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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
Horwill, Reds 'in mind-blowing, jaw-dropping denial'
Brett McKay
May 19, 2014
Podcast: Andy Withers and Brett McKay discuss the talking points from Super Rugby round 14

Super Rugby Round 14 left many of us with an ordinary round of tips, and a busy week for the judiciary members, video analysts, and lawyers. We had foul play, a 10-year drought broken, and controversy in Brisbane. But there was also some pretty decent rugby along the way, giving us yet another weekend from which there are many more than five talking points.

Regardless, here are the talking points from the weekend. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

The Australian-ish New Zealand derby

One of the common and critical comparisons of Australian and New Zealand derbies has always been how the Australian teams tend to play in a more introverted manor against each other, as opposed to their New Zealand counterparts. And in most cases, it's probably fair. For whatever reason, the Australian derbies have often been tight and torrid affairs.

Hurricanes 16-18 Highlanders (Australia only)
%]

Yet, watching the Hurricanes-Highlanders derby on Friday night, the only word I could think to describe it was "Australian". It was the most un-New Zealand New Zealand derby game in as long as I can remember.

Both sides kicked more than they did against foreign opponents the previous week, and both sides took five shots at penalty goal - which is a tad high for all-Kiwi games this season. Expansive ambitions were shelved for good, old fashioned up-the-guts graft.

I suspect we might see a few more of these tighter affairs over the ditch in the remaining rounds. The New Zealand conference has already had four different leaders this season, and with just four points separating the top four sides (and the Blues are only six points further back again) and a round of local derbies to come, there is much at stake as they battle to take points off each other. I suspect winning will take more and more precedent over style over the remaining derby games.

Inspired Sharks break Christchurch drought

Jake White talked to his young Brumbies last season about "making history" by beating the British & Irish Lions, and so there was a nice synergy to that moment last weekend when White again spoke in the bowels of Canberra Stadium of his side looking to make history.

Crusaders 25-30 Sharks (Australia only)
%]

His side is now the Sharks, of course, and the history he was referring to was the Crusaders not having lost at home to Australian or South Africa opposition in 50 outings dating back to round one, 2004. It was a sequence bookended by wins over the Brumbies, ironically, and included two finals, two semi-finals, and also three elimination finals in the past three years.

His Sharks retained top spot on the Super Rugby standings after pulling off one of the more against-the-odds wins in recent memory, beating the Crusaders - in Christchurch - despite playing for 64 minutes with 14 men, after flanker Jean Deysel was red-carded, and another 10 minutes with 13, after No.8 Willem Alberts was yellow-carded,

Milestones for Springboks props Jannie du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira helped keep the Sharks' mind on the task, and both were instrumental in bringing down the heralded Crusaders' eight.

If the Sharks hold the three-legged spaceship cup on the first Saturday night in August, you can be assured they will look back on this win as a significant point in their season.

...but Deysel heads a busy week for the judiciary

Just when you could've been forgiven for thinking the easiest job in rugby was to sit on the SANZAR judiciary, suddenly they look to be in for their busiest week this season. Both Deysel and the Reds' Ed O'Donoghue received red cards for acts of foul play in their respective matches, and both have been handed to SANZAR duty judicial officer Nicholas Davidson, QC, for consideration in the first instance. No further citing action was taken from the weekend, despite much online and social media commentary around Rebels' captain Scott Higginbotham's actions immediately before O'Donoghue's alleged gouge.

It's fair to say that both Deysel and O'Donoghue are probably expecting a lengthy spell on the sidelines, with their ability to play Super Rugby again this season dependant on the prior records and judgements of intent. Certainly, precedents suggest as much.

 
"If coaches really want the use of the TMO curtailed then they and the TV pundits must agree to stop post-match witch-hunts of referees." Former England prop Jeff Probyn
 

Ospreys and Wales lock Ian Evans was banned for 12 weeks after a red card for a stamping incident in a match against Leinster, which ruled him out of this year's Six Nations tournament. But then Wallabies captain James Horwill famously escaped sanction after an incident during the first Test against the Lions last season, and after the International Rugby Board appealed against its own verdict after the second Test.

Eye-gouging cases in recent years include Stormers flanker Schalk Burger, who was ousted for eight weeks in 2009, while Italy hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini was banned for 15 weeks during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

At the extreme end of the scale, Stade Francais players Julien Dupuy and David Attoub were suspended for 24 and 70 weeks, respectively, for separate gouging incidents on Ulster and Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris in a Heineken Cup match in 2009.

Horwill comments reflect the Reds' season

I wrote this heading straight after the Queensland Reds-Melbourne Rebels game on Saturday night, but made myself sleep on it to ensure I still felt as strongly a day later. And I did.

Reds 27-30 Rebels (Australia only)
%]

For James Horwill, as Queensland Reds captain, to tell Fox Sports' Nathan Sharpe post-match, "The performance was gutsy; we did some good things, we did some bad things. In the end, we were - once again - robbed by a stupid refereeing decision" was mind-blowingly, jaw-droppingly astounding for the depth of denial his team seems to be in.

And it wasn't just Horwill.

Besieged coach Richard Graham told ABC Grandstand's Luke Pentony immediately after the match, "I'm angry about it, because it's not a red card offence ... I think anyone that watched it saw [O'Donoghue] grab his nose and maybe give it a squeeze. Go and have a look at Higginbotham now mate, [there's] not a scratch on his face."

They both followed up in the press conference, too, with Graham again insisting O'Donoghue had only given Rebels captain Scott Higginbotham's nose a bit of a massage. Horwill focussed on the TMO's insistence at going back to review the foul play incident in terms of it ruining the spectacle of the game.

Nothing of the Reds' 15 turnovers conceded to the Rebels' nine, or the 17 missed tackles to seven, though.

And we can only presume the spectacle of the game remained unaffected by the Reds' defence leaking 10 clean breaks to the Rebels' four, or the 17 Queensland defenders beaten to seven, or the 24 Rebels' offloads to just five.

No, instead, the spectacle was ruined - and the Reds were denied a result - by a television match official sensing he'd seen possible foul play while reviewing another incident, and insisting to Steve Walsh at the next break in play that they go back and review the incident.

Incredible!

The Reds lay the blame not on the moment of madness from O'Donoghue, but on the fact he was caught. In terms of remorse levels, it's up there with the kid with his arm still stuck in the biscuit tin.

And that whole episode says so much about the Reds' season. After being heavily penalised at the breakdown, and especially in South Africa, rather than address the problem, the Reds have backed away from this crucial part of the game. Next to no breakdown presence has also flowed into a sieve-like defensive structure, with the Reds conceding the second-highest number of tries in the competition.

It was only after their round 13 loss to the Crusaders that Graham conceded their finals hopes were dashed. And that was a week after even their mathematical chances had evaporated. The contradiction of reality and misguided defiance has been as staggering as the belief with which it has been delivered.

They're now running dead last, and the pity for Reds fans is that the season has a way to run yet. This year seems an eternity longer than just three seasons ago.

Cooper injury the eraser to McKenzie's selection whiteboard

Ewen McKenzie probably thought he had his Wallabies side pretty well locked down coming into this weekend just gone, and ahead of his squad announcement on Thursday. But when Reds fly-half Quade Cooper went off with a shoulder problem in the eighth minute of the game against the Rebels - later diagnosed as an AC joint injury - McKenzie's plans began quickly unravelling.

Ruck'n Maul: Who will be in the Wallabies?
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With Cooper out, the immediate option at fly-half would look to be Brumbies No.10 Matt Toomua. But in shuffling Toomua in one spot from where he excelled on the end-of-year tour last November, you might actually be closing off even more options at inside centre.

The decision to move Toomua would mean looking either at his Brumbies team-mate Christian Leali'ifano, or the Waratahs' Kurtley Beale. Both would bring the goal-kicking cover also needed now with Cooper out, but neither has really been in the most consistent of form. And Leali'ifano, goal-kicking wise, is a long way short of the 80%-plus sharp-shooter he was in 2013, too.

Alternatively, McKenzie might look for a whole new game plan and bring in a straight-running player such as Pat McCabe, or even the Rebels' Mitch Inman. Adam Ashley-Cooper might even be a smokey to move in one spot from the outside centre position in which he's been playing very well for the Waratahs.

Playing Toomua at 10 might also then put pressure on Will Genia to hold his place, as Toomua's Brumbies combination with Nic White might be preferred. But Genia is also a candidate for the Wallabies captaincy - as would have been Cooper, given he was vice-captain to Ben Mowen in Europe.

So Cooper's injury has implications for up to four backline positions and the Wallabies captaincy, which in turn may affect selections at hooker, lock, and the back-row.

And this all just when the phone calls were due to start ...


Join the conversation via the comments below or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

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