Super Rugby trans-Tasman has quickly got away from the Australian sides, with none now capable of reaching the four-win benchmark that most pundits believe will be the minimum requirement to finish in the top two.
As it currently stands, with the five New Zealand teams unbeaten after two rounds, four wins may not be enough. Bonus points will almost certainly be a determining factor.
But none of that really matters for the Australian sides now, who will be using the last three rounds of the competition to build respect and even save a bit of face.
Simply put, the Australian focus now is to win a game.
Having played their first two games in Perth, the Western Force will complete the series with three games in New Zealand, starting with the Hurricanes in Napier on Friday night.
The Hurricanes have scored the most tries in trans-Tasman so far, but they’ve also conceded the most tries of the Kiwi sides. They similarly conceded the second-most tries in Super Rugby Aotearoa. The Force see this as a big opportunity.
“We want to play with a bit of width, and really spread those boys around. I feel like we do have the quality within the side, and the skillset required to play that really expansive and exciting rugby,” Force skipper Kyle Godwin said from Napier on Thursday.
“Obviously, we’ve got to be clinical at times and make sure we’re playing in the right positions, but I feel like the team is moving in the right direction and we’re working out when is the right time to play and when is the right time to find some field position.
“We know we’ve got to back our defence to go up another level, as well.”
Godwin said the pressure was on their Kiwi opponents.
The NSW Waratahs face hosting the high-flying Crusaders in Wollongong on Saturday afternoon, fresh from their nine-try thumping of the Queensland Reds last weekend in Brisbane.
But rather than feel daunted, Waratahs hooker Dave Porecki said they’re embracing the prospect.
“Being in a growing environment and developing, to test yourself against arguably one of the best teams in the world is an exciting opportunity for us, to fire some shots and see where it lands,” he said this week.
The ‘Tahs conceded 15 turnovers and missed 26 tackles against the Blues last week, and Porecki said it’s a pretty simple lesson to learn ahead of the Crusaders.
“When you’re playing these New Zealand teams, they thrive off turnover ball. They got a lot of turnover off set pieces, and they got a lot of turnover off general phase when we couldn’t hold onto possession,” Porecki said.
The Brumbies say a passive contact area was where they let themselves down last weekend, as they now turn their attention to the Blues in Auckland on Saturday evening.
“We weren’t too happy with our physicality and our intent in the Chiefs game. We thought we trained and prepared exceptionally well, it was probably one of our better weeks, but then come Saturday, we just didn’t front up,” Brumbies backrower Tom Cusack said from Auckland.
“The mindset is something we’ve touched on throughout this week, and we’re looking to put on a full 80-minute Brumbies performance.”
After averaging more than four-and-a-half tries a game through the Australian competition, the Brumbies have found just seven in their past two games.
Cusack said the Brumbies were eyeing attack as the best form of defence against the Blues, as they look to prove they’re a better side than recent weeks have indicated.
“We’re looking to rectify that and put our best performance out there, play some free-flowing rugby. Although it might be a bit wet, we’ll be looking to play an expansive style with a lot of enjoyment.”
The Reds believe their failure to adapt marred their opening trans-Tasman games, something they’ll need to address quickly before hosting the Chiefs in Townsville on Saturday night.
“We are leaving ourselves a bit short,” Queensland fullback Bryce Hegarty said.
“The game is faster, everyone can probably see that; how it’s being refereed and played is that quicker sort of game, which is really good, but we’ve let them take the lead on that, rather than us adapting to it.”
Hegarty said the Reds had found the first two rounds tough going after all the energy they put into winning Super Rugby AU, and the emotion that win consumed.
The Melbourne Rebels face a fluid situation. Having played last Friday in Wellington, and not playing the Highlanders in Queenstown until Sunday, the Rebels elected to return to Melbourne this week. They issued a statement late on Wednesday advising they would base themselves in Sydney, with the intention to travel directly to Queenstown on Saturday so that Sunday’s match can be played as scheduled.
In the worst-case scenario, points would be split if the game cannot be played, in line with precedents.
Super Rugby trans-Tasman – Round 3 (all times AEST)
Hurricanes v Force, Napier 1705
Waratahs v Crusaders, Wollongong 1505
Blues v Brumbies, Auckland 1715
Reds v Chiefs, Townsville 1945
Highlanders v Rebels, Queenstown 1235* (still TBC)