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Can you get a read on the Waratahs? A week after their upset win over the Crusaders, NSW slipped to one of their more embarrassing defeats in recent memory in Newcastle on Friday night.

Admittedly under-strength due to the absence of some resting Wallabies, the Waratahs were beaten by the Sunwolves in the first ever Super Rugby match played in Newcastle.

Elsewhere, there were wins for the Crusaders, Blues, Rebels, Bulls and Chiefs.

Read on for some of the key talking points from the weekend’s action.

AUSTRALIAN CONFERENCE

Quade has last laugh in Suncorp return

Melbourne Rebels are the team to beat in the Australian conference.

Dave Wessels’ side proved that with a 32-13 victory over Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Saturday night, completing one of the harder challenges in Super Rugby in winning immediately after a two-week tour of South Africa.

The build-up had of course centred on Quade Cooper’s return to Suncorp Stadium and the Rebels fly-half certainly didn’t disappoint. The former Reds favourite had a hand in two of the Rebels’ four tries as he turned provider for winger Jack Maddocks.

The first five-pointer came from a pinpoint cross-kick that allowed Maddocks to soar above diminutive Reds fullback Hamish Stewart, while Cooper then showed off his football skills in twice toeing a loose ball ahead for the Rebels winger to grab his second.

Cooper’s standout moment from a dominant all-round performance was a silky spin he used to bump off former teammate and good friend Samu Kerevi; the Reds skipper charged out of the line looking to put a shot on Cooper, only for the Rebels No.10 to pivot at precisely the right moment to absorb the hit and take off in the other direction.

Speaking post-match, Cooper chose not to rub his former teammates’ noses in it, instead saying how he wanted the Reds to do well after a tough start to the season. Having won their last two games, over the Brumbies and Sunwolves, Saturday night’s 19-point defeat was a real step backward for Brad Thorn’s side who must now regroup for the visit of the Stormers on Friday.

While Cooper continues to mount a strong claim for a Wallabies recall, a couple of Rebels forwards must also be catching the eye of Michael Cheika and his fellow selectors Michael O’Connor and Scott Johnson, the latter whom finally began his role as Director of Rugby last Friday.

Cheika had already nominated Isi Naisarani as a likely Wallabies contender but the play of both Luke Jones and Anaru Rangi should not be overlooked in what is a hard-working Rebels pack.

Jones, in particular, must surely be inching closer to a Wallabies recall after returning from French club Bordeaux-Begles. In his second stint with the Rebels, Jones trails only Michael Hooper for the most number of tackles made by an Australian player this season and on Saturday night topped the count with 16.

His ability to cover both No. 6 and the second-row makes him an excellent bench option but he is certainly playing well enough to be considered for a starting spot at lock.

While Cooper and teammate Will Genia pulled the strings in the Rebels’ win in Brisbane, it was hard not to feel for stand-in Waratahs playmaker Mack Mason who endured a horror night in his first start in two years as NSW were upset by the Sunwolves in Newcastle.

The result shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise given the Japanese side went within a missed drop goal of victory in Tokyo in their earlier clash in Round 2, but the memory of that narrow escape had been washed away by the Waratahs’ dominant victory over the Crusaders last week.

But NSW were a shadow of that team against the Sunwolves, who seem to be playing with a freedom that belies their looming Super Rugby exit. Samesi Masirewa showed his speed and finishing ability in the two-point win by grabbing a hat-trick, while Hayden Parker’s metronomic left-boot shows no sign of slowing, the fly-half maintaining his astonishing 100 percent success rate from the kicking tee.

Parker nailed four conversions and a penalty goal, including one sideline stunner that calculated for a stiff Hunter Valley breeze beautifully. It was a far cry from Mason’s night however, the Waratahs No.10 making a meal of his rare appearance in the absence of the resting Bernard Foley.

NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE

SBW does it on the field, after leading New Zealand off it

Sonny Bill Williams has, by his standards, done it tough over the last couple of years.

He was barely sighted by the Blues last season before managing just the five Tests for the All Blacks, two of which ended in him leaving the paddock with injury.

It had some pundits questioning whether the code-hopper’s career might be coming to an end, that stints in the NRL and a handful of boxing bouts had finally taken their toll on one of the most impressive athletes of his generation.

But that all was put on hold three weeks ago when the Christchurch terror attacks shocked New Zealand and Williams, as a proud Muslim, quickly became a key figure in the healing process.

Shortly after the attacks had taken place, an emotional Williams took to Instagram to express his heartbreak at what had happened. But where other athletes may have left it at that, Williams instead asked for leave from the Blues and promptly travelled to Christchurch to visit those in hospital who’d survived; the veteran back acting as a voice for the Islamic community at a time when others were too distraught to do so.

Back on the field at the weekend, Williams also delivered for the Blues when the team needed it most. Locked in a physical battle with the Stormers at Eden Park, the Blues needed Williams to provide some spark off the bench. He didn’t disappoint.

With the game still very much in the balance at 10-9, Williams produced one of his trademark offloads to put Otere Black over inside the final quarter. The hosts still had to survive the red-carding of Taniela Tele’a but another five-pointer, this time to Rieko Ioane, saw them finish the stronger and earn a third straight win.

Coach Leon MacDonald later praised his side’s grit, but it was Williams, who stood up and delivered, just as he had off the field over the past fortnight, that really steadied a shaky Blues ship.

A third victory on the trot, and the Crusaders’ bounce-back win over the Hurricanes, leaves the New Zealand conference wide open behind the two-time defending champions. Without a win two weeks ago, the Chiefs are back in the hunt after sweeping their two-game tour with a last-gasp match-winner against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.

The Chiefs now have the bye, while the Blues welcome the Waratahs to Auckland on Saturday night in what will be one of the games of Round 8.

SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE

How do teams best manage player rest weeks?

Might Rassie Erasmus be picking up his mobile phone this week, especially after witnessing the Bulls and the Sharks go toe-to-toe in a physical and spicy derby at Jonsson Kings Park, where the competition points were decided eventually by a last-minute scrum penalty to the hosts — or a couple of missed kicks by Robert du Preez if you hail from Durban.

The physical nature of the game will not concern the Springboks coach, for his players must be attuned to that high level of contact and intensity ahead of the abridged Rugby Championship and, later, the Rugby World Cup, where his side opens its campaign against New Zealand. But all roads lead to Japan this year, and Erasmus might feel the need to remind the South African Super Rugby coaches of their responsibility to the Springboks’ campaign in terms of player management.

Erasmus said after Round 3 that South African Rugby’s collective player management plan, designed to put national team interests above Super Rugby ambitions ahead of the World Cup, could be tested in the coming months. He said then, at a media conference in Cape Town after a Springboks ‘Alignment Camp’ for Stormers players, that the program to balance the workload of key individuals was off to “a good start” but “when we get to round seven, eight, we will see which players are being played too much”.

Erasmus, wearing his Springboks kit, now has to judge what level of workload is “too much” because we are at “round seven, eight” and he might conceivably fear key players are being played too much.

“There hasn’t been one coach who has said they will not back us in terms of our World Cup planning,” Erasmus said at the conference in Cape Town.

Bulls coach Pote Human said that week, two days later, that he would rest some of his key Springboks players after his team’s fixture against the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld that weekend.

“To be honest with you‚ it’s a difficult issue‚” Human said. “Our planning was that we wanted to get the first four games of the season out of the way. We have a bye next week and then we’ll see how we can accommodate some rest for guys like Handre Pollard‚ Schalk Brits and Duane Vermeulen.”

Makes sense, and not unreasonable.

Except that Pollard, Brits and Vermeulen, as well as Jesse Kriel, each started that game against the Sharks and both of the Bulls’ two fixtures after the bye — against the Chiefs at Loftus and then against the Sharks, again, in Durban. Vermeulen sustained a knee injury against the Chiefs, but recovered well enough to play at Kings Park, where he, Pollard and Kriel each played the full 80 minutes. Brits would have played more than 57 minutes had he not been given a red card, alongside his counterpart, Aker van der Merwe, while Sharks prop Beast Mtawawira was also involved for 50 minutes.

Coaches absolutely need their best players in key fixtures such as the Sharks-Bulls match in Durban, but the South African teams each play six likely brutal derbies as well as games home and away against the Jaguares and then eight more matches against New Zealand or Australian opponents; so where are the coaches to make the rotations? Factor in the travel to and from Argentina plus the tour of Australia and New Zealand, and it’s a tough workload.

That timing of the rotational selections likely is not Erasmus’ call, as he’ll be leaving the Super Rugby coaches to judge where and when the picks can best be made without upsetting their teams’ hopes of making the playoffs.

The problem that Erasmus may feel he faces, however, is that key Springboks players have not yet been rested – at least not for reason of rotation rather than injury.

Kriel, Damian de Allende, Pollard, Elton Jantjies, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Malcolm Marx and Mtawawira have each featured substantially in all six of their teams’ fixtures to date.

Eben Etzebeth and Aphiwe Dyantyi — likely also certain Springboks starters in their opening Rugby World Cup fixture against the New Zealand All Blacks in Yokohama on September 21, subject to form and fitness -would surely also have been more involved than four games and two respectively had they not been injured (both) or failed a concussion test (Etzebeth). Warren Whiteley and Lood de Jager also would have made more than two starts apiece had they not sustained injuries, the latter being rubbed out of the Bulls’ remaining Super fixtures.

Brits also has started six games, while Bongi Mbonami has started five and played 30 minutes off the bench in the other.

Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Wilco Louw have each missed games, because of injury rather than rotation, but Stormers coach Robbie Fleck does have the option to rest and rotate them because of the enviable depth he has in his props.

South Africa’s Super Rugby teams each still have nine matches to play, and Erasmus is likely to want his ‘key Springboks players’ each to sit two fixtures – in line with the New Zealand protocol – although the number to be ‘sat’ under the collective player management plan has not been made public. So there’s still plenty of time, but we’re at the “round seven, eight” marker nominated by Erasmus.

The Stormers face Queensland Reds in Brisbane in Super Rugby Round 8, while the Lions are back from the bye to host the Sharks, and the Bulls play the Jaguares at Loftus Versfeld; it may be interesting to see the line-ups named for this week’s fixtures.

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