It feels like only days since Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off with Bryn Gatland’s winning drop goal against his father’s team, but we have already reached the halfway point of the competition following the Highlanders’ trip to Wellington to face the Hurricanes.
After each team had a try disallowed for obstruction in the opening six minutes, the ‘Canes finally started to take control of the game and took the lead on 28 minutes as TJ Perenara sniped around the side of a ruck and beat his All Blacks rival Aaron Smith to score the opening try. The home side kept their foot on the pedal and as halftime approached, Cobus van Wyk crossed to give them a 12-0 lead.
The second half began much in the same vein, with flanker Devan Flanders capping off a great performance by crossing for the Hurricanes’ 3ʳᵈ try. With the wind behind them and the ‘Canes wasting chances, the Highlanders grew into the game and Mitch Hunt got them on the board with a penalty. Then from a 5m lineout drive, Ash Dixon broke off the back, drew in the lone defender on the blind side and fed Aaron Smith. With time running out, Hunt kicked another penalty to cut the deficit to 6, but the Highlanders could not get back down the field to steal the win and the ‘Canes held on to win 17-11.
Room for improvement
The Hurricanes are a highly talented team and are definitely growing into the tournament. Admittedly part of it maybe down to going from facing the top 2 teams to the weaker teams, but the performances have also looked much better over the last couple of weeks.
Jordie Barrett had an immediate impact unlocking the team last week an the replacement of Jackson Garden-Bachop with Fletcher Smith appeared to take the team to yet another level, as Smith would take the ball to the line, allowing the team to take the ball at pace and utilise their physicality. All of the back row carried positively, with Devan Flanders especially standing out, and Ngani Laumape had arguably his best match of the tournament so far, with 20 carries for 88 metres and 9 defenders beaten.
There is still room for improvement, though. While the they were successfully getting over the gainline with relative ease, they allowed the Highlanders to stay in the game by wasting a number of chances, often due to trying to keep the phase going by offloading once they were tackled. Now an offload is a dangerous weapon, but there is a time and place for it, and I think they tried it too much. Too often, the ball ended up going to floor as they tried an offload that wasn’t on, such as when Jordie Barrett could only get his arm partially free so couldn’t pop the ball up enough to the onrushing Fletcher Smith, or when Du’Plessis Kirifi butchereda break by offloading into touch. Similarly Jordie Barrett found himself taking a ball to the face on the line as van Wyk tried to flick the ball up as he took a pass low and stumbled. With the way the Hurricanes were creating chances and getting through the Highlanders defence, they could have ran up a score by holding onto half of these balls, setting up the ruck – which would have often probably led to quick ball – and attacked the defence again.
They face a tough text next week as they host the Blues, but if they play similar to this but attempt to retain the ball better, they could put up a strong fight.
Back in 2018, I selected Asafo Aumua at hooker when selecting my Uncapped XV. He didn’t initially step on as well as I expected, but at 23 years old he is starting to really make a name for himself. With Dane Coles unavailable for this match, Aumua was given the start and showed just how much of a talent he was.
Coles is like a winger in a hooker’s body, but while Aumua can also exploit open space, he is also an incredibly physical player who will continue to make the hard yards after the initial contact, such that he finished the match with 11 carries for 63 metres – only Laumape, Mitch Hunt and Jona Nareki (11 carries, 66m) made more metres in this game. Beyond that, he also contributed some monstrous hits on defence and had a highly successful day at the lineout, which has been an issue in earlier matches.
Now with a new head coach, you can imagine that Coles and Codie Taylor will probably still be 2 of the picks at hooker, but what chance does Aumua have of gaining that 3ʳᵈ spot? Dane Coles is 33 so unlikely to make it to the next Rugby World Cup, while 29-year-old Codie Taylor will also be nearing the end of his career by the time that tournament comes around. Liam Coltman was the 3ʳᵈ choice at the Rugby World Cup, but is now 30 years old and finds himself behind 31-year-old Ash Dixon at the Highlanders. Blues starter James Parsons is 33 and his impressive replacement Kurt Eklund is 28, as is Taylor’s Crusaders understudy Andrew Makalio. And then for the Chiefs, Nathan Harris is currently out injured but is again 28, but this has made a space for 21-year-old Bradley Slater. With Coles and Taylor both getting on, I would expect the coaches to be looking towards the future and looking for a younger option to start getting used to the environment and embed in the squad with a view to becoming the starter either in the next couple of seasons or after the next Rugby World Cup. That would narrow things down to Aumua or Slater and right now, the Hurricanes’ hooker is the standout of the pair, despite Slater starting more often.
On the hunt
While he will be disappointed to find himself on the losing side once again, Mitch Hunt should be proud of his performance. The Highlanders first five-eighth put in a stellar performance, with a number of great breaks, including the one for Aaron Smith’s disallowed try after just 3 minutes, which was disallowed for a soft obstruction by Ash Dixon. Hunt finished the game with 76 metres made and 6 defenders beaten from 7 carries, including 2 clean breaks. But what was probably even more impressive in this game was his defence. He may have made only 5/7 tackles, but many of them were vital 1v1 tackles to stop the ‘Canes when they were on the break.
Such is the talent of player in New Zealand, I struggle to envision seeing the 25-year-old winning many caps over the coming years, but if he can continue to put in great performances like this, there is a chance that he could find himself in the wider squad.