Super Rugby Round 6 – New Zealand Conference Overview

The 2015 Investec Super Rugby season continued with three games involving New Zealand sides. (The Blues, The Stormers and The Reds all observed a BYE round)

Super Rugby Round 6 – New Zealand Conference Overview
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Match : The Highlanders v The Hurricanes
Venue : Forsyth-Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Score : 13-20

This was the ‘battle for top spot’ in the New Zealand conference. Very important as we entered round 6 of the competition, close to a third of the way along the journey for most sides in 2015. Number one position was held by the unbeaten Hurricanes, they had much to play for with their credible record of 4 from 4 to maintain, but I think this side are looking at it one or two matches at a time. Sensible when your on top of the pack. The form team after their successful early South African trip, it had given them a start over their southern rivals but that is not taking anything away from The Highlanders. A hard team for any side to beat, the stats show that in recent years these two teams have fought out countless close tussles with usually no more than 6 points separating them. Of the 23 times they have played each other, the split is 12:11 wins; in the Hurricanes favour. This game had all the hallmarks of a classic encounter and being at their home stadium, and on a run of several key games in a row, winning here for The Highlanders would see them join the Canes at the top of the table.

Hurricane stand-in captain Dane Coles was withdrawn late out of caution for a recurring elbow strain which meant Motu Matua’a would be starting hooker and might have been a target for a smart ‘Landers front row, while the home team had Dan Pryor returning from concussion [in place of John Hardie]. With he and Ardie Savea on the park for this game, that would make for some exciting loose forward play and both packs tested each other from the start and pushed the limits of the ruck ball area early. Many times, good possession was lost as ball was held for too long, preventing a fair contest at the ruck. Players unwilling or unable to move away quick enough was common too, but no ‘cynical’ play resulted in anything more than a scrum ruling. The officials did well to maintain a good 10 metre line throughout and shared advantage rulings were taken in turn. For the ‘Canes, Reg Goodes is gaining parity in his role and Brad Shields has now assumed a position of authority in Super Rugby while on the blue side, Tom Franklin tackled fiercely and Liam Coltman played a role that Carl Hayman might see is ‘close to breaking copyright rules’. A dynamo in the mould of Hayman, this young man will go places if he keeps on his standards and workrate.

Besides one good length of the field attacking movement from The Highlanders that was deemed to be only just short of the tryline, play was hard to predict and less likely to entertain. Kicking was stock standard for most of the half, playing for position as each has backlines full of firepower that will all too often return the ball ‘with interest’. Though it didn’t live up to the cracking starts The Hurricanes were now used to, it was evenly balanced at the half-time siren with just a penalty for each side to show after a grueling first 40 minutes. Fans at the stadium and on social media began to complain of bad decisions, offside play and referee calls, but I considered it a good reflection of each side not really wanting to provide too many early chances, so they played within themselves and within their own controls.

Aaron Smith playing against TJ Perenara was a mouth watering battle, as was the delivery from each for much of the game. Directing the game is important, and Perenara is adding some clever decision making to his repertoire. Ben Smith is resolute as ever in attack and is steady as a team leader, choosing often to attack for a 5 pointer, rather than take penalties awarded. Conrad Smiths leadership style is now unquestionable even if his facial reactions to Ben O’Keefes rulings often looked perplexing; its a qualification now all captains require. First: to understand the ruling and secondly: to communicate with on-field officials in ways that will help you get the best out of the game. Smith is now a master of both, even if when tackled without the ball, he desperate calls for action was denied a fair penalty.

The next half of rugby was a huge improvement though, several times better as teams contested possession and pushed much harder for the gain-line. The Hurricanes being successful early with a great try for Goodes after 17 phases of play that showed their ability to link players across the whole field. They were the more confident side using effective rugby that assistant coach John Plumtree is renowned for. They gained a footing before being able to side-step around the team in blue. The Highlanders tackled venomously though, but it took so much out of them that many had difficulty chasing down the play. Side to side movement, multiple phases and some terrific rugby was exhausting to watch, let alone play.

With a penalty to Lima Sopoaga bringing the scores closer, the tide could well have shifted if it wasn’t for an ultra dependable Ma’a Nonu and his command of the game. He outwitted his centre opponents of Malakai Fekitoa and Shaun Treeby, quashing many of their attacking lines himself and many times holding off two players often when holding the ball on offer for others. One old fashionable shot on Fekitoa led to a counter-reactive 60 minute try scoring movement for TJ to finish off. Very classy play and a great display this early from Nonu and this yellow & black camp. He looked the a seasoned professional (without the open shoulders of the past)

The Highlanders did excite the fans in Forsyth-Barr Stadium in the final quarter, Sopoaga scoring a brilliant try near to the conclusion of play but it did not over-excite this Hurricanes side of 2015. They now hold a superior level of aerobic fitness conditioning that allows them to withstand the last final minutes of attacking thrust in the modern game. Very important to repel this threat from a talented Highlanders side, as many of the NZ sides would not have believed them possible of a 5/5 winning run. But they believe, and it all bodes well to them running in two more home game wins in a row possibly (first game at Westpac Stadium this friday)All looking good for the capital side.

There is a little to work on for The Highlanders though, but they will be ‘there or there abouts’ once the later stages of competition are concluded I am sure. A talented side, they might like to gain more bonus points soon though as The Brumbies are the better placed Australian team due to bonus points (four – equaled only by The Blues) Bonus points will again be vital in Super Rugby 2015.

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Match : The Crusaders v The Cheetahs
Venue : AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Score : 57-14

If ever you could describe a game as being ‘two halves’ then this was it. The score at halftime was 10-14 in favour of the visitors, threatening a sell out fixture with disappointment, but that was as good as they got for The Cheetahs. How they reached that 14 points you might ask? Well partly due to an early yellow card that tainted the Crusaders attack, although the home side did cross first, it was The Cheetahs that caught the home side off guard. They were quite literally the more ‘hungry’ team that it was a credit to The Crusaders defense that they repelled this confident Free State team to only two tries, as they peppered the redzone far too often. Scoring via a crafty intercept try and then a competent attacking movement, helping them take full advantage. Any side that can compete against this champion franchise for 40 minutes needs to be respected.

But in the end it all that came to naught as the home side were emboldened by a halftime ‘discussion’ coach Todd Blackadder might never want to reproduce, as they thankfully out-scored the Cheetahs 47 points to zero once they returned to AMI stadium in a comprehensive 40 minutes. Bookmarked by Nemani Nadolo runs that will be on this weeks highlight reel, he is a winger of international quality that is a weapon for The Crusaders equal to any of the big wingers of the last 20 seasons of Super Rugby: Joeli Vidiri, Joe Rokococo and more recently Henry Speight. Involved in many try scoring plays (as well as scoring one himself naturally) their entire backline contributed with barnstorming Jordan Taufua and Israel Daggs’ efforts being great signs for the near future. Crusaders players put in an effort that resulted in a secure bonus point win – four trys scored in a space of just 5 minutes while cheeky Cheetahs playmaker Willie le Roux spent time in the naughty boys chair. Dagg, Carter and Nasiganiyavi each scored to a thunderous response from home fans who were elated and nearly out of breath before the three quarter game mark.

Coming back with such a clinical second half is encouraging, but they put themselves under pressure too easily. Do that in the republic, and they’ll be licking their wounds after a savaging from more respectable sides. Beating teams like The Cheetahs & Lions is expected in Canterbury, but being under pressure for long periods from their own actions is not typical of where The Crusaders see themselves in round 6 of the competition. They are probably two wins short of their own expectations at this point and will now be more desperate than usual in trying to attain a full 10 points maximum while on their road trip.

For The Cheetahs, they begin a long hike through New Zealand and Australia, but may need to focus on performing for more than 50 minutes of rugby. An exciting side, they might trip up a side who don’t take them seriously, and nearly did [for 40 minutes] against a Crusaders side who woke up late, and then went to work.

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Match : The Sharks v The Chiefs
Venue : Cell C Kings Park, Durban
Score : 12-11

From all descriptions, this was a” dirty, messy, brutal and challenging game” for each side. Played on a windy and progressively wet day in Natal, the game deteriorated into a punishing clash early once referee Angus Gardner awarded *three red cards within 28 minutes of the kick-off. That’s right, three cards, and several other players were lucky to escape at least a yellow card themselves – Chiefs replacement back Tom Marshall has now been sanctioned and Liam Messam was later cited over a chokehold on Renaldo Bothma.

It started with an exchange of penalty kicks, though we quickly understood that discipline would likely be a key to the outcome [sic] but nobody would have foretold the scrappy nature of the opening half. Solid defense is one thing, but with possession at a premium, the tense nature of the game came to a head early when Hikawera Elliot charged into Sharks prop Tendai ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira dangerously from the side. That was an over aggressive clean-out style, especially for a man returning from neck injury. And in repeated slow-motion replays, that made it look twice as bad as the intention was, he was the first to be sent for an early shower.
While the ref made an effort to calm matters down, speaking to captain Messam sternly, soon an extremely poor display by Springboks forward Bismark du Plessis evened the sides to 14 men each. Such a powerful man and yes, very combative in his style of play no doubt, he showed in Christchurch last season to be inspirational as well. But he made a shocking personal in an instant to strike-out with his foot and the result put a dampener on the whole game. Marched with a straight red card and looking at weeks on the sideline for it, his action not only interrupted play and upset The Sharks gameplan, as they then relied on their boot more to maintain position. That tactic then left all the work up to The Chiefs to make something happen. And naturally, they put everything into trying to gain the win.

The Chiefs are an inventive team and their tactics are pointed towards combative play first and foremost. Explosive attacking moves come next, by using width and good interplay to overcome the opposition. They tackle hard too, as do most sides today and while all sides have worked hard on technique, the defensive tip-tackle had not been as prevalent in 2015 as it has in the past. Shame then that in round 6 we saw Frans Steyn deliver a dangerous throw on a defenseless Aaron Cruden that was due a yellow card.  On review and with TMO advice given, it looked to be ten minutes in the bin until the on-field officials decided to red card the player instead. Dubious decision, maybe but it now saw 13 players playing 14 for nearly fifty minutes of Super Rugby.

While a clear advantage in man power for the visitors, such a well coached Sharks team were very adapt at throwing a defensive blanket on sides (as they proved last season) and The Chiefs did not play their own style as much as they could have. They did not have the options to do so, with Tim Nanai-Williams and Sonny Bill Williams both out through injury. Left bruised by a front-on tackling by The Stormers the week before, without true firepower they lacked inventiveness and deft play in midfield we are so used to. Sadly for them, Cruden went back to type with a missed conversion to Sam Canes brave 33rd minute try that should have had them in front early. His 70% strike-rate is a concern, and without Anscombe or a back-up kicker, he later missed a drop goal that will give him nightmares on the long flight home. All Blacks coaches might also put a question mark next to his name after 6 rounds, but there were penalty shots to be taken by his opponent Patrick Lambie, who was happy to collect tem (4 from 6 in bad conditions) and this was ultimately the difference.

Not a clean victory obviously; cards will do that to any match, but The Sharks have many more home matches to perfect their offense in 2015 – with or without Steyn or Du Plessis. They would be pleased in post-match comments that Chiefs leadership lamented poor reactions to on-field situations, none involved a ‘dirty players’. Fans want to see a fairly contested matches, and this had many media commentators and ex-players suggesting that it was possibly a ‘once only occasion’. For fans sake, lets hope so.

The Chiefs shouldn’t let the last few results put them off their focus for a comeback season. Falling off the Canes conference lead will make it harder to achieve their goals, even though they have completed the crucial South African leg. It’s a big challenge waiting for them next Saturday; The Cheetahs will pounce on any fatigue shown next Saturday night in Hamilton – a must win to keep within a touch of the leading Super Rugby sides.

* Bismark du Plessis was cited and subsequently suspended for 4 weeks. Hikawera Elliot pleaded guilty to a lower grade judiciary charge, and has been suspended for 1 week. Frans Steyn was found not guilty as two other Sharks players were involved in the tackle and the red card has been removed from his record. Liam Messam is yet to appear before the Sanzar judiciary at time of publishing.

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