Another weekend has passed us by with two more matches of Super Rugby Aotearoa, but the results were far from as we expected with some serious fight from the teams on the road. The Highlanders shocked the big city boys with a strong second half display to nearly topple the Blues. Then in the pouring rain in Christchurch, two sides tried playing sunny rugby and ended up grounding out a low scorer for the hardy faithful fans. Check out the preview here and see how close my predictions were.
BLUES 27 vs 24 HIGHLANDERS
Time to crack out the old rugby cliche for this one! Game of two halves! The first forty minutes were dominated by the Blues who took hold of this match much how it was expected by media in the build up. The weather didn’t turn out to be as bad as expected pre-game and although it had been wet all day, the rain stayed away for the most of the fixture but still proved greasy underfoot, in control of the ball and cause plenty of issues for both sides. The Highlanders struggled early as the Blues kicking game was on point and the influence of the likes of Daniel Carter is clear to see. Caleb Clarke was unplayable for the first half despite the conditions scoring one try and creating another in a menacing forty minute display. Sadly for him and the rest of his Blues backline buddies, they went massively missing in the second half. The pack battle was an almighty clash as the Highlanders matched the Blues as expected and were very competitive at the set piece, Josh Dickson was very strong in the lineout. It was a first real chance for Scott Gregory to stamp his mark on Super Rugby but had a match he will want to forget as his errors played a bit part in most of the Blues points. The lead for the hosts was 12 at half time, 22-10.
The second half was a complete change of action. The Blues lacked possession and the Highlanders backs starting to come to life. We started to see the standouts come to light. Aaron Smiths impact started to take toll as his ability to command the best between forwards and backs directed his team forward. Smith is taking more responsibility in the team and getting involved in the messy stuff of the game. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u continues his spectacular form for the Highlanders as his blockbusting runs set the Blues going backwards. The Highlanders went close early in the second half which sent Reiko Ioane to the bin for ten and the match swung even further! Mitch Hunt kicked off the period with a cutting run for the first try of the half and Shannon Frizell had his best match in a Highlanders jumper for some time. His try sent the Highlanders in the lead for the first time in the match. The Blues battled back hard to snatch the lead back with 20 minutes to play. The final stanza of the match was some of the most absorbing rugby of the competition so far. The Highlanders dominated, taking drop goal attempts, penalties to the corners and driving mauls close to the line. It was some brutal and tenacious Blues defence that somehow held the Highlanders out to the final whistle. A cracking match over the eighty that had plenty of twists and turns but the Blues held tough at the end to win it by three.
CRUSADERS 18 vs 13 CHIEFS
The Chiefs were dealt and early blow as they had to make a late change on the wing with Solomon Alaimalo missing out on the game and Etene Nanai-Seturo taking his spot. While the rain stayed mostly away on Saturday, Sunday wasn’t so lucky. Messy rain make conditions very difficult for any kind of exciting rugby but the teams still tried to play that style for the hardy Crusaders fans. It hardly went to plan however, both sides struggled to make anything expansive stick. There was plenty of turnovers, errors and mistakes all over the place. Aaron Cruden was impactful for the Chiefs but often forced his hand too much with half breaks. Damien McKenzie was wasteful with the plenty of ball he revived, often running sideways, away from support and put his side under quite a bit of pressure. McKenzie need to keep away from the first receiver channels and time his game more around the power runners the Chiefs have in their midfield and feed off those runners instead of being the solo runner trying to find space himself. The Crusaders adapted to the conditions better as the match drew on and Richie Mo’unga was controlling the game with his well placed kicking game. Cullen Grace is an spectacular talent and I have been keeping a close eye on his performances as a young and inexperienced back row with Billy Harmon. His work around the field in outstanding, defence, work rate, cleaning out and enforcing on the breakdown was a standout.
The Crusaders led the match 10-3 at half time thanks to one single moment of brilliance by Sevu Reece and the electric pace of Will Jordan. When it seemed nothing was on, a high kick was completely misread by McKenzie who got no where near it. A great chase was led by Reece who climbed high, drew the cover defence and set away his rapid fullback. The Chiefs defensive structure was all at sea with no cover back for McKenzie who, once was beaten, had no chance of stopping the attack. The second try for the Crusaders came by the way of the same players. This time it was the Chiefs who were asleep, arguing with the ref over previous phases, while the Crusaders and Reece took a quick lineout to a racing Will Jordan who went in for his second and at the point, led the game 18-3 with just twenty minutes to play. On the topic of Jordan, what a talent he is looking like so far this year. His security on the high balls hit his way was fantastic and secured any contestable kicks from the Chiefs. The visitors staged a late comeback to get within a converted try of the lead and it was all a bit against the run of the game. Hard toil in the poor conditions and even the backs getting involved, to the extent that the try was scored why winger Sean Wainui crashing over at close range. As close as they got, the Crusaders are far too professional to let them get any closer. The defence tightened up and the intensity stepped up another level and the Chiefs slowly were shut out of the game yet again. No further points were added but the Crusaders just know how to finish, controlling to ending to the 18-13 full-time scoreline.
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