Foxtel’s
commentators during the WA Force v ACT Brumbies match quite reasonably said
something about the match being club rugby standard, while the Queensland Reds’
lineout against NSW Waratahs would be an embarrassment to a club third-grade
side, but by cripes, there was some good stuff in the two local derbies to
start the Super 14.

For
the disinterested observer, there was much better rugby on offer in the Kiwi
and South African matches, but Australian fans were given plenty to worry about
and hope for. Wayne Smith in The Oz
has the best overall summary of the two games and separately nails the stand-out good news for Wallaby supporters: the discovery of a good
aggressive half-back.

The
forecast battle of the halves in Perth turned out
to be a non-event. George Gregan was the usual solid George Gregan, but Matt
Henjak didn’t look anything like a Wallaby tourist, let alone heir apparent.
The star halfback was running around for the Reds in Brisbane, 29-year-old Sam
Cordingly, lured back after three years playing in Europe. If he
maintains Saturday night’s form, the gold number 9 jersey is his.

The
losing Reds had more good news for Australia’s World Cup
hopes: “Rodzilla” Blake and Berrick Barnes. The giant prop did enough to give
notice that the Australian scrum can rise again while underlining Matt
Dunning’s limits. It could be telling that Dunning was replaced relatively
early in the second half and not missed.

Teenager
Barnes should be Bernie Larkham’s understudy this year and ready for more in
2007 if the old master suffers yet more injuries. In Perth, Larkham showed he
remains the most valuable Wallaby, but with Barnes’s promise and Elton Flatley
on the mend, there are plan B and C options.

The
bad news for Australian rugby is that our only hope for a Super 14 semi-final
appearance – the Waratahs – were pedestrian. Once Queensland lost
Cordingly, Flatley and Huxley, the Reds backline was a collection of headless
chooks, but the much-hyped Waratahs only just managed an unconvincing 16-12 win
in the final 13 minutes.

The
best spin the SMH
can put on it was that NSW performed well at the breakdown. I think that’s
called damning with faint praise.

Before
anyone reaches for the “first game” excuse, compare the local standard with the
Crusaders’ demonstration of mastery or the thrilling Blues v Hurricanes
performance. It will be another good year for the NZ Rugby trophy cabinet.

Peter Fray

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