Round 6 proved a tough weekend for tippers of Super Rugby, as the Waratahs upset the Crusaders and the Chiefs blew away the Bulls in Pretoria.
Elsewhere, there were wins for the Blues, Hurricanes, Lions, Sharks and Reds.
Reds turn corner just in time for Quade's return
Brisbane can be a warm city in autumn. And the Reds and Brumbies experienced every bit of that on Sunday afternoon as the rare 4pm kick-off time brought about 33-degree playing conditions.
Far more accustomed to playing in the Canberra chill, the Brumbies floundered. Having broken their season duck in Tokyo in dramatic fashion last week, a confident Reds side strolled in Suncorp Stadium and produced easily their best performance of 2019.
The Brumbies felt the loss of lock Rory Arnold early on, the towering second-rower having previously led Super Rugby for lineout wins, as they conceded four balls on their own throw on a mistake-riddled afternoon they'll quickly want to forget.
Just what one should make of the Brumbies' form at this point in the season isn't an easy proposition. At their very best, Dan McKellar's side have trounced the Chiefs and ground down the Waratahs; but at their worst, as they were on Sunday afternoon, they look nothing like a team that has finals aspirations.
The bye has seemingly arrived at exactly the right juncture for the Brumbies, with David Pocock set to be fit after an extra week off, at least giving the ACT franchise some good news on the injury front if Arnold is to join Rob Valetini on the long-term injury list.
The other positive for the Brumbies is the fact that no team has pulled clear at the top of the Australian conference. The Rebels' failure to pick up a win in South Africa, despite being in a position to take victory in both of their tour matches, means there is just four points between first and fourth.
Queensland will be looking at the table with similar positivity but with just a little extra spring in their collective step as they now look to a clash with the Rebels, and Quade Cooper's return to Suncorp Stadium.
Just how the Rebels playmaker handles his former Reds teammate Samu Kerevi charging down his defensive channel will be must-watch viewing as there have been few better performers in Super Rugby this season.
Kerevi again proved the Reds' chief attacking weapon against the Brumbies on Sunday afternoon. In running for a game-high 77 metres from 15 runs with two clean breaks and four beaten defenders, the skipper had the Reds on the front-foot all afternoon.
But perhaps the biggest improvement in his game, his growth into the leadership role aside, is that he is doing the simple things so well. In seasons past Kerevi has been known to give away possession with a loose carry or falling off passes in try-scoring situations.
But there was none of that when he put a rejuvenated Chris Feauai-Sautia over eight minutes after halftime. Having scooped up another Brumbies turnover, Kerevi powered down the left touchline and drew the covering Brumbies defender with a perfect pass to his centre partner.
Kerevi is in career-best form while the Reds have clearly turned a corner, just in time for the return of arguably their biggest ever gate-turner.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Blues finally nail a finish to end Kiwi rot
We're not about to declare it a new dawn in Auckland, but there was a lot to like about the way finished off the Highlanders at Eden Park in the opening game of Round 6.
When Highlanders winger Tevita Li cruised in for a try on 54 minutes, thoughts of "here we go again" must have rumbled around the spiritual home of New Zealand Rugby. But the Blues instead got the break they needed, the correct sin-binning of Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo, and then rode the skill and speed of Melani Nanai and Rieko Ioane to end a long run of outs against fellow New Zealand opposition.
Nanai is an interesting case. Blessed with brilliant footwork and a turn of speed to match anyone in the competition, he has probably not fulfilled his potential. He is, in fact, the player who best represents the Blues' fortunes over the past few years: everyone can see the ability, but it just hasn't been on show often enough.
But he at last looks to be playing with confidence.
Meanwhile up front, Akira Ioane is getting far more assistance from his fellow Blues forwards in laying a platform. Flanker Tom Robinson, who has a touch of champion American snowboarder Shaun White about him with his flowing red locks, is a worker while All Blacks spring tourist Dalton Papali'i is another pushing the Blues in the right direction.
They haven't had a better opportunity to string three wins together in years than what presents itself this weekend. The Stormers won't be easybeats, we know that from how hard the Hurricanes had to work in Wellington on Saturday afternoon, but Leon MacDonald may have just dragged the Blues out of their circle of obscurity.
Given the Crusaders' loss to the Waratahs and the Chiefs' supreme performance over the Bulls in Pretoria, the New Zealand conference may not be so clear cut either. All Blacks rest weeks are clearly having an impact, the Crusaders essentially rudderless without Richie Mo'unga in Sydney on Saturday night.
But the Blues must look no further than Saturday either. Equalling last year's three-win season this week should be their only goal; just as condemning their lengthy New Zealand losing run was last Friday.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
More questions than answers after mixed weekend
Hands up if you predicted the score between the Bulls and the Chiefs at Loftus Versfeld? Or if you saw it coming at 3-10 after 30 minutes, or at 6-24 at halftime?
No, us neither.
We had wondered in previewing Super Rugby Round 6 how the South African teams might go facing the different challenges posed by inter-conference rivals; only the Sharks and the Lions had played rivals from the Australia and New Zealand conferences previously this season, but they, too, had questions to answer. The Lions had been gifted victory primarily by the Rebels' ill-discipline the week before, while the Sharks had failed to provide the necessary physicality against derby rivals in their two previous games. But we had not considered that we would be left to question the level of actual progress displayed by the South African franchises in the opening five rounds.
The four franchises each had a reason to be happy with their performances through the opening block of fixtures, and indeed South Africa Rugby Director of Rugby and Springboks head coach Rassie Erasmus had expressed satisfaction that players were "grabbing the Test match mould". But the concern with the performances on Saturday is that South Africa's teams produced pretty much exactly what they had done in the previous seasons without any of the perceived developments. The South African conference had seemed before the season to be very even -- no standout candidate, and each team likely capable of beating each other -- so have we been praising teams unduly for performing but ultimately doing only what we thought they might.
The Bulls can still ship 50 points on a bad day -- 46 points in 50 minutes -- and they appeared rudderless against the previously winless Chiefs when unable to impose their territory-first pressure game plan on rivals that weren't for pinning into their own half. Leadership and physicality was absent from their game on Saturday, and without it they were nothing. Perhaps it was "a blip", as suggested by Pote Human, but the coach maybe faces his first big task this week after saying after the post-bye humiliation that "we didn't pitch at all, I think we were still in the bye"? The game plan to take the three points whenever they are on offer is brilliant at building scoreboard pressure when you're making the running or within a score, but it goes out the window when you trail by 18 points or more. We had not considered that the Bulls would trail by such a margin on Saturday.
The Stormers still can't seem to threaten a tryline through anything other than their driving maul. That weapon is, in and of itself, a thing of beauty, but they have no strike or X-Factor in the backs. They can take solace that they led the Hurricanes 21-15 at halftime and 28-22 with a quarter to play, but their lineout and maul -- strengths previously -- failed them at the death, when the game was still there to be won, while poor defensive efforts -- from individuals and the team more broadly -- were the cause of the Canes' three tries in the second half. They've now lost nine straight outside South Africa, and 10 on end in New Zealand; they'll wonder whether that would still be true had Eben Etzebeth been fit to play in Wellington, but that question disguises the truth that they lost primarily because of their own failings and inadequacies.
The Lions beat the Sunwolves 37-24 in another anything-but-memorable encounter in Singapore, and still they don't convince that they can score enough points against the best teams, or possess the game plan or defensive structures to succeed in a do-or-die fixture when tension does strange things to brains, palms and twitch fibres. But they do have Malcolm Marx, and the hooker and stand-in captain is a one-man force of nature seemingly capable of effecting anything and everything.
And the Sharks still don't convince that they actually have a game plan; they have wonderful players for sure, they defeated another team that lacked even their own physicality, and Makazole Mapimpi showed again that he is a much more rounded player; but what is their DNA and do they have the raw power to match their conference rivals. They play well against the Australian and New Zealand teams, and that's great, but it's form against their South African rivals that ultimately determines their playoff credentials.
The truth going into Round Seven is that South Africa's sides are not what they showed in Round Six, but perhaps also they're not what they had seemed in the previous five rounds. And so we look forward to Round Seven when the Stormers play the Blues in Auckland and the Sharks host the Bulls; we think we might be willing to predict what we'll see.