Saturday’s first Super Rugby semi-final saw The Hurricanes confirm their status as the best team in the competition this year with a convincing win over The Brumbies, eventually scoring four tries in a 29-9 win. After finishing the regular season a remarkable 14 points clear of their nearest rivals – while benefitting from the deepest and most multitalented group of players to grace Super Rugby in a long time – it was always going to take a monumental effort from the visitors; however, despite trailing by only 10 points after 60 minutes, it never seemed like one they were capable of finding. That isn’t to say they played badly either, because frankly they didn’t; it’s more of a testament to just how good their opposition were on the day, and have been throughout the season.
Hurricanes vs Brumbies Review
Despite having the weekend off last week, The Hurricanes came out of the gate all guns blazing, launching scything from inside their own half early and often to try and expose the cracks in an excellent Brumbies defence. Following a few missed opportunities in the opening exchanges, The Canes struck twice in quick succession first through Julian Savea before TJ Perenara got his obligatory score after some superb combination play down the right wing. After Ardie Savea’s try at the start of the second half, two Lealiifano penalties to add to one at the end of the first made things a little more tense, though the home side never really looked flustered, with a James Marshall penalty before a late Matt Proctor try confirming their dominance. Here are three takeaways from the game:
1) Ardie Savea outplays brother, David Pocock and everyone else: Six days after the preliminary New Zealand squad was named without him in it, Ardie Savea responded with maybe his best ever Super Rugby performance. While Steve Hansen will hardly wake up in a cold sweat every night for the next month worrying about it (having Richie McCaw and Sam Cane in the squad must be nice…), picking Matt Todd over the dynamic 21 year-old appears somewhat of an oversight on Hansen’s part, as the youngster proved on Saturday.
He has always been good in open play, mostly owing to his brutish strength, aggression and speed to the tune of 11.4 seconds over 100m, and he was particularly effective against The Brumbies, breaking a team high six tackles and generating two linebreaks while never conceding a turnover. It is in and around the ruck area that he has made real strides this season; improvements he showcased on Saturday, forcing two of The Brumbies nine turnovers and being a key component of keeping Pocock relatively quiet when The Canes had the ball. Of course, while not being named is a setback for Savea Jr. following a great season, you suspect he will get his shot to don the famous black jersey sooner rather than later.
2) Hurricanes find success out wide: Though The Hurricanes were always favourites, one thing that was almost universally agreed upon leading up to the game was that they may find it difficult to break down The Brumbies top ranked defence; they had conceded the least number of tries and points, at an average of just over 16 points per game in the regular season. However, they made it seem remarkably easy at times, particularly in the first half, which produced 12 of their 19 clean breaks. They found most of that attacking success out wide, stretching a disciplined Brumbies defensive unit from sideline to sideline. This tactic worked on two levels, firstly, it significantly marginalised the influence of Pocock and Scott Fardy, forcing the pair to cover plenty of ground just to get too rucks. It also meant that, as a result of defenders having to cover more space, players like the Savea brothers, Nonu and Nehe Milner-Skudder were left with just one defender to beat, rather than the more customary two or three they are used to facing. This was exemplified in The Hurricanes first try, where, despite having three defenders on three attackers, The Hurricanes were still able to score thanks to the fact that Nic White was left on the wing to tackle Julian Savea.
The Canes will still feel there are a few areas to work on before next weekend’s final with The Highlanders; they still wasted quite a few chances once they got inside The Brumbies 22 for example. In fact, the most frightening thing about the game was the feeling that The Hurricanes themselves never quite found the destroyer-of-worlds levels they’ve reached at times this season; in the first half looking incredibly sharp outside The Brumbies 22 and a little careless in it, in the second following a more conservative game plan following Ardie Savea’s early try.
3) Can Brumbies win with grit and grind style: For three seasons now, The Brumbies have been a consistent, winning outfit, getting to the final in 2013, before reaching the semi-finals in 2014 and 2015. The system that Jake White instilled in his two year tenure as Head Coach has been the basis of that success, with The Brumbies maintaining a good defensive record and great set-piece play throughout that time period. However, they have fallen short against more dynamic, creative opposition, with The Chiefs, Waratahs and Hurricanes all overcoming The Brumbies thanks in large part to a more expansive style. If The Brumbies are to take that final step, one that is so close, yet somehow appears to be fading into the distance, they may need to put a greater emphasis on the more open side of their game.