Super Rugby: Nah, let’s talk about Reece Walsh and the Phoenix

3:22 pm on 23 May 2021

Opinion - The pretence of Super Rugby trans-Tasman being competitive came crashing down like a trophy at a Crusaders after-party this weekend. Both finalists from the Aotearoa and AU competitions played each other and the results were one-way traffic, so bad in fact it's hard to see how the just announced three-test Bledisloe Cup series is going to be close in any way.

Reece Walsh.

Reece Walsh. Photo: Photosport

On Friday night the Hurricanes and Rebels both managed to play much better than they both did last weekend but somehow this transpired into a pretty forgettable game, before the Highlanders did just enough to put away the Force. Then on Saturday the Blues took about an hour to get going before they trounced the hapless Waratahs, the Chiefs scrummaged the Brumbies to the darkest depths of hell and then the Crusaders underlined just how big the gap is by hanging 63 points on the Reds at Suncorp Stadium.

Last weekend was a glimmer of hope for the Aussies with a couple of tight results, but it seems like they were more due to the Crusaders and Chiefs still feeling the effects of the after match festivities of their Aotearoa final. So despite a few really good tries and some strong cases for All Black consideration, the one performance of this weekend that caught everyone's attention was on the other channel.

Yes, this is a rugby column but it's fair to talk about the phenomenon that is Reece Walsh given that his rapid ascent in the NRL is almost entirely due to NZ Rugby's recruiting plan. Their signing of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck for next season opened the door for the 18-year-old Walsh to first be acquired by the Warriors, then given far more game time in a prominent position than he would have normally. The Warriors' typically topsy-turvy start to the season, coupled with Tuivasa-Sheck's willingness to relinquish his spot so the team can start to get used to him not being there, has allowed coach Nathan Brown to flick the keys to Walsh and let him drive - and on Friday night the Wests Tigers found out just how confident the kid is.

Walsh set up two of the Warriors first four tries and scored one himself for good measure in the 30-26 win. Fittingly, one lovely pass over the top landed perfectly on Tuivasa-Sheck's chest for him to fall over the line. Social media was abuzz at Walsh's display, yes it is definitely too early to crown him as the answer to all the Warriors' problems, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating his ridiculous talent right now. The image of him diving into the corner with Tuivasa-Sheck watching on like a proud father will go down as one of the sports images of the year.

We won't be seeing Walsh playing at Mt Smart until next year though, as the Warriors confirmed they will be spending the rest of the season based in Australia (with good reason too, due in no small part to the headaches the bulk of the squad will face trying to find somewhere affordable to live in Auckland). Meanwhile, the Phoenix's decision to return home paid off beautifully on Saturday afternoon, drawing 24,105 in through the gates for their 3-0 win over Western United at Sky Stadium. It was a stunning display from both the team and the fans, made even better by the added narratives of former Phoenix skipper Andrew Durante and manager Mark Rudan's return for the opposition. Rudan's villainous exit from the club was not forgotten, with the crowd reserving a fair amount of vitriol for his post-match trudge up the tunnel.

That figure is a record for any A-League regular season fixture and provided a stark contrast to the Hurricanes game the night before, which was played in front of virtually empty stands. That is not that surprising, really, given that it is deep into Wellington winter now and the Rebels are hardly the sort of outfit that gets people rushing to get their wallets out - but it really does show the sort of disconnect rugby is having with its fans right now.

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