Super -- Not So Super -- Rugby: Brumbies find Hooper 2.0; All Blacks axis revealed?

And then there were four.

Super Rugby Pacific's quarterfinals played out as expected over the weekend, but not before the Brumbies were forced to fight off a determined Hurricanes outfit in Canberra.

Each game, in fact, saw the underdogs rally, with even the Highlanders - who had only four wins during the regular season - hanging in against the Blues having already lost Aaron Smith in the lead-up to kick-off.

Read on as we review some of the Super - And Not So Super - action from the opening weekend of the playoffs.


Set-piece stunners a reminder rugby can also be the beautiful game

There were 24 tries scored across the weekend, coming in array of styles and from all areas on the paddock. Waratahs' back-rower Will Harris showed his turn of foot to score from 60 metres out, while the Brumbies scored what has become their obligatory rolling maul five-pointer as they crossed the line four times against the Hurricanes.

But there were three set-piece classics that stood out from the weekend, the first coming on Friday night in Christchurch when the Reds ran a beautiful play just after halftime against the Crusaders.

With Liam Wright shifting the ball to Tate McDermott from the lineout, the scrum-half then threw a cut-out pass to centre Hamish Stewart hard up at the line. With quick hands, Stewart then flicked it on to Lawson Creighton joining from the blind, his movement drawing in Crusaders winger Leicester Fainga'anuku.

With even less time to react, Creighton then popped the ball onto left winger Filipo Daugunu, who ran into a yawning gap on the outside of Jack Goodhue and away to score a sensational five-pointer.

Not to be outdone, the Chiefs produced their own lineout special early on in their commanding win over the Waratahs on Saturday afternoon.

While it was a far simpler move, and probably more about a defensive misread from the Waratahs, it was just as easy on the eye as scrum-half and skipper Brad Weber sprinted 25 metres and squeezed his way between two covering NSW defenders to score under the sticks.

The Chiefs threw the lineout past the 15 to fly-half Bryn Gatland, who then shaped as if he was going to pass back inside to winger Jonah Lowe. Instead, he found Weber on the wrap-around from the lineout, the scrum-half slicing between Tom Horton, who had been sucked in by Gatland, and Lalakai Foketi to fly into the backfield and away to the line.

The final lineout special of the weekend was scored by the Blues, who used some of their key strike weapons to give Beauden Barrett a second try against the Highlanders on Saturday night.

And it may have also given an early glimpse at what an All Blacks 10-12-13 combo could look like this year, as Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane also combined to help put Barrett over.

The Blues began with a similar setup to the Reds with Finlay Christie playing at first-receiver, the No.9 then throwing a cut-out pass to No. 8 Hoskins Sotutu. With multiple options at the line, Sotutu opted to throw another cut-out pass to Roger Tuivasa-Sheck who tore through the Highlanders' defence, before he then offloaded to a flying Rieko Ioane outside him.

While the outside centre probably could have sprinted away to the line himself, he took no chances and instead offloaded to the equally speedy Barrett, who ran away to slide in under the sticks.

While Quinn Tupaea is gathering great support as the All Blacks No. 12, Tuivasa-Sheck's experience playing alongside both Barrett and Ioane could yet see him handed a Test debut against Ireland next month.

For now, though, it's all about the Brumbies for Tuivasa-Sheck and the Blues, the two teams to meet at Eden Park on Saturday night.

Brumbies show resilience, have a good one in Hooper

Many years ago, a fella by the name of Michael Hooper began his Super Rugby career in Canberra. It was clear to see from the outset that Hooper was something special, but he would soon return to Sydney to really cement his career at the Waratahs.

Nine years on, the Brumbies have uncovered another talented Hooper, albeit in a vastly different form and with notably less fanfare than the Wallabies skipper.

Twenty-one-year-old Tom Hooper was sensational against the Hurricanes on Saturday night, as the Brumbies fought back from an early 14-3 scoreline and the red-carding of centre Len Ikitau.

Hooper didn't do anything flashy, he just rolled up the sleeves and got through the tough work of a hardened Super Rugby veteran, something you wouldn't expect of a second-year Super Rugby player.

A natural lock, Hooper is equally adept on the blindside of the scrum where he played on Saturday night. He finished the match with a game-high 13 tackles, adding 31 metres from eight runs for good measure.

Hooper typified what was a gutsy Brumbies comeback and would have been a deserved man-of-the-match had that honour not gone to Tom Banks.

In what was a gripping quarterfinal contest, Dan McKellar's side showed the resilience that has typified his tenure in Canberra, ensuring they advanced to face the Blues in a match where they are likely to welcome back star back-rower Rob Valetini. That may mean Hooper is benched, but there is still so much to like about the young Brumbies forward.

There was also a moment on Saturday night that showed the growth in Noah Lolesio's game, too, and that Dave Rennie's message from last year's Bledisloe series might at last be getting through.

Midway through the second half the Brumbies pinched a Hurricanes lineout; but instead of looking to shift the ball wide amid the increasingly miserable conditions, Lolesio dropped the ball onto his boot in behind the Hurricanes right winger, finding the line deep inside the visitors' red zone.

Throughout last year's Bledisloe series, Rennie lamented the Wallabies' inability to see the space in behind the All Blacks' defence, Australia unable to kick efficiently to create pressure.

If Saturday night is anything to go by, Lolesio at last might be seeing that space.


Waratahs growing pains on show as season ends

It was always going to be a difficult assignment for the Waratahs in Hamilton, but they certainly didn't make things easy on themselves either.

After a beautiful early try, which Ben Donaldson laid on for Dylan Pietsch with a deft grubber kick, the Waratahs increasingly became their worst enemy as they grassed the final pass after a break or were let down by poor clean-outs at the breakdown.

Then it all completely fell apart as they tried to shift the ball wide from deep inside their own 22. Fly-half Tane Edmed, who had earlier dragged two kickable penalties wide, threw a terrible pass to Donaldson, who fumbled it on to Mark Nawaqanitawase. The big winger was unable to collect the loose ball, knocking it forward himself into the path of Alex Nankivell, who simply toed the ball through into the in-goal to score a vital try, six minutes short of halftime.

Having absorbed a significant amount of pressure, the Waratahs would have been far better served by clearing their own 22, rather than trying to run it out.

The 39-15 defeat was a rough way to end what has been a brilliant resurgence from the Waratahs under Darren Coleman, but they will have learned plenty from their first playoffs appearance since 2018.

Ikitau tackle definitely a red, but what about Franks?

As previously mentioned, the Brumbies lost centre Len Ikitau after just 22 minutes against the Hurricanes.

There really could have been no debating the decision either, with Ikitau catching Hurricanes fly-half Aidan Morgan flush on the head with his right shoulder, the Brumbies centre paying the price for not lowering his tackle height despite what some argued were mitigating factors on the part of teammate Nic White.

Curiously, Morgan was not taken off for an HIA assessment. Surely the fact the vision showed shoulder on head connection, and that Ikitau was sent off, meant that Morgan required an assessment by the independent doctor at GIO Stadium?

That was a failure both of the officials and Hurricanes medical staff, who should have brought Morgan from the field to be checked over.

Just two minutes later, Hurricanes prop Owen Franks was perhaps fortunate not to suffer the same fate as he clashed heads with Brumbies fly-half Noah Lolesio.

Franks was saved by vision that showed his first point of contact was chest on chest, but the fact that he too had in no way dropped his bodyheight, made head contact at force, and that the tackle was also late, had the local fans incensed he too was not permanently removed from the match.

Lolesio, thankfully, was brought from the field for a consultation, which only further put the failure of Morgan's incident into the spotlight.