Its hard to believe we are heading toward the midway point of the season already with round five coming up this weekend. Its been an outstanding competition so far and you can expect the entertaining rugby to continue on. Its the match we have all be waiting for on Saturday night with the two in form sides in Super Rugby Aotearoa set to clash for the first time and leave just one side undefeated, its the Crusaders hosting the Blues. Following that on Sunday will be an intriguing contest that may not get all the attention but will still be worth a watch with the Hurricanes backing up their first win, taking on the Highlanders.
CRUSADERS vs BLUES – Orangetheory Stadium
This is what we have all been waiting for. Auckland and Canterbury. An age old rivalry rolling back to the glory days of domestic rugby in New Zealand looks set to return as the two teams to watch this season will go head to head in Christchurch. Recent history is no place to look for clues on how this match will go. The Blues have not been close to this Crusaders juggernaut for a long long time and you will have to go all the way back to 2014 until you will find the last time the Blues beat the Crusaders at any venue. Set yourselves for a shock Blues fans, its been sixteen years since the Blues beat the Crusaders in their own backyard, 2004 was a long long time ago. But this is a new Blues that have taken the halted Super Rugby and Super Rugby Aotearoa seasons by storm. These two sides met back in February at Eden Park with a resounding 25-8 win to the Crusaders but this could be even tighter with confidence high now in both camps.
How do the Blues win this game? Mostly I feel they need to be mentally prepared. You wont beat the Crusaders if in your mind you don’t think you can win the game. They have to believe you can lead the match and finish the job. Most teams come unstuck without giving themselves a chance. Sides are so conscious the Crusaders score late in halves and have that ability to finish games strongly, its almost inevitable and accepted by the defending side that it will happen and then it does. Then stick to whats worked since Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked underway. This isn’t the weekend to try new things unless injury forces the hand. Keep using the kicking game that worked so well in round 3 against the Highlanders and try to play the game as far away from their own half as much as possible. Beauden Barrett will be, once again, a major factor but not for the typical reasons you would be expecting. Its easy to pinpoint his attack and speed but its going to be his defence that’s the biggest key for the Blues this weekend. He will be busy covering Crusaders breaks all night long, regardless of weather, they will attack. Look to that big backrow to do a lot of hard work and get the team moving forwards, that’s an area the two sides offer different kinds of players and where the Blues must take advantage. Of course its not just that easy to beat the Crusaders.
The depth is Crusaders rugby is just cruel to the rest of Super Rugby Aotearoa. There’s no other side they can lose in form players to injury or just choose to do a little rotating and still be just as strong and play like nothing has changed. This is why the Crusaders are such a good TEAM. That word is massive. The incredible form of Will Jordan will be under the spotlight again and that patchy Blues defence out wide will be under constant pressure, that’s why Barrett will be so key on defence. Sevu Reece was untouchable against the Highlanders off the bench and looks in his best form currently. They still have to fit George Bridge and David Havili in somewhere too. Tom Christie added his name to the list of flankers who slot seamlessly into this fifteen so makes those positions stronger with Billy Harmon, Ethan Blackadder and now Sione Havili all jumping into some minutes for those two places. Expect the Crusaders to wind this game back to their test match style of play and wear their opponents down over the eighty minutes. Much like last weekend, it will be close late into the second half but the depth off the bench and that full eighty minute performance of the Crusaders will help them get the job done the way they know how to.
RESULT: Crusaders by 8
HURRICANES vs HIGHLANDERS – Sky Stadium
Most of the Super Rugby Aotearoa matches have been quite straightforward picks so far. But this one really does force you to think about what call your going to make. The Highlanders, Hurricanes and Chiefs and very tightly matched and as much as I would like to think the Highlanders have that little edge over the other two, there is a fair bit of game breaking ability in the Hurricanes and how much has the last two weeks taken out of the Highlanders.
Home ground advantage is of course going to be a very big advantage for the Hurricanes. Back at Sky Stadium for just the second time this season and of course with that first win of the season last weekend against the Chiefs now under their cap, confidence will be on the up. Despite the victory, the Hurricanes were very guilty of falling asleep for long passages of time during the match and not really waking up until they lost Scott Scrafton for the red card and let the Chiefs get back within a converted try of the lead after leading by nearly twenty points. I don’t think they will get away with that against the Highlanders who are a better side now than even back in round one against the Chiefs. The ‘Canes have some leadership issues in the squad that’s becoming a bit of an issue when it comes to referees. They need to clean that out of their game but with such rough leaders is embedded in the culture of the team. They need to put Vince Aso back in the midfield with Ngani Laumape, I felt they lost that double impact with Peter Umaga-Jensen an allowed the defence to concentrate more on Laumape instead. Korbus Van Wyk is a finisher and will put away chances that are created so they need to keep him out wide. The problems are in the pack and I dont see a way they can get much up over this Highlanders team in the forwards. Du’Plessis Kirifi has been good at times, but his usual whistle catcher more often than not which they cannot afford. Ardie Savea continues to get fitter and settling into the game, the sooner that happens the better. Hurricanes going backwards is reason for concern.
The most pleasing aspect of the Highlanders over the last couple of weeks has been that increased ability of the team to strike with a try from near any position on the field. The offloading game has become dangerous and added with the trouble of the big power runners in the back row, this Highlanders pack should give their opponents a rough night. They have a big loss on the injury front in the second row with outstanding performer Josh Dickson out for the season and leaving a massive hole in the middle of the pack. Whats of even more concern for the Highlanders is that fitness and ability to last the full match. What exactly went wrong at the end of the Crusaders match is a worry and they wont want to see that again against any side in the competition. Two players I would like to see in the Highlanders squad this weekend would be Josh McKay and Folau Fakatava. While McKay could start at fullback, the spark Fakatava can bring off the bench as opposed to the steady Hammington could make a major difference if its tight. With some confidence gaining on the wings, things are starting to happen out there. As we say each and every week though, its going to be the usual suspects for the Highlanders to get them going. Shannon Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u need to continue their outstanding form and this should be a good solid win for the visiting side.
RESULT – Highlanders by 4
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