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.

feat rugby super rugby aotearoa logo green

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

It’s hard to believe but we’re already 3 weeks through Super Rugby Aotearoa and the teams are already starting to really separate themselves from each other in the standings. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs went to Christchurch in search of a crucial win but will find themselves returning home with just a losing bonus point, having not led at any point in the match.

In wet conditions, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie each slotted a first half penalty but it looked like the match would be devoid of much excitement, until Sevu Reece beat McKenzie to a high cross-kick from Mo’unga and broke down the right wing, before feeding the ball inside to Will Jordan for the go-ahead try. The same 2 players combined again shortly after half time, with a quick lineout from Reece catching out the Chiefs and allowing Jordan to run in uncontested. The Chiefs began to fight back after this and Sean Wainui crossed to narrow the deficit, but the Crusaders managed to hold on and remain one of only 2 teams still unbeaten in the tournament – the other being the Blues (3-0), who have a bye next week before their trip to Christchurch.

New kid on the block

If there’s one person currently that will be making All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster reconsider a 10/15 playmaker axis, it’s Crusaders fullback Will Jordan. The 22-year-old has started the tournament in fine form and is currently keeping David Havili on the bench with his great performances.

In bad conditions today, Jordan looked assured under the high ball and made some incisive runs, finishing with a match-high 98 metres. Not only that, but he is clearly developing a good link with Sevu Reece, being in the right place to support for the opening try and seeing the opportunity with Reece to take a quick lineout for the second try. If he carries on like this, international recognition can’t be far away.

The only thing going against him right now, though, is that he is much more of a prototypical fullback, as opposed to the second playmaker that I think the All Blacks will be going for, especially given the great performances Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett are putting in at the position. It may be that for the near future at least, Jordan has to prove that he can also have a great impact on the game from the wing, much like Ben Smith and Israel Dagg did at times to keep themselves in All Blacks contention.

Play every second

The Chiefs certainly weren’t happy with the awarding of Will Jordan’s second try, but they had only themselves to blame. The laws state that a quick lineout can be taken provided it is on/behind the mark, nobody else has touched the ball and the lineout had already formed, which was exactly the circumstance when Reece fed Jordan for the crucial score.

It seemed like many of the team saw Aaron Cruden go over to speak to referee James Doleman and assumed that time was off. However, Cruden was not the captain so had no right to speak to the referee and was rightfully brushed away.

I always remember being told to play to the whistle, but in situations like this, it is a little more complicated than that. Usually the moment the ball goes into touch you can have a quick rest as you prepare for the set piece, but the one thing you can’t do is switch off mentally, as the moment you start doing things by rote rather than reacting to what’s going on around you is the moment your opponent will make you regret it.

Hopefully with Warren Gatland at the helm, the players will have learned from this mistake. But in the meantime, with just 2 points from 3 games, that is a costly and completely unnecessary mistake.

Set piece success

When you’re playing in wet conditions like in this match, there a 2 things you need more than anything else: a playmaker who can control the game and put you in the right areas of the pitch, and a pack that can gain the upper hand at the set piece. While both teams certainly had the former in Cruden, McKenzie and Mo’unga, it was the Crusaders pack that gained the advantage that probably proved crucial.

Of course the set piece is always important, but in bad conditions it becomes even more so as the territory game leads to more lineouts, while the greasy ball will likely lead to more handling errors and therefore more scrums.

In this match, the Crusaders pack managed to stop a 5m catch and drive from the lineout midway through the first half, despite the Chiefs throwing in a couple of backs to increase their numbers. They caused the lineout problems all game, especially after Chiefs’ replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho entered the fray. Overall, the Chiefs ended up losing 4/20 (20%) of their own lineouts, while they also lost 1/5 of their scrums (20%) and found themselves being pushed back and giving away penalties on multiple occasions.

The old adage is that the forwards win the match and the backs decide by how much. The Crusaders once again showed that to be true.

feat rugby super rugby aotearoa logo black

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Crusaders

We are now through the first 2 weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa and every franchise has now played a game following the Crusaders’ trip to the Hurricanes. The Christchurch-based franchise has a bye in the opening round due to there only being 5 teams in the tournament, but quickly made up for lost time as Sevu Reece crossed for the opening try after less than a minute. They crossed twice more in the first half, but the boot of Jackson Garden-Bachop kept the ‘Canes in touch, with a 15-19 halftime score.

The Crusaders weathered 10 minutes with Jack Goodhue in the sin bin and added 6 more points through the boot of Richie Mo’unga, but the Hurricanes kept chipping away and a try from substitute hooker Asafo Aumua levelled the score at 25-25 with 15 minutes remaining. However, that was as close as the ‘Canes came to taking the lead as a Billy Proctor offload to avoid being pushed into touch 5m from his own line was intercepted by Mitchell Drummond, who fed Mo’unga for the go-ahead score, while David Havili secured the win 5 minutes from time with a beautiful line onto a flat Drummond pass from the breakdown to cut clean through a gap in the defence for their 5ᵗʰ try of the game., the game ending 25-39.

Too quiet

When you’re taking on the franchise that has won the last 3 Super Rugby titles (and was leading the New Zealand Conference before the tournament was ended), you know that you’re going to need big performances from everyone, but especially your star players. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, too many of their stars were far too quiet.

Ngani Laumape was barely used last week and this week was limited to just 23 metres, though this wasn’t helped by a couple of knock-ons in and around the Crusaders 22. Ardie Savea finished with just 6 carries for 8 metres in his first start since the Rugby World Cup. Dane Coles was lacking the dynamism of last week, while he also had some issues at the lineout, overthrowing his jumper a couple of times. Perenara was probably the closest to form, but even he appeared limited by the performance of the team around him, though he did contribute a great break down the left wing and a key collection of a grubber kick that looked certain to end in a try for the Crusaders.

With so many players having quiet games, it made it so hard for players like Ben Lam, Vince Aso and Wes Goosen to positively impact the game with any regularity. Oddly enough, probably one of their better performers was fullback Chase Tiatia, but he was replaced after less than an hour, having also been removed just after the hour mark last week. Perhaps the Hurricanes are finding it a little tougher than others to get back to match fitness following the imposed break in rugby action…

Key deficiency

… Or perhaps part of the issue is also a lack of experience at a key position: fly half. Go back a couple of seasons and the Hurricanes were chock-full of talent at first five-eighth, however Ihaia West’s move to France in 2018 and Beauden Barrett’s move to the Blues a the end of last season has heavily limited their options, while Jordie Barrett has also been unavailable due to a shoulder injury. This has left the ‘Canes with Jackson Garden-Bachop as the only specialist fly half in the 23 for both of the opening rounds, while TJ Perenara has moved to 10 once Garden-Bachop was removed in both weeks.

Now with a replacement halfback of Jamie Booth’s quality, the ‘Canes can afford to move Perenara to stand-off, but he is not going to bring the same quality to the position as someone who is playing and training at the position full-time. To make things worse, with Jordie Barrett unavailable there is not really a second playmaker in the back line to help take the pressure off the fly half, as we have been seeing with the Blues and Chiefs. The ‘Canes will be hoping Barrett’s back soon to help utilise the back line to its fullest.

Adapt & evolve

With the Crusaders not involved in a match last week, I wondered how they would do this week with regards to the new referee’s interpretation of the breakdown. It certainly felt like they had done their homework, as in the early stages they looked to stand further behind the offside than usual, to ensure they were not penalised. However as the game went on, it looked like muscle memory took over as they began to find themselves offside and also penalised for a range of breakdown offences.

Players are so used to playing a certain way, it will take time to adapt to the changes, while it is also difficult to fully adapt in a match where both teams are going all-out compared to in training, when players will be going at a fraction of their top performance.

The Crusaders are a well-coached team, however, so it will be interesting to see just how quickly they can adapt to the new focus compared to the other teams.

feat rugby super rugby aotearoa logo black

Eyes On: British and Irish Lions Tour 2017 – Games 3 & 4

After not the best of starts to the 2017 tour of New Zealand – a narrow win against the Provincial Barbarians and a loss to the Blues – the Lions knew that improvement was needed in order to convince pundits and fans that they have a chance in the Test series against the All Blacks. A 3-12 win against the unbeaten Crusaders helped settle the nerves but a 23-22 loss to the Highlanders will not have been what Warren Gatland was hoping for ahead of Saturday’s game against the Maori All Blacks.

I was unable to watch either of these games live due to work commitments (working a full weekend after having 3 in a row off was a shock to the system) however through the wonders of YouTube I’ve now managed to catch up on both games. As it’s been so long since the Crusaders game, I decided that the best way to do this article was to look at the 2 matches together, as some points will be applicable to both games.

 

The complete performance

I think it’s fair to say that in the first 2 games of the Tour, the Lions won’t have been happy with the way they attacked or defended. In Christchurch on Saturday, the Lions finally seemed to be getting the defence sorted. During the commentary, former All Blacks scrum half Justin Marshall mentioned that the Crusaders had been averaging 5.4 tries per game this season. My calculations based on the Super Rugby standings also suggest that the Crusaders have averaged 37.3 points per game this season. While it must be remembered that the Lions were not up against a full-strength Crusaders team, to have limited them to a single penalty is still highly impressive, especially considering injuries to Jonathan Davies and Stuart Hogg before half time led to the Lions playing much of the game with Owen Farrell and Anthony Watson playing positions (centre and fullback respectively) where they likely hadn’t trained much for the Lions.

Unfortunately, though we saw an improved defence, the attack was still lacking, with the Lions relying on 4 penalties from Owen Farrell – probably 5 if his one just after half time had been referred to the TMO – to earn them victory. Over the first 3 games of the tour, the Lions only scored 2 tries and rarely looked like scoring many more, which may not be such a surprise when you remember that Attack Coach Rob Howley’s Wales squad finished joint 4th with France in tries scored during the 6 Nations with only 8 tries, 2 ahead of Italy!

In Dunedin, the Lions found their way over the try line on 3 occasions but again missed a number of chances in attack, most notably Rhys Webb’s knock-on as he dived over the breakdown on the line and Jared Payne’s drop after a lovely break by Kyle Sinckler. They also didn’t perform as well defensively against the Highlanders, who frequently used grubber kicks and cross kicks to take advantage of the blitz defence and narrow defensive line that I picked up on against the Blues. Most of these kicks resulted in the Lions wingers being caught out of position, leaving Jared Payne or Rhys Webb to sweep up on a number of occasions. The only time I remember the Lions properly dealing with one of these kicks was for Tommy Seymour’s try, which likely would have been a try for the Highlanders had he missed the ball.

Against the World Champions, a successful defence will be important, but you have to imagine that the All Blacks will still be able to score a couple of tries per game, so it is vital that the Lions start scoring more frequently and take the chances they are given in attack.

Sign of things to come

The Lions will not have enjoyed the success that Waisake Naholo had on Tuesday. The Highlanders winger has been having a good season and looked on top form in this game. He gave Tommy Seymour a torrid time all match, repeatedly finding ways to get around or through him. He was also frequently successful at winning the high ball, an area where I’m sure the Lions would have expected to do better so far. His leg drive in the tackle often saw him make extra metres after the initial contact and he was not afraid to come in off his wing to further involve himself in the game. He capped off a great performance with a try and could have easily had another mere minutes into the game were it not for some brave defence from Jared Payne. The Lions will have to find a way to cope with Naholo, or 80 minutes will feel like an eternity in the Tests.

Selecting the Test team

With only 2 more games until the first Test, this is the spot by which Warren Gatland needs a firm idea of who his players are for the Test matches and who will feature in the midweek matches. By my reckoning there are still quite a few positions up for grabs, and that is before injuries are even considered.

Though Jonathan Joseph took his try well and did put in a couple of big hits against the Highlanders, I noticed a couple of occasions where he was little more than a speed bump in defence and was beaten twice in the build-up to Naholo’s try. While he probably came into the tour as the form 13, Jonathan Davies has only played about 30 minutes of rugby on the tour because of his head injury against the Crusaders, which is limiting his chance to prove he deserves the 13 shirt.

At inside centre, Robbie Henshaw has not done enough to impress me in his outings, whereas Ben Te’o has grabbed his chances and has appeared to bring a different dimension to the attack. He may not be a starter for England, but in my opinion he is nailed on for a spot in the Test XV.

Provided Conor Murray is fully fit, the starting scrum half position should come down to the skill set that Warren Gatland fails. Murray is arguably the better 9 defensively and is more reliable controlling the game with he’s kicking, but he still appears to be struggling to shake off the shoulder injury he suffered during the 6 Nations. The All Blacks have the ability to take advantage of any mistake or weakness so if his play will be affected by the injury he should not start. Rhys Webb showed a clear improvement in the quality of his box kicks and his all-round performance was good against the Highlanders. He may not control the game as well as Murray but his ability to take advantage of the smallest gaps gives the Lions an extra way to attack their opponents. If both are fully fit, I see Webb as the perfect player to bring on in the second half once the opposition begin to tire, as this will increase the chances of gaps in the defence.

No disrespect to Dan Biggar, but the battle for the number 10 shirt is between Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, and in my opinion it’s not even a competition. Sexton had a much better game on Saturday when he came on before half time to replace the injured Jonathan Davies, but I felt that he had much less responsibility in this game courtesy of Murray and Farrell controlling the play and the territorial kicking either side of him. Farrell has not been as reliable off the tee as we have come to expect, but there has been talk that the Adidas ball being used on the tour is a little different to the Gilbert ball we are used to in the Northern Hemisphere. I don’t think the Lions can play a significant period of Test rugby with the Sexton/Farrell combination that so many fans have called for, so in my opinion the more consistent Owen Farrell should be starting with Sexton on the bench.

As it stands, my selection for the first Test, assuming everyone remaining is fit (Stuart Hogg being out after his facial injury), would be:

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Ken Owens
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. George North
  15. Leigh Halfpenny
  16. Jamie George
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. CJ Stander
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. Liam Williams

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge