Four rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa have now completed after our first weekend with both Super Rugby competitions running together and four games in a weekend, phew! Our weekend kicked off with the Highlanders back at home under the roof, hosting their southern neighbours the Crusaders in a fantastic match that saw the visitors coast home late in the game. In the final match of the round, it was the battle of the winless teams as the Hurricanes finally got their season off the mark with a wobbly win against the Chiefs.
HIGHLANDERS 20 vs 40 CRUSADERS
The much anticipated opening game of round four did not disappoint over the eighty minutes, but it was the early goings that set arise a few eyebrows of how the match started out. With the dry conditions despite the poor weather outside the stadium, both sides were full of errors early on. The Crusaders were overrunning their plays and the Highlanders were way off the mark with their set piece. Will Jordan continued his incredible form with the opening try of the match, but once the Highlanders got into the mood they showed that they can be one of the most entertaining sides in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Shannon Frizell and Ngane Punivai hit back with a try each mid way through the half to put the Highlanders firmly on top and in line with some of the best defence against a Crusaders side, looked good value for the lead. The Crusaders are an incredible team however and its amazing how in the space of three rounds they have already established ways to play the stricter rules in their favour and it be just enough to still be legal. As the half wore towards its end, the Crusaders got a big run of penalties and the way the did it was just too clever. On defence, with numbers going into a tackle, one or two of the extra defenders would overrun the ruck and do just enough to delay the Highlanders cleaners to the breakdown. Meanwhile that next man in red would be swiftly over the ball enforcing either a turnover or a penalty, both which can happen with that extra one or two seconds that was gained by the slightly distracted cleaners. It seems in no way illegal because they are just being annoying, not actually obstructing the players, but all it takes its that second or two now the refs are quickly pinging the breakdown. It blows me away how quickly the Crusaders can adapt. Lets credit the Highlanders however as their tough defence only allowed two late penalties from that and they still held the lead 17-14 at the beak.
Tom Christie put the Crusaders back in the lead early in the second half with a soft try that would surely been disappointing for the Highlanders. There was a major defining moment in this match just before the hour mark that ultimately decided the victor. With the Highlanders scorching hot on attacking and a four on one overlap out wide, Jona Nareki failed to give the pass in time and was shut down by a clinical Richie Mo’unga tackle that completely destroyed the Highlanders confidence and desire to hang in the match. What put that boot in even more was the effect of Sevu Reece off the bench who was running around the field like he was literally on fire, near untouchable with his hot stepping feet and grabbed a try to boot. The Highlanders made changes, key ones too, Aaron Smith and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u both went off and it felt as with it went the heartbeat of the team. The Crusaders did what they do best and put the finish to the sword with a couple of late tries, a second to Tom Christie and Will Jordan. The scoreline had blown out and felt nothing like the match we had just witnessed.
Just like last week, plenty to be happy about for the Highlanders, but that one key moment really killed their game. Shannon Frizell was a monster, best on the park and best game he has had in years. Aaron Smith with the captains armband was brilliant also and seemed to shine with the pressures of leadership on his shoulders. I’d like to credit Mitch Hunt too, who had a strong game against what I would consider the best game I have seen Richie Mo’unga play in a long time as well. Along with Mo’unga, you cant leave out Will Jordan, the kids a freak no matter what numbers on his back. Long may his form continue!
CHIEFS 18 vs 25 HURRICANES
The battle of the windless wasn’t expected to leave the crowds in awe, but at least the weather stayed away to give the two sides the best chance of some entertainment for those hardy fans in the stands. Both these sides have been humbled by superior packs this season so there was the sense of wonder of who would take that advantage when they clashed. Short answer, no one. What did decide this game was defence and the speed of which is operated by the Hurricanes. The visiting Hurricanes hit the scoreboard first after just a few minutes from a tidy set piece move, but lets not credit their pack much here. It was instead the angled runs of the backs and the bamboozled defence of the Chiefs that left Kobus Van Wyk out wide looking like the last school kid waiting for his parents to pick him up. When the Chiefs did get some time with the ball, that was exactly what they did not have at the same time. Yes, they had possession, but as soon as the first receiver got the pass he had defenders swarming in a flash. Their was no time to set sweeping backs moves in motion as the Hurricanes defence shut it down before one or two passes could stick. The Chiefs tried to rush it, to no success. So they went to the pack, we all knew that was a failed plan from the start. Again, the ‘Canes shut that down. The Chiefs looked perplexed on how to breech the Hurricanes defence and with Jordie Barrett slowing getting into his rhythms with the boot, the game was getting camped in dangerous territory for the home side. Du’Plessis Kirifi barged over for the Hurricanes second try of the half and then Barrett rubbed a tonne of salt into that wound by kicking a SIXTY metre penalty on the buzzer which gave a very ominous scoreline at the break, with the visitors leading easily 20-3 at half time.
The match bumbled its way towards the hour mark with the Hurricanes content to let it continue that way with the lead on their side but things got turned on their head for the final stanza. Scott Scrafton paid the price for his side conceding one too many penalties after a lineout infringement and seen himself head to the sidelines for ten minutes. A chance for the Chiefs to get back into the match? No, don’t be silly, in fact the Hurricanes scored again. That South African man once again, Korbus Van Wyk proving all you need to do is be in the right place at the right time and he put his side into a 25-6 lead with under twenty minutes to play. Scott Scrafton come back on…. and then got sent off again straight away. Damien McKenzie took a quick tap close to the Hurricanes line and Scrafton took the fullback out from a clear offside position with no other defenders near by resulting in both a penalty try to the Chiefs and obviously with Scrafton receiving one yellow already, that was turned into a red! The first red card of Super Rugby Aotearoa and too late to be replaced with less than twenty to play. Now the game was changing, the Hurricanes were a man down for the rest of the match and now the lead was only 12, just two converted tries required. The substitutions were flowing on now and Solomon Alaimalo and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi were making a huge impact. Alaimalo’s ability to beat defenders with pace, footwork and power was the shining light the Chiefs were lacking. With time nearing the end a pivotal try was scored by Lachlan Boshier to give the Chiefs a glimmer of hope. It was dashed slightly as McKenzie missed the conversion. The Hurricanes held tough at the end to keep hold of their seven point lead, but how quickly did that 19 point lead fell away will cause them much concern during the week.
A real low point for the Chiefs will be the loss of Naitoa Ah Kuoi to a big head clash during the game, hes been a huge stand out for them this season and hopefully will be OK to play soon. Aaron Cruden was again threatening but lacked support and it was an improved display from Pita-Gus Sowakula at eight. Alaimalo and Tahuriorangi off the bench were superb. For the Hurricanes, one man stood out above all others, Jordie Barrett. A bit slow off the mark in the beginning, but very strong by the end and a crucial piece of this team. A lot of his teammates are hot and cold over the eighty minutes and lack consistency to call out good displays. For example, Scrafton was clearly missed at the set piece but getting two yellows destroys the ability to say he had a great game. Dane Coles made some big plays but the set piece lacked sensible decisions at times. Du’Plessis Kirifi was a strong figure throughout but gave away a lot of penalties for side ruck entry. There’s a reason these two sides were winless before kickoff.
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