The second half of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off with the reverse fixtures from Round 1 and the Hurricanes hosting the Blues in Wellington. It was a match notable for Beauden Barrett’s return to Sky Stadium after leaving for the Blues, and home fans were ecstatic to see him beaten on the outside by Ngani Laumape just minutes into the match for the opening try. Barrett soon got the chance to laugh back as he slipped through a gap to score on 10 minutes. Another charge from Laumape saw Emoni Narawa sent to the bin, but the Blues emerged from this unscathed, before Dalton Papali’i was driven over at the other end. Reed Prinsep crossed for the Hurricanes’ 2ⁿᵈ try of the game and on the stroke of halftime, Jordie Barrett kicked a penalty to level the scores at 15-15.
The tries kept coming after halftime, with Dane Coles running a clever line to go over from short range just a few minutes into the half, but the Blues fought back and scored 2 more tries through Akira Ioane and Kurt Eklund. As the clock ticked into the final minutes it looks like the Blues were going to get back to winning ways, but a late lineout drive saw replacement hooker Asafo Aumua cross to level the scores, with Jordie Barrett nailing the conversion to seal a 29-27 victory and spoil his older brother’s return home.
He came in like a wrecking ball
I’ve noted a couple of times throughout the tournament how the Hurricanes appeared to be struggling to utilise Ngani Laumape, but appeared to be getting closer last week. Well this week, everything clipped. Laumape showed a surprising turn of pace on a couple of attacks out wide – beating Beauden Barrett around the outside just a couple of minutes in – and combined this well with his monstrous physicality to devastating effect.
The ‘Canes centre finished the game with 17 carries for 160 metres, with 4 clean breaks and 5 defenders beaten, and was unlucky not to get a second try shortly after his first as 3 men combined to stop him inches short, leading to Narawa’s yellow card when he refused to roll away. It genuinely felt like every time he got the ball he was making big yards to put the team on the front foot. Even defensively he had an impact, only making 3 tackles but with some of them coming in key moments as the ‘Canes fought to come from behind.
I always felt that leaving Laumape out of the Rugby World Cup squad was a mistake. If he can keep up this form, only an idiot would not bring him back into the squad.
While Laumape was virtually unstoppable in this match, I also think that he was helped by an error in selection from the Blues.
Harry Plummer at 12 creates a great playmaking axis with Otere Black and Beauden Barrett, but I was personally expecting the more defensively solid TJ Faiane to get the start. Even before we knew who the ‘Canes were playing at centre, you just have to look at their options – Laumape, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Billy Proctor and Vince Aso – to know that they will be coming with a physical approach. Then you have to account for players like Ardie Savea and Ben Lam… this is a physical Hurricanes team.
Now Plummer didn’t do bad, but he did only complete 8/10 tackles in his 45 minutes on the pitch, during which time Laumape ran riot. When Faiane took over at 12, Laumape’s impact on the game was lessened, but too late as he had already done the damage.
With the Chiefs visiting Eden Park next week, the coaches have a big decision to make at 12.
If Scotland want to be successful in the coming years then I hope they are paying some serious attention to Finlay Christie. The 24-year-old was born in Peebles, Scotland, but moved to New Zealand when he was 7. Having previously played for the Chiefs and ‘Canes, he is onto his 3ʳᵈ Super Rugby franchise, but looks in a great position to cement a starting spot ahead of Sam Nock and Jonathan Ruru.
Christie controls the game so well, keeping a good tempo to the phases, and while his kicking game isn’t elite, I would argue that it is better than current Scottish internationals Ali Price and George Horne. But even more so, he is an accomplished defender, with this game highlighting his skills as he repeatedly snagged Ardie Savea and single-handedly stopped him carrying off the back of scrums, while he also put in a fine cover tackle on opposite number TJ Perenara. Watching him play, I’m confident that he could quickly establish himself in the Scottish XV if he were to move North.
But more than that, this game really highlighted to me a certain ability to just be a nuisance. This doesn’t surprise me too much given the time he spent playing at the Hurricanes as backup to TJ Perenara, who makes nuisance an art form. As well as causing issues for Savea picking up from the base of the scrum, Christie did a good job n the whole of blocking Perenara off from getting to his own number 8, while he also cheekily took his chance to reach over a ruck after Perenara picked up the ball in order to smack it out of his hands. He’s certainly on his way to becoming the type of scrum half that is hated by everyone but his own team, and that’s exactly what the Scots need.