It had been anticipated that the law requiring halfbacks not to cross the half line at scrums would free up No8s, but instead, it was halfbacks and first five-eighths who relished extra time and space to set sides alight.
And few did it better than the Chiefs in pulling off a thrilling upset win over the defending champions, the Crusaders, on their home midden in Christchurch.
Crusaders 10 Chiefs 31
The elegance of a set-piece move started and ended by replacement halfback Cortez Ratima, with a significant contribution from replacement five-eighths Josh Ioane, highlighted the dominance of the Chiefs at Orangetheory Stadium. It summarised the difference law variations have made at scrum time and highlighted how the usually watertight Crusaders' defence leaked on the night. Spearheaded by outstanding contributions from lock Brodie Retallick, skipper and flanker Sam Cane and bullocking hooker Samisoni Taukei'aho, the Chiefs pack pinned the Crusaders in their territory throughout their scoreless second half. That saw first five-eighths Damian McKenzie and fullback Shaun Stevenson relentlessly out-perform the Crusaders kicking game with variations that maximized that forward dominance.
The Crusaders suffered a record-equalling losing margin in Scott Robertson's reign and, surprisingly, rarely looked like breaking the Chiefs' stranglehold. Fullback David Havili tried, as did replacement loose forward Christian Lio-Willie, who came on early when No8 Cullen Grace suffered a blow to the shoulder that minimized his last season. But Lio-Willie shone in a losing team.
Crusaders 10 (David Havili try; Richie Mo'unga con, dropped goal) Chiefs 31 (Sam Cane, Alex Nankivell, Brodie Retallick, Cortez Ratima tries; Damian McKenzie 4 con, pen). HT: 10-7.
Waratahs 25 Brumbies 31
Discipline, discipline, discipline. For that lack of discipline, the Waratahs suffered penalties aplenty. They dominated possession statistics, were three times as effective in making offloads, made 25 per cent fewer turnovers, made fewer tackles, and won more rucks than the Brumbies. Yet they failed to convert those advantages sufficiently to get ahead on the scoreboard. That was because the most important statistic on the night was that they conceded 14 penalties to seven – something inexcusable if the goal was to beat the best-performed Australian side from last season.
The Waratahs did offer a prospective star in the making as 18-year-old wing Max Jorgensen scored two tries. But it was the effort of Brumbies starting halfback Ryan Lonergan, who not only scored the opening try but made a crucial play by changing the direction of a penalty kick last in the first half. That kick was taken by wing Andy Muirhead who crossed for a try for the Brumbies to take a 15-10 lead to the break, which was extended by two Lonergan penalty goals when they returned.
Waratahs 25 (Max Jorgensen 2, Jake Gordon tries; Tane Edmed 2 con, 2 pen) Brumbies 31 (Ryan Lonergan, Andy Muirhead, Corey Toole tries; Lonergan con, 3 pen; Noah Lolesio con, pen). HT: 10-15
Moana Pasifika 34 Fijian Drua 36
Moana Pasifika's heavyweight starting props showed they were not restricted to set piece ability when Abraham Pole and Chris Apoua showed their skills in scoring the opening tries at Mt Smart within the first seven minutes. Fiji wasn't to be outdone and responded from a five-metre tap penalty, with captain and hooker Tevita Ikanivere scoring their first. While flanker Mike Curry scored another for the home team, their loss of lock Samuel Slade to the sin bin meant they paid the price as Fiji used another tap penalty to get flanker Joseva Tamani over with centre Iosefo Masi following moments to level the score at 19-19 before Slade returned. Then as the play flowed up and down, a Fijian mistake saw second five-eighths Danny Toala pounce and show his speed down the sideline to give the home team a 26-19 halftime lead.
Ikanivere wasted no time in getting Fiji back into the game when showing the speed of a centre to race through a gap and score. Pole extended the lead with his second try before Masi levelled things up at 31-31 when capping some superb work inside him. Moana Pasifika nudged ahead with a Lealiifano penalty goal 11 minutes from the end. But Fijian Drua kept looking for chances, and finally, a superb play saw wing Taniela Rakuro race down the flank, fall over, and still be far enough clear to get up and dive over for the winner in a thrilling finish.
Moana Pasifika 34 (Abraham Pole 2, Chris Apoua, Mike Curry, Danny Toala tries; Christian Lealiifano 3 con, pen) Fijian Drua 36 (Tevita Ikanivere 2, Joseva Tamani, Iosefo Masi 2, Taniela Rakuro tries; Teti Tela 2 con; Caleb Muntz con). HT: 26-19
Highlanders 20 Blues 60
Inspired by a rampant All Blacks wing, Mark Telea, the Blues hit the ground running in Dunedin, and while conceding two second-quarter tries, they dominated the home side, who were scoreless in the second half. The losses of lock Cameron Suafoa and second five-eighths Roger Tuivasa-Sheck Telea to the sin bin in the latter stages of the first half gave the Highlanders their scoring chances. But while Telea scored twice, his set-up work for centre Rieko Ioane's second try provided the smoothest example of his skill as he beat two players and then provided No8 Hoskins Sotutu with a chance that saw him caught just short of the line. But he managed to get the ball away to the supporting Ioane.
When they hit their straps, the Blues left no margin for error and were backed by a 25-point contribution from first five-eighths Beauden Barrett, and their 40-point advantage broke the Highlanders record of 37 points as the highest winning margin between the sides.
Highlanders 20 (Mitch Hunt, Josh Timu tries; Sam Gilbert 2 pen, 2 con) Blues 60 (Mark Telea 2, Beauden Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Rieko Ioane 2, Marcel Renata, Dalton Papali'i tries; Beauden Barrett 7 con, 2 pen) HT: 20-31
Reds 13 Hurricanes 47
At a try apiece in the first half at Townsville, a cross-kick from Reds first five-eighths Tom Lynagh (yes, son of) to the flank was contested, but when the ball emerged from a ruck fullback Jordan Petaia went low to plough across. Then an orthodox backline response from the Hurricanes saw centre Billy Proctor beat two defenders to score, but the Reds were still in the encounter.
Then the visiting pack took control to see 31 uncontested points added. It started with a penalty try for collapsing a maul and then took on an even more significant impact when hooker Asafo Aumua came off the bench to provide his impetus and help set up tries for halfback Cam Roigard and wing Julian Savea. Replacements Jamie Booth and Tyrel Lomax at halfback and prop also got on the board for an impressive away start.
Reds 13 (Jordan Petaia try; Tom Lynagh con, 2 pen) Hurricanes 47 (Billy Proctor, Cam Roigard, Jamie Booth, Julian Savea, Tyrell Lomax tries; Penalty try; Jordie Barrett 3 con, 3 pen). HT: 13-16
Force 34 Rebels 27
Like a thief in the night, Rebels five-eighths Carter Gordon picked off a pass from the base of a ruck to race 50m unchallenged for his 15th-minute try to set the Rebels on their way in Perth. Tries from rucks were scored by halfback Ryan Louwrens and flanker Brad Wilkin for the Rebels and then prop Tom Robertson for the home team.
Going to the break ahead 24-13, the Rebels had cause for confidence but a yellow card 10 minutes in on their goal line saw the Force take a tap penalty for first five-eighths Tom Horton to score. But, the sight of recalled lock Jeremy Thrush, who retired at the end of last season, buoyed the home side. They took to their lineout maul for second five-eighths Hamish Stewart to gain the lead, and when the Rebels had drawn level at 27-27 with a penalty goal, Thrush emerged from a goal line pick-and-go to score the matchwinner for his side.
Force 34 (Tom Robertson, Tom Horton, Hamish Stewart, Jeremy Thrush tries; Bryce Hegarty 4 con, 2 pen) Rebels 27 (Carter Gordon, Ryan Louwrens, Brad Wilkin tries; Reece Hodge 3 con, 2 pen). HT: 13-24