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: Highlanders v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Crusaders

Today, we should have been enjoying watching the All Blacks face off against Wales, but the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to that. Thankfully though, New Zealand’s impressive efforts to combat the pandemic meant that they wee the first country to bring back professional rugby, allowing us to still get a great match today in the form of a South Island derby: the Highlanders hosting the Crusaders in the 4ᵗʰ round of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

After a tight start, the Crusaders took the lead through yet another try for Will Jordan – playing at wing this week – but they looked a little off the pace of their previous matches and tries from Shannon Frizell and Ngane Punivai saw the Highlanders go into the break ahead 17-14. The home team continued to be the stronger team after the break, but butchered what looked a certain try and were made to rue their mistake as Crusaders flanker Tom Christie – on his first start of the tournament – crossed to give his team the lead. This sparked a change in momentum as the Crusaders began to hit their stride and , though Mitch Hunt hit back with a penalty, Sevu Reece crossed in the corner to open up a 6 point lead. As the clock ticked down, Christie scored again to secure the victory, while in the final play of the game Will Jordan (who else?!) managed to collect his own chip by the narrowest of margins, allowing him a clear run to the line from halfway to seal a 20-40 victory and put them top of the table ahead of their home match against fellow 3-0 franchise the Blues next week.

Finishing strong

A 20-point margin of victory really doesn’t tell the story of the match, but it highlighted something important: how clinical the Crusaders are. Over the first 48-odd minutes, they looked rather ordinary, and looked very beatable despite having the push on at the scrum. Will Jordan’s opener should have been an easy finish – if the ball even needed to get that wide – but David Havili entered the back line too flat, which saw him have to get out of contact rather than power through a gap like he did for his try last week, then everyone after him continued to move sideways before passing, allowing the defence to drift across and take all of Jordan’s space.

Then came the moment of the match. Jona Nareki got the ball in the Crusaders 22 with 2 men outside him and just Richie Mo’unga in any position to possibly influence the outcome. Nareki drew Mo’unga, but then it looks like he became selfish as he dummied the pass a couple of times as if trying to make Mo’unga drift to the men outside, but Mo’unga read the dummies, planted himself and put in a thundering hit on Nareki that brought an end to the chance. A couple of minutes later, Tom Christie scored at the other end of the pitch.

Momentum is an important thing in sport, and the Crusaders are so successful because they get the momentum early and hold onto it by taking and finishing their chances, and it’s exactly the same with the All Blacks. To beat them, you need to start big to get the momentum, defend to the death and ensure that you come away with points every time you get a chance… and then hope they don’t have a moment of magic!

The little general

Aaron Smith is widely regarded as one of the best halfbacks in the modern game. In this match, he showed why.

The Highlanders scrum half controlled the game for his team, making sure that they were playing the rugby where they wanted to be and communicating with referee Mitch Fraser throughout,without pushing things too far. But his big moment came after 24 minutes, when a Highlanders lineout was overthrown. Last week, I wrote about the need to stay switched on, and that is exactly what Smith did here, not just going where he expected the ball to be, but reacting to the overthrow faster than anyone to snap up the loose ball and break deep into Crusaders territory. In doing so, he put the team on the front foot behind the Crusaders defence, which the Highlanders were able to take advantage of to score the go-ahead try.

At 31, he still has a couple more good years in him. It will be interesting to see if he can hold onto the All Blacks 9 shirt through the entire World Cup cycle despite the quality of competition.

The prodigal son?

Just a few weeks ago, the Highlanders were beating the Chiefs at the death with a late drop goal from Bryn Gatland against his father’s team. While Gatland was not in the initial 23 for that match, he has remained in the matchday squad since, but has had limited time on the pitch. With the title already looking somewhat out of sight, I think that now is the time to look at giving him a starting role.

Mitch Hunt has been doing a good job of keeping the Highlanders in the game and controlled the team well, but despite some great attacking talent they just haven’t looked dangerous enough. Meanwhile, the team has had 3 different starters at fullback over 3 games… why not make it 4 from 4 by creating a 10/15 axis of Hunt and Gatland.

With the way the breakdown is leading to penalties against both sides, the territory game is becoming even more important, and having another playmaker to help with that can only benefit a team. Likewise, it will also allow Hunt to take the ball to the line even more as Gatland can fill in at first receiver if he is unavailable for the next phase. It will also probably benefit players with hopes of playing for the All Blacks as it will see them playing in a dual playmaker system similarly to what they may be playing internationally, while that extra playmaker also may be able to help the exciting wingers get more chances.

Will Aaron Mauger give this a try? Only time will tell.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

It’s hard to believe but we’re already 3 weeks through Super Rugby Aotearoa and the teams are already starting to really separate themselves from each other in the standings. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs went to Christchurch in search of a crucial win but will find themselves returning home with just a losing bonus point, having not led at any point in the match.

In wet conditions, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie each slotted a first half penalty but it looked like the match would be devoid of much excitement, until Sevu Reece beat McKenzie to a high cross-kick from Mo’unga and broke down the right wing, before feeding the ball inside to Will Jordan for the go-ahead try. The same 2 players combined again shortly after half time, with a quick lineout from Reece catching out the Chiefs and allowing Jordan to run in uncontested. The Chiefs began to fight back after this and Sean Wainui crossed to narrow the deficit, but the Crusaders managed to hold on and remain one of only 2 teams still unbeaten in the tournament – the other being the Blues (3-0), who have a bye next week before their trip to Christchurch.

New kid on the block

If there’s one person currently that will be making All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster reconsider a 10/15 playmaker axis, it’s Crusaders fullback Will Jordan. The 22-year-old has started the tournament in fine form and is currently keeping David Havili on the bench with his great performances.

In bad conditions today, Jordan looked assured under the high ball and made some incisive runs, finishing with a match-high 98 metres. Not only that, but he is clearly developing a good link with Sevu Reece, being in the right place to support for the opening try and seeing the opportunity with Reece to take a quick lineout for the second try. If he carries on like this, international recognition can’t be far away.

The only thing going against him right now, though, is that he is much more of a prototypical fullback, as opposed to the second playmaker that I think the All Blacks will be going for, especially given the great performances Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett are putting in at the position. It may be that for the near future at least, Jordan has to prove that he can also have a great impact on the game from the wing, much like Ben Smith and Israel Dagg did at times to keep themselves in All Blacks contention.

Play every second

The Chiefs certainly weren’t happy with the awarding of Will Jordan’s second try, but they had only themselves to blame. The laws state that a quick lineout can be taken provided it is on/behind the mark, nobody else has touched the ball and the lineout had already formed, which was exactly the circumstance when Reece fed Jordan for the crucial score.

It seemed like many of the team saw Aaron Cruden go over to speak to referee James Doleman and assumed that time was off. However, Cruden was not the captain so had no right to speak to the referee and was rightfully brushed away.

I always remember being told to play to the whistle, but in situations like this, it is a little more complicated than that. Usually the moment the ball goes into touch you can have a quick rest as you prepare for the set piece, but the one thing you can’t do is switch off mentally, as the moment you start doing things by rote rather than reacting to what’s going on around you is the moment your opponent will make you regret it.

Hopefully with Warren Gatland at the helm, the players will have learned from this mistake. But in the meantime, with just 2 points from 3 games, that is a costly and completely unnecessary mistake.

Set piece success

When you’re playing in wet conditions like in this match, there a 2 things you need more than anything else: a playmaker who can control the game and put you in the right areas of the pitch, and a pack that can gain the upper hand at the set piece. While both teams certainly had the former in Cruden, McKenzie and Mo’unga, it was the Crusaders pack that gained the advantage that probably proved crucial.

Of course the set piece is always important, but in bad conditions it becomes even more so as the territory game leads to more lineouts, while the greasy ball will likely lead to more handling errors and therefore more scrums.

In this match, the Crusaders pack managed to stop a 5m catch and drive from the lineout midway through the first half, despite the Chiefs throwing in a couple of backs to increase their numbers. They caused the lineout problems all game, especially after Chiefs’ replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho entered the fray. Overall, the Chiefs ended up losing 4/20 (20%) of their own lineouts, while they also lost 1/5 of their scrums (20%) and found themselves being pushed back and giving away penalties on multiple occasions.

The old adage is that the forwards win the match and the backs decide by how much. The Crusaders once again showed that to be true.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

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

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

A day to forget

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

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

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

Caps coming

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong priorities

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

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

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

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

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: 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: Chiefs v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Blues

Today should have been the Super Rugby final, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought a premature end to the competition. Thankfully, New Zealand have effectively combated the disease, so we sill managed to get professional rugby today in the form of the first match of Super Rugby Aotearoa’s second round.

Fresh off a narrow loss to the Highlanders last week, the Chiefs returned to Hamilton to host the Blues. So often, the Blues have been considered the weakest of the New Zealand franchises, but they came into this game off the back of a win and scored the opening try after 15 minutes as Hoskins Sotutu was driven over the line under the posts. However, poor discipline kept the Blues on the back foot for most of the fist half and allowed the Chiefs to stay close through the boot of Damian McKenzie. However, the game started to turn after the Blues survived 10 minutes with flanker Dalton Papali’i in the bin and the Chiefs then began to be the ones giving away the penalties, allowing Otere Black and Beauden Barrett to keep building a score, before Mark Telea crossed in the corner with 8 minutes left to confirm a 12-24 victory.

On the up

Since Super Rugby’s inception in 2011, New Zealand franchises have had a stranglehold on the competition, winning the title in 7 of the 9 completed seasons. The only New Zealand franchise to have not won the Super Rugby title is the Blues, who’s last win was back in 2003 when the competition was still Super 12! The Blues finished 4ᵗʰ in the inaugural 2011 season of Super Rugby, but lost in the semifinals and since then, their best finish in a season was 9ᵗʰ back in 2017. They have only had 2 seasons f Super Rugby where they finished with a winning record. And yet when Round 2 finishes, they will be on top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings.

It may still be early days, but his looks like a Blues team that is finally on the up and ready to compete towards the top of the table again. In winning this game, the Blues have just set a new franchise record for the most consecutive away wins (5). I wrote last week about the strength of the Blues back line, but the bad conditions today highlighted the strength of their pack. Even with the super-impressive Tom Robinson missing, they were able to put out a super physical and talented back row in Sotutu (who even at just 21 already looks like he should be playing for the All Blacks), Papali’i and Akira Ioane. Patrick Tuipulotu looks in the form of his life and leading by example, while Josh Goodhue is also putting in strong performances beside him. James Parsons provides great experience at hooker, while the props are all coming into their prime as they reach their late 20s. This is a team built to win not just now, but for the years to come too.

What may seem incredible right now is that the Blues are 2-0 without Dan Carter even making it into the matchday 23. Personally, I think that even if he barely takes the pitch, he will have been a fantastic signing as all the backs, especially young fly halves like Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta (whose injury opened the spot for Carter) will benefit so much from training with and learning from both Carter and Barrett, under the coaching of former All Blacks Leon MacDonald and Tana Umaga.

Obviously there’s still a long way to go, with 6 more matches to play over the remaining 8 rounds, but don’t be surprised to see the Blues challenging towards the top over the next few seasons.

Playmaker plans

Sadly the conditions in Hamilton denied us the thrill of watching Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie face off at fullback in a running battle as the kicking game became the focus of the day. However, the continued use of both players at 15 is something to keep an eye on.

For so long, New Zealand have had superstars at fly half, which has led to the next generation coming through initially at 15 and eventually transitioning to first five-eighth. While this has led to incredibly talented attacking playmakers like Barrett and McKenzie, I do not think that they are able to control the game as well as the players that came before them and instead benefit from playing at 15, where they have more space to exploit.

By having these guys stationed at 15 for their club rugby, it is now giving the new generation of talent the chance to learn how to play at this level already at fly half. This is going to benefit so many of these players – such as Harry Plummer, Perofeta and Black (Blues), Kaleb Trask (Chiefs), Josh Ioane (Highlanders) and Jackson Garden-Bachop (Hurricanes) – as it means that they are learning under the pressure of having flankers charging at them, but then have the benefit of experienced playmakers elsewhere in the back line to help guide them.

The next couple of seasons will be interesting to watch.

Set piece struggles

Last week, the Chiefs’ success was built largely on the strength of their catch-and-drive lineouts. This week, the set piece was an absolute nightmare.

At the lineout, the Blues were willing to put a man in the air to challenge and it led to a number of inaccuracies. The Chiefs lost 3 lineouts during the match, with one 5m out from the Chiefs line potentially costing them 5-7 points an another 5m out from their own line almost proving costly if not for a knock-on by Sam Nock as he tried to collect the loose ball.

It wasn’t even just the lineout that had issues, though, as the Chiefs lost 2 of the 6 scrums on their own feed. Tat already doesn’t sound good, but it’s even worse when you look back at the scrums and see them physically pushed off their own ball!

Mitchell Brown’s injury last week has left them with a talented by inexperienced pair at lock in Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Tupou Vaa’i, but this cannot be used as an excuse. The pack needs to improve the set piece soon, because if they can’t provide clean ball for their backs, it doesn’t matter how talented the players out there are.

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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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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Chiefs

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

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

Breaking down the breakdown

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

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

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

Not-so-secret weapon

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

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

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

Change of scenery

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

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

Quicksand

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

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

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

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

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