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Brett McKay
Brett McKay | Columnist Index
One of the new breed of Australian online rugby writers, Brett McKay joins ESPNscrum.com having developed a popular presence on sports opinion site The Roar. He also tweets from @BMcSport.
Scrum5
Round nine opens several cans of worms
Brett McKay
April 14, 2014
The first can of worms was opened during the Reds-Brumbies clash © Getty Images
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Super Rugby Round 9 was the one in which retaliatory punches were ignored, the Waratahs received a second opinion on Israel Folau whether they wanted it or not, and the two Australian derbies were won by the teams without the 130-odd years of history. It was also the week a well-known sleeping giant awoke and reacquainted itself with the top half of the Super Rugby table.

Here are the talking points from the weekend, as I saw them. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

An open can and worms all over the place

Certainly, the major talking point from the Reds-Brumbies derby on Friday night was the courses of action taken - or not taken, as it were - surrounding the Ed Quirck-Stephen Moore coming together that prevented a Reds try being scored.

It generally doesn't take much for Reds' fans to feel slighted these days, given the steam has barely subsided on what they still feel was a harshly-officiated tour for South Africa. And so it began to rise again when Moore lashed out at Quirk holding him at the ruck, first with a couple of downward hacks and then with an almighty uppercut into the ribs. Quirk fell, or 'fell' over on the opposite side of the ruck (it wasn't that strong a punch), and Will Genia placed the ball over the line, but behind where Quirk was now laying.

Referee Steve Walsh consulted with his AR, James Leckie, and in admitting he was still playing a long advantage to the Reds from the other side of the field, they decided to send the whole incident upstairs.

The Brumbies prevailed despite a second-half Queensland comeback (video in Australia only)
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The short of it was that the try couldn't be allowed to stand, because of Quirk's illegality in holding Moore, but also that Moore's punch -astonishingly - needed no further action. Play went back to the maul penalty but the incident has remained fresh in memories ever since.

Up front, I thought Walsh's explanations on what had been decided were very good and very clear. Furthermore, I agree that Quirk's hold had to be penalised; it's a negative, cynical tactic that's crept into the game and needs to be eradicated.

But given a precedent like Scott Fuglistaller earlier this year, surely Moore still had to receive a yellow card for the obvious punch? Fuglistaller was even told as his yellow card was shown, "I understand he's grabbed you, but there's no excuse for lashing out with a punch."

The same surely had to apply to the Brumbies and Wallabies' rake.

Because in not carding Moore, Walsh now can't really penalise a retaliating player for the rest of the season, either. Beyond that, anyone who is carded and/or cited for retaliating will surely now just cite the 'Moore defence'.

Compounding the issue further was the news on Saturday that Moore had escaped any further sanction, after the incident was reviewed by the SANZAR citing commissioner.

Watch this space, I suspect. This won't be the last time this incident is discussed this season.

Highlanders confirm mercurial existence

So here's a strange confession; I love watching the Highlanders play. I wouldn't go as far as saying they're my New Zealand team of choice, but I just love watching them play. I think I would actually quite hate supporting them week-to-week, though. I don't think I'd have the required patience.

And it must take a lot of patience, I'd imagine, having them as your team. Their squad's not exactly chock full of superstars, but they've got more than a few gun players in some key positions, and on their day, they're as good as any team in Super Rugby. The problem is, when it's not their day, it's often not pretty.

The Highlanders held on for a deserved 27-20 victory over the Bulls (video in Australia only)
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So when the Highlanders and Bulls came off at 13-13 on Friday night, I'd imagine there was a few nerves around the bottom half of the south island. The Bulls had started well, but the Highlanders had leveled things pretty comfortably. But the Highlanders have blown situations similar to this before, and against worse teams than the Bulls, too.

But in the space of eleven Malakai Fekitoa-inspired minutes, the match was done. Fekitoa - and don't the Kiwi commentators just love pronouncing every syllable! - was sensational after the break, and with a couple of shimmies here, and a few fancy steps there, was almost toying with the Bulls defence at times.

He's one for the future, Fekitoa, definitely one to watch. And so is 'first-five' Lima Sopoaga, for that matter. For a guy really only playing his first full season of Super Rugby, Sopoaga is playing with vision and poise well beyond his years.

Folau situation can only get messier

If we're watching this space on the Quirk-Moore incident, then the Israel Folau stoush between the Waratahs and the ARU medicos has a fair bit left to run, too. It's fair to say there won't be any mutual agreement on this one, certainly not any time soon.

Folau told Fox Sports in the lead-up to the Force-Waratahs match that he was close to playing the previous week in Cape Town, and having come through a contact session in Perth last week, felt he was right to go on Saturday night. Being given the green light to play by the Waratahs doctor, as well as a throat specialist in Perth, gave Folau the confidence he needed.

Then the ARU stepped in late on Friday, with ARU Chief Medical Officer Dr Warren McDonald citing "a player welfare issue" in ruling Folau out.

Folau and the Waratahs were bemused by the fact the player himself was not spoken to by the ARU medical staff prior to making their ruling. Dr McDonald is said to have consulted Folau's specialist in Perth, as well as taking a second specialist opinion in making the decision, but it's unclear if the Waratahs medicos were involved.

Western Force's defence paved the way for their victory in Perth (video in Australia only)
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Wallabies' coach Ewen McKenzie told Fox Sports post-match on Saturday that the decision was made in accordance to injury management processes, and was adamant the risk of further injury was real. As employers and coach, the ARU and McKenzie are clearly looking at the bigger picture.

And that might be fair enough, but would the same decision have been made in the middle of the France series in June, or the week before the Super Rugby finals, or even the night before the first Bledisloe in August?

Another can opened, and yet more worms everywhere.

'Star Wars' game takes on great significance

Consider this: on Good Friday night, the Australian conference could have a new leader.

With the Brumbies having their first bye of the season over the Easter weekend, and with the Western Force only three points behind them in second spot on the conference ladder, a win over the Rebels will propel the Western Australians to the top of the conference.

Likewise, a Rebels win this most eagerly-anticipated 'Star Wars' games - because the Rebels take on the Force (think about it) - could see the Victorians join the group on the fringe of the top six.

Certainly, all the momentum is with the Western Force, and with good reason. After starting the season less than well, they've stormed into fourth place on the Super Rugby table on the back of some outstanding defence and an amazing amount of self-belief.

The Chiefs held on in Hamilton despite a determined Melbourne comeback (video in Australia only)
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And for that, a lot of credit must go the way of Head Coach Michael Foley. The decision to bring in noted defence guru Dave Wessels last year, and then bringing him on fulltime this season has been a masterstroke. Foley himself appears to be relishing the environment in Perth, too, and is clearly enjoying getting on with his job with so many sets of eyes looking over his shoulder.

More importantly, the players are playing for him. A lot's been said about 'the top 2%' regarding the Force playing group, and there's little doubt that attitude can be the intangible difference between top teams and those stuck mid-table (or worse, of course).

Whatever it is, it's working a treat for the Western Force, and full credit to the whole organisation.

Ye of little faith: the Crusaders are back

It was only a little over a month ago that I asked the same questions about the Crusaders that everyone was thinking at the time. They'd lost games they would've won in previous years, and the wins they had managed were far from convincing. In the middle of it all I wrote, "it's fair to say a lot of improvement is needed from them to recapture form."

Well, let the records show that with nine of a possible ten points available to them in South Africa, the Crusaders are back.

The six-try-to-four come-from-behind win in Bloemfontein over the disappointing Cheetahs rocketed them from 12th on the Super Rugby standings up to 7th, and a win in Hamilton this Saturday could have them within just a few points on the NZ conference-leading Chiefs.

Crusaders found their attacking brilliance and ran in six tries in a high scoring match (available in Australia Only)
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The selection instability that plagued them in the first month of the competition looks to have evaporated, the combinations are returning, and just as importantly, the goal-kicking yips appear to have been resolved.

The win over the Cheetahs had all the classic Crusaders hallmarks throughout: the tough defence, unrelenting breakdown work, the dangerous counter attack, and the patience to wait for, and then immediately capitalise on opposition mistakes.

They'll take on the three conference leaders over the next month, and on current form, all three will have to play superbly well to take the four points on offer each week.

Bonus point: a well-deserved wrap

We're all too quick to give it to referees when they get something even remotely wrong, and so it's only fair Angus Gardner gets a wrap for a really good display in Perth on Saturday night. In a brutal match, I was particularly impressed with the way he kept the game moving in the second half, as the bodies tired.

On numerous occasions he hurried the players from both sides up at scrum time, and he also put trainers on notice, too, telling them to either replace the player they were treating, or the game would continue without him. And wouldn't you know it, the 'injured' player was miraculously healed and continued to play each time.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

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