Super Rugby Rebooted: Forget ruck laws, high tackles still lacking consistency

Super Rugby Round 2 got off to a flyer with the Blues and Highlanders providing the standout game of the weekend in a high octane performance, while the colour of cards shown, or the lack of, has us questioning if high tackles will be refereed consistently throughout the season.

These are the big stories of Super Rugby Round 2.

When will the Blues ever beat a New Zealand side again?

It's a question worth asking given the Blues always appeared to have the edge on the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday night.

In what was easily the standout game of Round 2, the two New Zealand sides scored two tries apiece, going tit for tat, until Akira Ioane landed a key blow for the visitors on the stroke of halftime. But Tana Umaga's side could muster only one further five-pointer after the break, again scored by Ioane, while the Highlanders crossed three times to condemn the Blues to a 10th loss in 11 games against fellow Kiwi opposition -- their only semblance of dignity a draw against the Chiefs last season.

Had it not been for the sin-binning of replacement Antonio Kiri Kiri, the Aucklanders' long winless run could have been over because, until that point, they had appeared to have an immediate answer for whatever the Highlanders had thrown at them.

The performance of fly-half Bryn Gatland should further soften the blow for the long-suffering supporters in City of Sails. The North harbour fly-half, the son of Wales coach Warren Gatland, finished with a 19-point haul and looked right at home in the No. 10 jersey, mixing his game nicely while freeing up All Blacks Sonny Bill Williams, George Moala and Rieko Ioane outside him.

Still, until they are able to finish off New Zealand opposition inside the final 10 minutes, during a match's most critical moments, doubts will remain about the Blues and the coaching nous of Umaga. Each match seemingly follows a familiar script in which they are often right in the contest before proving unable to close it out.

Kiri Kiri's sin-binning cruelled their chances on this occasion, and he will learn on Monday the length of his suspension as he will face a judicial hearing at 5pm (AEDT).

Forget ruck laws, high tackles still lacking consistency

The Reds needed little more than 20 minutes to reassert themselves as Super Rugby's most ill-disciplined outfit before slumping to a 45-19 thrashing by the Rebels.

And Scott Higginbotham can have few qualms with his red card; indeed, the Reds can count themselves lucky they didn't play with 13 men from the 22nd minute.

Higginbotham's send-off, after consultation between referee Brendon Pickerill and the TMO, was entirely justified. Flying in with his shoulder, Higginbotham clearly made contact with the head of Matt Philip; and he didn't help his cause any further by slamming Philip's head to the ground with his arm around the Rebels lock's head. Under the laws that have now been in play since the backend of 2016, it was certainly worthy of a red.

So too was Lukhan Tui's bodyslam on star Rebels recruit Will Genia. Using his whopping size advantage, Tui threw Genia to the AAMI Park turf with a move more akin to WWE than rugby: it was all Stone Cold Steve Austin, less Brian 'The Chiropractor' Lima, and Genia's face connected with the ground at some force.

Tui was later cited with the offence deemed to have met the 'red card' threshold, and he will face a judiciary hearing on Tuesday. Higginbotham, meanwhile, has been suspended for three weeks.

Where the Reds can however hold a gripe, and what should be of concern to Super Rugby players, coaches, supporters and lawmakers alike, is the lack of consistency for which the laws continue to be applied.

On Saturday in Christchurch, if the law was to be applied correctly, then Crusaders prop Michael Alaalatoa should have received a red card for a swinging arm that caught Damian McKenzie around the head. At force, it certainly warranted a red card but Alaalatoa avoided sanction beyond the penalty he conceded.

The SANZAAR judiciary process has been, at times, little better than a lottery over the past few years, and it seems we must be prepared for a similar scenario for on-field decisions.

The simple answer is for players to place a greater focus on their tackling technique to reduce the risk of a card as much as possible. Otherwise, just like the Reds, teams must be prepared to take the good with the bad.

Referee Ben O'Keefee's decision not to card Alaalatoa became even more contentious when he later awarded the hosts a controversial penalty try and sent Chiefs replacement Lachlan Boshier to the sin bin for a high tackle on Ryan Crotty as the centre dived low to score in the corner.

Not only did the twin decision, made in consultation with TMO Aaron Paterson, alter the shape of the game late in the piece but also so low was Crotty in diving for the corner that it was hard to disagree with Chiefs coach Colin Cooper's assessment: "I don't know how else you could have stopped [Crotty from trying to score]. I felt it was under the shoulder, and sort of rode up. Both guys were pretty low. How do you stop it?" That said, it is equally hard to disagree with Crusaders coach Scott Robertson who said that O'Keeffe had ruled to the letter of the law. "It is pretty clear if you hit the head, you are going to get a yellow and they ruled on it," Robertson said. "If he is in the motion of scoring a try, you get a yellow and it is a penalty try. It is tough, but it is just how it is now."

Bulls look far more assured than in 2017

John Mitchell is believed to be the man who inspired the change of mindset and playing style at the Lions. During his short, but rather tumultuous time in Johannesburg he taught them the importance of playing at high tempo -- with and without the ball.

He also gave them the freedom and courage to have a go and back their skills on attack. When it's on to attack in your 22, have a go. But that doesn't mean neglecting the fundamentals of the game, or discarding the importance of the set-pieces in the game.

Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin built on that philosophy and steered the Lions to successive finals in the past two seasons. Even now, while they are still quite rusty, the Lions look like the South African team to back even with Ackermann having departed for Gloucester in the Aviva Premiership.

All indications are that Mitchell is instilling the same attitude at the Bulls if their gutsy win over the Hurricanes at Loftus on Saturday is anything to go by. The Bulls ground out the result, but they were superior in almost all attacking stats against the 2016 champions.

This was their first match of the campaign, but the 2018 Bulls look a lot more assured and confident than the hesitant bunch of 2017. This win will also boost their belief in what Mitchell wants to achieve this year, and they could easily be the surprise package in the South African conference.