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George Kruis smiling in a hasta interview

A weekend of resilience, retribution and one final run out

Season showdown reminds us all of the many faces of elite sport

What a weekend for rugby. For the bleary eyed UK-based viewers, it was a perfect curtain-raiser out in a blustery Eden Park as the live-wire, star-studded Blues from Aukland took on their juggernaut cousins from the South Island as the Crusaders seemed to march with an air of inevitability towards an eleventh Super Rugby title.

It was a family affair as two of the Barrett clan in Beauden and Scott went up against each other for the first time in a final and it was the grit and willingness to do the dirty work so affiliated with Scott, the rangy back-row-cum-second-row that won the day. The archetype of this kind of player, previously reserved for players that were too slow to play back row and too light or short to play in the second row has now transformed into a must-have for any team wishing to be taken seriously and proved so throughout the rest of the weekends’ games.

Scott Barrett was everywhere, proving a huge lineout asset in attack and defence, causing havoc for the Blues and preventing them from getting any set piece consistency, then his long arms reaching over and snaffling the ball at the breakdown, (rather liberally policed by another referee who decided that quick ball and clean presentation should be sacrificed in favour of a free for all, bar room brawl style breakdown making for a better game….let me stop there before I get into a whole different article) again preventing the Blues from getting the quick ball they so craved and desired.

Scott Robertson breakdances after the Crusaders won the Super Rugby final. (ABC News image)

Anyway, the Crusaders were deserved victors and made for a great advert for Southern Hemisphere rugby. A desire to play from everywhere, an understanding of space that still seems to befuddle the North Hemisphere and a quick calculation and manipulation of the referee that prevented one of the most exciting back lines the game has seen since the Blues trotted out the likes of Spencer, Tuitupo, Muliaina, Rococoko, Caucau, and Doug Howlett in the same team from ever getting past a phase or two due to their insufferably slow ball.

A clinical, yet somewhat cynical team, berated for consistent success with a monopoly on their own largely homegrown spine of players…who does that remind you of?

Onto the Premiership final, a showcase of the two best and most consistent teams throughout the season and a true battle of the giants. The immovable object of the clinical, somewhat cynical Saracens (see what I did there…?) came up against the irresistible force of Steve Borthwick’s Leicester Tigers. Two sides that effectively came from “worst to first” as Sarries came from the depths of being ostracised to the Championship to conquering all before them, only faltering to the equally dominant and no less intimidating Leicester side.

Steve Borthwick arrived with big wraps having shown a next level penchant for lineout nausery at international level with Japan and England as Eddie Jones’ associate, before taking his first big role as the number one guy and he has lived up to the hype. To finish the league top having only avoided relegation as a technicality the year before was a huge endorsement of his ability to do things long-term, to get to the final showed an ability to gameplan and get the balance of rest vs. training correct to a T. To then manage the game to the extent that they did, leading for most of it, before Freddie Burns, everyone’s favourite player from outside of their own club, slotting the best drop-goal since 2003 to win his first Premiership Trophy and put to bed some demons that would have got the better of many lesser men, was a story to warm the cockles of even the most ardent Saracens’ supporters.

Premiership winner Freddie Burns lifting the trophy. (BBC Sport image)

The game itself was nothing short of a battle. Billy Vunipola was a behemoth all day, carrying with vigour and violence at every opportunity, the fact he was contained as much as he was is testament to the performance of Man of the Match, Jasper Wiese. Richard Wigglesworth who, at 40 years old, played the majority of the match against his previous club and had a game-altering charge down and who’s heart rate would barely have fluttered when realising their influential 10, George Ford was crock and wouldn’t return and the game was therefore his to run for the remaining 40+ minutes.

A final word for the aforementioned Freddie Burns, who would have half-expected to have been left on the bench for 78 minutes as much as playing over half the game and being tasked with winning it. A moment that all playmakers will say they have been dreaming of. The commentary echoes across parks and pitches across the world on Saturday and Sunday mornings as kids hit their drop-goals over/under/around oversized goal posts but who will never experience it for real. Freddie, the everyman of the Premiership, the man who so famously was labelled a “clown” after having the ball knocked from his hand when prematurely celebrating a try. An experience that no one would begrudge him spending the rest of his career backing away into the bush of obscurity, Homer Simpson-GIF style, but no.

In a career blighted by being constantly ensconced in George Ford’s shadow, it was as if the same fates that led to Freddie following Ford to Bath, then the reversal happening when he was signed by Leicester, relegating Burns to bench player both times, felt they had taken their pound of flesh and it was finally time for our mate Freddie Burns, in his honest Adidas World Cup boots, to have his moment. A moment eerily similar to that of ’03 as, like Jonny, Freddie hits the DG but then realises he has seconds left to play and so in a delirious haze of desperation to celebrate a moment but also encourage everyone to “stay switched on”, he ends up twirling and gesticulating to all who’ll listen. It had the romance and almost (that word again) inevitability about it of a Disney film. Chapeaux to you rugby gods.

Finally, there was Sunday. The Barbarians, much like the Lions touring side, one of the few remaining bastions of the amateur era, visited Twickenham with more than a soupçon of French flair in their midst, bolstered by some Fijian weaponry in the backline and a former Saracens engine room in the pack. One part Australian bullock, a specimen, a monster of a man with the touch and balance of a surgeon and ballerina, respectively, Will Skelton defies logic. So when he was sent off with 45 minutes of the game remaining, what dreamy, faint hope of Barbarian victory to match their first half lead seemed ill-informed at best, at worst irresponsible gambling even with a gentleman’s agreement. However, what it did provide was a platform for the other former Saracens engine-room-man to showcase a set of skills that saw him bring success to almost everything he touched, from a rugby perspective, certainly.

George Kruis, playing in his last game as a professional, adorned with a sock from Saracens, the team that gave him a chance and then a career, and Dorking RFC, where he learned to love the game that brought him such success. Going up against a young England side, Kruis showed what made him 45 cap England player and British and Irish Lion and probably highlighted what his former international side were missing. He was a constant thorn in the side of the England set piece. The lineout, which he used to boss so masterfully, was shaky at best for the home side, whilst the Baabaas enjoyed great ball by dropping to a 5 or 6 man and reliably hitting front and middle ball with a drive, sucking in England defenders and negating the handicap of losing Skelton to a red card.

It was a masterful blend of grunt work whilst allowing the flair players to do exactly what they were there to do and they did that with aplomb. Damien Penaud showing the sort of form that he displayed with France and Clerment Auvergne when he first burst on the scene and the young scrum half, Le Garrec, further announcing himself on the scene off the bench with a couple of breaks that were matched in their beauty only by his brace of kick assists. Penaud, Ollivon, Hastoy, Spring would all have been worthy recipients of the Player of the Match award, however, no one would begrudge Kruis being awarded the gong, as was evidenced by their behaviour towards him post-match, not to mention his 100% success rate off the kicking tee.

In short, rugby as a sport has been nothing short of maligned in the last few years. Covid causing numerous predominantly finance-based issues, overly cautious coaches exploiting stale laws to come up with sluggish, stagnant gameplans, over-zealous officials threatening to turn it into a non-contact sport all could have seen the game we love disappear along with the likes of Freddie Burns’ career. Instead, we saw two kiwi teams (both lucky to have beaten resurgent and more than just competitive Australian teams on their way to the final) play out an exhausting, high tempo final whilst not resorting to the Super Touch of yesteryear. A Premiership final that was as physical and brutal as Test Matches of the past. Finally, a young England side put to the sword by a Moscow Mule fuelled Barbarians side that. All of the games had romance, skill and feel-good factor in abundance.

Yes, the lower leagues in the UK need attention. Yes, there are many plenty abled players facing unemployment due to stringent and probably under-funded salary caps. Yes, head injury, player fatigue, and a burgeoning fixture list show no sign in easing up. But as a spectacle the game remains in a hugely attractive position.

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