Super Rugby Aotearoa: Tournament XV

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Tournament XV

Super Rugby Aotearoa came to an end at the weekend and by am I missing it. It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that the competition may have been 10 rounds of the most consistently exciting rugby I can ever remember watching, while seeing 9 weeks of busy stadiums was a great sight during the lonely times of the lockdown here in the UK. Sadly the final round saw the Highlanders and Hurricanes forced to play in an empty stadium and we were denied the opportunity of a stunning finale between the Blues and Crusaders, though thankfully the Crusaders had managed to secure the title in Round 9.

With the tournament over, there is just one more duty to uphold: picking the Team of the Tournament. These are all my own picks and go by my own feel from watching the matches rather than statistics – though I may throw in the odd stat to help my point. Let me know who would be your selections!

1) Joe Moody: Typically, the first position to talk about was one of the ones I found hardest to fill as there were no loose-heads that stood out to me in the same way as players did in most positions. So in the end I defaulted to one of the key roles of a prop: the scrum. The Crusaders scrum was one of the most dominant in the competition and a regular in that pack (starting all 7 matches played) was Joe Moody.

2) Kurt Eklund: There were so many ways I could have gone at hooker. Asafo Aumua could have got the spot had he been a more regular player, while Dane Coles could have also been in the hunt had he played more. Codie Taylor was let down early on by some issues at the lineout but came on strong when needed, while Ash Dixon was super-reliable and chalked up 4 tries. Instead though, I went for Eklund, who did a great job coming in when James Parsons went down injured. Eklund added physicality to the role, making metres when he carried but frequently pushing the opposition back in defence. With form like that, he’d have surely won the Blues’ starting spot even if Parsons had returned.

3) Ofa Tu’ungafasi: The Blues’ scrum was right up there with the Crusaders at the top of the charts, in no small part thanks to Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Having been a bench option often for the All Blacks due to his ability to play both sides, he has proved himself to be the best tight-head in New Zealand – if not the world – with performances full of strong scrummaging, heavy carrying and big tackling.

4) Patrick Tuipulotu: The Blues captain is in the form of his life right now and will surely be starting for the All Blacks should the Rugby Championship go ahead. The lock led from the front, finishing top amongst his team for lineouts won, while carrying and offloading to put his team on the front foot and putting in great shifts in defence.

5) Pari Pari Parkinson: The role of Tuipulotu’s partner was the final spot I filled in this squad. Both of his Blues teammates Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and Josh Goodhue were in the hunt but their shared minutes counted against them, while Naitoa Ah Kuoi’s injury in the middle of the competition saw him miss out in favour of Parkinson. His 26 lineouts won saw him finish behind only Mitchell Brown, while like Ah Kuoi he used his physicality effectively in attack and defence. At just 23, if he can cut down the penalties he gives away, he will be an incredible talent.

6) Lachlan Boshier: The Chiefs flanker was the star player in a poor team. Finished in the top 5 for lineouts won and scored a team-high 4 tries, but the big draw with Boshier in such a deep back row was how quickly he adapted to the new interpretations at the breakdown to consistently win crucial turnovers.

7) Dalton Papali’i: Openside was such a tough position to pick due to the depth of quality. Tom Christie looks like a future All Black, Dillon Hunt came alive as the tournament went on and Du’Plessis Kirifi consistently made big metres in the loose. Instead I went for Papali’i, who split time between 6 and 7 but regardless of where he played would put in 100% for the team. Finished 5ᵗʰ overall for tackles made and was a reliable carrier in attack. The flanker finished the competition joint-2ⁿᵈ (1 of 7) n the try charts with 4, but arguably should have had another after his interception try against the Highlanders was disallowed.

8) Akira Ioane: Hoskins Sotutu looked destined for this spot until he got injured, and even then still managed to hold onto it for a couple of weeks. Ardie Savea almost won the spot but a quiet start and end to the tournament saw him just miss out to Akira Ioane. Started at 6 until Sotutu’s injury and continued the role of defensive enforcer throughout the competition, finishing joint-9ᵗʰ overall with 68 tackles, but as he got more comfortable he became a more regular carrier off the back of the scrum, helping put the Blues on the front foot consistently.

9) Aaron Smith: I really wanted to pick Finlay Christie here but I couldn’t ignore the performances of Aaron Smith. The All Black, who won his 150ᵗʰ Super Rugby cap in the last match of the competition, controlled the games so well for the Highlanders and was constantly exploiting any gaps in the defence, resulting in some crucial tries.

10) Richie Mo’unga: I could wax lyrical about the Crusaders fly half but I will keep it brief here. When you see him play for the Crusaders, you see just how talented an individual he is. Accurate off the tee, great footwork, great range of passing, and strong enough to hold his own in both attack and defence. Scored 84 points with the boot t finish as the top scoring kicker and 3 tries ensured that he finished with 16 points more than the nearest player. I would call him the Player of the Tournament and also currently the best fly half in the world!

11) Will Jordan: A bit of a cheat here as Jordan didn’t play on the wing too much during the tournament, but I had 2 undroppable options at 15, while players like Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea and George Bridge impressed at times but also had quiet games. Just look at Jordan’s figures and you’ll see why he had to be included: 6 tries (1ˢᵗ overall), 88 carries (4ᵗʰ), 15 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ), 39 defenders beaten (1ˢᵗ), 724 metres carried (1ˢᵗ – 235 ahead of his nearest competitor, Damian McKenzie, who had more carries). Whether at wing, fullback or o the bench, this guy has to be in the All Blacks 23.

12) Jack Goodhue: If we were going by single-game performance, then Ngani Laumape had this secured. However we are looking at the entire competition, so his quiet start and untimely injury counted against him. TJ Faiane is probably one of the most underrated players of the tournament, while Sio Tomkinson was a consistently solid option for the Highlanders, but I have gone for Jack Goodhue, who did a great job in both attack and defence, keeping everything tidy while also running hard to commit defenders in attack.

13) Reiko Ioane: Peter Umaga-Jensen is unfortunate to miss out after a breakout tournament, while Michael Collins came alive at 13 for the Highlanders, but Reiko Ioane got the nod here. It took a few weeks for teams to figure out how to deal with his blend of pace and power at 13, but when they did, he let his handling skills put other players through gaps, while his defensive workrate was not discussed enough. Dropped down the pecking order on the wing in the latter days of Hansen’s reign, but at just 23 years old a move to 13 may reignite his international career.

14) Sevu Reece: The All Blacks winger is an absolute joy to watch on the rugby field and continues to make magic out of nothing. Has the pace and footwork to beat most and the handling skills to offload when he is finally stopped by someone. What makes Reece even more impressive is his willingness to come inside looking for work. With him and Will Jordan in the back 3, the opposition need to make sure their kicks are spot on.

15) Jordie Barrett: If I’m selecting the All Blacks starting XV tomorrow, there is a Barrett in the backline, but not Beauden. Jordie Barrett’s return from injury revolutionised the Hurricanes’ season. Has the ability to be a playmaker in a 10/15 axis, but is also a strong runner with a big boot, scoring 52 points off the tee, and winning some key turnovers in games. The youngest of the All Blacks’ Barrett trio at just 23, his versatility has counted against him in the past, but this could be the moment that he starts to secure his spot in the squad despite a high level of competition.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

The Blues kept their hopes of winning Super Rugby Aotearoa alive following today’s Round 8 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

The Aukland-based franchise had to do some late shuffling to their lineup with starting flanker Blake Gibson and replacement lock Josh Goodhue, but it didn’t seem to matter as the pack drove a 5m lineout over the Highlanders try line after just 3 minutes, only for Aaron Smith to have his foot in the perfect position to hold the ball up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as from the resultant scrums, Akira Ioane crashed over Scott Gregory to open the scoring. A few minutes later, a Highlanders handling error turned the ball over on halfway and after Beauden Barrett cross-kick to Caleb Clarke cutout the Highlanders defence, he had the support inside for Finlay Christie to cross fr another try. The Highlanders forced their way back into the game, and after Josh Ioane got them on the board with a penalty, Ash Dixon got their first try of the match from a 5m catch and drive. Dalton Papali’i had a try controversially ruled out for an offside penalty that allowed Ioane to kick the Highlanders into their first lead of the game, but the lead lasted just seconds as another turnover quickly saw TJ Faiane cross to put the Blues back ahead. With Barrett having an indifferent day off the tee, Ioane kicked another penalty to keep things close, but Ofa Tu’ungafasi crossed right before halftime and Barrett converted to give the Blues a 16-24 lead.

The Blues quickly extended the lead after the break with Christie crossing for his second try and Barrett added a penalty just before the hour to put the game all-but out of sight. The Highlanders continued to fight and after the Blues lost replacement prop Sione Mafileo to the bin with 7 minutes left, Shannon Frizell managed to cross to give the final score a more respectable look. The Highlanders looked to pull within 7, but the Blues managed to hang on to get the 21-32 bonus point win, their first win over the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

The spirit of the game

Another day of rugby, another controversial decision relating to a try referred to the TMO. This time it was a disallowed try as Dalton Papali’i interceted a pas on halfway to score under the posts, only for referee Mike Fraser to be badgered into checking with the TMO and then instead awarding a penalty to the Highlanders for offside against prop Karl Tu’inukuafe. So what actually happened.

Tu’inukuafe was involved in the tackle attempt that led to the final ruck before the try, but fell off the tackle. He went to get back to his feet, but realised that he was in the passing lane, with Aaron Smith ready to go at the back of the ruck, so he dropped back to the floor so as to not interfere with play. Rather than throw the pass, Smith chooses to run laterally and appears to trip over Tu’inukuafe as he passes, the Highlanders try to spread the ball without looking, but Papali’i has had time to come forwards and legally get in the passing lane, making the intercept and taking it to the house.

I can understand why Tu’inukuafe was penalised, but personally I think it was he wrong call, as unlike a lazy runner, he has made every attempt to keep himself out of the play and it is only through Aaron Smith’s decision to run directly over where he was led that brought him into the play. There was nothing else the prop could do, whereas Smith chose to run there in the full knowledge that he was on the floor, so I would argue that at best it was a stupid decision from a very good halfback rather than an illegal act by Tu’inukuafe.

When you watch the replays of the trip, though, it becomes a different story. Smith was on his way to the floor before he even reached Tu’inukuafe having done his best impression of Tom Daley and diving to the ground, throwing out a pass on his way down. All it needed were a few rolls on the ground and I’d have thought the Highlanders had Neymar playing at scrum half! There is milking a penalty, overreacting to an illegal offence to highlight it to the officials, but then there is simulation to buy a penalty, and that is what Smith did here.

This is completely against the spirit of the game, exactly like a scrum half deliberately throwing the ball into a retreating player at a ruck when there were clearly no teammates in the vicinity to receive that pass. There is no place for it in the sport and I would love to see officials do what Mike Fraser initially did here: wave play on and watch the other team pounce on the loose ball so the cocky halfback gets crucified by his teammates.

What made the situation even worse in this case is that the conversion was almost certain to be scored, but instead Ioane managed to kick a penalty. This decision caused a 10-point swing in the moment and put the Highlanders ahead, luckily the Blues got on with the game and put themselves back ahead almost immediately.

Playmaker

This game really highlighted the benefits of Beauden Barrett at fly half. I will continue to argue that Mo’unga is the better 10 as he is more reliable, but when Barrett is playing well, it is a sight to behold.

While Otere Black has done a great job managing the team around the pitch, Barrett brought more variety to the attack. As well as running it himself when it was on, he was utilising a range of passes and kicks to keep the defence guessing. This meant that it became difficult for the Highlanders to effectively organise their defence, especially given the quality of the options available to Barrett.

His abilities were especially highlighted at a couple of turnovers. Christie’s opener came one phase after a turnover, where Barrett caught the defence out with a cross-kick shallow enough to take the opposition winger out of contention and allowing the support me to create a simple numerical overlap against the winger and fullback, the only people with any chance of stopping the attack. Similarly for Christie’s second, Barrett took advantage of a turnover by throwing a wide pass to Tony Lamborn that cut out the entire defence – who had been caught too narrow in transition – and while Lamborn did not have the pace to make it to the line himself, it was still easier for the support in comparison to the covering Josh Ioane and the turning defenders.

The Blues now have a bye before their potential decider against the Crusaders (this would require the Crusaders to lose/draw without a bonus point at home to the Highlanders next week), so they have a choice to make: do they stick with Barrett at 10, or go back to Otere Black? I pick option 3: Carter at 10, Barrett at 15.

Stacked at the back

One thing that Super Rugby Aotearoa has highlighted is the depth that the Blues have in the back row. This match was no exception.

Back in Round 1, the starting trio was Blake Gibson, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu, with Papali’i coming on after half hour to take the place of the injured Gibson. Robinson is a fantastic player, but injury sadly robbed him of any further gametime in the tournament, while Gibson fund himself lower down the pecking order with Papali’i and Akira Ioane creating a dangerous trio with Sotutu. Sotutu’s injury has been largely dealt with by moving Ioane back to his preferred position of number 8 and he has got better by the week, while Gibson, Tony Lamborn and Aaron Carroll have all done a great job partnering Papali’i as flankers an minimising the impact on the team.

This week, with Gibson and Goodhue pulling out last, Lamborn was promoted to the XV with Carroll and lock Jacob Pierce coming onto the bench. Carroll was on early in the second half as Papali’i took a knock, but then Lamborn needed replacing for a HIA. This led to Pierce having to come on, and with 3 locks on the pitch (4 if you count Carroll too), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti found himself packing down at number 8 for a 5m scrum and doing a great job of keeping the ball in the scrum while a pack that was already big and was now even bigger following the substitutions steamrolled the Highlanders scrum for a penalty.

If you want to challenge for the title, you need to have strength in depth to cover for injuries and allow players to get sufficient rest, especially with the intensity these games are being played at. With available to the Blues in such a key unit, they are in a very good position to challenge both now and in the foreseeable future.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Crusaders

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.

Finishing strong

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.

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