Damian McKenzie and Rieko Ioane emerged as the superstars in a topsy-turvy latest round of Super Rugby which saw the Chiefs register their first win of the season and the Crusaders suffer their first loss in 20.
With Brodie Retallick leading a strong Chiefs forward effort in the Chiefs 56-20 thrashing against South African conference leaders, the Bulls, the improvement in both attack and defence was immense.
Retallick received strong support from flanker Luke Jacobson and hooker Nathan Harris while McKenzie and Alex Nankivell sparked a backline that was missing All Black Anton Lienert-Brown who had consistently been their best player.
Like most first-fives in early games, McKenzie had struggled to progress against a rushed defence which is killing rugby as a spectacle, as reflected by dwindling attendances. But given space at fullback he’s a fast, audacious game-breaker who taunts and frustrates defences who try in vain to contain him.
Scoring 21 points and setting up tries against the Bulls, McKenzie was at his dazzling best and would have delighted the national selectors with his improved option-taking and tactical kicking.
With the powerful Retallick leading by example and young Jacobson continuing to impress with a vigorous game, the Chiefs backs prospered from the much-improved efforts of their forwards.
Overall, however, the big improvement came with their tackling which had been below their usual high standard.
In contrast, the Crusaders and Highlanders suffered from their noble self-imposed bye after the massacre of Muslims in Christchurch by a deranged gunman.
Badly missing Richie Mounga and making too many uncharacteristic errors, the Crusaders were deservedly beaten 20-12 by the Waratahs while the Highlanders could score only two tries to the four registered by the Blues in their 33-26 defeat.
It was the first loss suffered by the Crusaders against an Australian franchise since May 2015.
Two of the Blues’ four tries went to brilliant left wing Rieko Ioane, the first a classic when he turned Waisake Naholo inside out.
The forward pack also prospered when lock Patrick Tuipolutu and his All Black props were injected from the reserves bench.
One to keep an eye on is fiery, workaholic blindside flanker Tom Robinson who could push more established players for All Black honours. Also pleasing has been the improved workrate of the talented Akira Ioane.
Among the smarter moves of the coaches has been the return of Melani Nanai to fullback where he has replaced Michael Collins to inject more attacking flair with his lethal sidestep and superior pace.
With the unselfish TJ Faiane so adept at setting up his wings, the Blues are finally starting to live up to their promise by playing as a team instead of a bunch of individuals.
Unfortunately for them, Nanai is headed for English premiership club Worcester Warriors at the end of the season.
With lively Dalton Papalii contesting the No 7 jersey with Blues co-captain Blake Gibson, the Blues are well served for loose forward depth.
Meanwhile, there will be plenty of interest in Friday’s top of the table clash between the Crusaders and Hurricanes in Wellington with the home team’s forwards needing to quell their opponents power up front to give their backs a chance to demonstrate their class.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author