Trans-Tasman R5: Recapping the Waratahs fiasco & more card confusion

The final round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman has been run and won with the Blues and Highlanders securing their places in this week's final.

With final spots on the line, there were tears and cheers across the weekend after the Crusaders fell a few points short of the necessary total in their win over the Rebels, while the Highlanders made easy work of the Brumbies and the Blues secured their place with a tight win over the Force.

Some truly terrible referring decisions on Friday night took away from the spectacle as the Reds went down in a hammering to the Hurricanes, while the Waratahs' horror season finally came to an end in a mauling to the Chiefs.

Read on as we review some of the big talking points from the weekend's action.

FRONT OFFICE MUST TAKE BLAME FOR WARATAHS SEASON FROM HELL

After 13 straight losses, the season from hell is finally over for the Waratahs after they succumbed to a 40-7 hammering to the Chiefs at Brookvale Oval on Saturday night.

Like so many of their matches this season, the Tahs showed promise in the early minutes, keeping their opposition mostly at bay and headed into the sheds at halftime trailing 14-7. The youthful side showed flashes of promise when fullback Mark Nawaqanitawase soared over the Chiefs' Caleb Trask to claim a cross-field kick fly-half that Will Harrison had sent sailing into the air.

It would be the only highlight of the night though, with the Chiefs scoring 26 unanswered points, including five tries to winger Sean Wainui, after the Tahs yet again failed to hold back the flood gates.

Their loss means the men in sky blue are the first Australian Super Rugby team to finish a complete season winless after they failed to knock off any other Australian teams in eight games in Super Rugby AU before succumbing to five straight losses to the Kiwi franchises. The Western Force lost all eight Super Rugby AU matches last year in a shortened, COVID hit season.

The blame for the Tahs' horrible season can't all lay at the feet of the players, however, with the front office staff needing to take accountability for just how far the franchise has fallen since their title-winning season in 2014.

Over 1800 caps in Super Rugby experience left the side from 2019 to 2020, including Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps and Sekope Kepu in 2019, with Kurtley Beale joining the exodus partway through 2020, and Michael Hooper and Rob Simmons leaving at the end of last season. It left little for Waratahs coach Rob Penney to work with and after just four poor performances in 2021 he was given the boot.

Really the signs of dysfunction at the Waratahs began long before Penney arrived, with Daryl Gibson walking out on the club after signing a one-year extension in 2019, while former chief executive Andrew Hore departed for Auckland just months after signing Penney on. The exodus left the club in tatters.

Former Waratah Morgan Turinui didn't hold back in his criticism of the franchise's mismanagement, laying the blame of the failed season squarely with the front office.

"Let's not forget that the real reason the Waratahs have struggled this year is four years of mismanagement of lists - recruitment, retention, talent identification pathways," Turinui said on Stan Sport following the Waratahs' 13th and final loss for 2021.

"We're judging them on on-field performance on the back of that. So that's the context, right."

If the club hopes to turn their fortunes around, the boardroom must take accountability, admit their mistakes and hope to hold onto the only green shoots they have with young stars such as Izaia Perese, Will Harrison, Angus Bell and Lachie Swinton leading the charge into the future.

They've already got a fight on their hands to keep Perese and Swinton at the club past 2022 with both player's contracts set to expire and their stocks in the international market surely rising, especially after they were both named in the Wallabies squad to face France next month.

The club should be determined to keep these players alongside Bell and Harrison as building blocks to turn the struggling franchise around. According to former Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, who led NSW to their only championship in 2014, they need to keep faith in their young stars and build around them or they won't recover.

"There is a core group of players that are here at the Waratahs right now that they need to keep and bring through because the scars of the grief that they've been getting will be the birth of the successes that they will have later on because they won't want to go through this again," Cheika said.

With chairman Roger Davis stepping down following the failures earlier this season, there are signs the Waratahs are taking a new direction following Tony Crawford's move into the position, but there remains a long road ahead if they are to return to winning ways.

REDS FINISH MEMORABLE SEASON ON LOW NOTE, BUT REFEREEING DIDN'T HELP

One of the big issues in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman -- aside from the lopsided scoreboard -- has been the different interpretation of the laws between the Australian and New Zealand referees.

And it reared its head again on Friday in Wellington as New Zealand referee James Doleman opted for a yellow card, rather than a red card, for Tyrel Lomax's dangerous tackle on Reds prop Fotu Fotuaika.

Lomax collected Fotuaika on the head with his shoulder with force and had made no genuine attempt to wrap his arms. Still, Doleman and his team of assistants ruled that given Fotuaika's low bodyheight, there was enough mitigation for Lomax to be issued with only a yellow card.

The only problem with that circumstance was that Fotuaika's bodyheight had been low throughout his carry, not merely when he moved closer to impact as the high contact protocols were updated to include by World Rugby.

SANZAAR is yet to release its judicial notices from the weekend as yet, so as it stands Lomax may be spared further sanction and thus that would vindicate the decision of Dolman and his crew.

But Reds coach Brad Thorn appeared a little bit miffed with both that decision, so too one that saw Bryce Hegarty yellow-carded and Queensland concede a penalty try after the fullback batted the ball over the dead-ball line with his hands in a desperate bid to deny Ngani Laumape a try.

Watching the replay in slow motion there was no doubt that Hegarty had knocked the ball dead, illegally, but given the speed at which the two were travelling and the ball's final high bounce, there was surely enough mitigation for perhaps just the penalty try to be awarded. Unfortunately, that is not how rugby's laws are written.

Whatever the case, it was a brutal call for a Queensland team that had been right in the contest up until that point ... and then went onto lose 43-14.

DO WE FEEL SORRY FOR THE CRUSADERS?

When the Crusaders ran in two tries inside five minutes at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday afternoon it looked for inevitable that they would comfortably score the 33-point win over the Rebels that they needed to overtake the Highlanders and advance to the final.

But then Braydon Ennor dropped the ball with the line wide open and no one even close to him, and Andrew Kellaway sprinted back to drag Will Jordan in the corner, and suddenly it was clear it wasn't quite going to be the Crusaders' day.

As it was, a 52-26 win was still a comprehensive way to finish the year and the Crusaders could instead lament their poor second half against the Force from Round 4; they also got the best of the Brumbies first up in Round 1.

Still, it's hard to feel too downtrodden about a season when you won all five games and only missed the final by seven points on for-and-against.

"Extremely proud of our effort and care we showed, preparation for the match, dedication of the boys over the last five weeks," Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said. "But we just didn't take the opportunities that we created ourselves. Plenty of opportunities, seven genuine try opportunities that we didn't take in the game to get the job done.

"The fine margins that define this tournament is a reflection of the structure of that comp."

One man who probably won't be too upset the Crusaders have missed the final will be All Blacks coach Ian Foster.

The extra week's rest for the likes of Richie Mo'unga, Sam Whitelock, Codie Taylor and Will Jordan will be hugely valuable with a massive Test season to come, the All Blacks first assignment being two matches with Fiji and one against Tonga.

TURNS OUT TONY BROWN WAS RIGHT

And so the Highlanders will head to Eden Park on Saturday afternoon, proving Tony Brown to be a man of his word as they defeated each of the Australian sides -- and all but the Force with ease -- to earn their spot in the decider.

The Highlanders have just the one All Black on the park at the moment, but what an All Black Aaron Smith is - he might just be in career-best form.

Smith was brilliant against the Brumbies on Friday night as the Highlanders turned a 14-12 halftime lead into a 33-12 victory.

The Highlanders otherwise have a hard-working pack and a collection of consistent performers who have again united to be greater than the sum of their individual parts - much like the 2015 Highlanders who were Super Rugby champions.

Beating the Blues, who boast a huge pack, at home at Eden Park will be a tough ask, though.

Just as tough will be the decision Rugby Australia administrators come to in regards to a fully united Trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition for 2022.

RA chief executive Andy Marinos said recently a decision would be made before the end of June.

Robust discussions have been taking place for some time now while the different stakeholders within the Australian game each have a different agenda to push, or at least a different set of circumstances they want considered.

And then there is New Zealand Rugby, who has been clear in its desire for the 12-team competition, which includes the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika franchises, to be in place for next season.

It's likely administrators will want Saturday's final to enjoy some clean air, so expect a decision on the 2022 competition structure next week at the earliest. And it wouldn't surprise to see discussions go down right until the 11th hour, if the June cut-off Marinos mentioned is indeed a hard deadline.