Super Rugby enters Round 4 this week, beginning with the southern derby between the Crusaders and Highlanders.
As usual, there is no shortage of talking points across the game.
IS IT TIME FOR NEUTRAL REFS TO RETURN IN SUPER RUGBY?
Sam Bruce: I never bought SANZAAR's claims that the move away from neutral refs was down to a desire to reward the best referees with the best games. It has to have been about cutting costs, which is understandable given no other competition in the world has a travel schedule quite like Super Rugby. But the penalty numbers uncovered by Green and Gold Rugby following the Reds' loss in Argentina were particularly shocking. I know there have been a few games over the years - when the Rebels were on the end of a 20-1 penalty count in Johannesburg last year and Stuart Berry blew the Reds off the paddock [19-4] in 2014 - but G&G's research discovered that South African teams were +159 for penalties when playing against foreign opposition at home under a South African ref. That is an incredible figure when you compare it with New Zealand [-15] and Australia [+16] under the same "hometown" scenario. Last week the Reds were on the end of a 14-3 count away to the Jaguares under Frederico Anselmi who has been a part of the Super Rugby referee panel for a few years now. The Reds certainly didn't make things easy on themselves but there were a number of calls that seemed to be reasonably harsh. It certainly prompted someone at G&G Rugby to do some digging, and it has surely given SANZAAR food for thought. You'd hope so, anyway.
Brittany Mitchell: After another lopsided 14-3 penalty count across the weekend saw the Reds fall to pieces against the Jaguares, talk of neutral referees has again come into focus. SANZAAR's choice to move away from neutral referees years ago was always questionable. A merit-based appointment sounds great in theory, but it so often sees 'home' officials taking charge of matches against offshore sides. After the weekend, some number crunchers put some stats together and what they found was, quite simply, alarming. According to a Green and Gold Rugby contributor South African teams receive a major advantage in terms of penalties awarded against their overseas opposition. In fact, the stats show South African sides have been awarded +159 penalty differential by 'home town referees' since 2017. It was also noted South African sides had only lost two of the last 29 penalty counts at home with 'home' officials. Australian fans will of course be remembering Egon Seconds officiating during last year's Lions-Rebels match which saw a staggering 20-1 penalty count in the hosts' 36-33 win as they came back from a 27-point deficit. SANZAAR may have been ignorant to the recent numbers, but chief executives of Australian franchises have taken notice and have called for an inquiry; but I wouldn't be holding my breath waiting for SANZAAR's response. While the numbers may not tell the full story - perhaps the Reds deserved the lopsided count against the Jaguares - for the integrity of the competition SANZAAR must make a move back to neutral referees, even if just to end the constant chatter about perceived bias.
IS JAMES O'CONNOR AUSTRALIA'S BEST OPTION AT FLY-HALF?
SB: O'Connor's performances in the No. 10 jersey have been one of the few positives for what has otherwise been a poor start from the Australian Super Rugby franchises. We shouldn't really be surprised either, given O'Connor has virtually proven himself across every position in the backline apart from halfback. Certainly at Test level he has played on the wing, at centre, and at fly-half, most notably against the British & Irish Lions in 2013. He did it fairly tough during that series but showed his footwork and skill to score a vital try in the third Test in Sydney; as fate would have it, the Wallabies were swamped after the break and lost the series 2-1. But O'Connor seems to be better equipped to handle the responsibility of the No. 10 jersey now, and looks more at home as a distributor rather than the player who stepped inside three Lions defenders to score in 2013. Certainly it's great to have him as an option but I am big Matt To'omua fan - I called for him to start after the Wallabies' opening World Cup game - and still want him to be given first crack against Ireland this year. I like the idea of having O'Connor at 12, though, and allowing both he and To'omua to mix and match and split themselves on either side of centre-field rucks. But it's great to see O'Connor motivated and playing so well; it's a huge turnaround for a player many thought had wasted his talent.
BM: It may be a bit too early to make a call, two good games don't necessarily make you the Wallabies starting 10, but what we've seen from O'Connor so far this season has been impressive. Labelled the bad boy years ago and sent into the rugby wilderness after fumbling his Wallabies opportunity at a young age, O'Connor returned last year a more mature and centred player. Moving into fly-half against the Lions in Round 2, O'Connor slotted into the role nicely and teamed up well with No.9 Tate McDermott. But it was his scintillating performance against the Jaguares last week that will have selectors thinking. The stats speak for themselves; one try assist, 15 runs, 52 run metres, seven defenders beaten and three offloads - it wasn't a quiet night for the 29-year-old. But if you need more convincing his slick move with Hunter Paisami in the 50th minute is something to savour. First receiver from the scrum, O'Connor straightened and took the ball to the line, no sideways movement at all, and with a nice little pop pass to Paisami, had the No.13 slotting through the gap and within metres of the line. He pushed the Jaguares defence, straightened up the attack and gave his side every opportunity. While he may not be the No. 1 fly-half choice at this time, with the dearth of international playmaking stocks at the moment, Dave Rennie's interest will certainly have been piqued by the Queenslander's performances so far.
IT'S BEEN A ROUGH WEEK FOR THE BRUMBIES, CAN THEY TROUBLE THE CHIEFS?
SB: That was a heart-breaker for the Brumbies last week, but it's clear they were dealing with a bigger issue than just the slippery ball and a resilient Highlanders line up. News this week that the ACT franchise had been hit by a breakout of mumps was certainly shocking, but the coordinated effort to manage the spread of the illness has been well handled. Sadly, I can't see the Brumbies pulling off what would be a huge win over the Chiefs, particularly with the Waikato side sitting pretty at the top of the Super Rugby ladder. The Chiefs are humming and they have brought back All Blacks Sam Cane, Anton Lienert-Brown and Aaron Cruden after all three men sat out last week's trip to Tokyo. What is pleasing from a Brumbies point-of-view is that coach Dan McKellar hasn't thrown rookie fly-half Noah Lolesio to the wolves after he struggled badly against the Highlanders. I'm hopeful he will bounce back this week and the Brumbies will ride their powerful driving maul to stay in the contest, but I just can't see them coming away from Hamilton with the W.
BM: I like the Brumbies. I like the look of their backline with Noah Lolesio, Tevita Kuridrani and Tom Banks. I like how good they are at the set-piece and how well their forward pack rumble down the field. But what I don't like is Australia's terrible statistics against Kiwi teams in New Zealand. One win from 46 games dating all the way back to 2015, it's not pretty reading. What makes it worse, of those 45 losses, 28 were by 13 points or more. For the Brumbies, they haven't won in New Zealand since 2014. So to give the Chiefs a real run for their money, you need a full-strength, confident Brumbies side, and that's not what we're going to get this weekend. Last week's heartbreaking one-point loss will be weighing heavily on their minds, and they'll definitely want to put it behind them with an impressive win over the Chiefs in Hamilton, but a mumps outbreak has come at the exact wrong time. With up to four players ruled out through the virus, the Brumbies have suffered a double blow with in-form Folau Fainga'a ruled out through a toe injury. There's no question, the Brumbies will still be taking across a potent attacking side, but I don't think they'll be able to put the distractions from the week behind them and pull off a victory against Warren Gatland's ladder-leading Chiefs.