Crusaders Reign Continues over the Waratahs. By Mark Ella

After questioning the Waratahs commitment over the last few weeks they almost made me eat my words before faltering at the end to go down to a fabulous Crusaders side in Sydney this weekend 37-33. But it wasn't that big a surprise when you consider that the Waratahs have failed to finish ahead of the Crusaders over their last ten Super Rugby outings and once again the Crusaders composure under pressure won in the end. Again the Waratahs started well when Waratahs winger Atieli Pakalani put the first points on the board after eleven minutes of play and for much of the first half the Waratahs went head to head with the Crusaders. It was a tight match all the way with the score rotating every minute of the game particularly for Waratahs half back Brendan McKibbin who keep the Tah's in the match with his impeccable goal kicking. But the Man of the Match rightly went to Crusaders centre Robbie Fruean who scored two sensational tries and caused the Waratahs havoc every time he touched the football. It was always going to be a big challenge for the Waratahs whose performances over recent weeks has been adequate without being exciting and they were under the pump to keep up with the fast paced Kiwi's. A crowd of over thirty thousand turned up to watch the match played on a cool afternoon in perfect conditions and it is hard to imagine the Waratahs getting a better opportunity to defeat their Kiwi foes. The Waratahs forwards troubled the Crusaders at times with Wallabies No.8 Wycliffe Palu scoring the Waratahs second try just after half time to keep the pressure on the Crusaders who were always dangerous every time they had the ball in hand. With the game teetering Fruean put on his dancing shoes and somehow managed to keep in the field play when he scampered down the left side without putting a foot into touch to give the Crusaders an important eleven point margin. But the Waratahs kept in the race when in defense the Crusaders scrum spat out the football on their feed to give Waratahs replacement halfback Sarel Pretorius a free run to the line on the 74th minute to make it a tight finish. By this time the Crusaders had rolled out their big gun with All Blacks captain Ritchie McCaw finally making a long awaited comeback to rugby and he looked like he enjoyed getting a feel of the football after many months of rest. All Blacks five eight Daniel Carter who is playing at No.12 had a quiet game by his high standards but perhaps he was overshadowed by the sublime performance of Fruean who dominated the mid-field. Crusaders five eighth Tom Taylor is enjoying playing along side of some fantastic players like Carter and Fruean not to mention that he kicked 7 out of 8 attempts at goal against the  Waratahs helping the Crusaders continue to build momentum winning five of their last six games. The Crusaders managed to sure a bonus point with tries also to wingers Zac Guildford and Adam Whitelock in a highly entertaining match that keep the fans on the edge of their seats. For the Waratahs it now puts their season on the brink and they will do it tough in Canberra next week when they meet the Brumbies who are leading the Australian conference. By the time their long list of injured players start to get on the field their season might just about be over and even though it was a much better performance last Sunday coming second doesn't count for much. The Crusaders on the other hand are building nicely and with only eight match left before the Super Rugby finals they are shaping up as one of the teams to beat which shouldn't surprise any one on either side of the globe. Mark Ella


Crusaders meet the Hurricanes head on to win Easily.By Mark Ella

Last year the Crusaders made it to the Super Rugby finals against the Queensland Reds without playing a game at home after the devastating earthquake in Christchurch in the Canterbury region of New Zealand. They have won more Super Rugby trophies than any other team and the way they played against a desperate Hurricanes side on the weekend it looks like they are just starting to hit their straps. Every professional team in world sport knows the importance of winning at home and what a bonus it is to win away and that is what the Crusaders have been doing for years now because great teams can rise to the occasion all the time and not just every second week. After a slow start to their Super Rugby season there are ominous signs ahead for the Crusaders opponents starting with the Waratahs next weekend in Sydney. I expected a close contest between the two leading New Zealand provinces but after the first 36 minutes the Crusaders were leading the Hurricanes in Wellington by a massive 32-0. The Hurricanes playing is front of their home crowd were doing their best and not taking a step backwards against their more fancied neighbors but the Crusaders simply had too much grunt up front with their forwards dominating the game and too much speed out wide. All Blacks great Daniel Carter had been moved to inside centre to accommodate another rising No.10 Tom Taylor who played like a veteran and kicked seven goals out of nine attempts in an effort that we expect from Carter himself. It is amazing just how the Crusaders can continually breed their next generation of champions who of course play a big role in the structure of the All Blacks and young Taylor will get his opportunity soon. After scoring four tries in the first half to secure an early bonus point, including one to Carter playing in his 100th Super Rugby match, the game was over after the first 40 minutes. To their credit the Hurricanes didn't lie down and attempted to play positive attacking rugby at all times as was displayed when full back Andre Taylor gave his team some remote hope when he slipped around a couple of Crusaders players to score in the right corner on the bell of half time. They also scored the first try in the second half when All Blacks No. 8 Victor Vito crossed the line but the Crusaders put the final nail in the coffin when full back Israel Dagg put the game beyond question when he scored in the 62nd minutes. The Crusaders are littered with All Blacks both in the forwards and throughout the three-quarters with the likes of Andy Ellis, Carter, Robbie Fruean and Zac Guildford taking every opportunity to make the most from turnover ball by spreading the ball wide to willing runners. After watching a rather dull and unimaginative Waratahs side defeat the Rebels in Sydney 30-21 last weekend it will be a welcomed change to have a quality team like the Crusaders in town to show us rugby fans just what we are missing out on every weekend. Apart from the Brumbies who played with passion and commitment against the Bulls in South Africa, AustralIan rugby's other four Super Rugby franchises are way off the pace and doing their best to turn rugby fans off the code. New Zealand teams on the other hand like the Highlanders, Chiefs and particularly the  Crusaders are playing with so much flair and adventure that they are a pleasure to watch. And I am not the one to want the Crusaders to defeat the team I played all my rugby with when I was a bit younger but a thorough shellacking by the Kiwi's over the Waratahs may make them realise just what it takes to earn a Super Rugby title.


Waratahs finally give their fans something to cheer about. By Mark Ella

  Finally the Waratahs have responded to the harsh criticism they received last weekend when they went down to the Force 20-21 by bouncing back last Saturday and defeating the Sharks 34-30 in a hard fought entertaining match in Sydney. The word entertaining normally doesn't sit well with the Waratahs who over the years have done their best to disengage their fans fans by playing dull rugby based on kicking rather then ball in hand. Playing on a glorious Sydney afternoon for a change the Waratahs had to play at their best to defeat the ravenous Sharks whose big forwards were always going to test the mettle of the Tah's pack led by new captain prop Benn Robinson. So far this year there has been a lack of soul within the Waratahs but on the weekend they played like men possessed to finally give their much maligned fans something to cheer about. But as expected it was a tough match which went to the wire with young Waratahs winger Tom Kingston scoring the match winning try in the 76th minute in the right corner with five eighth Berrick Barnes converting from the sideline. Up until this game the Waratahs have been lethargic and lacking in creativity not too mention team work, self belief and few other rugby isms that can't be printed but under he enormous pressure from fans and critics they managed to play with aplomb and finish the match as deserved winners. The move by Waratahs coach Michael Foley to start Brendan McKibbon at No.9 in the place of Sarel Pretorius was a master stroke because the young half back played with enthusiasm which inspired his team-mates. Apart from scoring the teams first try, McKibbon also kicked three penalties and two conversions which wasn't a bad effort for the youngster starting in his first run on game for the Waratahs in what was a crucial match for both sides. After trailing the Sharks 7-0 when winger Lwazi Mvovo scored in the 3rd minute the Waratahs snapped into action to hold the aggressive Sharks at bay and it took 22 minutes for McKibbon to respond when he dived across the line under the posts to put the Waratahs back in the game to draw equal with their opponents 10 all. With the Sharks holding the upper hand at half time leading by a four point margin 17-13 the game was up for grabs and the second half was just as exciting with the lead continually fluctuating both ways.  What impressed me most about the Waratahs was their ball control throughout the match and they always threatened the Sharks from every part of the field making easy yards through the direct approach by their forwards. With Berrick Barnes back in control at No.10 and the robust Tom Carter taking the ball up at inside centre the Waratahs three-quarters played with much more fluency that I have seen from them so far his year. Their 34-30 victory over the Sharks could not have come at a better time for the Waratahs who fly to New Zealand this weekend to take on the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton. Any game against our Kiwi neighbors isn't easy but I hope the Waratahs understand what it takes to secure victory. Playing with passion and commitment is always a good start but sticking to the game plan for the entire eighty minutes will also help their cause. The Waratahs are not an easy team to follow and they continually give cause for their fans to believe that they will never win a Super Rugby title but every now and again they just do enough to revive the spirit that keeps us watching with interest in the hope that they play like they did against the Sharks on the weekend.   Mark Ella  


Stormers Give Auckland The Blues. By Mark Ella

When All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Piri Weepu moved from the Hurricanes to the Auckland this season everyone had high hopes that the Blues would be serious contenders for this years Super Rugby crown. But surprisingly their only victory after four Rounds of the competition has been against the Bulls two weeks ago when they won convincingly at Loftus Versfeld 29-23 but otherwise the start to their season is seriously misfiring. Last weekend at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town it was always going to be a struggle against the Stormers but there was hope that if they could string two tough wins together their season would some how all come together. The Blues again let themselves down by making far too many mistakes and even though they had an even share of possession and territory in the first half, they trailed the Stormers 17-3 at half time. New Zealand teams are noted for their patience but they lost the football at the point of contact far too often and the Stormers took advantage of every mistake they made. After allowing Stormers fullback Joe Pietersen to kick two easy penalties the South Africans first try came after fourteen minutes when Springbok winger Bryan Habana followed up a kick before pouncing on a loose ball to stretch his arm across the try line. Thirteen minutes later the Blues finally a put points on the scoreboard when fullback Lachie Munroe kicked a penalty but they never really got close to the Stormers who controlled most of the match. The Stormers had the run of play and their five Springbok three-quarters Juan de Jongh, Gio Aplon, Jean De Villiers, Peter Grant and Habana kept the pressure on the Blues whose handling errors made life easier for the Stormers. The Blues also didn't do themselves any favors when they conceded seven penalties in the first half due to the pressure by the Stormers allowing Pietersen to kick four penalties and keep them in front for the entire game. The second half was important for the Stormers because they have a reputation of failing to play for eighty minutes so getting onto the scoreboard first in the second half was critical  to remain in control of the match. Captain Jean De Villiers answered the call when he crossed the line after 51 minutes in a great individual effort after some great lead up by the Stormers forwards who were dominating the contest up front to extend their lead 24-3. But to their credit the Blues didn't give up and whilst they were never going to claw back the big difference they managed to score two converted tries to centre Benson Stanley and prop Charlie Faumuima in the 57th and 64th minute to give the Stormers a few nerves when their lead was cut back to 24-17. Thankfully the Stormers held their composure when Pietersen put the game beyond doubt when his kicked his fifth penalty in the 71th minutes from a scrum infringement against the Blues to seal their third victory from three attempts. The Stormers have had a great start to their season and they will look to continue their unbeaten success when they play against the Lions this Saturday if they make the most of their opportunities and play as a team rather than a group of individuals. The Blues on the other hand need to shake their blues away and improve on their 3-1 losing ratio to date and based on their performances this year they may struggle to get the better of the Hurricanes when they meet in Auckland on Friday evening. With Weepu and Nonu playing below their expectations for the Blues, the match against their former team will indicate where their minds are at right now. Hopefully for the Blues the match on Friday may trigger the best from the All Black stars who owe it to themselves and their team-mates to get this season underway and finally something to smile about rather than feeling the blues. Mark Ella                


Australian Teams fail to Keep Up The Pace. By Mark Ella

If Australian rugby thought that it was going to be a tough year in 2012 last weekends Super Rugby showed the challenges ahead for our Franchises who were off the pace and lacking creativity.The local derby's are great for building traditions of the game within Australia but at the end of the day rugby is a global product and until teams can compete on an international level life is always going to be tough.Round three of the Super Rugby competition saw the Brumbies up against the Cheetahs in Canberra, the Force facing a tired Hurricanes team on the way home from South Africa and the Waratahs trying to have enough players on their roster to come out on top against the Highlanders in Dunedin.And as I expected the results were far from satisfactory with the Brumbies winning in extra time, the Force blown off the park in Perth by a rampant Hurricanes teams and the Waratahs going down to the Highlanders by the narrowest margin 18-17.The Cheetahs are such an unpredictable side who have nothing to loose and accordingly like to throw the ball about and they were unlucky not to have come a way with a win against a Brumbies team playing within its limitations.In the early eighties Australian rugby was the entertainers of Southern hemisphere rugby with out Kiwi mates obsessed with playing a forwards games and kicking kicking far too much.Unfortunately for the rest of world rugby when the code went professional in 1996 the Kiwis realized that their global domination couldn't be sustained playing ten man rugby and they expanded their game which is far more polished than what the Springboks and Wallabies can put together.Like many others the Force expected the Hurricanes to tire towards the second half of the game as in the norm when traveling back from South Africa but to their credit the Hurricanes tore into the Force scoring six tires to two.You have to remember that the Hurricanes purged 12 leading players including many All Blacks from their starting 22 in 2011 but rather than feel remorse they have come together firing in this years competition.Their 20 year old half back TJ Perenara who was a former NZ Schoolboys captain scored three tries against the Force on debut which wasn't a bad effort not to mention that his No.10 Beauden Barrett who is just 19 also played Under 20's rugby for NZ continuing the rugby machine that keeps New Zealand churning out the next generation of champions.The Hurricanes did it easy against the Force winning 46-19 and it will be another long year for the Force who have a good pack lead by David Pocock and 150 Super Rugby veteran Nathan Sharpe but lack ideas in their three-quarters.The NSW Waratahs continue be hijacked with a large number of their leading players suffering from injuries when Wallabies No.8 Wycliffe Palu pulling out of last weekends match against a rejuvenated Highlanders team.And as much as the Highlanders dominated most of the possession and territory it took them sixty five minutes to finally get the lead over the Waratahs to finally hang on to claim a hard fought victory 18-17.The Waratahs again kicked away too much possession early in the match when they should have applied the pressure onto the Highlanders who looked dangerous every time they touched the ball.Like the Hurricanes the Highlanders looked as if they could have scored from any position on the field because they had confidence in their own ability and played with a positive outlook which is hard to find in all Australian teams with the Reds being the one and and only exception.The fact that it took the Waratahs thirty four minutes to finally make it into the Highlanders 22 metres says it all and they looked cumbersome and slow.I expected the return of Wallabies playmaker Berrick Barnes would have a huge influence on the Tahs but he kicked when he should have run and playing at inside centre doesn't do the team any justice.It is still early yet but the New Zealand teams are looking like they mean business with the South Africans introducing the next generation of Springboks with Australian teams already looking off the pace and in need of a good dose of enthusiasm. Mark Ella


Stormers hold off Sharks Attack, by Mark Ella

Rarely do rugby matches without any tries being scored be so entertaining but that's just what happened when the Stormers held the Sharks at bay to win 15-12 at Newlands over the weekend.It has been noted that prior to the start of the rugby season the South African Super Rugby franchises are getting a little tired of playing each other such is the regularity of playing against each other throughout the Currie Cup.So the last thing they want to do is play against their countrymen when there are Kiwi's and Wallabies to sink their teeth into.But the structure of Super Rugby is shaped that the first part of the series involves local derbies which is fine in Australia unlike South Africa and new Zealand where they have elite provincial competitions.But the standard of the match was fantastic along with the high level of intensity and even though there were more Springboks off the field than on the players threw themselves into the contest as if their lives depended on it.The first half was dominated by some entertaining and controlled rugby by the Sharks who took the challenge to the Stormers playing at home and were perhaps a little unlucky to have only led 9-6 at half time.Springbok winger JP Pietersen playing in the centers was involved in everything and looked at home having more involvement in the game.He linked well with his wingers particularly Mvovo who created havoc out wide but instead of controlling the football and dominating possession they tended to kick a little too much allowing Stormers fullback Joe Pietersen to easier return the ball with interest.At this stage of the game the Stormers with a star studded back line did very little to stem the tide and the likes of Aplon, de Jongh, de Villies and Habana had very little impact of the game.In the second half with the fans urging them on, the Stormers pack lifted their game and matched the Sharks up front to gradually bring them back in the game to give their exciting three-quarters the space that they lacked in the first half.It was strange watching French No.10 Frederick Michalak playing at scrum half for the Sharks inside of Pat Lambie and I thought that he looked out of place and it was no wonder that he was replaced by early in the second half.As the pressure gradually started to mount upon the Sharks their game started to fall apart and the smooth rhythm that they had in the first half was missing and so the mistakes began to put them off their game.The Stormers could have put this match to bed much earlier if their fullback Joe Pietersen had his kicking boots on landing only three out of six attempts and thankfully the experience of Peter Grant who landed the winning penalty from the sideline with only minutes remainingIt was a tough hard fought victory for the Stormers and again goes to show just how important it is to win home matches because the away contest will not be easy in this competition.After a disappointing RWC the young South Africans showed plenty of skill mixed in with the usual array of physicality up front to keep their fans entertained and on their feet.If both the Sharks and Stormers can keep their intensity at the same levels against the Australian and New Zealand teams then they will make sure that this years Super Rugby competition is far from being settled in Brisbane with the Reds as we Aussies are predicting. Mark Ella


Super15 Rugby Tournament - Mark Ella's comments on the first 2 games

Australia has always had a reputation as a sporting nation because of our tepid climate and outdoor lifestyle but in life nothing is perfect because our expectations on winning makes coming second unpalatable. And in a sports mad environment in which rugby competes against cricket, Australian Rules Football, Rugby League and Football almost every weekend, winning by playing attractive rugby is crucial to the growth in our game and share of mind from the fans.In recent years Rugby in Australia has suffered dramatically because of a 'winning ugly' syndrome which has turned rugby fans away in droves and reduced the codes market share in terms of sponsorship and television dollars.That is why last weekends start to the Super Rugby season was so important for Australian rugby and although the two matches between the New South Wales Waratahs and Queensland Reds and the ACT Brumbies up against the Western Force didn't reach any lofty heights it was a start at least.Australia's most successful team the Brumbies have in 2012 the least amount of Wallabies  and under former RWC winning coach Jake White they will struggle to keep up with the pace of the game.Even though the Brumbies defeated the Force 19-17 in Canberra it was a scrappy game with far too much reckless kicking from both sides with field position rather than ball in hand ruling the day.The Force coached by former Queenslander Richard Graham will struggle again this year particularly in the three-quarters who are young and energetic but lack the strategic nous to challenge the better teams in this competition.It was always going to be a close game between the Waratahs and Reds played in Sydney  particularly without their respective No.10's, Wallabies Quade Cooper for the Reds and Berrick Barnes for the Waratahs.Cooper has become the heart and sole of the Reds attack and without him their rhythm was down-beat rather than exciting and unexpected as we have become used too with replacement No.10 Mike Harris doing a fine job but without the fancy tricks that Cooper conjures up on a weekly basis.Harris though proved to be a excellent goal kicker landing six penalties and one conversion from seven attempts which wasn't a bad effort for a bench player and coach Ewen McKenzie will be very satisfied with the Reds performance.Although the Reds had the better of the loose play their scrum was out muscled and one of the Waratahs two tries came about after the Reds scrum collapsed under the pressure in the first half.To their credit the Waratahs kept in the game after trailing for most of the match and with 13 minutes left to play it looked like they might get away with defeating the defending Super Rugby Champions when they took the lead after former Cheetahs half back Sarel Pretorius scored his try on debut.But great teams do not surrender until the final whistle has blown and it was when the fans were starting to exit ANZ Stadium that Reds winger Dom Shipperley picked up a loose ball from inside his own half and skirted down the right hand side of the field to give the Reds the final say, winning 25-21.Many would say that the Waratahs were unlucky to win particularly playing without five Wallabies Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell, Lachlan Turner, Dan Vickerman and captain Rocky Elsom.NSW rugby prior to professionalism dominated Australian rugby but sadly since then they have struggled to win any silverware at all and they play without heart and commitment.They have lost their traditional running style and the players always seem to take the easy options rather than trying to test themselves and at least join them those around them.Without the free flowing style of the Reds Australian rugby would be struggling and my hope in 2012 is that the Waratahs at least join them in the Finals but first they must find their passion for the game which I hope in still in their hearts.  Mark Ella

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