The Hurricanes opened up the penultimate weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa with the visit of the Chiefs. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs knew a loss would mean they would go the whole tournament without a win, while the ‘Canes knew they needed 2 bonus point wins and other results over the final 2 weeks to go their way in order to win the competition.
For those who have been following the Chiefs’ exploits this tournament, it was probably no real surprise to see the Hurricanes cross for an early try through Peter Umaga-Jensen. As the game evened out, Damian McKenzie kicked a penalty to open the scoring for the Chiefs, but Umaga-Jensen crossed again soon after to give the ‘Canes a 12-3 lead at halftime.
With Kobus van Wyk in the sin bin for a dangerous tackle, Sean Wainui scored early in the second half, but a quick attack from the Hurricanes right before van Wyk could rejoin the fray saw Dane Coles cross for a try. McKenzie kept things close with another penalty, but the ‘Canes soon had another try as a cross-kick from Jackson Garden-Bachop bounced perfectly into van Wyk’s hands. Mitch Karpik brought the Chiefs back inside bonus point range with a try off the back of a driving maul, but after Jamie Booth found a gap in the Chiefs defence, Billy Proctor collected his offload to turn a bonus point for the Chiefs into a bonus point for the Huricanes, with Jordie Barrett kicking the conversion and winning a late penalty to secure a 31-18 victory.
Man in the middle
One of the big names to emerge during Super Rugby Aotearoa is that of Hurricanes centre Peter Umaga-Jensen. The 22-year-old has solidified himself as the man at 13, despite the quality of teammates Vince Aso and Billy Proctor. Now, with Ngani Laumape out injured, Umaga-Jensen is taking on a bigger and more crucial role, running hard to create the platform for those around him as much as he is working the spaces created by others.
With 9 carries in this match, Umaga-Jensen carried more than every Hurricane other than Jordie Barrett (14), whose stats would always be inflated due to running back wayward kicks. He ran a great line to punch through the defence for his opening try, before running a great support line inside Wes Goosen for his second.
He is an incredible talent who will have benefited so much from playing weekly alongside and against such talented players. If he carries on like this, he will be hard for Ian Foster to ignore him when selecting his first All Blacks squad.
Missing the midfield
While it was nice to see the Chiefs willing to play a little more rugby this week, one thing became abundantly clear: this team was not earning the right to go wide. In players like Sean Wainui, Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo and Etene Nanai-Seturo, they have a fantastic set of wingers, but if they can’t get the ball in space it means nothing.
The Chiefs need to do the hard work in the middle of the park, but I don’t think they have the right players for it in midfield at the moment. Kaleb Trask looks out of his depth and the constant switching between him and Aaron Cruden won’t have helped. Quinn Tupaea and Alex Nankivell look like they are still a season or two away from being difference-makers in the centre. While Anton Lienert-Brown had one of his better matches, I still don’t feel that he is the kind of player to significantly draw in tacklers.
Meanwhile in the pack, there are very few carriers besides Pita Gus Sowakula. The Chiefs need more from the pack and midfield if they are to start winning matches next season. Perhaps a different man at the helm while Warren Gatland focuses on the British and Irish Lions will be able to get the team playing with a better structure.
Plug and play
Considering up here in England we focus on fly halves controlling the game, the limited impact that Jackson Garden-Bachop has on games surprises me. Rather than the general of the team, or even a game manager, he feels just like a distributor, though this distribution did lead to him getting 2 assists in this game.
By keeping things basic though, it has allowed the Hurricanes to move TJ Perenara to first five-eighth midway through the second half and bring on Jamie Booth. Booth is a very talented and exciting player, but would not usually get more than a handful of minutes due to Perenara’s leadership meaning he generally stays on the park. However, by making the first five-eighth role in the team easy enough to plug Perenara in later in the game, it allows the team the best of both worlds, while also making the team even more dangerous against a tiring defence, as both Booth and Perenara will exploit the tiniest of gaps and ensure that they are on the shoulder of any break.
Will they need a plan B? Maybe, as they struggled without Jordie Barrett and with the big boys out of sorts. But while it’s working, it is a great tactic.