After 9 rounds of COVID-free rugby, Super Rugby Aotearoa was hit by the return of COVID-19 to New Zealand, leading to the cancellation of the Blues’ final game against the Crusaders and making the Hurricanes’ match at the Highlanders the final match of the competition.

With the cancelled game between the Blues and Crusaders being classed as a draw, the ‘Canes knew that a win would secure 2ⁿᵈ place in the standings, and they got the perfect start as Vince Aso crossed within 5 minutes. The lead didn’t last long though, as Ngane Punivai – on while Jona Nareki received some treatment – got on the end of great link-up play from Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane. The Hurricanes had 2 tries disallowed but still retook the lead on half hour as the electric Jamie Booth finished off a great long-range try, only for Ash Dixon to score from the back of a rolling maul to make it 14-14 at the break.

Ioane gave the Highlanders an early lead in the second half witha penalty, and the lead was quickly extended as Michael Collins ran a smart line to cross for the Highlanders’ 3ʳᵈ try. The ‘Canes had another try disallowed, and things soon got much worse as another Highlanders rolling maul resulted in a penalty try and yellow card for Ardie Savea before Mitch Hunt extended the lead just minutes later with another try following a turnover out wide. The Hurricanes kept pushing and Peter Umaga-Jensen crossed with 7 minutes left, but that was as close as they could get, as the game ended 38-21.

Fine margins

The Hurricanes may have come away on the wrong end of a 17-point deficit, but it could have easily been the other way around, but for fine margins.

Vince Aso thought he’d got his 2ⁿᵈ try in the 18ᵗʰ minute, only for a referral to the TMO to notice that he had kept his running line a little too wide, resulting in him putting a toe on the touch line. Just 5 minutes later, Reed Prinsep scored after a great run by Scott Scrafton to commit the defenders before a flick inside to Prinsep, but unfortunately the pass was (rightly) judged forwards by the TMO. Then with 20 minutes left, Chase Tiatia scored what would have been a crucial try off a great backs move, only for Billy Proctor to be penalised for obstructing Michael Collins – the right call, even if Collins had bit on the wrong runner and would probably not have made it across to Tiatia. That was it for the disallowed tries, but not quite for the fine margins costing them tries, as Devan Flanders made a great run down the right flank, but his ball back inside went to ground and after Proctor checked his run to pick the ball up, he was turned over on the line.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Mitch Hunt’s try was very much a story of fine margins, as the turnover just inside the Highlanders half was close enough to the touchline that Aaron Smith was able to draw in the only defender on the blind side and release Mitch Hunt, who just had the pace to make it unchallenged to the try line.

If just a couple of these fine margins went the other way, the game could have been completely different. Aso or Prinsep’s try standing would have given the ‘Canes the lead at half time, while Tiatia’s try preceded the penalty try by just a few minutes, resulting in a big blow to the Hurricanes’ morale.

Moments like this remind me just how great a game of rugby can be, especially as a neutral.

Midfield maestro

One of the players who I really think has benefited from the return of Josh Ioane and the subsequent reshuffle in the back line is Michael Collins. Initially when the tournament started, he wasn’t even in the squad as the coaches continually chopped and changed their back 3. After Vilimoni Koroi and Scott Gregory both failed to fully impress at fullback, Collins secured that position, but while he was solid, his impact was still limited.

After moving to 13, Collins’ impact on the game was immediately increased. His experience as a fullback allows him to identify and pick the holes to attack, while having him in the centre has really brought to the fore his distribution skills. Probably the big thing though is that – like Conrad Smith before him – Collins just seems to make the right decisions. He picks the right moments to run and the right ones to pass, but he also rarely seems to make the wrong decisions in defence – his biting in on Billy Proctor for Tiatia’s disallowed tries one of the few examples where he got it wrong. To win games in such a high quality competition, you need the reliable players like Collins as much as you need the attacking superstars like Jona Nareki.

Wrong way round

While the Tomkinson/Collins centre pairing have been great for the Highlanders in recent weeks, I don’t feel that the Hurricanes’ selections worked so well this time out. With Ngani Laumape out injured and Vince Aso moved to the wing, Peter Umaga-Jensen was moved from 13 to 12 and Billy Proctor brought into the lineup at 13.

While they both played well, I think that the decision to move Umaga-Jensen inside proved costly, as it limited his impact on the game. Yes, he made a great break to help set up Jamie Booth, and got a try of his own late on, but he did not have the same impact that he has had in recent weeks from the 13 position, something that Proctor was unable to replicate. Both Proctor and Umaga-Jensen are big lads with good all-round skills, and I can’t help feel that switching the pair around would have helped release one of their form players in Umaga-Jensen and possibly helped them get a better result.

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