North Island v South Island 2020

North Island v South Island 2020

I’ve been seriously missing Super Rugby Aotearoa these past few weeks, so on the eve of the All Blacks selection announcement, this match between the North Island and South Island – the first since a fundraiser in 2012 – was something I was looking forward to… and it didn’t really disappoint!

The North Island couldn’t have got a much better start to the match, as Reiko Ioane go on the end of a Beauden Barrett grubber kick to score the opening try after just 2 and a half minutes, with Damian McKenzie kicking the extras. It didn’t take long for the South Island to find an answer though, as a driving maul got them to the North Island try line and Nepo Laulala took the ball the final few inches, Jordie Barrett hitting the conversion and a penalty soon after to go ahead. Next came arguably the try of the match as the North Island attacked down the blind side 15m channel with some beautiful interplay from Reiko Ioane, Caleb Clarke, TJ Perenara and Damian McKenzie seeing the Chiefs fullback put North Island back ahead with the try and successful conversion. Jordie Barrett missed a penalty, but made amends just after the half hour mark, powering over int he corner after a slick pass out of the ruck from Codie Taylor, before hitting the conversion for a halftime lead of 14-17.

The North Island struck first again in the second half as replacement scrum half Aaron Smith followed up with an inside support line after the team made a break down the right through Damian McKenzie and Hoskins Sotutu, McKenzie converting again. 10 minutes later and North Island were on the attack again, but a pass from McKenzie went astray and while Caleb Clarke managed to keep the ball in play, he was unable to collect and South Island winger Will Jordan swooped in to steal the ball and take it to the house. while the South Island scored again just minutes later as Richie Mo’unga hit Tyrel Lomax on a perfect line with a beautiful flat pass, Barrett kicking both conversions to extend the lead. North Island refused to give up and narrowed the lead when Reiko Ioane slipped through the challenges of Shannon Frizell and Leicester Fainga’anuku to score under the posts, with McKenzie cutting the lead to 3 points. Then came the controversial moment on 71 minutes as Ash Dixon took an hard line off Aaron Smith to go under the posts. Referee Paul Williams awarded the try without consulting the TMO and the conversion was taken quickly, before replays could show that Dixon had been held up over the line. As the clock ticked past the 80 minutes, it looked like that decision may prove costly, but a series of penalties gave the South Island one more chance from a 5m lineout. With a penalty advantage given at the resultant maul, and with the North Island defence extremely narrow, replacement fly half Josh Ioane went for the cross-kick and Will Jordan rose above Mitch Hunt to take the ball above his head and score the winning try, Barrett adding the extras to confirm a 35-38 victory.

feat rugby north v south background

Stand-out performers

While a couple of players may not have had the impact they would have hoped, there was no player in either 23 who came away from the match with a diminished reputation. Some definitely improved on theirs, though.

Jordie Barrett was arguably one of the best men on the pitch, frequently showing his skills in both attack and defence while going near-perfect off the tee. Will Jordan was quiet in the first half but grew into the game and picked his moments to have maximum impact with 2 crucial tries. To me, they are the top 2 options at fullback right now, and I would expect Jordie Barrett to get the All Blacks 15 shirt if Ian Foster picks on form as he creates the 10/15 playmaker axis, while Jordan will certainly be putting his hand up for a spot on the wing. Caleb Clarke put in a big performance that may be the only thing that stops Jordan taking one of the starting wing spots, with Foster unlikely to want 2 uncapped wingers along with a new fullback.

One person who won’t be in contention for a wing spot is Reiko Ioane, as he has shown that the experiment of moving him inside to outside centre has been a success. While we already knew of Ioane’s pace, this move has accentuated his defensive ability and his strength, while his slick handling skills in the 13 channel just make the team even more dangerous. Sticking with the Blues, Hoskins Sotutu was the star of Super Rugby Aotearoa until his injury, but looked immediately back to his best in this game with turnovers and some great attacking play.

The final mention has to go to Tom Christie. Openside flanker is a position where the All Blacks are never short of options, while there is a legacy to uphold after the reign of Richie McCaw. Tom Christie definitely wouldn’t have been the first name on people’s lips when discussing Ian Foster’s options there, but he had a fantastic season with the Crusaders and played a starring role in this game. As captain of the national team, if Sam Cane is fit then Christie’s best chance is probably a place on the bench, but don’t be surprised to see him actively fighting for the 7 shirt in the coming years.

Strength in depth

If nothing else, this match and the subsequent All Blacks squad announcement just highlighted the strength in depth available to New Zealand.

While all 8 back rowers to play in this match put in strong performances, Sam Cane was always going to make the All Blacks squad if fit, while Cullen Grace can be considered somewhat of a shock inclusion, having missed much of Super Rugby Aotearoa through injury. Beyond that, though, are players like Du’Plessis Kirifi, Luke Jacobsen and Lachlan Boshier who all missed out on both the All Blacks and this match!

In the halfbacks, it was a shame that Finlay Christie did not get more of a chance to show his quality in the match and I can’t help feel that on form he was very unlucky to miss out on international selection (cough… snap him up, Scotland… cough!). Finally, that the match 23s suggest Otere Black my be 6ᵗʰ choice at stand-off is another crazy sign of their depth, especially when you consider some of the other players who have retired from international rugby or are ineligible due to playing outside of New Zealand!

If New Zealand are to struggle at all int he coming seasons, it won’t be due to a lack of depth in the squad.

Wasted wonder

I’ve been on record as saying that I consider Richie Mo’unga to be the best fly half in the world at this moment in time. Unfortunately, following this match, I feel that his potential will not be reached while Ian Foster is in charge of the All Blacks.

Under Steve Hansen, Mo’unga was never given a fair shot to compete against the golden boy Beauden Barrett, and when Injury to Damian McKenzie forced Barrett to move to 15 and Mo’unga to come into the XV, he was basically used in a game manager role while Barrett was given the true reins to the attack – similar to how the Blues were set up with Barrett and Otere Black. This completely takes away from his game, as playing as the lead playmaker for the Crusaders has highlighted just how good he is, while having a second playmaker at 15 would be a great support for him.

As one of Steve Hansen’s assistants, I was already worried that his selection would be bad news for Mo’unga, and this game all-but confirmed it, as Foster’s assistants Brad Mooar and Greg Feek were in charge of the South Island team. What followed was a subdued match for Mo’unga – not helped by a HIA assessment midway through the first half – as fullback Jordie Barrett was frequently popping up at first receiver. Mo’unga certainly had his moments, with an early grubber through almost ending in a try but for a great defensive play from Hoskins Sotutu and then of course his inch-perfect pass to Tyrel Lomax, but if the All Blacks were to trust him with full control like Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson does, then they would be so much more dangerous.

feat rugby north v south no background

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.

feat rugby super rugby aotearoa logo black

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.

feat rugby super rugby aotearoa logo black