If you wanted an advertisement for what the fast, free-flowing vision Rugby Australia’s powerbrokers would have wanted from this Super Rugby AU season, the first 20 minutes of the Reds’ record victory over the Waratahs on Friday worked as a wonderful example.
On a sticky, soggy night at Lang Park, the Reds gave an example of what they have been building over the past four years under Brad Thorn, dismantling a young Waratahs team 41-7 — a record score in Super Rugby for this rivalry.
Super Rugby AU’s rule changes were designed to create more action, more tries and more fun.
Twenty minutes into the season opener at Lang Park between the Reds and Waratahs, you’d have had to look pretty hard to find someone who would disagree.
The 12,213-strong crowd were on their feet. Rugby’s new broadcasters Channel 9 and Stan, beaming footage out to what Rugby Australia will hope is its burgeoning new audience, were likely exulting in the free-flowing action they were being treated to.
Despite the conditions, it was immediately obvious that both sides wanted to play and play quickly.
Lineouts, restarts, penalties: In the opening quarter of the contest, all were taken without a moment’s hesitation. Super Rugby is back. Blink and you’ll miss it.
“It was definitely quicker,” Reds skipper James O’Connor said after the match.
Most likely, so did the supporters. In a blistering first quarter, the Reds led the Tahs 24-7. Four tries had been scored, all to varying degrees a result of quick thinking and action at the set piece.
The Waratahs were desperately short of experience having lost Michael Hooper, Ned Hanigan and Rob Simmons in the off-season, but it was one of their sole remaining veterans who got the try-fest started, 29-year-old skipper Jake Gordon.
Gordon acted quickly from a lineout, skipping across the turf on the blindside to feed Izaia Perese and Jack Maddocks, who despite being tackled by Jordan Petaia had the presence of mind to pop the ball up to Gordon on the wrap around to dive over for a try in the corner.
One of the new rules being implemented this season was a 30-second restart clock to limit time wasting after scores.
Those 30 seconds also gives TV advertisers the time to sneak in a quick advert, but the Reds were so eager to hit back they were underway and pressuring the New South Wales defence before the tv adverts had time to finish rolling.
That was addressed at the next restart, although Waratahs flanker Hugh Sinclair noted it felt a little bit like rugby league to be asked to wait, but that in itself says a lot about how much the players just wanted to get on with things.
Unfortunately for Sinclair and the Tahs, his team were left waiting a lot, as the Reds racked up five tries by the end of the contest, starting with a phenomenal three-try salvo over the next 10 minutes to flip the game on its head.
O’Connor led the way, sweeping the play back onto the blindside for the first try, linking with Petaia and the hugely impressive Seru Uru before sending over Jock Campbell via a pass inside that on another day might have been called forward.
“We started getting the energy going,” O’Connor said with a grin.
Alex Mafi and Filipo Daugunu both crossed shortly after quick lineouts and the typical free-flowing Reds play that had bought them such attacking success in 2020.
Although that was absent for the middle period of the game, it returned in the final 10 minutes, with Daugunu scoring off the back of another destructive Reds scrum that was won directly off a lineout created by O’Connor’s first 50:22 kick of the season — another league-inspired rule change that appears to have paid off — and Ilaisa Droasese diving over in the corner for a try on debut.
Of course, there is always room for improvement.
“It’s a start,” Thorn said, while O’Connor expanded slightly, saying: “It wasn’t as clinical as we can be … There were a couple of knock-ons, a couple of offsides.”
Referees had been told to police the offside line with an iron fist this year, placing the emphasis on players making themselves look onside rather than pushing the boundaries of what’s legal to close space.
In the match, 30 penalties were awarded, with many coming for offside, although Reds coach Thorn said that was the sort of thing his side could “really easily sort out”.
Penalties were a scourge of the competition last season, both in Australia and Super Rugby Aotearoa, as players got to grips with the new rules, but aside from a brief flurry of three penalties inside the first 90 seconds, any fears of a frustrating whistle-fest were quickly waylaid. And players should adapt to the different interpretations soon enough.
“I thought there was some really good, entertaining rugby in the first half,” Thorn said.
With entertainment the aim of the game in 2021, things got off to a pretty good start.