Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Hurricanes

Round 7 of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off in spectacular fashion as the Hurricanes came to Christchurch to take on the unbeaten Crusaders. After Jordie Barrett and Richie Mo’unga traded early penalties, a clever lineout move sent Mo’unga over for the opening try, but some poor control at a breakdown soon gave the Hurricanes a chance to hit back through Wes Goosen. George Bridge put the home team back ahead with one of the most fortunate tries you will ever see, but the ‘Canes quickly struck back again through Goosen, while 2 more penalties from Barrett gave the Hurricanes a 17-21 lead at the break.

Barrett and Mo’unga traded penalties again in the third quarter, before Peter Umaga-Jensen scored in the corner, only for replacement lock Quinten Strange to cross soon after for the Crusaders. Barrett extended the lead with another penalty 5 minutes from the end, but an incisive break from Mo’unga put Sevu Reece in the corner immediately after. Mo’unga missed the conversion, but the Crusaders had 1 more chance to win the game, holding onto the ball from the restart and finally working a break down the right wing. It looked like Will Jordan was about to speed away and break Hurricane hearts, but replacement scrum half Jamie Booth managed to snag him and Jordie Barrett was in over the ball quick to earn a penalty and confirm the 32-34 win, the Crusaders’ first loss at home in 4 years.

The perfect storm

The Hurricanes team that we have seen the last few weeks is almost unrecognisable from the team we saw in the opening weeks of the tournament! Jordie Barrett’s return from injury helped to unlock the team and now all the star players have got back to top form, creating a lethal attacking threat.

In players like Ngani Laumape, Ardie Savea, Asafo Aumua, the team has the ball carriers to keep them on the front foot, and while they are also dangerous in space, they also create it for other skilful players like Du’Plessis Kirifi, TJ Perenara, Barrett, Ben Lam, Vince Aso, Dane Coles and Chase Tiatia to exploit. With that much quality, it allows Jackson Garden-Bachop an armchair ride at first five-eighth.

Not only that, but the team is so versatile, especially in the back line, with Perenara’s ability to slot in at 10 as a game manager giving a chance for a scrum half and 2 other backs on the bench, while even many of the starters can shift to another position when substitutions are made – as shown today with Laumape and Umaga-Jense both having to be replaced due to injury. It just makes it less likely that they will get caught out by an enforced change, while also means that the attack can continue phase after phase despite one or 2 players being caught in a breakdown. And with so many weapons, even a solid defence like the Crusaders will struggle to deal with them!

If the Blues and Crusaders can carry on with this season’s form and the ‘Canes stay at this level, New Zealand Super Rugby will cement itself as the best rugby to watch… if it hasn’t already.

Masterful Mo’unga

The greatest travesty of this match is that Mo’unga’s missed conversion from out wide following Sevu Reece’s try ended up being what lost the Crusaders the game. The All Blacks fly half was in fantastic form once again and played a starring role all day. That his only miss from the tee proved key to the result should not count against him.

My closest friends in the rugby community have not spent much time watching Southern Hemisphere rugby, and when they have it’s usually just the big internationals, so when I spent the last couple of years telling them that I would pick Mo’unga at 10 over Beauden Barrett, they thought I was crazy. With one of them now getting his rugby fix by watching Super Rugby Aotearoa, he is beginning to understand my opinion, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree.

Under Steve Hansen, Mo’unga’s chances with the All Blacks were limited, and when he did play, it always felt like he was being limited to a game manager role while Aaron Smith and whoever was at fullback (Damian McKenzie or one of the Barretts) controlled the back line. At the Crusaders however, he is the general of the team, the game manager and the playmaker. He will sit back and put the team in the right areas of the pitch to come away with points, but he will also play a key role in so many of the tries, such as with his try today or his break to set up Sevu Reece. Against the Blues a few weeks back he lifted the team to a new level and he showed flashes of lifting the team late on when he collected a high ball, cut through the defence and kicked ahead, chasing it down and forcing the Hurricanes to take the ball over their line and dot it down.

If I’m building a squad and can pick any current players that I want, I’m building my team around Richie Mo’unga.

The race for number 2

Last week I wrote about how Asafo Aumua was in prime position to be the 3ʳᵈ hooker in the All Blacks squad. One week on and having discussed with my friend Phil, I now find myself considering if he should start.

First off, it feels like with Dane Coles’ getting older and having frequent issues with injuries, it is time to move on from him as the starter (both for the ‘Canes and All Blacks) and instead utilise his pace and experience off the bench with 20 minutes left. Further to that argument, Coles has had some issues with his throwing at the lineout, where Aumua has looked a little more secure, while Aumua also brings more physicality to the starting team to soften up the opponents, with little loss of pace.

So if we assume that he’s above Coles for the reasons above, how about Codie Taylor? Taylor has been the go-to backup for Coles for years and in recent years become legit competition for the starting spot. Like Coles, he is dangerous in space, while a high proportion of the All Blacks tight 5 has regularly been made up of his Crusaders teammates. At 29, he also has 1 more World Cup cycle in him. However, by the time the next World Cup arrives he will be past his prime, whereas Aumua would just be coming into his, while Taylor has again struggled recently at the lineout, with 2 throws today stolen (though Sam Whitelock did well to steal it right back as they played it off the top) and another 2 pinged as not straight.

At 23, with a new head coach in charge of the All Blacks and with the Rugby World Cup just over 3 years away, I think that this would be a great opportunity to establish Aumua as the starter for the national team, with the experience of Coles and Taylor backing him up. By the time the Rugby World Cup comes around, he could be near-unplayable.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Highlanders

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.

Powering back

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 for the All Blacks, 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.

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