Super Rugby Aotearoa: Tournament XV

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Tournament XV

Super Rugby Aotearoa came to an end at the weekend and by am I missing it. It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that the competition may have been 10 rounds of the most consistently exciting rugby I can ever remember watching, while seeing 9 weeks of busy stadiums was a great sight during the lonely times of the lockdown here in the UK. Sadly the final round saw the Highlanders and Hurricanes forced to play in an empty stadium and we were denied the opportunity of a stunning finale between the Blues and Crusaders, though thankfully the Crusaders had managed to secure the title in Round 9.

With the tournament over, there is just one more duty to uphold: picking the Team of the Tournament. These are all my own picks and go by my own feel from watching the matches rather than statistics – though I may throw in the odd stat to help my point. Let me know who would be your selections!

1) Joe Moody: Typically, the first position to talk about was one of the ones I found hardest to fill as there were no loose-heads that stood out to me in the same way as players did in most positions. So in the end I defaulted to one of the key roles of a prop: the scrum. The Crusaders scrum was one of the most dominant in the competition and a regular in that pack (starting all 7 matches played) was Joe Moody.

2) Kurt Eklund: There were so many ways I could have gone at hooker. Asafo Aumua could have got the spot had he been a more regular player, while Dane Coles could have also been in the hunt had he played more. Codie Taylor was let down early on by some issues at the lineout but came on strong when needed, while Ash Dixon was super-reliable and chalked up 4 tries. Instead though, I went for Eklund, who did a great job coming in when James Parsons went down injured. Eklund added physicality to the role, making metres when he carried but frequently pushing the opposition back in defence. With form like that, he’d have surely won the Blues’ starting spot even if Parsons had returned.

3) Ofa Tu’ungafasi: The Blues’ scrum was right up there with the Crusaders at the top of the charts, in no small part thanks to Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Having been a bench option often for the All Blacks due to his ability to play both sides, he has proved himself to be the best tight-head in New Zealand – if not the world – with performances full of strong scrummaging, heavy carrying and big tackling.

4) Patrick Tuipulotu: The Blues captain is in the form of his life right now and will surely be starting for the All Blacks should the Rugby Championship go ahead. The lock led from the front, finishing top amongst his team for lineouts won, while carrying and offloading to put his team on the front foot and putting in great shifts in defence.

5) Pari Pari Parkinson: The role of Tuipulotu’s partner was the final spot I filled in this squad. Both of his Blues teammates Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and Josh Goodhue were in the hunt but their shared minutes counted against them, while Naitoa Ah Kuoi’s injury in the middle of the competition saw him miss out in favour of Parkinson. His 26 lineouts won saw him finish behind only Mitchell Brown, while like Ah Kuoi he used his physicality effectively in attack and defence. At just 23, if he can cut down the penalties he gives away, he will be an incredible talent.

6) Lachlan Boshier: The Chiefs flanker was the star player in a poor team. Finished in the top 5 for lineouts won and scored a team-high 4 tries, but the big draw with Boshier in such a deep back row was how quickly he adapted to the new interpretations at the breakdown to consistently win crucial turnovers.

7) Dalton Papali’i: Openside was such a tough position to pick due to the depth of quality. Tom Christie looks like a future All Black, Dillon Hunt came alive as the tournament went on and Du’Plessis Kirifi consistently made big metres in the loose. Instead I went for Papali’i, who split time between 6 and 7 but regardless of where he played would put in 100% for the team. Finished 5ᵗʰ overall for tackles made and was a reliable carrier in attack. The flanker finished the competition joint-2ⁿᵈ (1 of 7) n the try charts with 4, but arguably should have had another after his interception try against the Highlanders was disallowed.

8) Akira Ioane: Hoskins Sotutu looked destined for this spot until he got injured, and even then still managed to hold onto it for a couple of weeks. Ardie Savea almost won the spot but a quiet start and end to the tournament saw him just miss out to Akira Ioane. Started at 6 until Sotutu’s injury and continued the role of defensive enforcer throughout the competition, finishing joint-9ᵗʰ overall with 68 tackles, but as he got more comfortable he became a more regular carrier off the back of the scrum, helping put the Blues on the front foot consistently.

9) Aaron Smith: I really wanted to pick Finlay Christie here but I couldn’t ignore the performances of Aaron Smith. The All Black, who won his 150ᵗʰ Super Rugby cap in the last match of the competition, controlled the games so well for the Highlanders and was constantly exploiting any gaps in the defence, resulting in some crucial tries.

10) Richie Mo’unga: I could wax lyrical about the Crusaders fly half but I will keep it brief here. When you see him play for the Crusaders, you see just how talented an individual he is. Accurate off the tee, great footwork, great range of passing, and strong enough to hold his own in both attack and defence. Scored 84 points with the boot t finish as the top scoring kicker and 3 tries ensured that he finished with 16 points more than the nearest player. I would call him the Player of the Tournament and also currently the best fly half in the world!

11) Will Jordan: A bit of a cheat here as Jordan didn’t play on the wing too much during the tournament, but I had 2 undroppable options at 15, while players like Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea and George Bridge impressed at times but also had quiet games. Just look at Jordan’s figures and you’ll see why he had to be included: 6 tries (1ˢᵗ overall), 88 carries (4ᵗʰ), 15 clean breaks (1ˢᵗ), 39 defenders beaten (1ˢᵗ), 724 metres carried (1ˢᵗ – 235 ahead of his nearest competitor, Damian McKenzie, who had more carries). Whether at wing, fullback or o the bench, this guy has to be in the All Blacks 23.

12) Jack Goodhue: If we were going by single-game performance, then Ngani Laumape had this secured. However we are looking at the entire competition, so his quiet start and untimely injury counted against him. TJ Faiane is probably one of the most underrated players of the tournament, while Sio Tomkinson was a consistently solid option for the Highlanders, but I have gone for Jack Goodhue, who did a great job in both attack and defence, keeping everything tidy while also running hard to commit defenders in attack.

13) Reiko Ioane: Peter Umaga-Jensen is unfortunate to miss out after a breakout tournament, while Michael Collins came alive at 13 for the Highlanders, but Reiko Ioane got the nod here. It took a few weeks for teams to figure out how to deal with his blend of pace and power at 13, but when they did, he let his handling skills put other players through gaps, while his defensive workrate was not discussed enough. Dropped down the pecking order on the wing in the latter days of Hansen’s reign, but at just 23 years old a move to 13 may reignite his international career.

14) Sevu Reece: The All Blacks winger is an absolute joy to watch on the rugby field and continues to make magic out of nothing. Has the pace and footwork to beat most and the handling skills to offload when he is finally stopped by someone. What makes Reece even more impressive is his willingness to come inside looking for work. With him and Will Jordan in the back 3, the opposition need to make sure their kicks are spot on.

15) Jordie Barrett: If I’m selecting the All Blacks starting XV tomorrow, there is a Barrett in the backline, but not Beauden. Jordie Barrett’s return from injury revolutionised the Hurricanes’ season. Has the ability to be a playmaker in a 10/15 axis, but is also a strong runner with a big boot, scoring 52 points off the tee, and winning some key turnovers in games. The youngest of the All Blacks’ Barrett trio at just 23, his versatility has counted against him in the past, but this could be the moment that he starts to secure his spot in the squad despite a high level of competition.

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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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