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The long dark cloud

For the first time this year we have had heavy rain in New Zealand. It has been blown east by a blast of warm air coming out of Australia, a frontal system loaded with gusts of gloating and a rather heavy downpour of ridicule.

For the first time since 2001 – that is 12 years – three Australian teams have beaten three New Zealand teams in a weekend of Super Rugby. It hurts, man it hurts, and we just have to take it.

Never mind the fact that this has happened in reverse order several times over the years – this was not a moment the Aussies were going to let pass. It’s payback time, and given the amount of scorn that’s been directed at the Australian conference by fans in New Zealand and South Africa, you can understand why they are making the most of it.

They have been getting very fired up for their matches against New Zealand sides, and so far have won six matches to one in the Trans-Tasman encounters – a count that could well rise in their favour this coming weekend.

It should also be pointed out that the last time the Aussies enjoyed such a Kiwi whitewash was also in the lead-up to a visit by the British and Irish Lions, reflecting a hunger that such a series can provoke.

The Brumbies and Reds were impressive.

I have written several times about how well the Brumbies are playing under Mr White, and I got to see it from very close range in Dunedin on Friday. They are very well organised, they clean out the rucks with great precision, they play territory and they attack with the same patterned, methodical play, laced with a touch of dash and dare every now and then, that was the hallmark of the great Brumbies teams of a decade or so ago.

George Smith has been the standout player. He has come back from Japan looking as good as he has ever been. Unfortunately for the Brumbies he is scheduled to return to Japan at the end of May and that will leave a huge hole, especially with David Pocock out for the duration.

Smith won’t be available for the Wallabies against the Lions either, and that could have been a massive boost.

The Reds showed against the Chiefs that as long as Will Genia and James Horwill are playing, they will be a match for any side. Quade Cooper still makes mistakes, but is twice the threat with Genia feeding him and taking the heat off him in equal measure.

The Chiefs, like all New Zealand sides this year, were too slow out of the blocks after a week off. So far every New Zealand side has lost coming off the bye. That is a worry.

So after a great start the New Zealand conference is suddenly looking a little sickly, although as I have often had to remind my counterparts in Australia, particularly those who champion the cause of the Waratahs, no one ever got handed a Super Rugby trophy at the end of April.

The Crusaders will be relieved to get home after a trip that had a dream start in Cape Town, only to turn into a nightmare, with defeat to the Western Force.

Much as the spirited performance of the Force deserves credit, the Crusaders are fuming.

Firstly with time running out, and a chance to win the game from a turnover, play was halted and all momentum lost while the Crusaders' players and coaching staff themselves had to remove four idiots from the field of play, one of whom appeared to be a Crusaders fan.

The Crusaders might still have won had either of two tries to Luke Romano not been ruled out.

Jonathan Kaplan referred the first to the TMO for a forward pass that appeared to take place outside the allowable two-phases, however his bosses say it was a correct call in that the second “ruck” did not involve a second player from the defending team other than the tackler, and therefore was not a ruck. Technical, but that’s the rule.

But the manner in which the next one was dealt with left a lot to be desired.

When Romano crashed over midway through the second half, Kaplan admitted he thought he’d seen a grounding. Replays backed that up – even the Australian commentators thought it was a try – but the TMO, perhaps thinking Kaplan was of a mind to award a try because of his comments, rather spinelessly gave the call back to him, and Kaplan bailed out and opted for a scrum.

Look, mistakes are made – they’re part of the game – but the point I’m really making is that the TMO protocols were widened to end uncertainty, not cause it, and I wonder now, with the spotlight on them and getting ever brighter, whether some of the Tele refs are getting cold feet over big decisions.

Add to that the fact that the Crusaders' scrum coach, the normally mild-mannered Dave Hewett, has given Kaplan a real serve over the way he penalised a dominant Crusaders scrum, and fair to say it was not one of the great days in Jonathan's illustrious career.

The damage on the New Zealand teams was softened a bit by the results in South Africa, with both the Sharks and Cheetahs losing to keep the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Chiefs close to the pace on the log.

Both the derby matches lived up to expectation in that they were tight and tense, the sort of games that provide excellent groundwork for the test season as much as anything. They were won by desperate teams.

I thought the way the Stormers' midfield opened up the normally watertight Sharks defence for the game's only try was a piece of pure class – the deft skills of Jean de Villiers and the straight, hard, perfectly angled run of Juan de Jongh. It’s moments like those that can swing a test, and while I know some feel De Villiers, at 32, is getting on a bit in years, I would still be very tempted to go with that combo for the Springboks.

There were two absolutely brilliant tries by scrumhalves to enjoy as well. How well is Jano Vermaak playing right now?

The Australian conference has accumulated the most competition points, but the South African division is clearly the most evenly fought, the most cut-throat in the way teams are chopping each other off at the knees. The only down side of this is that it will cost at least one good team a place in the playoffs.

And finally what a great result for the Kings, who have now won two more games than some suspected they would all season.

They have grown on their tour, when other teams in the past have often faded as time away from home started to take its toll. They richly deserved their victory in Melbourne and will relish the prospect of taking on the Bulls in front of their fans in Port Elizabeth on their return.

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