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Scotty Stevenson: On The Sidelines

In this week’s newsletter, Scotty discusses the Reds’ historic win in Christchurch, a potentially record-breaking test for women’s rugby and what to look for in the week ahead.

Grinners are winners

With 100 traveling fans rugged up against the Christchurch chill, the Reds broke a 25-year drought in the garden city with a 33-28 win over the Crusaders on Saturday. They hung on in the end, with the expected home side comeback falling short in the final minutes of the match.

There was a serious energy about the way the Reds played the game, and about how they have approached the entire season. They look like a team having fun, and don’t discount how important that is. Unleashing that enthusiasm allows this Reds team to find the big plays when they matter, and the Crusaders were on the back foot from the opening minutes, and stayed that way for much of the match.

The Queenslanders have uncovered a back row of exceptional balance, with Wright and McReight expertly working the picks while Wilson is a diesel engine on the carry. The combination of vision, technical prowess and power is proving an alluring elixir. Their work at ruck and maul is affording the backline all the opportunities to attack, and to unleash the outsides.

Tim Ryan, who nabbed a brace on Saturday to go with last week’s hat-trick on debut, looks tailor made for Super Rugby, but it’s the way his team have pressed him into action that stands out. If you know you’ve got something special in your side, you work hard to make the most of it. That’s what the Reds are doing.

On the other side of the equation, the Crusaders are playing like a team under pressure. David Havili’s move to ten may well have been more of a panic button play than an acquiescence to All Blacks pressure, but either way, for all Havili’s utility value, first five is not a utility position. It is staggering to think the Crusaders had a line from Mehrtens to Mo’unga via Carter and now are struggling to fill the jersey.

Having a genuine technician at ten is no guarantee you’ll win the competition, but having a fill in pulling the strings is a guarantee you won’t. The Crusaders are a team that has always played off the first five more than halfback, they need a permanent solution there or the road to the playoffs is going to be more potholes than paved with gold.

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Hooker George Bell during the Crusaders defeat to the Reds in Christchurch.

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Proctor shines for Hurricanes

It took four minutes for Billy Proctor to score the first Hurricanes try on Friday night as they rinsed the Waratahs 41-12. Proctor returned after taking last week off, which coincided with the Canes’ first and only loss of the season. It felt then that his absence had a huge bearing on the result against the Brumbies, and his performance on Friday, in the absence of Jordie Barrett, proved again that he is the most important player in the side.

Proctor is a perspicacious player, one who is able to see plays unfolding before they have begun. He is a constant threat on attack, drawing defenders away from others, and allowing his pack runners to make regular incisions through the midfield. A marshaller and organizer, Proctor doesn’t trouble the top ten on the published individual top-line statistics (Rugby’s simplistic public analytics need addressing, but that’s for another time) apart from offloads, but his impact on the team is massive in a myriad of ways.

Chief among those is his ability to get himself in good positions. Whether offensively or defensively, Proctor will be where he needs to be and will ensure those around him are too. That sort of leadership by example is a hallmark of his play, and because the team has been set up to play the game at outrageous speed, it is also central to the Hurricanes ability to put that plan into action.

If you want to think further of the impact Proctor has, think about two of his team mates who do feature in top ten lists. Both Josh Moorby and Salesi Rayasi, for example, are among the top ten line breakers in the competition. I would suggest Proctor’s ability to manipulate defenses and put players in space is one of the reasons why.

Warriors fall to third straight defeat

The Warriors couldn’t catch a cold in the opening quarter of their match against the Knights and may well have considered themselves lucky to head to the break just two points behind. This was supposed to be the Warriors return to the winner’s circle, heavily favored as they were to get the job done against Newcastle.

Well, it rained on their parade.

Nothing seemed to go right for the Warriors, who produced five handling errors in the first quarter, while Newcastle scored two tries. Though they did hit back with a try to Dylan Walker, they couldn’t produce further points in a scrappy and unattractive first forty minutes.

Dallin Watene-Zelezniak failed to force the ball after leaping high to claim a Shaun Johnson kick in the late stages of the half. The penalty was given for a tackle in the air, but you could argue a penalty try would have been warranted. IE was denied again in just twelve minutes into the second half, when the Bunker called an obstruction on Jackson Ford in the lead up. It was a terrible call.

That brings us to an interesting conundrum. Warriors fans have long felt they get very little if any assistance from the television officials. I don’t know if I subscribe to the conspiracy theories here but would say this: when you are not playing well, you can’t expect the rub of the green. The best teams paint pictures for the officials and are usually rewarded on momentum alone.

Dylan Walker scores the only Warriors' try against the Newcastle Knights.

Take nothing away from the Newcastle defense that remained staunch as the Warriors tried to level the game in the final quarter, but this was ground hog day with an attack that looked bereft of fresh ideas and very little variation late in the sets. Wings Montoya and Watene-Zelezniak had extended periods of unemployment, with Newcastle able to shut down the last pass wide, especially down the Warriors’ right side.

Coach Andrew Webster sounded confident after having a ten-day turnaround to prepare for his assignment, but it was the Knights who kept their composure and played the conditions best.

Will the fans front for the frontrunners?

The Blues did over the Rebels on Friday night with an efficient if not spectacular performance in Melbourne. But they could be forgiven for having their minds a week ahead as they get set face the Hurricanes at Eden Park this Saturday.

This is as blockbuster as the competition gets and with a 4.35pm kick off, this match also forms as a genuine test of where the fans are at when it comes to live attendance. The Blues failed to pass the 20,000-fan threshold last season but with top spot on the line and an afternoon kick off, they would certainly be hoping to go past that figure this weekend.

Much has been made of the rise of the Warriors, who have sold out their Mount Smart venue for each home game this season. That inevitably has led to questions about whether Super Rugby is failing in its bid to genuinely connect with the fans, and to get them through the turnstiles.

Eden Park is a tough venue to fill but if it can’t be more than half full for a game like this at a family-friendly time zone, then all those previous questions surface again. Super Rugby knows it is in a scrap with the NRL, and more specifically in New Zealand, with the Warriors. This is a day the competition – and the sport – has to win, especially with the Warriors battling on the field and away from New Zealand for the next few weeks.

It’s also a big day for Eden Park which finds itself fighting for Council support as the venue to take Auckland into the future. We reported extensively on that last week, but there will be more on this story in the coming days as the Eden Park proposal goes head to head with at least one other proposal at a full Auckland Council vote.

Black Ferns lock in Twickenham test

Great news out of the Black Ferns camp this week that they will play England at Twickenham this September. The two sides clashed in the Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park in what was a remarkable match, taken by the Ferns in the final minute courtesy of a Joanah Ngan-Woo lineout steal.

At the top, the final smashed the record for attendance at a women’s test, since beaten when England faced France in the final match of the 2023 Six Nations. There will be hope this occasion could smash that again. Currently the record stands at 58,598, but Twickenham’s capacity is 82,000.

The week ahead

The Black Sticks men’s side continue their preparations for the Paris Olympics at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. The Black Sticks opened their account with a 7-1 win over Canada on Saturday. Scott Boyde scored the opening goal – the second fastest in international hockey. Japan were next up overnight and the side then faes Malaysia, Korea and Pakistan. Hockey fans can catch all the action LIVE and FREE on TVNZ+

We said last week that no news was not good news on New Zealand Rugby’s governance review. Then Chair Dame Patsy dropped the bombshell on Thursday. The NZR proposal will go up against the Provincial Union proposal (finalized this week) at a Special General Meeting at the end of May. Rugby Players Association boss Rob Nichol says his organization supports neither. It will be intriguing to see the detail of the PU proposal and understand how aligned they are.

Keep an eye on your team’s roster this week with Reiko Ioane set to miss this weekend’s match after a head knock in the Rebels fixture. The Chiefs will be sweating on the fitness of Damian McKenzie and Samipeni Finau, while the Crusaders will be hoping Ethan Blackadder, Scott Barrett and Brodie McAlister are not on the disabled list this week.