Who would have believed that the two teams that finished third and last in Super Rugby Aotearoa are leading the Trans-Tasman Super Rugby table with two rounds to go?
Yes, the Blues (plus 102) and Hurricanes (plus 75) are the front runners, having joined the Crusaders and Highlanders in winning all three of their games thus far but heading them on points differential.
The only New Zealand team to have lost is the Chiefs who suffered a penalty try among the six conceded to the Reds on Saturday and had regular match-winner Damian McKenzie red-carded in the 22nd minute.
Despite that, they made a heroic comeback to come from 33-3 behind at halftime to lose 40-34.
That was a sad result for a team that finished runner-up in the Aotearoa championship.
With teams confined to only playing those from opposing countries in pool play, the competition is a bit farcical with points differential taking on special significance. Hence it’s a case of who can wallop the Aussies the most.
Still it’s good to see the Blues playing well with their powerful scrum dominating and loosies Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu and Tom Robinson combining nicely on attack and defence.
Papalli’s return against the Brumbies from medial ligament problems was a huge boost but coach Leon McDonald fears he may have damaged it again leading into the Blues’ vital clash with the Reds in Brisbane.
The star in the 38-10 win against the Brumbies was red-headed Scot-born halfback Finlay Christie who zigzagged his way 35 metres past four defenders after a glorious break by centre Rieko Ioane.
Rated the fastest centre in the country, it was also pleasing to see Ioane time his pass so beautifully after splitting the defence from deep inside his own territory.
With loose forward Akira adding power and flair from the reserves bench, the Ioane brothers are among the team’s best attackers.
There were also some deft touches from first-five Otere Black in a backline that has benefitted from the late inclusion of TJ Faiane and powerful veteran wing Bryce Heem.
The return of lock Patrick Tuipulotu is also a bonus in adding scrummaging grunt behind a monster front row.
With the Hurricanes smashing the Western Force 43-6 and the Highlanders beating the Rebels 42-27, the Reds win against the 14-man Chiefs was the only one the Australian sides can cherish against the 14 achieved by New Zealand teams.
Having failed to gain a bonus point first up against the Brumbies, the New Zealand champion Crusaders (plus 63) will be hoping either the Blues or Hurricanes stumble over the next two rounds to advance their own final hopes.
With Richie Mo’unga very much the maestro, the Crusaders remain the most cohesive team because of their all-round passing accuracy and support play.
Meanwhile with Caleb Clarke opting to make the Tokyo Olympics his priority and George Bridge battling injuries, Hurricanes Fijian Salesi Rayasi is making a bid for their All Blacks left wing berth.
Rayasi scored two splendid tries in the Hurricanes 43-6 thrashing of the Force but the best of the seven notched by the team was cannonball hooker Asafo Aumua’s astonishing 65m sprint for his.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer