We have reached the half way point of Super Rugby Aotearoa with five rounds now complete and we were spoiled to the game of the tournament so far in the opening match between the Crusaders and the Blues. It was the most eagerly anticipated match of Super Rugby for some time. Somewhat below the radar was the second match of the round that was far from having title repercussions but was critical for the Hurricanes and the Highlanders in the battle for third and forth. The Chiefs managed to not lose this round, the bye was on their side this week.
CRUSADERS 25 – 15 BLUES
It was clear after a couple of rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa that there was only two sides competing for this title. The Crusaders hosting the Blues was the game everyone has had their eyes on and it was the visitors who started off with a real hiss and a roar. Huge early pressure from the Blues had them camped in the Crusaders 22 and almost inevitably it was Hoskins Sotutu who charged off the back of the scrum for what seemed at the time like the opening try, but was eventually ruled held up by the TMO. More scrums and more resets later, the Blues did get that solid platform from the set piece and Mark Telea capped off a great start for the Blues. For one of the first times in Super Rugby Aotearoa there was an intense scrum battle between the two sides. The ref was being made to work hard and make plenty of tough calls, some of which seemed even he had little idea of. The Blues were still well in control for the opening 25 minutes but the feeling changed late in the game. James Parsons suffered a bad injury which could have really hurt the Blues, but his replacement Kurt Eklund had an outstanding long run of game time in his absence. The Crusaders took charge heading into the final ten of the half, grabbing a couple of penalties off the boot of Richie Mo’unga to bring them within a point of the Blues. A huge period of control for the Blues in the first half to only grab seven points would have been very disappointing. Crusaders would be happy at that score, one point in it, that’s a real Crusaders half. Not in the game on the field yet right in it on the scoreboard at 7-6.
The second forty had much of a similar vibe to it as the first. The Blues out of the blocks were the aggressors once more but it was a stalemate on the scoreboard for the first ten minutes, all either side could manage was a penalty to each fly half. Then things completely broke down. A messy period of play around the 50th minute, where the ball bobbled off a number of players from a kick and cause much indecision who it touch before it when back and into the in goal, following by how it got there in the first place. The TMO was involved, the ref was confused and the AR’s really had no idea. The TMO eventually called it knocked on by the Blues but the ref saw things differently and gave a penalty instead to the Blues. A quick tap against a bunch of offside players, defence in shatters the Blues took advantage of a rare opportunity to get the jump on the Crusaders. A couple of phases on and the ball was fired out to Reiko Ioane who dragged a couple of defenders over with him. Like myself, you may at this point thought, “oh…. the Blues might do this…”, but something happened at that moment. As Otere Black lined up the conversion just slightly to the left of the uprights, Braydon Ennor rocketed forward to charge the kick down…. an enormous roar erupted from the crowd, an ominous sound for the Blues. Mo’unga raced back to half way and took the most audacious kick off seen, with a little ten meter grubber. He slide in after it with perfect poise, regathered, slipped away from a couple of defenders, stepped another and raced into the 22 area. The game had changed. The pace had lifted. The Crusaders had arrived. Mitchell Drummond scored soon after and the game was back in the balance but the Crusaders led for the first time. The game had left the Blues at this point and just like the first half, they lost control in the latter part of the half and had no where near enough points on the board to keep the Crusaders at bay. The attacks kept coming and the Crusaders took more points, off the tee from Mo’unga again extended the lead. The Blues couldn’t keep pace with this game, very few teams in world rugby would keep pace with the way the Crusaders started playing in the late stage and it almost seem inevitable that more would come for them. It surely did as well and who else would you expect to have that final say, but Will Jordan. Flying onto a pass on a incredible line he sliced straight through and put the Blues out of the show. Never before have I seen such an incredible ending to a game, the Crusaders certainly are something else when they hit their straps.
Lets be honest towards to Blues, they are the first team that has forced the Crusaders to find that next level. The Crusaders have coasted so far and this match became everything we have dreamt about because of it. George Bridge showed just why he is the All Blacks winger, shutting down Telea after his hot start. Richie Mo’unga displayed what great players do under pressure, lifting his game and his team late on. For the Blues I think Dalton Papalii had an outstanding game and of course Hoskins Sotutu put it on show against top oppositions to show he may well be the real deal. As for Harry Plummer at 12, probably wasn’t the greatest idea, but he did nothing terrible and was fairly solid. A better options the TJ Faiane though? I’m not sold on that.
HURRICANES 17 v 11 HIGHLANDERS
It was always going to be a tough act to follow the earlier game but the show must go on and this was a very important match for the Hurricanes and Highlanders in their own standings. It was a typical messy and scrappy opening twenty minutes as a lot of the games have been lately for teams to work out the pace of the match but in this one we were scoreless for a large period of the first half with no points coming from either side until nearly half an hour had passed. Both sides did have an early try scrubbed out by the TMO for obstruction, the Highlanders especially should have felt hard done by after Mitch Hunt made a fantastic counter attack break returning a kick to set up Aaron Smith. Down the other end Ngani Laumape was the one to missed out after the lead up attack had gone around the back of a team mate blocking the defenders. So a lot of chances and action but no points on the board thanks for Mr TMO upstairs. The Hurricanes had a very apparent plan with their decoy runners and often set away plays that had so many decoys it left only a couple of ball runners behind but it seemed to be working albeit right on the edge of legal play a lot of the time. Both sides had major passages of fantastic play that was frequently let down by a silly mistake or error to throw it all away which was quickly becoming the theme of this match. TJ Perenara was the one to open the scoring, throwing a massive dummy that send Smith three players wide before realising Perenara was under the sticks for the opening points. Jordie Barrett adding the extra two. If you want to talk about players who have that uncanny nack of being in the right place at the right time, Korbus Van Wyk instantly springs to mind and he was that man again late in the first half, snaffling yet another try but this time he had to do plenty of work to get to the line. After receiving a brilliant long pass from Barrett, he beat a number of defenders in the short five meter channel down the right wing and gave his side a very tidy and almost deserved lead of 12-0 at the half time break.
Things went from bad to worse for the Highlanders early in the second half as they were instantly put under pressure from the home side. Their defence was solid for the most part and held well for long periods but over eight minutes constantly defending your own line takes its toll and it eventually broke down. Devan Flanders was the one to crash over and it gave this match a touch of concern for the Highlanders who still had to trouble the scorers. It was only minutes later they finally did manage to judge the wind right and grab points from the boot of Mitch Hunt who had trouble to kick in the swirling Wellington breeze earlier in the day, missing all his first half attempts. That developed into a golden little period for the Highlanders with their first and only try coming soon after. The lineout maul was once again at the forefront of their attack and some smart drawing in of defenders and clever quick thinking from Ash Dixon at the back of the maul created a two on one short side play to give Smith a clean dive over in the corner. With the lead cut back to nine, the Highlanders felt like they had a sniff and they attacked with all they had for the remainder of this clash with the Hurricanes tested defensively for the remaining fifteen minutes. Despite all the field territory and possession, they couldn’t break the final line and ended up taking an easy three points from a penalty with just a couple of minutes remaining to bring them within seven and hope for a miracle with the final possession. The Highlanders lineout eventually was the final piece to fall apart late in the game, after making their way half way back up the field, losing their own throw from a penalty signalled the end to their hopes and a well deserved Hurricanes victory.
The Hurricanes had plenty of standouts but the more consistent was the workload of their “back five” if I can call them that. The second row and the back row effectively. Flanders was fantastic for a new comer starting and the best match from Du’Plessis Kirifi this season. James Blackwell is having an underrated season in the second row as well. Laumape and Vince Aso being back together in midfield was a constant threat that defence could not ignore and tied up multiple defenders every time. The Highlanders were forced to do so much defending for the second week in a row, totalling up well over twice as many tackles as the Hurricanes, which took its toll again. Their lineout suffered when Pari Pari Parkinson went off and it effected their chances of mounting pressure in the right areas. Mitch Hunt again looked impressive with ball in hand, but few others stood up in a game they should have targeted to win.
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