Terrific Tahs prove Super Rugby AU has an edge over Aotearoa

Sydney -- There was a yarn, a tad tongue-in-cheek, doing the rounds in Australian rugby this week that Super Rugby AU may in fact be a better competition than the tournament being played on the other side of the Tasman.

It inspired an angry response from a rabid New Zealand rugby community, most of whom had failed to listen to the actual discussion itself and what were seemingly valid points when it comes to the structure of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

On Sunday afternoon, in all likelihood, the Crusaders will wrap up the Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a victory over the Highlanders, rendering next week's final round irrelevant. There is no final series.

The 10-time Super Rugby champions have, but for a small hiccup at home to the Hurricanes, largely looked like Aotearoa winners since Round 2 in mid-June.

As of Saturday night, after the Waratahs obliterated the Reds 45-12, the question as to whom might walk away with the Super Rugby AU trophy - after a two-week final series -- in late September, in no way has an obvious answer.

For just 24 hours after the Rebels had stunned the previously unbeaten Brumbies 30-12, the Waratahs produced arguably their finest rugby since the lofty heights of Michael Cheika's second season in charge, when they were crowned Super Rugby champions, in a scintillating first-half performance that would have had the small SCG crowd standing on their seats, if only they had been allowed to be.

A hat-trick to Jake Gordon inside 27 minutes and further five-pointers to Jack Maddocks and Alex Newsome, coupled with a flawless kicking display from fly-half Will Harrison, had the Waratahs up 38-0 at halftime.

A chip-and-chase-and-regather effort from James Ramm probably supplied the pick of the five-pointers, the winger scooping up his own kick and then offloading to Karmichael Hunt who in turn found Gordon to complete a stunningly skillful sequence.

Completely shell-shocked, the Reds simply had no response to NSW's mix of speed, daring and quality finishing, the latter reflected in Alex Newsome's acrobatic effort in the corner in the 35th minute. NRL wingers often draw the plaudits for high-flying, body-contorting tries next to the corner post, but Newsome's was as good as any rugby league effort this year.

"First half, the consistency was the issue, we'd do one thing good and then we'd drop a pretty easy pass or then we'd lose a lineout," Reds captain Liam Wright said of his side's lacklustre first 40. "We had a pretty good week of prep ... but they just came out with more fire than us in that first half."

Unfortunately, the heavens opened up on the stroke of halftime and wouldn't stop for much of the second stanza. What had been a relatively level-headed derby to that point also started to boil over after the break, though Jack Dempsey's wedgie [the art of lifting another's underpants skyward] was more kindergarten schoolyard bully than junkyard dog.

The Tahs' sixth try might not have had the same entertainment factor as their first-half efforts, but the lineout drive is a classic wet-weather play and one that gave hooker Tom Horton a well-deserved reward for a fine 57-minute performance.

The Reds eventually got themselves on the scoresheet after Jack Maddocks fumbled a cross kick and Jack Hardy - who was a late replacement for the grieving Jordan Petaia following the sudden death of the star Wallabies rookie's father - was there to scoop up the crumbs in the 54th minute.

The game somewhat fizzled out from there as handling became increasingly difficult in the trying conditions; the Waratahs had two tries disallowed by the Television Match Official, while the Reds added a five-pointer after fulltime through James O'Connor.

But it did little else other than ensure they wouldn't suffer their worst ever defeat by the Waratahs.

The 45-12 victory means the Waratahs move above the Reds and into third on the Super Rugby AU ladder via a better for-and-against, with games against the Rebels, Force and Brumbies to come.

But the other added joker that Super Rugby AU has up its sleeve is the neutral venues forced upon it by Australia's various state border restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Rebels and Force have had to move their home games out of Victoria and Western Australia respectively, meaning the Waratahs do not face trips to Melbourne and Perth, instead traveling to the Gold Coast to play the Force and then likely meeting the Rebels in Sydney in what is virtually an extra home game.

And so the scale of Saturday night's win cannot be understated, both for the size of the margin and the way it has further shaken up the competition in the opening week of its second block of home-and-away fixtures.

Barring a massive upset in Christchurch, Super Rugby Aotearoa will fizzle out on Sunday afternoon. It has been a wonderful competition full of supremely skillful execution and brutal physicality, played before adoring crowds that have showed no signs of slumping. It has been a brilliant tournament.

But it has also lacked something that Super Rugby AU has, particularly after this weekend's games, in spades: Suspense.

"I think so, that was a big performance by the [Rebels] last night," stand-in Waratahs skipper Michael Hooper said when asked about whether the Super Rugby AU title was anyone's to win. "And the Reds almost knocked off the Brumbies last week, probably should [have], and this was always going to happen - the Australian comp was always going to, as it gets to the pointy end, it's going to be tight.

"So [I am] pleased that we got five points there tonight because we needed every one of them. There's still three big matches for us to go ... I think the comp's looking really good and now you're starting to see some really good skills in the Aussie teams and some different styles of rugby, which is exciting."

It may have taken a few weeks to get going and perhaps fails to match Super Rugby Aotearoa for entertainment and intensity, but just like almost every position in Dave Rennie's maiden Wallabies side, the Australian competition is well and truly up for grabs.

And there is nothing tongue-in-cheek about that.