Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Hurricanes

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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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Highlanders

Despite the Hurricanes keeping themselves in the title hunt yesterday, the Crusaders still had the chance to secure the title this weekend as they hosted the Highlanders to end Round 9. The Crusaders knew that a win would make it mathematically impossible for the Blues or ‘Canes to catch them, but found themselves behind almost immediately as Shannon Frizell crossed after just over a minute. Though the Crusaders were rattledand found themselves getting turned over with some regularity, a Sevu Reece break set Richie Mo’unga up for a 7-pointer to level the scores. Josh Ioane kicked a penalty to put the Highlanders back ahead, before Jona Nareki successfully gambled on going for the intercept against an overlap and just held off Reece in a footrace to extend the lead, with Ioane kicking the conversion and Mo’unga 2 penalties to take the teams in to halftime with the Higlanders leading 13-17.

After a tense start to the second half, the Crusaders looked set to take the lead through Bryn Hall, only for Josh McKay to force a knock-on on the line. Buoyed up by this, the Highlanders extended their advantage as Michael Collins crossed the line before the first points of the half. and then in a 5-minute spell on the hour mark, the game changed. An offload from replacement lock Luke Romano on the edge of his 22 sparked a break that ended in George Bridge crossing for a try – converted by Mo’unga – while the Crusader very next possession from the restart saw them go the length again and put Bridge over out wide, while the Highlanders were further hit by a yellow card for centre Sio Tomkinson for a shoulder charge off the ball in the build-up to the try. Though the Highlanders continued to fight, the Crusaders exploited the 1-man advantage as it expired for Braydon Ennor to score their 4ᵗʰ try, with MVP Richie Mo’unga converting to secure the 32-22 victory and the Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a game to spare.

 

Championship pedigree

The Crusaders sealed their 4ᵗʰ consecutive Super Rugby title with a week to spare but had it far from their own way in this match, and in doing so they highlighted their championship pedigree.

With so many handling errors, penalties and turnovers going against them in the first hour, so many teams would have been excused for going to a plan B and trying to get into the game with a tighter, more territory-focused gameplan. However, they kept playing the ball around as normal, going for the offload when they thought it was on and setting up the ruck when the offload wasn’t there. It didn’t always work out, such as for Nareki’s try, but the Crusaders had a 3-man overlap in that moment so he had to gamble!

In this game, the star players came to the fore in Mo’unga, Reece and captain Codie Taylor, who kept driving the team on and leading from the front, while Tom Christie also made some crucial turnovers. With the game going as it was, and the combination of Hall’s knock on and Collins’ try just after half time, so many teams would have thought that the game was getting beyond them and started looking ahead to next week’s match against the Blues as the title decider. Not the Crusaders though, and as always seems to be the case, the clock ticked pas the hour mark and they seemed to go up another couple of gears. The passes started sticking in the hands, the breakdowns were secured and in the space of less than 5 minutes the game changed completely.

With performances like this, you can see why the Crusaders have such an incredible level of success, and wonder why Scott Robertson is not the new All Blacks head coach.

Highland balance

It’s a shame that the competition is coming to an end, because the Highlanders have finally hit on the right balance for their team. A few weeks ago, I suggested the back line that they should go with, and it worked very well against the strongest team in the competition. Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt have controlled and varied the attack so well fromt heir 10/15 axis, Michael Collins has provided improved distribution in the midfield to complement Tomkinson’s physicality, Nareki has shown himself to be their best attacking option out wide and and McKay’s pace has been key in both attack and defence, and Aaron Smith has been Aaron Smith!

Meanwhile in the pack, both Shannon Frizell and Dillon Hunt have grown into the competition, creating a great back row with Marino Mikaele-Tu’u that exhibits a great balance between physicality, technical ability, carrying and defensive ability. Ash Dixon and Liam Coltman provide an experienced 1-2 punch at hooker while players like Pari Pari Parkinson work great as physical enforcers who also play a key role in the set piece.

In a trans-Tasman tournament, I’d be confident in this Highlanders team finishing in the top half. But in a 5-team Aotearoa tournament, it’s going to be a hard fight.

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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: Chiefs v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Highlanders

Round 6 of Super Rugby Aotearoa concluded with the reverse of the tournament’s opening match as the Highlanders travelled to Hamilton to face off against the Chiefs. Warren Gatland’s men were 0-4 at the halfway point but found themselves building an early lead with tries through Lachlan Boshier and Anton Lienert-Brown. Rob Thompson found himself sent to the bin on 14 minutes for a high tackle and after Damian McKenzie kicked the resulting penalty for 3 points, the Chiefs took advantage of the extra man to score a 3ʳᵈ try through hooker Bradley Slater. he Highlanders finally began to muster a response after this and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u scored on the half hour mark to make the halftime score 24-7.

The Chiefs started the second half on fire and Bradley Slater crossed for his 2nd try just minutes after the restart, but things were soon to change drastically. Josh Ioane has been introduced at the break following his return from injury and a reshuffle of the back line soon resulted in Mitch Hunt breaking away out wide for a try. The Highlanders continued to claw themselves back into the game and a great example of support running by Aaron Smith saw the All Blacks halfback cross just before the hour mark, with Hunt converting to make the score 31-19. The clock appeared to be against the Highlanders, until Jona Nareki found a gap on 75 minutes and went 60 metres to score – Hunt converting – before a stupid penalty from the Chiefs pack as time expired allowed the Highlanders to kick the ball out 5m from the Chiefs’ try line. The catch and drive came from the Otago outfit and as the Chiefs committed extra defenders to hold them out, Aaron Smith took advantage of the space created to draw the only nearby defender and feed Sio Tomkinson to score under the posts and level the score, with Hunt kicking the conversion to seal a 31-33 comeback victory.

 

Winless

This last-gasp defeat to the Highlanders has left the Chiefs in a bad spot. They find themselves 0-5 in the competition and with their bye coming in Round 10, they have no break in which to regroup for a final push. They desperately need that break right now as they just can’t find a way to win. When you go 24-7 up, there should be no way that you collapse badly enough to lose, and yet that’s exactly what the Chiefs did.

When I look at the attacking stats, it’s no surprise that they lost. Boshier was the only player to make more than 5 metres (55 from 5 carries), while the starting wingers managed just 8 carries between them. It felt like the physicality of young lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi and control of Aaron Cruden (who was inexplicably left on the bench even as the game turned against them). But even worse was the way they handed the match to the Highlanders at the death. After Boshier won a penalty with a great jackal – one of a couple of key penalties he won in similar fashion late on – the Chefs cleared their line and set about securing the lineout with seconds left, only to be penalised for obstruction, allowing the Highlanders the possession and field position to win the game.

Next week, the Chiefs travel to a Blues team that will be looking to end a 2-game slide, before hosting the unbeaten Crusaders and travelling to a resurgent Hurricanes. Looking at that run-in, I struggle to see the Chiefs finishing with anything other than an 0-8 record.

T-M-Oh No!

While I don’t feel that the Chiefs deserved the victory on their 80 minute performance, things could have been very different but for a contentious disallowed try. With the score at 31-19 in the 65ᵗʰ minute, an overthrown lineout on halfway was recovered by the Chiefs and a couple of phases later Damian McKenzie crossed for a try beneath the posts. However, the try was chalked off after Mike Fraser referred to the TMO, who concluded that following the overthrown lineout, the ball went forward off Sam Cane’s knee and contacted Kaleb Trask, who was in front of him and therefore in an offside position, resulting in a Highlanders scrum on halfway.

While this was morally the right decision as had the officials picked up on it at the time, play would not have continued, but the issue comes from play continuing and the referee referring the try to the TMO. When the TMO is checking if a try can be allowed they can only look back over the last 2 phases, however there were 3 very clear rucks between the offence and the try, which means that the TMO should have awarded the try due to nothing in the final 2 phases that could merit disallowing the try.

Personally, I think that incidents like this should lead to a TMO process where the footage is actively rewound on screen so we can all clearly see how far back the footage has gone and make sure it is not taken beyond that second phase.

Back line balance

A few weeks ago, I suggested bringing in Bryn Gatland to help create a dual playmaker axis to help Mitch Hunt. While they didn’t ever do this, they went one step better this week with the return of Josh Ioane from injury.

Realising that things weren’t working well enough in the first half, Ioane was brought on at half time for Rob Thompson, prompting a reshuffle to the back line, with fullback Michael Collins filling in for Thompson at 13, Hunt dropping back to 15 and Ioane at first five-eighth. The impact was so positive and almost instant. Collins looked more dangerous at 13, where his distribution skills helped to exploit gaps in the defence, while Hunt’s extra freedom allowed him to really show of his running skills as he made breaks out wide to great effect.

With the performance in the second half, I think that the Highlanders may have hit on their ideal back line for the coming games. Aaron Smith is in wonderful form and is an easy pick at 9. Ioane will only get better at 10 the more he plays there following his injury. Sio Tomkinson is solid and reliable at 12, while Collins should remain at 13. Hunt should play at 15 t create the dual playmaker axis with Ioane, while the wings should be Jona Nareki – who made a key impact off the bench and has been one of the more consistent wingers – and (assuming Nehe Milner-Skudder is not fit) Josh McKay, who looked assured at 14 in this match and put some pressure on the defence with his impressive pace.

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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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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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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

Round 3 of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off at Eden Park today s the Blues took on the Highlanders. The Blues topped the standings with 2 wins from 2 and got off to a perfect start as Caleb Clarke scored the opening try within just 6 minutes. The Highlanders levelled things up as captain Ash Dixon was driven over the line, but they soon found themselves behind as Scott Gregory’s attempted clearance from his own try line was charged down to gift Dalton Papali’i a try, while Reiko Ioane got on the end of a Caleb Clarke break soon after to extend the lead to 22-10 by halftime.

The Blues were slow out of the blocks in the second half and paid the price as Mitch Hunt slipped through for a try, and things soon got worse as Reiko Ioane was sent to the sin bin and Shannon Frizell crossed for a try soon after, with Mitch Hunt kicking the conversion to give the Highlanders an 22-24 win. This provoked an immediate reaction from the Blues, though, who made their way downfield before retaking the lead as Dalton Papali’i crossed for a second try off a lineout drive. Then with just minutes left, the Blues managed to turn over an attempted catch and drive from the Highlanders before winning the penalty at the resultant scrum to clean their lines and hold on for the 27-24 victory.

A day to forget

Making your first Super Rugby start is so usually a moment to remember, but for Highlanders fullback Scott Gregory, it was a match to forget. The young player, available due to the Olympics being pushed back a year, was making only his second appearance for the Highlanders but looked out of his depth at 15.

The first half gave him very little chance to attack, but in a more defensive role, things didn’t really go well for him. He was ran over by Caleb Clarke for the first try, but his big issue was dealing with the Blues’ kicking game, where he dropped two high balls with pressure coming but no real contest for the space. He also really struggled covering the Blues’ kicks to the corners, most notably in the 23ʳᵈ minute when he took too long gathering the kick and found his own kick from his try line charged down by Hoskins Sotutu for Papali’i to score a crucial try. Gregory was eventually removed after an hour, but the damage had already been done.

Now Gregory is a fantastic player, but fullback is a very difficult position to play, especially when a team has multiple playmakers to keep their kicking options open – not to mention forwards Sotutu and James parsons, who also put in some quality kicks during the game. It will take a 7s player time to adapt to the lack of space on the pitch and the kicking game in 15s. I can see Gregory getting another shot to start next week, but I think that he would benefit from a slightly less exposed position like on the wing.

Caps coming

Being at the start of a new World Cup cycle and with a new coach at the helm of the All Blacks, this is a crucial time to be putting in big performances. A number of the Blues are surely putting their hands up for international selection.

Reiko Ioane found himself drop down the pecking order at wing during the latter days of Steve Hansen’s tenure, but he is proving a match-up nightmare at his preferred position of 13 and will surely be pushing for the starting spot there for the All Blacks, especially with Jack Goodhue currently playing at 12 for the Crusaders.

Caleb Clarke put in another stunning performance with a try and a break to set up Ioane, and the performance was made even more impressive with the news that his grandfather had passed away that morning – explaining his apparent emotion just before kickoff. He may only have a few matches under his belt at this point, but he’s been one of the stars of the tournament and is surely jumping up the pecking order.

Hoskins Sotutu has been probably the star of the tournament so far despite being only 21 and with the 6 and 8 shirts both up for grabs, you’d imagine that he will take one of those, while his fellow back row Dalton Papali’i is certainly having an impact on games and will be hoping to break into the All Blacks 23.

Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock have been the All Blacks lock pair for so long, but Patrick Tuipulotu has hit the form of his life at just the right time, while his leadership of a successful Blues team will really help put himself in contention for a starting spot.

Wrong priorities

Now first of all, I want to acknowledge that as fans, we would much rather see rugby being played than constant kicks off the tee. However, rugby is a business and winning needs to come first. New Zealand as a whole is a fantastic rugby playing nation, but sometimes, they play too much rugby, which was the case today.

With 10 minutes left and holding a 3-point lead, the Blues won an easily kickable penalty. However, rather than going for goal and making the Highlanders need a converted try to go ahead, they kicked for the corner and almost paid the price, as James Parsons dropped the ball over the line and a Highlanders counterattack ended in a penalty that would have drawn the teams level had Mitch Hunt not missed.

Then just 3 minutes from the end, the Highlanders turned down a kickable penalty that would have taken the game to extra time in favour of kicking for the corner and trying to win in 80 minutes. This proved costly as the Blues managed to hold out the maul and win the scrum, where they then won a penalty to clear their lines and confirm the win.

We all love seeing positive rugby, but there is also a time for pragmatism. New Zealand haven’t quite got the balance right and sometimes in close games, it will end up costing them.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Chiefs

On 14ᵗʰ March 2020, the Super Rugby season came to a premature end due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, with New Zealand having gone 3 weeks without any coronavirus cases, rugby returned in New Zealand with Super Rugby Aotearoa, a 10-week round-robin tournament between the 5 New Zealand Super Rugby franchises.

The opening match of the tournament was at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin and saw the Highlanders take on Warren Gatland’s Chiefs. The Highlanders had been struggling in Super Rugby before the season was ended, with just 1 win and 1 draw from 6 matches, but found themselves leading the Chiefs (who had 4 wins before the tournament was stopped) 22-16 at half time, despite having Vilimoni Koroi in the bin. Anton Lienert-Brown crossed for a try late on and with just a couple of minutes left, Damian McKenzie knocked over a drop goal that looked to have won the game for the Chiefs, only for replacement fullback Bryn Gatland – who was not even in the initial 23 – to hand his father an opening day loss with a drop goal from about 35 metres out with just a minute left on the clock to win the game for the Highlanders, 28-27.

Breaking down the breakdown

One of the big changes for Super Rugby Aotearoa has been the promise of an increased focus on the breakdown from officials, with a number of existing laws finally being enforced (players entering through the gate, tacklers having to roll away, the tackled player being allowed one movement before placing the ball, players having to retreat beyond the hindmost foot to be onside) and one slight amendment in the need for the jackal to be clearly trying to lift the ball, rather than just staying in place.

In this first match, it was very clear that the focus is on the breakdown, but the teams still have some way to go to adapt to the impact it will have on games. The penalty count was one of the highest that I’ve ever seen, with most coming from the breakdown (side entry/holding on after being tackled) or offsides. While some people may feel that the amount of whistle blowing harms the game, it will improve as players get used to the way that the game is now being refereed. What I did notice though was how much safer the breakdowns looked and felt on the whole.

With support men having to come through the gate, it was giving the jackal the extra moment to get on the ball, while the necessity for the jackal to support their weight then lift the ball to earn the turnover meant that they were not staying super low to the ground and were able to be cleared out without players having to charge in recklessly. It’s early days, but I look forward to seeing how this focus changes the game.

Not-so-secret weapon

The high penalty count in the game probably played into the Highlanders’ hands, as it allowed them to repeatedly g to their major weapon: the lineout and the driving maul. The Chiefs had no answer for it – being unable to disrupt the lineout and already finding themselves pushed back a metre or more before they were even bound in to push back against the maul. Of the 3 tries they scored in the first half, the catch and drive played a key role in 2 of them, with Ash Dixon being driven over for the opening try, while it also died in defenders to create a big enough blind side for the Highlanders to take advantage of for Marino Mikaele-Tu’u score while a man down.

It wasn’t just their own lineouts where they profited, though. The Chiefs struggled with their rhythm due to referee Paul Williams making them get in place early and the early loss of Mitchell Brown, but it was accentuated by the efforts of the Highlanders pack to disrupt the ball, leaving it very rare that Brad Weber was getting clean ball off the top.

Against stronger packs they may not always have it their own way, but to have such a potent weapon that can benefit from a high penalty count – very likely in these early weeks – could give the Highlanders an advantage in these early weeks.

Change of scenery

New Zealand are in an enviable position of having 3 fantastic scrum halves in Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber, who could all walk into most starting lineups. But there is one player who appears to have dropped down in consideration over the last couple of seasons: Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.

Tahuriorangi was already sharing to look like the next man up when the British and Irish Lions came to town 3 years ago, and was soon 3ʳᵈ choice for the All Blacks. However the form of his more experienced clubmate, Brad Weber, over recent seasons saw him drop to second string for the Chiefs and miss out on the All Blacks squad for the Rugby World Cup. Aged 25, this is the time you would want to be pushing for the starting spot in the national team, but his way looks blocked in the near future with Weber and Perenara in their late 20s and Aaron Smith having a few more seasons in him at 31. He’s not going to be forcing his way in anytime soon as Weber’s backup and if he harbours any hopes of an international career anytime soon, he should be looking to see if he can move to the Blues or Crusaders, where he could be a first string player and directly compete against his rivals for the All Black squad.

Quicksand

“You’re playing and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move… you can’t breathe… because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.”

The above quite is one of my favourites from the movie The Replacements and said by Keanu Reeves’ character, Quarterback Shane Falco. Having watched the game this morning, I can’t help feel that Chiefs number 8 Pita Gus Sowakula might know what Falco meant by this.

The Fijian is clearly a talented player, but everything he seemed to try in this game was the wrong decision. He gave away a number of penalties for a range of offences, including making multiple movements after being tackled without releasing the ball and tackling a player before they had the ball. He made a great break later in the first half, but then in an attempt to keep the ball alive, he threw an offload to nobody, resulting in the ball being turned over. And then finally, when the Chiefs chose to convert a late penalty into a scrum inside the Highlanders 22 while a man up, he failed to control the ball at the base of the scrum, leading to the chance being wasted.

It won’t be easy, but Sowakula needs to get this game out of his head as soon as possible and move his focus onto facing the Blues on Saturday. He just needs to be careful that he doesn’t try to push things too hard, or he may find himself in quicksand.

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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