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: Hurricanes v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Chiefs

The Hurricanes opened up the penultimate weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa with the visit of the Chiefs. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs knew a loss would mean they would go the whole tournament without a win, while the ‘Canes knew they needed 2 bonus point wins and other results over the final 2 weeks to go their way in order to win the competition.

For those who have been following the Chiefs’ exploits this tournament, it was probably no real surprise to see the Hurricanes cross for an early try through Peter Umaga-Jensen. As the game evened out, Damian McKenzie kicked a penalty to open the scoring for the Chiefs, but Umaga-Jensen crossed again soon after to give the ‘Canes a 12-3 lead at halftime.

With Kobus van Wyk in the sin bin for a dangerous tackle, Sean Wainui scored early in the second half, but a quick attack from the Hurricanes right before van Wyk could rejoin the fray saw Dane Coles cross for a try. McKenzie kept things close with another penalty, but the ‘Canes soon had another try as a cross-kick from Jackson Garden-Bachop bounced perfectly into van Wyk’s hands. Mitch Karpik brought the Chiefs back inside bonus point range with a try off the back of a driving maul, but after Jamie Booth found a gap in the Chiefs defence, Billy Proctor collected his offload to turn a bonus point for the Chiefs into a bonus point for the Huricanes, with Jordie Barrett kicking the conversion and winning a late penalty to secure a 31-18 victory.

Man in the middle

One of the big names to emerge during Super Rugby Aotearoa is that of Hurricanes centre Peter Umaga-Jensen. The 22-year-old has solidified himself as the man at 13, despite the quality of teammates Vince Aso and Billy Proctor. Now, with Ngani Laumape out injured, Umaga-Jensen is taking on a bigger and more crucial role, running hard to create the platform for those around him as much as he is working the spaces created by others.

With 9 carries in this match, Umaga-Jensen carried more than every Hurricane other than Jordie Barrett (14), whose stats would always be inflated due to running back wayward kicks. He ran a great line to punch through the defence for his opening try, before running a great support line inside Wes Goosen for his second.

He is an incredible talent who will have benefited so much from playing weekly alongside and against such talented players. If he carries on like this, he will be hard for Ian Foster to ignore him when selecting his first All Blacks squad.

Missing the midfield

While it was nice to see the Chiefs willing to play a little more rugby this week, one thing became abundantly clear: this team was not earning the right to go wide. In players like Sean Wainui, Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo and Etene Nanai-Seturo, they have a fantastic set of wingers, but if they can’t get the ball in space it means nothing.

The Chiefs need to do the hard work in the middle of the park, but I don’t think they have the right players for it in midfield at the moment. Kaleb Trask looks out of his depth and the constant switching between him and Aaron Cruden won’t have helped. Quinn Tupaea and Alex Nankivell look like they are still a season or two away from being difference-makers in the centre. While Anton Lienert-Brown had one of his better matches, I still don’t feel that he is the kind of player to significantly draw in tacklers.

Meanwhile in the pack, there are very few carriers besides Pita Gus Sowakula. The Chiefs need more from the pack and midfield if they are to start winning matches next season. Perhaps a different man at the helm while Warren Gatland focuses on the British and Irish Lions will be able to get the team playing with a better structure.

Plug and play

Considering up here in England we focus on fly halves controlling the game, the limited impact that Jackson Garden-Bachop has on games surprises me. Rather than the general of the team, or even a game manager, he feels just like a distributor, though this distribution did lead to him getting 2 assists in this game.

By keeping things basic though, it has allowed the Hurricanes to move TJ Perenara to first five-eighth midway through the second half and bring on Jamie Booth. Booth is a very talented and exciting player, but would not usually get more than a handful of minutes due to Perenara’s leadership meaning he generally stays on the park. However, by making the first five-eighth role in the team easy enough to plug Perenara in later in the game, it allows the team the best of both worlds, while also making the team even more dangerous against a tiring defence, as both Booth and Perenara will exploit the tiniest of gaps and ensure that they are on the shoulder of any break.

Will they need a plan B? Maybe, as they struggled without Jordie Barrett and with the big boys out of sorts. But while it’s working, it is a great tactic.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Hurricanes

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

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

The perfect storm

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

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

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

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

Masterful Mo’unga

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

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

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

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

The race for number 2

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

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

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

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

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Blues

The second half of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off with the reverse fixtures from Round 1 and the Hurricanes hosting the Blues in Wellington. It was a match notable for Beauden Barrett’s return to Sky Stadium after leaving for the Blues, and home fans were ecstatic to see him beaten on the outside by Ngani Laumape just minutes into the match for the opening try. Barrett soon got the chance to laugh back as he slipped through a gap to score on 10 minutes. Another charge from Laumape saw Emoni Narawa sent to the bin, but the Blues emerged from this unscathed, before Dalton Papali’i was driven over at the other end. Reed Prinsep crossed for the Hurricanes’ 2ⁿᵈ try of the game and on the stroke of halftime, Jordie Barrett kicked a penalty to level the scores at 15-15.

The tries kept coming after halftime, with Dane Coles running a clever line to go over from short range just a few minutes into the half, but the Blues fought back and scored 2 more tries through Akira Ioane and Kurt Eklund. As the clock ticked into the final minutes it looks like the Blues were going to get back to winning ways, but a late lineout drive saw replacement hooker Asafo Aumua cross to level the scores, with Jordie Barrett nailing the conversion to seal a 29-27 victory and spoil his older brother’s return home.

He came in like a wrecking ball

I’ve noted a couple of times throughout the tournament how the Hurricanes appeared to be struggling to utilise Ngani Laumape, but appeared to be getting closer last week. Well this week, everything clipped. Laumape showed a surprising turn of pace on a couple of attacks out wide – beating Beauden Barrett around the outside just a couple of minutes in – and combined this well with his monstrous physicality to devastating effect.

The ‘Canes centre finished the game with 17 carries for 160 metres, with 4 clean breaks and 5 defenders beaten, and was unlucky not to get a second try shortly after his first as 3 men combined to stop him inches short, leading to Narawa’s yellow card when he refused to roll away. It genuinely felt like every time he got the ball he was making big yards to put the team on the front foot. Even defensively he had an impact, only making 3 tackles but with some of them coming in key moments as the ‘Canes fought to come from behind.

I always felt that leaving Laumape out of the Rugby World Cup squad was a mistake. If he can keep up this form, only an idiot would not bring him back into the squad.

Selection error?

While Laumape was virtually unstoppable in this match, I also think that he was helped by an error in selection from the Blues.

Harry Plummer at 12 creates a great playmaking axis with Otere Black and Beauden Barrett, but I was personally expecting the more defensively solid TJ Faiane to get the start. Even before we knew who the ‘Canes were playing at centre, you just have to look at their options – Laumape, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Billy Proctor and Vince Aso – to know that they will be coming with a physical approach. Then you have to account for players like Ardie Savea and Ben Lam… this is a physical Hurricanes team.

Now Plummer didn’t do bad, but he did only complete 8/10 tackles in his 45 minutes on the pitch, during which time Laumape ran riot. When Faiane took over at 12, Laumape’s impact on the game was lessened, but too late as he had already done the damage.

With the Chiefs visiting Eden Park next week, the coaches have a big decision to make at 12.

Flying Scotsman

If Scotland want to be successful in the coming years then I hope they are paying some serious attention to Finlay Christie. The 24-year-old was born in Peebles, Scotland, but moved to New Zealand when he was 7. Having previously played for the Chiefs and ‘Canes, he is onto his 3ʳᵈ Super Rugby franchise, but looks in a great position to cement a starting spot ahead of Sam Nock and Jonathan Ruru.

Christie controls the game so well, keeping a good tempo to the phases, and while his kicking game isn’t elite, I would argue that it is better than current Scottish internationals Ali Price and George Horne. But even more so, he is an accomplished defender, with this game highlighting his skills as he repeatedly snagged Ardie Savea and single-handedly stopped him carrying off the back of scrums, while he also put in a fine cover tackle on opposite number TJ Perenara. Watching him play, I’m confident that he could quickly establish himself in the Scottish XV if he were to move North.

But more than that, this game really highlighted to me a certain ability to just be a nuisance. This doesn’t surprise me too much given the time he spent playing at the Hurricanes as backup to TJ Perenara, who makes nuisance an art form. As well as causing issues for Savea picking up from the base of the scrum, Christie did a good job n the whole of blocking Perenara off from getting to his own number 8, while he also cheekily took his chance to reach over a ruck after Perenara picked up the ball in order to smack it out of his hands. He’s certainly on his way to becoming the type of scrum half that is hated by everyone but his own team, and that’s exactly what the Scots need.

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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: Chiefs v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Hurricanes

A weekend of rugby came to an end with the Hurricanes’ trip to Hamilton to face off against the Chiefs. The ‘Canes were welcoming back Jordie Barrett from injury and he made an almost immediate impact as he spread the ball wide for Kobus van Wyk to score the opening try just 5 minutes in. Barrett and McKenzie traded penalties, before a Dane Coles intercept set up Du’Plessis Kirifi to score a couple of phases later, while Barrett put an exclamation point on the first half by nailing a penalty from about 60 metres out to send the teams into the break with the score at 3-20.

McKenzie kicked another penalty early in the second half, but a Jamie Booth break put van Wyk over in the corner again to extend the lead. Then around the hour, the Chiefs began to put more sustained pressure on their opponents and with 15 minutes left, Damian McKenzie’s quick-tap penalty looked set to end in a try, but he was snagged by Scott Scrafton – only just back on following a yellow card – before he had retreated the 10 metres, resulting in a penalty try and an early shower for the second row. With the game back on, the final 15 minutes became an open affair and Lachlan Boshier crossed with a couple of minutes left to bring the Chiefs in bonus point range, but McKenzie missed the conversion and the Chiefs were unable to mount another successful attack, eventually going down 18-25.

A welcome return

“The ‘Canes will be hoping Barrett’s back soon to help utilise the back line to its fullest.” – Hurricanes v Crusaders

Jordie Barrett made his return to the Hurricanes lineup this week and it’s impossible to argue that he didn’t improve the team. Jackson Garden-Bachop has played well but not utilised the back line by taking the ball to the line often enough. With Barrett now at 15, it created that same dual playmaker axis that we have seen the Chiefs and Blues using, which immediately helped the team. Players like Dane Coles, Ardie Savea and Peter Umaga-Jensen were released through the midfield to devastating effect, while Barrett’s wide pass for van Wyk’s opener was effective even if it wasn’t pretty.

But Barrett did more than just that. He is an incredible athlete and strong runner as well as a talented playmaker, giving him multiple ways to take on his opponent and put the ‘Canes on the front foot. But his biggest weapon of all was his monster boot. Whether it was kicks to touch, a drop goal attempt from close to halfway or his penalty that was (when you consider the angle) probably about 60 metres out, he was so accurate from such long range. Straight away this gives his team an advantage, as any penalties close to the Hurricanes 10m line can be kicked into a great attacking position, any close to halfway or within the opponent’s half are a legitimate opportunity to keep the scoreboard ticking over, and any loose clearance kicks without an effective chase could also end in a long range drop goal.

The only issue with his return is that putting him at fullback comes at the expense of Chase Tiatia, who has been one of their more dangerous runners in the opening rounds. They could try moving Barrett to fly half and having Garden-Bachop enter the fray later in the game (which is surely better than a part-time stand-off like Perenara), but I think the success in this game came in part from the dual playmakers as opposed to just having Barrett there. it would be tough to have Barrett play a similar role from the wing, but with Tiatia playing more of a prototypical fullback role, potentially he could be utilised on the wing while Barrett stays at 15, which would create a dangerous counterattacking duo for any wayward kicks.

What will the ‘Canes do? Only time will tell.

2 strikes, you’re off!

It’s not very often that you see a player sent off in a rugby match after receiving 2 yellow cards, but that was the fate that befell Hurricanes lock Scott Scrafton in this game. The lock was initially yellow carded by referee Ben O’Keeffe for repeated offences in the lineout, and then minutes after coming on did not retreat far enough back to be legal when stopping Damian McKenzie from scoring at a quick-tap penalty.

Now the commentary team did not seem happy with Ben O’Keeffe’s decision – neither did the ‘Canes players, which is no surprise – but I think that O’Keeffe was spot on in his decision, though you could tell even he wasn’t happy about having to show Scrafton a red card. Scrafton was penalised at least 3 times at the lineout, which is criminal, and should have adapted his game after the first one or 2 penalties. Repeat offending is always going to end in a yellow and an experienced lock like Scrafton (who is the team’s key lineout operator) should know to adapt the way he is playing in order to get on the right side of the officials. Then, for the second yellow, there is no argument. Scrafton was clearly never onside (back behind the try line), McKenzie took the penalty legally and Scrafton tackled him from an illegal position which clearly stopped the scoring of a try. The penalty try was completely justified and (unfortunately, in my opinion) the laws state that a penalty try is an automatic yellow card, though I would argue that even if it wasn’t denying a legitimate attack by not being back 10 metres at a penalty would usually also be a yellow card offence.

Now it’s only fair to also comment on the decision to only give a penalty against Sam Cane about 5 minutes before the red card. Yes, the contact was late. Yes, the contact was with the shoulder and not the arm. However, the slow-mo replays made the incident look so much worse and re-watching the incident live showed that the incident was something and nothing – in fact Dane Coles did worse to Beauden Barrett off the ball in the opening round and everybody just had a laugh about that!

Power pairs

It’s been something on my mind for a while, but this round of matches really cemented for me just how much quality the New Zealand franchises have at scrum half. Aaron Smith reminded everyone yesterday of his quality, while today, both starting scrum halves TJ Perenara and Brad Weber put in strong performances and their replacements Jamie Booth and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi managed to have positive impacts on the match.

Looking at all of the New Zealand franchise squads, they all have such strong 1-2 punches at scrum half. Jamie Booth has looked incredible coming off the bench and attacking tiring defences when Perenara has moved to stand-off. I’ve already mentioned how I think that Tahuriorangi could benefit from a move to get more regular starts and challenge for the All Blacks squad. Sam Nock has improved by the week but hasn’t seemed at quite the same level as many of the other starters (he could work great as Weber’s back-up if the Blues and Chiefs could arrange a swap, though), but Finlay Christie has then done a great job of upping the tempo from the bench and the Scottish selectors should be talking with him. The Crusaders may not have a big name at halfback, but Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond are great talents and Drummond especially gets the quick ball coming. The fact that Kayne Hammington is left to last is not so much a judgement of his talent, but more just the fact that with Aaron Smith leading the team, he plays so infrequently compared to many of his fellow scrum halves.

When you look at the quality of those 10 names and compare to the top 10 available for any other country (assuming Finlay Christie is not picked up by the Scots), do many other countries come close to such a level of talent? None immediately come to mind.

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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.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Hurricanes

While the world continued to go to **** in the UK and USA, normalcy returned in New Zealand as a sell-out crowd gathered at Eden Park to watch the second game of Super Rugby Aotearoa, as the Blues hosted the Hurricanes.

This marked the debut of Beauden Barrett for the Blues, as the man widely considered the best fly half in the world faced off against his old team, but for this match he was at fullback while Otere Black took the reins at 10. Black put in one of his best Super Rugby performances to date, including a perfect performance off the tee that proved key in giving the team a 1-point lead at halftime, both teams having scored 2 tries. The skills of the Blues back line saw them pull away in the second half, however, with a late Jamie Booth try making the final score look more respectable at 30-20.

Star-studded Blues

One thing this match really highlighted is the talent of the Blues back line. With Beauden Barrett deployed at 15, he created a great playmaking axis that helped take the pressure off Black. On the wings, Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke (available due to the Olympics being pushed back) showed the game-changing ability that allows the Blues to move Reiko Ioane inside to 13, where his underappreciated strength and incredible pace create a nightmare match-up. TJ Faiane put in a an assured performance to solidify the back line, while also providing a lovely assist for Dalton Papali’i with a perfectly weighted grubber kick.

And the scariest thing about it all? They have options beyond this. Harry Plummer and Matt Duffie are both more-than-capable playmakers at 10 and 15 respectively, allowing so many different combinations with Barrett and Black… oh and then there’s some chap called Dan Carter with the team as injury cover for Stephen Perofeta. And finally, you have the quality of centre Joe Marchant who can create a different dynamic in the midfield if the coaches want to rest Ioane or utilise him in the wing.

Quit whining!

We’re only 2 matches into the tournament and already I’m sick of listening to the pundits and commentators complaining about the referees giving so many penalties. The focus on the breakdown during this tournament has been clearly advertised – including by these pundits during the game – and the onus should be on the players to play the game legally rather than on the referee to keep the game flowing in these cases.

Its not as if the players should really be having to change their game much if they played it right, as the only actual change to the laws is the need for the jackal to attempt to lift the ball rather than stay in place. The rest of the changes are just encouraging the officials to enforce the laws that are already in place.

Yes, we all want to see flowing games rather than 20+ penalties, but the referees are finally doing their job and enforcing the laws. If professionals are going to be paid by the broadcasters to come on and share their knowledge to the wider public, they should be highlighting the players’ lack of adaptation to the laws rather than encouraging the officials to wilfully ignore infringements – we’ve had enough of that in recent years and it’s frankly made the game dangerous!

Wasted talent

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Ngani Laumape and think that he should be the starting 12 for the All Blacks. So when he has a quiet game and his team lose, it’s something that I notice.

While Jackson Garden-Bachop had an assured game, he didn’t appear to utilise Laumape much in the midfield, at it was only in the final quarter that he appeared to really get the chance to run at the opposition, generally out wide rather than centrally. For a player so effective at setting a platform, he should have been getting the ball regularly, and I think the absence showed as there were very few players regularly putting the team on the front foot, which really caused issues in the second half as the Blues back line took over and the ‘Canes had no answer.

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Eyes On: Hurricanes v British and Irish Lions

Tuesday saw the Lions play their last midweek game of the tour against last year’s Super Rugby Champions, the Hurricanes. Despite the ‘Canes boasting a dangerous back line, it was the Lions who came out all guns blazing and led at half time 7-23. However in an exciting second half the ‘Canes started to get more control and they took full advantage of Iain Henderson’s yellow card to draw level at 31-31. Despite all attempts to snatch a late winner, the Lions were unable to do so, with Dan Biggar’s long drop goal attempt falling short.

For many of these Lions, this will have been their last rugby of the season, as only the 2nd and 3rd Tests against the All Blacks now remain. However after the Lions’ loss in the 1st Test some of these players may be hoping to have done enough to earn a call-up to the Test 23.

As we look back on one of the more exciting games of the tour, here are my thoughts on the latest match:

 

Devalue the shirt or devalue the player?

When Warren Gatland announced that 4 Welshmen and 2 Scots would be joining the tour midway through, there was widespread criticism from both pundits and fans. I was very much against the call-ups, mainly because I agreed with the sentiment that most of the players were only there because they were geographically close, not because they were the best players available. However I was surprised to see them barely used against the Chiefs last week and was angry to see the way they were used – or not as the case was – in this game.

Gatland has admitted in an interview that the backlash from calling up the ‘Geographic 6’ caused him to re-think his strategy and it was decided that they would only be used as replacements when absolutely necessary (HIAs, injuries etc.). This to me is absolutely ridiculous as he has pulled these players away from their national teams and then basically decided that they will not be used except as a last resort. Over the last 2 midweek games, we have seen the 6 players used for a grand total of approximately 15 minutes, with Alan Dell covering Joe Marler’s yellow card against the Chiefs and Finn Russell making a cameo while Dan Biggar underwent possibly the fastest HIA I have ever seen! In this game, Joe Marler appeared to carrying an injury in the second half, but was still kept on when Dell was ready and waiting on the bench. What makes it even worse is that judging by an interview with CJ Stander, the starting players were not even aware that the subs were only there for emergencies, which by the way they played the game does not surprise me.

Right from the start, the Lions played a very high-tempo game, with Dan Biggar taking his place kicks as quickly as he felt comfortable doing and also choosing to surprise the ‘Canes with a quick tap penalty on halfway after shaping for a kick to touch. The New Zealand commentary suggested that this would be to allow the players the maximum amount of time to show their abilities to the coaches ahead of the Tests, however I also feel that it possibly caught the ‘Canes out initially. However after the break, the Hurricanes started to get more comfortable and upped the tempo even further. Let’s not forget, the tourists have just completed a long season, whereas the ‘Canes are still in the middle of theirs so would likely be fresher. The Lions have also been playing 2 games a week for the past month, and even squad rotation can only help combat fatigue so much in those cases. As the game went on, Dan Biggar must have begun to feel like he had a target painted on him, as the ‘Canes took every opportunity to send Ngani Laumape crashing down the 10 channel and Biggar continually put his body on the line. To ask him to play 76 minutes under those circumstances and then try to kick a 40m+ drop goal with the final play of the game is madness. Pretty much the entire team were out on their feet and yet the substitutions were limited to Leigh Halfpenny (1st half for the injured Robbie Henshaw) and George Kruis (54th minute for Courtney Lawes). As if they weren’t fatigued enough they then had to deal with being a man down between the 65th and 75th minute. The Hurricanes ran them ragged in those 10 minutes, scoring 14 points. There is no way to know for certain, but I would have expected the Lions to hold on had they not been so fatigued.

Once the ‘Geographic 6’ were out there, they should have been used the same as any squad member. I may not have liked Gatland’s decision, but I would have respected him for sticking to his guns.

Earning another game

Though I don’t expect drastic changes to be made to the Test 23, I feel that there were a few places on the bench up for grabs if someone could put in a good enough performance against the ‘Canes, namely at second row and the 23 shirt.

Both Henderson and Courtney Lawes had strong games on Tuesday, with Henderson especially influential in the loose with a couple of strong runs and some deft hands to put George North over for his try. While his yellow card at such a crucial time proved decisive and may count against him, I feel that he was not helped by the actions of Jonathan Joseph, who for some unknown reason decided to lift Jordie Barrett’s second leg as Henderson was cleaning him out, meaning that he lost all balance. I don’t think Henderson will be involved on Saturday, however I would not be overly surprised if he makes it into the 23 for the final Test. The removal of Lawes so early in the second half suggests to me that he will play some role in the Test, which I feel is a good call as he will not allow the All Blacks to have their own way at contact to the same degree as they did in the last Test.

In my last prediction of the 23, I named Jonathan Joseph on the bench, but I felt that his performance against the Hurricanes was anonymous at best, if not poor. Too often he tried (and failed) to ship the ball on without controlling it, which brought an early end to some promising attacks. I also never got the sense that he brought much to the defence. Maybe I’m being harsh on the Bath centre, but the only moment where I remember him impressing was his kick through that almost put North over for a try. I had Joseph’s versatility (he could get away with covering the wing if needed) getting him the 23 shirt, however I feel that other versatile players proved themselves more worthy in this game.

Probably one of the most impressive players on the pitch for the tourists, I think Jack Nowell has really bounced back from the criticism he received early in the tour. While he didn’t get on the score sheet, there were a number of times that he was able to put the Lions on the front foot with a mini-break and his strength and elusiveness won the Lions a number of penalties for high tackles. He also stopped Julian Savea in his tracks with an impressive chop tackle on about the only chance he had to run with the ball in the first half. He is by no means the biggest of wingers, but the coaches were clearly happy with his ability to deal with Savea when they moved him onto the wing after Robbie Henshaw’s injury. With a set of skills that would allow him to play wing, centre or fullback, Nowell would be a great option for the last place on the bench, however I see him missing out this weekend to George North.

This was arguably North’s best game of the tour. we haven’t seen enough of George North using his strength to beat people in internationals recently but he did so against the ‘Canes. After a decent enough start on the wing, he was moved inside midway through the opening 40 to replace the injured Robbie Henshaw. While it stopped him getting a chance to show his abilities on the wing, it may have been a blessing in disguise for him. The way that New Zealand benefited from the removal on Ben Te’o at the weekend showed to me that Sexton and Farrell should only be covering the fly half position in the Tests unless there is an emergency as they were too lightweight to avoid being dominated in the contact by Sonny Bill Williams. This game against the Hurricanes will have been a timely reminder to Warren Gatland that, though he is predominantly a winger, North can fill in at centre if required, and would be a much more physical centre like Te’o when compared to Farrell. His selection could have become even more important with the announcement that Waisake Naholo will start for he All Blacks on the wing and Laumape will come onto the bench, as they are both very physical players.

 

In terms of my selections for the Test 23, I have gone with the idea that not many changes will be made from last week’s squad, just a few minor tweaks. While I would personally keep the back row as it was, Gatland’s comments earlier int he week have led me to believe that Warburton will be recalled to the starting lineup, but I would not be surprised to see either him or O’Mahony named at 6. Alun Wyn Jones drops out after what I feel has been a poor tour for the Welshman, so Itoje starts while Lawes and North are promoted from the midweek squad. This is nothing against Leigh Halfpenny, however I just don’t feel that he is versatile or physical enough for the Lions to put ont he bench this weekend.

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  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. Anthony Watson
  15. Liam Williams
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes
  20. Peter O’Mahony
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton
  23. George North

 

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