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Andy Burt

Andy Burt is a Wellington-based writer for allblacks.com and co-host of the All Blacks Podcast. He covers all levels of the domestic game in New Zealand and monitors the international game closely.

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OPINION: The conference gap is closing

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Andy Burt     26 Feb 2019     Getty Images

This time last year we were wondering if we would ever see an Australian team taste victory over a New Zealand side again.

Aussie teams were in the midst of a miserable 40 match losing streak against New Zealand opposition in which it seemed like they had forgotten how to win against their Kiwi cousins. The starkest example being the Waratahs who found a way to lose to the after leading the Crusaders 29-0. 

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Fast forward one year and there’s no doubting that the tide is turning. And turning fast.

In the opening round of Super Rugby we saw the Hurricanes cling onto a one point victory over the Waratahs in front of a packed house at Brookvale Oval. If it wasn’t for an extremely rare shank from Bernard Foley, the Waratahs would have picked up the ‘W’.

That same round we saw the Rebels and Brumbies play out a highly competitive and entertaining match with the Rebels winning 34-27. In total nine tries were scored in a see-saw battle that was as skilled and exciting as anything the New Zealand conference could muster. The return of Quade Cooper added even more intrigue to the clash and his hushing of the Canberra crowd following the final whistle showed that there is still plenty of passion in Australian rugby.

On paper, Brad Thorn’s Reds side looked to be the weakest of Australia’s four teams. After a bye in the opening round they had the tough ask of opening their Super Rugby campaign at the Highlanders fortress of Forsyth-Barr Stadium.

No one on this side of the ditch gave Thorn’s troops hope of getting close to the Highlanders. A poll on the Super Rugby NZ facebook page even had a resounding 92 percent of respondents picking a Highlanders victory.

The Reds took no notice of the pre-match punditry and pushed the Highlanders hard throughout the full 80 minutes before coming up agonisingly short 36-31.
It was a pulsating encounter and one that introduced New Zealand fans to the prodigious talents of 18-year-old centre Jordan Petaia.

Petaia is the player Australia has been waiting to come along for a long time. An immensely skilled and physical ball runner, Petaia racked up 103 run metres (almost double the best Highlander) and bumped off Ben Smith in one of his many impressive carries.

But the Australian performance of the opening two rounds belonged to the Brumbies. In Canberra last weekend they completely out-played, out-thought and out skilled the Chiefs in a storming 54-17 victory.

It was a huge statement from the Brumbies, and when taking into account their first round loss to the Rebels, shows just how much the Australian conference has improved.

There was plenty of heartache when the Western Force were removed from Super Rugby. But that decision looks to be paying dividends now as the standard of the Australian conference gets better.
We are just two rounds deep into Super Rugby but one thing is already clear - there will not be an easy game against Australian opposition.

This weekend we are set for a trans-Tasman bonanza with three clashes that will give a guide of the decreasing gap between the Kiwi and Aussie conferences. It kicks off on Friday night when the Hurricanes host the Brumbies in front of what should be a hot Palmerston North crowd. Later on Friday, the Rebels host the Highlanders in Melbourne before the Crusaders look to extend their Super Rugby winning run to 18 matches when they face the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday.

After a couple of seasons on struggle street, all signs point to a resumption of the classic New Zealand vs Australian rivalry. Make sure you get to the ground or tune into Sky Sport to see the ANZAC rivalry heat back up.