12 May 2024

Super Rugby Pacific re-energised: derby day delivers

10:37 am on 12 May 2024

Analysis - There was a beautiful sight at Eden Park as the Blues v Hurricanes game came to its furious climax. All along the southern stand, where a big chunk of the 26,000-strong crowd had gathered to enjoy the footy and the sun before it dipped below the Waitākere Ranges, people started to get on their feet and yell.

The Blues were clinging to a four-point lead and had conceded three penalties in a row to be hard on their line. Like a kind of permanent Mexican Wave, the crowd rose from where the point of the ball was, and it spread backwards as the volume increased. By the time replacement halfback Sam Nock ripped the ball from Isaia Walker-Leawere's grasp and booted the ball over the dead ball line, the crowd was roaring.

Much has been said about the comparative placid nature of rugby crowds these days, especially when compared to the atmosphere of a Warriors home game. But this was a moment to remind everyone that when Super Rugby gets it right, it's a beautiful thing.

Mark Tele'a of the Blues celebrates his try with Taufa Funaki.

Mark Tele'a of the Blues celebrates his try with Taufa Funaki. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/www.photosport.nz

The Blues took the win 31-27 in a game that lived up to the hype, although it was not quite the free-flowing spectacle the score line might suggest. This was a battle up front, with every inch earned - in fact, all seven tries scored had their preceding breakdown originate less than five metres out from the line.

There was a fair amount of whistle, 22 penalties all up but that was somewhat reflective of the intensity at the breakdown. Blues skipper Patrick Tuipulotu acknowledged that it felt like a test match, while his opposite Brad Shields said it was the most physical game they had played all year.

A preview of a final? It certainly felt like it.

Afternoon kick-offs, Crusaders crumble and Brumbies prevail in Sydney swamp

The key to the big crowd at Eden Park, alongside the fact that it was the best teams and two traditional rivals playing, was the 4.35pm kick-off coupled with a stunning day in Auckland. It was fitting the sky was blue for the home side, and it proved what plenty have been saying for decades now regarding earlier starts. Hurricanes coach Clark Laidlaw summed it up post-match when he said "I'm pretty sure the 26,000 was not a coincidence with the 4.30pm [kick-off]. It gives people time to get home, get a feed, brilliant."

It was also heartening to hear Shields, while disappointed at the loss, recognise the fact that he is in the entertainment business and that people will walk away from that game day experience almost certainly keen to come back. One massive gripe, though: Eden Park's PA system has been turned down so low by apparent noise restriction rules that it is barely audible. It needs to be blasting full bore when the teams run on the field, then it would not have taken so long for the crowd to get engaged.

A picture can paint 1000 words, so the shot of Rob Penney sitting alone in the Crusaders coaching box after their 32-29 loss to the Highlanders deserves a column or two of its own. Down 26-14 at the break, the defending champions looked to have clicked in the second half, but were undone by a now trademark lack of composure at the most important moments. That, and a Highlanders team who saved their best performance of the season for the game that means the most to them and their fans obliged. The almost 19,000-strong crowd meant it was a bumper day for attendance and showed that with the right marketing, you don't even need two good teams to be playing to draw a crowd.

But what Penney needs now is a miracle. The Crusaders now have to find a win in Canberra and then again against the table-topping Blues to even make the play-offs.

Once again, the Chiefs have flown under radar despite racking up a good 43-7 win on Friday against Moana Pasifika. That is because literally no one was there to see it at Mt Smart, which is going to raise even more questions about Moana's viability given how many showed up at Eden Park the next day.

Shout out to the officials and commentators of the Brumbies' 29-21 win over the Waratahs in Sydney last night. While there were some massive collisions, notably Rob Valetini depositing poor little Tane Edmed to the floor with a thunderously violent hit and fling, the biggest battle was simply telling the teams apart. Clearly no one from either team had bothered to check their special Culture Round jerseys with each other, so both sides played in near-matching jerseys.

To add to the farce, the heavens opened in biblical fashion above Allainz Stadium to put the new park's drainage system to the test. It failed, leaving the field a giant puddle by full time, but at least it looked like fun for the players.