Eight rounds into the competition and results are having a huge effect on who may well be champion in a couple more weeks time. The top contenders, the Crusaders were in action first against the winless Chiefs on Saturday night. Then in our Sunday afternoon game, the chasing contenders, the Blues travelled down to inside the roof to take on the Highlanders. The big upsetting Hurricanes were out this week on the bye. Lets take a look at how the weekend went…..
CHIEFS 19 vs 32 CRUSADERS
Its the final home game of the season for the Chiefs, still trying to get that opening victory. It also marked a massive night for one player on each side of the field, 100 caps for Aaron Cruden and 150 caps for Sam Whitelock. Before we get into the game, a deserved moment for both of these players who have been huge parts of New Zealand rugby over a number of years.
Its highlight reel stuff after just a few minutes as some fantastic quick hands down the left edge finds the new Crusaders number eight Tom Sanders with more open clear grass in front of him than hes seen before and if you enjoy a big man thundering around the park, watch this try. An awesome forty meter gallop and a fair squishing of Damien McKenzie at the back to go over the line. He had one speed, full speed! What a sight!
The Crusaders look like a team out to prove a point. As the minutes pass, the domination grows. Offloads coming thick and fast and raking off meters like defenders don’t exist. Cleaning rucks with great efficiency and once within a few meters from the line they are too hard to stop. Will Jordan grabbing one of his easiest tries against a Chiefs defence that was struggling to hold on for a few phases and eventually broke down. Ominous signs early on at 12-0 after fifteen minutes.
The Chiefs fought their way back via Lachlan Boshier who continues on his strong season. Penalties started to allow the Chiefs some territory finally and launch from a scrum in center field just five meters from the Crusaders line. Pita-Gus Sowakula runs it strongly off the back and draws plenty of attention, popping the ball up from the ensuing ruck for Boshier to crash over, first points on the board and back in the game.
The momentum is now firmly with the Chiefs who are profiting off plenty of Crusader foul play. McKenzie stepping up again to slot a penalty from where he earlier missed, to bring the Chiefs within two points of the lead just before the half hour mark.
Just one minute before half time the game takes a huge twist towards the visitors. With a big overlap Shaun Stevenson slaps down a pass and gets marched for ten minutes for his troubles. With a man advantage in the backline, the Crusaders make a statement in the pack. Driving the maul from fifteen meters out, all the way to the line with Codie Taylor fully in control all the way to have the final say of the half. The conversion is astray but the Crusaders lead is up to seven at the break, 17-10.
Boshier got his Chiefs off to the best possible start, gifting his side an early ruck penalty almost straight off the kick off. With Stevenson still sitting in the naughty chair, McKenzie slots another shot at goal to cut the lead back some more.
Ten minutes on and McKenzie does it again after Stevenson makes an impact straight back from the yellow card period and the Crusaders, more than happy to give away three as opposed to five. Richie Mo’unga strikes instantly back with three of his own as this game continues to go end to end.
Its becoming a battle off the tee in the second half between McKenzie and Mo’unga as another three is added by the Chiefs and the lead flicks around.
The old rugby cliche of playing to the whistle was in full effect as the Crusader score what was instantly criticised by fans and critics alike, but the referee and his friends found this one to be okay. Quinten Strange did the action in question, carrying for the Crusaders inside the Chiefs twenty two, appeared to knock the ball on and left it behind him, Sevu Reece backing up grabs it, jumps over the tackle and dots down and throws it away expecting the knock on call. It never came and the TMO agreed it was knocked back. The call will be argued night and day for a week at least, rightly or wrongly, but credit Reece who played to the whistle and got the reward.
Things went from bad to worse for the Chiefs who dropped their guard following the frustrating call from the last try. Richie Mo’unga once again leading the Crusaders list in the last twenty minutes as he sparks his backs out on the left edge and on the overlap Leicester Fainga’anuku who steps back inside McKenzie to rub salt into the Chiefs wounds. The lead splashes out quickly to thirteen points with a 19-32 lead.
The Crusaders with a lead in the final stages of the game are clinical finishers and they executed perfectly tonight, closing the game out well with a bonus point victory.
The Chiefs had plenty of moments to shine and will be again wondering about those 50/50 decision and not being good enough to keep them out of the deciding factor. Lachlan Boshier was once again a pivotal factor again for the Chiefs. Aaron Cruden in his 100th was always testing. Pita-Gus Sowakula also had a strong showing.
The Crusaders were back to that irresistible force this weekend. Codie Taylor had a cracking game around the park and the much criticised back row exceeded most expectations with a strong display. The other standouts were the usual’s, its hard to not credit the work rate of guys like Richie Mo’unga and Will Jordan. George Bridge was impactful also.
HIGHLANDERS 21 vs 32 BLUES
Sunday afternoon rugby was under the roof this week as the Highlanders returned from the bye at home.
But it was the Blues who started with a roar off their lineout drive, but Aaron Smiths lucky bright orange boots denied the Blues first attempt at the line within the first few minutes.
The danger never went away though and after a couple of disjointed scrums, number eight Akira Ioane blasts off the back and straight over the top of Scott Gregory to plant to opening try, which Beauden Barrett failed to convert.
Loose possession cost the Highlanders dearly as within one phase of losing the ball, Barrett hit a cross field kick to Caleb Clarke, who bumps off Josh Ioane, offloads to Rieko Ioane, then to Finlay Christie who has a clean scamper to grab the second try for the Blues and very quickly take control of the game.
The Blues defensive line starts to get them in trouble as the Highlanders get themselves on the scoreboard through the boot of Ioane and the quickly after with more penalties go for the corner instead. Almost like watching the Brumbies, you know the Highlanders will have a crack at the lineout maul and they do it with form once again to very quickly put ten points on the board and be back in the game.
The Blues think they have their third try before the referee drags it all the way back eighty meters the other way. Aaron Smith trips on the offside Karl Tu’inukuafe who is laying on the floor, causing him to lose the ball and it ends up being intercepted for a clean run away for Dalton Papalii. The end result, a penalty for the Highlanders back where Smith was tripped and Ioane takes up the offer of three points to put the Highlanders in the lead, in a double play against the momentum.
The Blues take no time at all to hit back. Straight off the kick off, Ofa Tu’ungafasi steals the ball back and Clarkes powerful running punches the Blues through the defence and finds Christie and finally TJ Faiane to finish for the Blues to put them back in the lead again. Barretts goalkicking is becoming a bit of a concern though, another miss from a handy position.
The Highlanders are happy to keep the scoreboard ticking over through the boot of Ioane once again as the half winds down to its final minutes.
The Highlanders struggle to clear their own half with just a couple of minutes remaining and again seem unable to stop sides hitting straight back after scoring themselves. Offside penalties allow the Blues for one final push to another try before ending the half and they set their sights on their dominating scrum to do that job. It does exactly that, just a couple of carries off the back and they secure the ultimate time to score. Ofa Tu’ungafasi powers over to extend the Blues led to eight points at half time, 24-16.
It takes just minutes for the Blues to crack back into the game. A great kick chase started it all off from their own half, creating an turnover as soon as it landed. Barrett launches the ball wide with a fantastic pass and the offloading game begins. Tony Lamborn gallops a few meters, flicks it in to Faiane, then off to Christie who grabs his second try of the night in a polished performance.
Striking difference in the sides attack tonight, the Highlanders are struggling to get forward momentum with passes behind the players, off their running lines and generally unstructured. The Blues on the other hand, look much more polished.
The Highlanders defence does actually gets some structure for a while as the Blues grab a number of penalties close to the line but cant manage to get over. In what must be considered a minor victory, the Blues finally decide to take the three instead from right in front.
If I am going to credit that little period of the Highlanders defence then I have give plenty to the Blues for the next and final twenty of the match. Stuck inside their own half and often their own twenty two, the Blues repel attack after attack from the Highlanders. The Blues do what they must, giving away a stack of penalties, offsides, high tackles, tackles without the ball, you name it, they committed it to stop the Highlanders at any cost! It did eventually result in a yellow card for Sione Mafileo, but the luck hasn’t been on the Highlanders side at all but the Blues mostly got away with it. Its baffling how more weren’t sent to the bin and sooner….
The pressure does finally tell for the Highlanders who had dominated the last stanza of this match. With just five minutes remaining its the big man Shannon Frizell who powers over on the left side to give a little hope for the home team, but ultimately it was that long period to grab that try that will cost them.
An entertaining and spirited finish by the Highlanders was not enough to get back into the game and the Blues play the win at all costs style to get the job done in the end. Its a shame the Highlanders just cant get that game plan into action before the second half, otherwise a lot of these results could be a lot different.
The home town side has little in the way of standouts early on but as the game progressed plenty of guys stood up to the task. Shannon Frizell was class again and Josh Ioane looked right back at home for his first match back in the starting lineup. The concern is where and how they get the best out of these versatile guys like Michael Collins who was a little off colour in midfield.
The Blues can be a joy to behold when they get their game going but are still far from a ruthless team. Their captain Patrick Tuipulotu has become a real star this season and is performing week in and week out. Caleb Clarke made plenty of strong runs on the wing but it was a fantastic display from Akira Ioane who just loves a nice dry pitch to rip into. Hes a dry weather man who would be well suited to swap shirts.
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