Super Rugby Trans-Tasman gets early finals feel as Reds fly flag for Australia

It is only the second round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, but Saturday’s game between the Reds and Crusaders – the respective Australian and New Zealand title winners – already has a finals feel to it.

The Reds won the Super Rugby AU title earlier this month, while the Crusaders lifted the Super Rugby Aotearoa trophy. The trans-Tasman competition joins those two series together, but there can only be one champion. National pride will be on the line at Suncorp Stadium as the best of each nation play in one of the most important games of the regular season.

In last week’s opening round the Reds were beaten 40-19 by the Highlanders in Dunedin, while the Crusaders withstood a comeback by the Brumbies to prevail 31-29 in Christchurch. The limited form guide suggests the Crusaders are strong favourites in Brisbane, but the Reds are always some sort of chance, playing at home in front of a big crowd, even if they have not beaten them since the 2011 Super Rugby final.

It was difficult to assess the opening round of the trans-Tasman competition as it came straight off the back of the Australian and New Zealand series. There should have been at least a week’s break between the two domestic competitions and the amalgamated series to allow players to recover and prepare properly for the new venture.

The Reds and the Crusaders were celebrating their domestic grand final wins over the Brumbies and the Chiefs respectively and did not field their strongest teams in the opening round, resting some players and nursing others. Whether a full-strength Reds would have beaten the Highlanders is debatable, but Queensland certainly would have been far more competitive.

In many ways the opening round was like a mini pre-season. Perhaps that helps to explain the Hurricanes’ ridiculous 64-48 win against the NSW Waratahs at the SCG in what was more like an exhibition match than a genuine Super Rugby contest.

The Australian teams produced a 0-5 win-loss record against the Kiwis in the opening round. For the most part, the skill, pace and physicality of the New Zealanders were at a different level. What chance do any of the Australian sides have of winning in round two?

The Melbourne Rebels are playing the fifth-best New Zealand team, the Hurricanes, in Wellington on Friday night, but you would not have much confidence in them after their 50-3 loss to the Blues in Melbourne last Saturday night.

The Western Force would have upset the Chiefs in Perth last Saturday if Argentine five-eighth Domingo Miotti converted his own try after the siren, but how much could you read into the Chiefs’ performance after backing up from playing in a final? It may well be that the Force’s match with the Highlanders in Perth on Friday night is a tougher assignment than the Chiefs.

If the Hurricanes could put 64 points on the Waratahs in Sydney, what will the Blues do to NSW at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday afternoon? The Blues played uncharacteristically conservatively in the first-half against the Rebels, kicking for field position rather than counter-attacking.

It was only after the Blues scored a try in the 41st minute after a scintillating, multi-pass attacking movement that they reverted to their normal game and cut the Rebels to pieces in the second-half. If the Blues go out with an attacking mindset from the opening whistle, the Waratahs could be looking at another shellacking unless they apply themselves defensively.

Perhaps the Brumbies will be Australia’s best chance when they play the Chiefs in the battle of the domestic competition runners-up in Hamilton on Saturday night. If five-eighth Noah Lolesio converted Rob Valetini’s try at the end of the game, the Brumbies would have drawn with the Crusaders, giving the ACT side a massive boost.

As it turned out, it was another close loss for the Brumbies, who lost three times to the Reds by narrow margins in Super Rugby AU, including the final. Still, their highly-disciplined and controlled style of play may be the perfect foil for the Kiwis’ penchant for counter-attack and broken field play. But the Chiefs will be better for last weekend’s outing and they will be playing at home with cow-bells ringing in the Brumbies’ ears.

It might be left to the Reds to try to raise the Australian flag in the final game of the round. They can be a brilliant attacking team, but they are prone to handling errors. None of the other Australian teams were capable of exploiting this glaring weakness in Queensland’s game, but the Crusaders will feast on any mistakes.

Another weekend without a win would be hard to take, increasing the chances of no Australian side winning a match against New Zealand opposition in the trans-Tasman competition. Australia can produce its own champion, but teams on this side of the ditch must start to beat the Kiwis regularly to regain credibility.

If not, Rugby Australia will have to face the unpalatable fact that Australia lacks sufficient depth to support five Super Rugby teams, and will need to do something about it.