There may have been some consternation around high tackles and the number of cards dished out this season, but when it comes to spear or lifting tackles the game is united in the belief that they have absolutely no place in rugby.
“I wouldn’t wish that on anyone … he should miss some weeks for that,” Hooper said when asked about the tackle after the match.
The SANZAAR judicial committee will be reviewing the incident and it’s hard to see how Gilbert can mount any case if he was to challenge the tackle. The smart move for the Highlander would be to take the early guilty plea and a likely suspension that will be reduced from six weeks on account of a good record.
Ryan ruling creates more breakdown questions
Having already been red-carded in his first game back for the Waratahs last week, prop Paddy Ryan again found himself in trouble following a clean-out that resulted in a head clash in Dunedin.
Ryan was only given a warning by the judiciary after he collected Jordie Barrett high in Round 13, a decision he appeared slightly bemused by, but where that incident was understandable given how officials have treated similar tackles this year, it was hard not to feel sorry for Ryan given how his clean-out unfolded on Sunday.
Looking to counter-ruck, Ryan accidentally collected Highlanders lock Josh Dickson head-on-head, the Waratahs prop probably coming off worse than his opponent.
Referee Nic Berry was originally looking at a red card, before mitigating the collision down to a yellow given Dickson had ducked his head at the last moment.
But given he was already bent over, it was hard to see how Ryan could have gone any lower while Dickson’s decision to drop his bodyheight at the last minute to protect the ruck was a far bigger contributor to the incident than Ryan’s own action.
A penalty probably would have sufficed but you can’t criticise Berry too much as he is only following the directions that have been handed down by World Rugby.
But there are so many different rugby “collisions” for which the head-contact process doesn’t specifically account, with variables that make the administration of the laws a difficult proposition for everyone from players, referees, coaches and the fans.