Super -- Not So Super -- Rugby Pacific: Brumbies can win it all

Super Rugby Pacific has set course for the finals, with just three rounds of the regular season to go.

Round 12 produced one gigantic victory, two Australian wins on New Zealand soil and a stack of sensational tries in between.

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


Blues blow Rebels off Eden Park

Anyone switching on for a few minutes of the Round 12 opener between the Blues and Rebels in Auckland may have got quite the surprise to see the visitors up 12-0 after only five minutes. Tries for Pone Fa'amausili and Josh Canham will have had coach Kevin Foote thinking his team was at least going to make a contest of it.

But when the siren sounded for halftime some 35 minutes, Foote's men had somehow let in an astonishing seven five-pointers and 47 points in total.

The Blues' attack was as devastating as the Rebels' defence was laughable, and didn't stop at the break as the hosts piled on four more tries and a further 24 points after the break.

It was a particularly happy evening for the Ioane family, with Akira and Rieko grabbing a try-scoring double and hat trick respectively. It also sent a warning to the rest of the competition, that any side that is not prepared to put their bodies on the line in defence will give up a hefty score at Eden Park.

Fantastic Fakatava seals if for Highlanders

What a position the Highlanders are in at scrum-half. Not only do they have the best No. 9 of the past decade in Aaron Smith, but also now the supremely talented Folau Fakatava deputising on the bench.

When Fakatava came on against the Reds in Brisbane with 25 minutes to play, the Highlanders were trailing 19-13. When the siren sounded for fulltime, Fakatava had laid on one try and scored another - and the Highlanders had secured a 27-19 victory.

Fakatava first produced a George Gregan-esque flick pass to put winger Scott Gregory over next to the sticks and give the Highlanders the lead, and then helped to ice the contest by ducking under some Reds defence to score himself.

With dancing feet, a slick pass and a real nose for the tryline, it's easy to see why Fakatava is on the All Blacks radar despite some uncertainty around when he will actually become eligible.

But he will certainly be cleared to play by the time the 2023 Rugby World Cup rolls around, and is likely to put extreme pressure on both Brad Weber and TJ Perenara for the right to be Smith's deputy in France next year.

He has also made a sparkling return from an ACL injury last year and looms as a real x-factor player as the Highlanders make a late rally for the finals after losing seven of their first eight games to start the season.

Brumbies prove they are the real deal

While the Brumbies had dropped only one game ahead of Round 12, there was still the lingering belief that perhaps they weren't in the same league as the Blues or Crusaders, largely because they had yet to win on New Zealand soil.

But there is no longer any doubt that the Brumbies deserve their second-placed position on the ladder - and that they are genuine title contenders - after Dan McKellar's side overwhelmed the Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday night.

From their dominant driving maul, to the control exerted by halves Nic White and Noah Lolesio, and the sublime short passing skills of Rob Valetini, Tom Wright and others, their 38-28 win was even more comfortable than the scoreline suggested.

At no stage did the Brumbies appear to be under any duress, the visitors leading the contest from the seventh minute onwards when Nic White darted down the touchline to catch Chiefs lock Tupou Vaa'i napping.

White's box-kicking was particularly vital to the end result, with the Brumbies able to clear their 22 with ease, while the unrelenting kick-chase of winger Andy Muirhead ensured the Chiefs back three were under constant pressure under the high ball.

But the moment of the match again came via the outstanding Rob Valetini, who continued his brilliant form with yet another superb showing in the back-row for the visitors. Having lined up for three big carries in the lead-up to Len Ikitau's try, Valetini then cut through the heart of the Chiefs defence on 55 minutes, the back-rower drawing the fullback to put Billy Pollard over.

While the Brumbies will have convinced all in New Zealand that they are genuine contenders for the title, their three straight wins over Kiwi opposition have also quietened the debate around the Wallabies coaching succession planning.

While McKellar has three victories over the Kiwis this year, Reds coach Brad Thorn has none; the Queenslanders' season quickly slipping away after they had put themselves in a strong position prior to Super Round.

But the Wallabies position will be the furthest thing from McKellar's mind right now, with the Crusaders heading to Canberra on Friday night. Win that match, and the Brumbies will have all but secured a top two finish for the finals.

That will put the Brumbies at home until at least the final week of the competition, with their home match against the Blues in Round 14 likely to determine who finishes on top.

Their squad in rude health, the Brumbies' strength is their depth. On the weekend they brought both Allan Alaalatoa and Scott Sio off the bench in the second half, having not missed a beat at scrum time beforehand.

Keep everyone on the paddock and reproduce what they did in Hamilton and the Brumbies can most definitely win it all.

Leali'ifano joins legendary group

Christian Leali'ifano has nothing left to prove in the rugby world.

Having already come back from leukemia to play at the 2019 World Cup, Leali'ifano will long be remembered after he calls time on his career for a fighting spirit that is adored from Canberra to Belfast and now in Auckland.

So it was fitting to see Leali'ifano surpass 1000 Super Rugby points at Mt. Smart Stadium on Saturday night, the moment made even more emotional after his son, Jeremiah, delivered the tee from which the Pasifika No. 10 eclipsed the milestone mark.

Leali'ifano planted a big kiss on Jeremiah before he ran back off the field, and it was hard to imagine a dry eye in the house.

Leali'ifano is the first player of Pasifika origin to score 1000 points in Super Rugby and joins a legendary list that includes the likes of Dan Carter, Stirling Mortlock, Morne Steyn, Beauden Barrett and Bernard Foley.


Rebels defence nothing short of pathetic

Melbourne got off to the perfect start in Auckland, scoring two tries inside five minutes. But what followed thereafter was not up to Super Rugby standard, as they shipped 47 points in one half.

Some of the Rebels' tackling was embarrassing, with players not willing to put their bodies on the line to stop the free-running Blues. What will have concerned coach Kevin Foote the most is that the Blues went through the heart of the Rebels' defence on multiple occasions; they didn't just expose them on the fringes.

While the Rebels weren't expected to worry the Blues, they had shown enough in recent weeks to suggest they could at least keep the scoreline from blowing out. But once the Blues got rolling it was clear that wasn't going to happen.

The Rebels remain in the hunt for eighth place but with games against the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders to come, they look destined to miss the playoffs - and they probably wouldn't fancy another trip to Auckland anyway.

Air has been sucked from the Reds' season

At 17-0 up over the Hurricanes early in Super Rugby, things were looking up for Queensland Reds. But from the moment they failed to play the whistle and Bailyn Sullivan tore away to score, it's seemingly been one lacklustre effort after another.

The Reds again found themselves up early against the Highlanders on Friday night, the visitors having had two players yellow carded, yet Brad Thorn's side were unable to really capitalise on the advantage, only building a 12-0 lead.

And when Thomas Umaga-Jensen cantered through some feeble Reds defence, you could tell they were going to be in for a real battle for the remainder of the match.

As it turned out, the Highlanders got far more out of their bench and the Reds were left to rue some poor decision-making.

James O'Connor's return can't come soon enough.