Super Rugby Qualifying Finals – Overview

With just two games to report on, sorry if this article is ‘short & sweet’. To the point more like it, as I should not floss around with an epilogue before two excellent matches we had prepared for us.

In New Zealand rugby news, the All Blacks training squad announcement was planned for Sunday afternoon. The day after this big clash so it was fitting that some of the proponents competing for a semifinal place, might also be challenging each other for World Cup contention too. A real benefit for our game, the competitiveness extended beyond qualification for next week but the one major distraction of the week was The Blues ongoing woes. By the end of that week in fact, Sir John Kirwan had stood down and that news unfortunately stole the front page news (thanks very much Jafa’s). Still we had an exciting Qualifying Final to prepare for.

These two NZ Super Rugby sides had already faced each other in home and away encounters, The Highlanders taking both games in round-robin. With an ascendancy of recent results, overall in Super Rugby the Chiefs held a better winning record (15 to 10) and coach Dave Rennie needed his side to show that traditional supremacy. Being a two-time Champion side gave his men more gameime experience in ‘finals footy’ but the popular support now lay with the hardworking Highlanders. In sporting odds, still classed as the underdog, that title would in fact be a motivating factor for Jamie Joseph’s side to claim some credibility. Always important in the sibling rivalry of Super Rugby, for my money, I saw the little brother getting one up over on his Waikato brother.

Across in the republic, some scribes had wanted to scrap any talk of ‘expanded Super Rugby’ competition until that conference can become more competitive. Not knowing enough, I cannot comment there as they had qualified for my Top 6 table, so deserved respect. They did find themselves with several debilitating injury concerns though: charismatic captain Duane Vermuellen had not recovered from a neck injury and then they had the disappointing late withdrawal of Schalk Burger, withdrawn out of caution of a groin strain. That had swung the pendulum in the visitors favour, but it wasn’t guaranteed. The Brumbies have not traveled well, so this was a more challenging match to pick.

SUPER RUGBY NEW ZEALAND – QUALIFYING FINALS OVERVIEW
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Match : Highlanders V Chiefs
Venue : Forsyth-Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Score : 21-14

If there were snow laying on the ground outside, then you would not have known from the best playing surface in NZ rugby. A big match occasion, even the fans would have felt more comfortable inside the Forsyth-Barr Stadium after a wintry blast hit the deep south. It’s the best kept secret of Southern Rugby, and looking at the circle on the 50m line, football players too had enjoyed this ground during the ‘Under 20 Football World Cup’ held around the country.

They know how to maintain a ground in Dunedin, and the hometown needed to maintain a good two match winning advantage over a Chiefs side down to their own last chance. It would be a classic North-South encounter with so much more on the line, but for the visitors they would need more to overcome a slump in their season. Players like Sonny Bill-Williams needed to stand-up, but his new combination with Charlie Ngatai was ended due to injury, and Tim Nanai-Williams was injected. Quite an exciting backline themselves, better statistics would say The Chiefs had the more successful seasons play, but it was a dazzling Highlanders side who were opposing them, and they have very talented outside backs themselves.

The way the game panned out, the homeside had the best opportunities to ‘release their wingers’ with the very earliest evidence of that only being called back for the smallest of sideline touch. Bad luck for tryscorer Patrick Osbourne, but they didn’t let it spoil their intent. Both sides knew that up front was the toughest battle, along with the collision, but the match included verbal warfare as well. Something magnified by the heightened volume of the match coverage, it was continuous throughout.

Surprisingly lead All Black Brodie Retallick and countered fiercely by Nasi Manu, these two ‘big men’ would confront each other all through and that only heightened the tension. It was ‘handbags’ between players quite often, and this made the 22,000 in attendance more vocal. The sound was empthatic, that noise peaked on every contentious penalty call – beginning with the TMO call.

I believe the halfback battle was supposed to be as good, but Aaron Smith bested Brad Webber tonight. His barracking and constant verbal encouragement to the forwards is a fantastic tool. If it gets to other players, then Smith seems to get louder and more enthusiastic – hope to see more of that in the Rugby World Cup. The final act of the match saw him in jubilation when a penalty was awarded that shows he really is enjoying this 2015 season.

The match was full of big encounters, and a big-shot on impressive Elliot Dixon from Sonny Bill was epic. Soon though, the game was turned in the home sides favour when a halfway scrum move was executed with precision between halfback and dangerman Waisake Naholo. A thing of beauty, it was a great example of passing that brought the crowd to it’s feet. It gave them the lead they required and they seemed the likely side to score, Chiefs forwards were often clumsy (Retallick getting himself in trouble when he dropped Osbourne after the tackle) and no consistency from midfield was a poor reflection on the hastily assembled Chiefs backline. Luckily, repeated Highlanders infringements allowed Andrew Horrell to kick 3/5 penalties to end the half at 9-8.

On reflection, I’d suspect The Chiefs will kick themselves for several phases where open ground presented them with chances that were left begging. If anything, they upped the tempo but that did not bring any reward, so captain Liam Messam was becoming more frustrated. And when the second half began, The Highlanders used their familiar pattern of ‘early strike’ to spread the ball wide – Smith feeding Naholo who broke Jeff Wilson’s record for tries in a single season; his 11th. It almost blew off the roof in Dunedin and was the catalyst for a well deserved victory in the end.

The little mistakes were too glaring from The Chiefs, sometimes too close to the line for the referee Chris Pollock, who earlier just missed Sam Cane guilty of a late charge. They needed to be sharp and only some brilliant stuff from the Chiefs after 50 minutes gave them a slight hope. Moving the ball upfield quickly, through endless phases, keeping the ball alive, it was close to vintage Chiefs play. But Highlanders defence held firm and soon they won a sweet turnover. Dan Pryor ever present and Sopoaga did well to pinch ball on the deck.

Relentless pressure did tell though. With a long sideline freekick from James Lowe giving them prescious territory, the lineout was taken and retained. I thought they might go wide, but a signal from Retallick meant “give me the ball” and he made up for lost time [when injured] with a barging try on the flank. That was the right attitude, and it hushed the crowd for a time. Getting back to 18-14, this was a strong position and when substitutes impacted it could have got worse but for an indiscretion from Ben Tamefuna (after warnings, he failed to learn)

That penalty extended their lead and the Southerners were playing a stronger type of game. Just heading their opposition in most stats, they still had men like Richard Buckman who are elusive runners and besides a finger to the eye for returning Malakai Fekitoa, they had great composure in their defensive line. Even when calls went against them, they had a rueful smile – from a good lineout on their own line, a set move had Dixon on a piercing breakout only to slightly collide with the man in Pink [yes, our referees wear fluro Pink] It was gauling call for some, as in the 26th minute the ball had struck the ref who let play go on, deeming that it had not affecting play. All we want is consistency and those calls are what see fans pulling their hair out, whether they are from Dunedin or Hamilton.

Such a heated battle, it is pulsating footy and it meant so much to every man on the ground. The Chiefs got caught short at times, Damian McKenzie had some penetration, nicely offloading on a number of occasions. While he might have been positioned better at first-five, the backline were pushing close. They looked good until at a key moment, Hika Elliot had a tiny knock-on and then Cane was caught with his hands in the ruck. 21-14

With territory was almost 20/80 in the final quarter, and to their credit the ‘Landers forwards held their nerve. After 18 rounds, they have got a good understanding of their field positions, continual chatter between starting players and subs like Gareth Evens meant the defence held and time just ran out for The Chiefs. And just like their season, it was not up to fans expectations so they’ll be a disappointed squad who head back to Ruakura. They have great talent, but like The Crusaders were not polished like the ‘Canes or tonight, like their adversaries.

Home fans will be ecstatic at the chance to continue further in Super Rugby, and while it had been years since their last chance at ‘finals footy’, they were just happy for the resilience of their heroes. Players like Asdh Dixon and Mark Reddish were powerful all night, and they now waited on the following game to see if it was a local trip up to Wellington, or a flight over the sea for the next game.

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Match : Stormers v Brumbies
Venue : DHL Newlands Stadium, Capetown
Score : 19-39

I did not call this result. No disrespect to The Brumbies on that prediction, as I thought the travel factor would be too much of an obstacle. It turned out, they encountered a badly directed Stormers side missing two key leaders and were rudderless to a high degree.

An early try from the visitors was ideal, it went against the consideration of many that this Australian side had lost their ability to cross the line. Gladly ‘they brought game’ and that might be an example for others to study [cue Mchael Cheika] Joseph Tomane showed some enterprise and benefited in a hatrick of tries; one inside 5 minutes and the third and final scored at the finish, after The Brumbies had been reduced to 13 men. It was a performance of note and could have been the instigator for a game that saw 6 tries scored by the visitors, to a solitary try from the home team.

The Stormers might be similar to the Christchurch based side, who only just missed qualifying. Some performance issues seem apparent, as you cannot rest on your laurels. You need to face each side well prepared hey made an effort of the match, don’t just read the scoreline as an embarrassment on this proud Stormers team.

Over a good period they looked likely near the end of the first half, with the score at 17-6 it was within reasonable reach until Scott Sio scored the fourth try Brumbies try right on halftime. Meaning the home team needed to respond immediately and once the ball had been kicked back & fourth, a seemingly fluffed Stormers lineout ended in a loose pass from Matt Toomua being brilliantly intercepted by Cheslin Kolbe. The explosive Stormers’ fullback couldn’t be stopped, scoring under the posts. The home side gaining a try should have brought them back into the game, but to The Brumbies side, they both defended and then attacked.

Sometimes, finishing off a side is not the easiest for sides, including the All Blacks at times. Many teams don’t carry on, but with a good strategy of kicking through and then pressuring the smaller backs, a smarter team ensured that mistakes creeped into Stormers play. Lineouts spoiled and dropped ball was only going to hand this match into the visitors hands. The Stormers couldn’t maximise any chances, and at 27-19 that was as close as they got, not able too or motivated enough the take the match. They needed direction from a Burger or the inspiration of a Vermuellen, so it was a shame this side were not at their peak.

Both matches were a good reflection of the competition schedule – after 19 weeks, management of players was a big part of the match with The Brumbies seemingly had the more capable side, so they benefited most from their high scoring win. With tries scored by backs, they also demonstrated an ability to ‘cross the line’ and that will be noted by Chris Boyd in Wellington. If any side are a threat, then a team wanting to restore their former winning ways have much to prove, so will head to Wellington with a mind to challenge the top side. If anyone could, a good outfit like these Brumbies might.

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In Conclusion.

The winners of the Qualifying Matches are now guaranteed an opportunity after this long season. Finishing 1st is now within all of the four sides grasp, with The Brumbies impressing more with a very determined win. That means they could incredibly visit Wellington and leave as ‘party poopers’. I mean that sincerely, in regard to the Canberra sides chances. Much better now after scoring nearly 40 points, they will have to bring that same attacking mentality to the ‘Caketin’ otherwise if they might fall back on their standard rolling maul strategy. Do that, and they will have no chance. Larkham needs to keep them energised and to combat the counter-attacking Hurricanes style.

Hometown is always going to be natural advantage. The two sides hold that advantage, must maximise that pressure on their opponents so with more likely support in Sydney being one major factor that The Waratahs should count on. Highlanders fans (traditionally) don’t normally travel, although I believe that ex-pat Kiwi’s in New South Wales will pick this ‘Landers side as their defacto favourites. The ground-swell from within New Zealand is also building too that will give the South Island side a better support base that might be the catalyst for a victory next Saturday. With the learnings from past encounters, Ben Smith will feel confident that they will cross the Tasman and be capable of winning.

In their defense, both rested Conference winners are in the best position. They might not have expected their competition [Hurricanes preparing for a NZ side] but they will need to have a gameplan that plays on their strengths. Waratahs are better at home than away, and if Israel Folau can finally show his world-class talent then it will be underlined by a tough forward pack and a cool, calm and collected Michael Foley. He will face his opposing first-five in Spoaga who is a more exciting playmaker, can release a more fearsome backline and was just selected in the All Blacks training squad [congrats] As I said, if that side get going, if they use their linking flankers to support movement from one side to the other side, it might be enough to out-flank the ‘Tahs. I can see it being a game where points on the board might be a psychological advantage. Get a big lead, and the Highlanders can take this match with their panache and self confidence.

It will be The Hurricanes who indeed feel the most internal pressure. Waratahs have won a Championship, so might have that belief, but the city, the franchise and their long-suffering fans are all so eager for victory, it could cloud their natural game. While leading the whole competition, they had aimed for an end goal which; finishing as Premiers, but might that be a step too far? Not saying that it will be, but a more practiced Brumbies team could ‘ride in and steal the gold’ and it would be a real shame if that were to happen.

So I will take the Monty Python approach (no, not the Parrot sketch) but “always look on the bright side of life”. With the emotion running through the Wellington Regional Stadium, from Pipitea up to Porirua, the will of the people will ensure the players are reminded of 20 years of trying, of a foggy final taken away from them and of a smiling loose forward who has brought the best out of this city. Jerry Collins will hold a special place for them, and while professional sport is all about preparation and technique, emotion will very likely bring victory to The Hurricanes.

‘Win it for Jerry’ will be the call, and the most polished side in Super Rugby 2015 will continue on their winning ways.

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Semi-final match fixtures – Saturday 27th June : Hurricanes v Brumbies, Wellington 7:35pm | Waratahs v Highlanders, Sydney 9:40pm (NZT)

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