Super Rugby began with a bang on Thursday night, when the Blues fired an early warning to their New Zealand Conference rivals, and the rest of the competition, with a demolition job on the Rebels in Melbourne.
There were also wins for the Chiefs, Reds, Hurricanes, Crusaders, Waratahs, Stormers, Jaguares and Lions.
Read on as we wrap up the big talking points from Round 1.
Rampaging Rieko runs riot against Rebels
Rieko Ioane rocketed onto the Sevens World Series as a teenager in 2015, and he was a surprise call-up to the All Blacks squad for their 2016 end-of-year tour, but he had shown only glimpses of his immense talent at Super Rugby level.
That all changed last Thursday, when the 19-year-old outside centre scored a scintillating hat-trick against Melbourne. The Rebels had no answer to Ioane’s mixture of speed and skill as he compiled an impressive stats sheet that included nine runs for 144 metres, five clean breaks and four beaten defenders. But arguably the most exciting moment for Blues fans, and New Zealand rugby as a whole, came when Akira Ioane swooped on a loose ball and then found his brother, who cruised in to score a third five-pointer.
Rieko Ioane Robert Prezioso/Getty Images
“He’s an impressive kid,” Blues coach Tana Umaga said post-match. “He started his whole career pretty quick; he was playing international rugby with New Zealand before he even played ITM Cup.
“The great thing about him is that he’s pretty grounded and he’s really focussed and wants to do well. He just loves to play, that’s the key thing. He did some really good things today, and we’re fortunate that we’ve got quite a few midfielders that have played for the All Blacks … the tough thing for us is having to try and fit them all in.”
The Blues’ victory is even more impressive when you consider they achieved it without All Blacks Jerome Kaino, Sonny Bill Williams and Patrick Tuipulotu, while Charlie Faumuina, Rene Ranger and George Moala were all introduced from the bench.
A potential centre combination of Williams and Ioane — or Williams and Moala with Ioane on the wing — will pose plenty of questions for opposition defences later in the year.
Hunt hit by new high tackle laws
There was always going to be a period of adjustment given World Rugby’s changes to the high tackle laws introduced over the southern summer, and Karmichael Hunt was one player who fell foul of the referees in Round 1.
Hunt was shown yellow late in the Reds’ 29-27 victory over the Sharks in Brisbane after he’d collected Lwazi Mvovo around the head in an attempted covering tackle. After consulting with the Television Match Official, referee Nick Briant sent a bewildered Hunt for an early shower despite Mvovo’s low bodyheight.
As is the direction under the law changes, the responsibility was on Hunt to adjust his tackle to avoid high contact with Mvovo; although the high contact was largely accidental it still met the yellow card threshold.
Hunt wasn’t convinced, however, the former Brisbane Broncos NRL star shaking his head from the sideline as he nervously watched the Reds close out their victory.
Karmichael Hunt Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
Earlier, Kane Douglas was also yellow carded – the Wallabies lock paying the price for a neck roll, which has also become a target area for officials.
The officials have established a benchmark in handling these offences, and we can only hope they are consistent in their approach while the players adjust.
Crusaders, Highlanders hit by early injuries
The Crusaders are up and running for 2017, but they will be without rising playmaker Richie Mo’unga for the next six weeks after the fly-half underwent hand surgery.
Mo’unga was solid in attack but had an unhappy night from the kicking tee as the Crusaders outlasted a gutsy Brumbies side that had been given little chance of victory in Christchurch.
Meanwhile, Highlanders captain Ben Smith could miss a few weeks after he suffered a nasty head knock in his side’s loss to the Chiefs on Friday.
Challenging Chiefs counterpart Damian McKenzie for a high ball, Smith fell to the ground from the mid-air contact and hit his head on the Forsyth Barr Stadium turf.
Ben Smith Dianne Manson/Getty Images
In a wonderful act of sportsmanship, McKenzie immediately called for the referee to stop the match with Smith still in close proximity to play.
Sunwolves’ shock adds to uncertainty
As SANZAAR continues to ponder changes to the unpopular Super Rugby structure, the Sunwolves could not have made a poorer start as they shipped 83 points at home to the defending champions, the Hurricanes.
Adding to the Japanese side’s embarrassment was the fact the Hurricanes’ 13 tries all came before the hour mark, Chris Boyd’s side clearly taking their foot off the pedal with the five points well and truly wrapped up.
The Sunwolves don’t appear to be under the same pressure as the Southern Kings, Cheetahs and Western Force in terms of their long-term survival, but Super Rugby’s first Asian franchise won’t want to tempt fate with more blowouts like that which they suffered at the weekend.
The Sunwolves made a horror start to 2017 at home in Tokyo Koki Nagahama/Getty Images for SUNWOLVES
The Sunwolves head to Singapore, their second home, for a clash with the Kings in Round 2, giving Filo Tiatia’s side an ideal chance to bounce back with a victory. But a four-week tour to New Zealand and Argentina midway through the season could make for some incredibly painful viewing.
WHAT THEY SAID
“In the first half we defended really well but ultimately we probably lost it in the big moments. We lost some of our detail and I’m pretty angry about that to be honest.” – Force coach Dave Wessels after his side missed a golden opportunity for a win in Sydney.
“I think people would’ve enjoyed watching some of that rugby that we played. We wanted to play accurately in the back-end of our own field, so we wanted to exit really well, we wanted to put them under pressure with our defence and our set piece was functioning well enough. We just wanted to make sure that the intensity we played the game at was really fast.” – Hurricanes assistant John Plumtree.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Rieko Ioane. Brilliant in Melbourne, the Blues have something special talent in Ioane. And a spot in the All Blacks’ squad to face the British & Irish Lions is not entirely out of the question.
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Rieko Ioane next big NZ superstar
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