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 int he 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 a 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 eh 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