Today, we should have been enjoying watching the All Blacks face off against Wales, but the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to that. Thankfully though, New Zealand’s impressive efforts to combat the pandemic meant that they wee the first country to bring back professional rugby, allowing us to still get a great match today in the form of a South Island derby: the Highlanders hosting the Crusaders in the 4ᵗʰ round of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
After a tight start, the Crusaders took the lead through yet another try for Will Jordan – playing at wing this week – but they looked a little off the pace of their previous matches and tries from Shannon Frizell and Ngane Punivai saw the Highlanders go into the break ahead 17-14. The home team continued to be the stronger team after the break, but butchered what looked a certain try and were made to rue their mistake as Crusaders flanker Tom Christie – on his first start of the tournament – crossed to give his team the lead. This sparked a change in momentum as the Crusaders began to hit their stride and , though Mitch Hunt hit back with a penalty, Sevu Reece crossed in the corner to open up a 6 point lead. As the clock ticked down, Christie scored again to secure the victory, while in the final play of the game Will Jordan (who else?!) managed to collect his own chip by the narrowest of margins, allowing him a clear run to the line from halfway to seal a 20-40 victory and put them top of the table ahead of their home match against fellow 3-0 franchise the Blues next week.
A 20-point margin of victory really doesn’t tell the story of the match, but it highlighted something important: how clinical the Crusaders are. Over the first 48-odd minutes, they looked rather ordinary, and looked very beatable despite having the push on at the scrum. Will Jordan’s opener should have been an easy finish – if the ball even needed to get that wide – but David Havili entered the back line too flat, which saw him have to get out of contact rather than power through a gap like he did for his try last week, then everyone after him continued to move sideways before passing, allowing the defence to drift across and take all of Jordan’s space.
Then came the moment of the match. Jona Nareki got the ball in the Crusaders 22 with 2 men outside him and just Richie Mo’unga in any position to possibly influence the outcome. Nareki drew Mo’unga, but then it looks like he became selfish as he dummied the pass a couple of times as if trying to make Mo’unga drift to the men outside, but Mo’unga read the dummies, planted himself and put in a thundering hit on Nareki that brought an end to the chance. A couple of minutes later, Tom Christie scored at the other end of the pitch.
Momentum is an important thing in sport, and the Crusaders are so successful because they get the momentum early and hold onto it by taking and finishing their chances, and it’s exactly the same with the All Blacks. To beat them, you need to start big to get the momentum, defend to the death and ensure that you come away with points every time you get a chance… and then hope they don’t have a moment of magic!
The little general
Aaron Smith is widely regarded as one of the best halfbacks in the modern game. In this match, he showed why.
The Highlanders scrum half controlled the game for his team, making sure that they were playing the rugby where they wanted to be and communicating with referee Mitch Fraser throughout,without pushing things too far. But his big moment came after 24 minutes, when a Highlanders lineout was overthrown. Last week, I wrote about the need to stay switched on, and that is exactly what Smith did here, not just going where he expected the ball to be, but reacting to the overthrow faster than anyone to snap up the loose ball and break deep into Crusaders territory. In doing so, he put the team on the front foot behind the Crusaders defence, which the Highlanders were able to take advantage of to score the go-ahead try.
At 31, he still has a couple more good years in him. It will be interesting to see if he can hold onto the All Blacks 9 shirt through the entire World Cup cycle despite the quality of competition.
The prodigal son?
Just a few weeks ago, the Highlanders were beating the Chiefs at the death with a late drop goal from Bryn Gatland against his father’s team. While Gatland was not in the initial 23 for that match, he has remained in the matchday squad since, but has had limited time on the pitch. With the title already looking somewhat out of sight, I think that now is the time to look at giving him a starting role.
Mitch Hunt has been doing a good job of keeping the Highlanders in the game and controlled the team well, but despite some great attacking talent they just haven’t looked dangerous enough. Meanwhile, the team has had 3 different starters at fullback over 3 games… why not make it 4 from 4 by creating a 10/15 axis of Hunt and Gatland.
With the way the breakdown is leading to penalties against both sides, the territory game is becoming even more important, and having another playmaker to help with that can only benefit a team. Likewise, it will also allow Hunt to take the ball to the line even more as Gatland can fill in at first receiver if he is unavailable for the next phase. It will also probably benefit players with hopes of playing for the All Blacks as it will see them playing in a dual playmaker system similarly to what they may be playing internationally, while that extra playmaker also may be able to help the exciting wingers get more chances.
Will Aaron Mauger give this a try? Only time will tell.