Winning performances have become all too familiar from NZ Super Teams in this years Investec Super Rugby competition. Now hugely popular in attendance and television viewers as the local sides out-perform both the Australian and the two African conferences. No, it is not all one way traffic. The Stormers, Brumbies and Lions will tell you that but on this weekend, when all three competing New Zealand (NZ) teams got valuable wins while the table-topping Chiefs and Highlanders had their first bye rounds, the evidence is in the results.
It began Friday, with a couple of high scoring games–one game in Christchurch and another one across in Melbourne, before the Auckland Blues* team wrapped up the weekend with a ‘celebration of years gone by’ that inspired today’s players to a positive win. It was good all over, and why wouldn’t New Zealand (NZ) fans be smiling.
Results: Friday 15th April – Crusaders 32 Jaguares 15 | Rebels 13 Hurricanes 38 | Saturday 16th April – Blues 23 Sharks 18 | Chiefs/Highlanders BYE
Returning from a lengthy overseas assignment, head coach Todd Blackadder was busy handing out pass marks to his Crusader players this week, before they squarely focused on the traveling South American team. The Jaguares had made a small improvement [against the Hurricanes] but would find that their first-ever trip to NZ would be an unhappy one.
Head Coach Raúl Pérez has a side big on confrontation and adventurous in play but they are finding the set defensive lines and counter-attacking sense of NZ sides hardest to factor. On Friday, he had brought back in some firepower; in Pumas captain August Creevy and while the opening exchanges were fierce, they pushed the advantage line and when new Super Rugby centurion Ryan Crotty broke that line, a pass to Israel Dagg and then inside ball to Andy Ellis had the home side quickly 7-0 up inside 5 minutes.
Blackadder had too recalled some players that included All Black fullback Dagg, out of the game since last season and was expected to ‘start slowly’. That would be true for anyone else but the smiling outside back has made a career out of going against the grain. He had 30 minutes of club rugby, and it seemed like that was all a quality player like he required. That opening try gave the Crusaders a confidence boost that only faulted late in the second half, so the return of Dagg was worth more than just points in a game.
Quality is ever-lasting, and while the visitors can fill many International positions, they did not have men like Dagg, Crotty or Ellis to work their magic, and that fact was magnified after Joaquin Tuculet was yellow carded for a professional foul when defending on his line. Cynical, it cost them dearly. Dagg scored his first and soon a retreating Jeronimo de la Fuente seemed to secure a long kick until Richie Mounga stripped him of the ball for the second Crusaders try scored during that yellow card period–a big points gain and ended the half 22-3.
It is the ability to bounce back that every team needs, and while Facundo Isa try would give them some hope, they could not counter the home side. The Crusaders did well to retain control, under some real pressure and skipper Kieran Read scored another try to keep fans enthralled. They also lost some shape from what they began with. The small gaps exposed plenty and might have leaked more than a single try if it had of been a stronger opponent (with all due respect) Dagg was a constant threat, good on defence and his reward was a second try where he broke through the visitors line. They closed out this match 32-15 and it really could have been more if the Jaguares had given up completely.
Holding a bonus point, that was under threat in the new rule variation where teams must win by three tries or more. Positives will be the high work of Owen Franks and Joe Moody, Matt Todd and the outstanding Scott Barrett continually working at the ruck. Built from solid Canterbury bedrock, Barrett is doing a fine impression of Norm Maxwell and it will please many that Luke Romano and Sam Whitelock can be rotated around this new lock-forward, which is just one of a number of positives for the Crusaders to work with towards one of the biggest tests for 2016–against the Brumbies in Canberra.
— Rugby Vids (@RugbyVids15) April 15, 2016
We then jumped across the Tasman next, where the Hurricanes are on a scoring blitz after last weekend. They would need to take care though, as they had been tripped up by the Melbourne Rebels previously but their fears were not met. A good performance saw this NZ Super team bring home a bonus point and plenty to talk about.
No injuries was a plus, and it very well could have happened if any number of Canes men might have rolled an ankle or worse, when dealing with a decrepit playing surface that had broken up in earlier matches (Rebels v Highlanders) How professional rugby players can be asked to play ‘in a sand pit’ is questionable, but on the scoreboard it reflected the match which fell more and more into Hurricanes hands as they gained in ascendancy.
Not exactly the Beauden Barrett Show, but near to it. ‘The Maestro’ was orchestrating a better than good performance of setplay and open-play that the Canes are renowned for. It reflects the two sides of the Canes that for years had fans pulling out clumps of hair; amazing attack but with unforced errors but it seems that Chris Boyd and John Plumtree in two seasons have channeled the good, and look to have eliminated [much] of the bad. It is now controlled expression but still allows for Jason Woodward to make an well practiced chip-chase and collect to share with Cory Jane for his 25th Hurricanes try. Jane is living the dream and after 100 matches is gladly injury free, so his name will be a consideration in All Blacks short-term goals.
Early tries allowed for a 26-8 halftime score and after running-repairs were made to the pitch, teams returned to the field but the following 40 minutes was certainly not as convincing. Luckily the Melbourne team could not complete a Waratahs-like comeback, so the scores were dormant until right on their own line the Rebels did not secure a ruck ball and Ardie Savea was on hand to gladly score yet again.
The game was now in the bag, a bonus point collected and the Maestro crossed for his second and final Canes try. Barrett was in everything and right now, the only thing that can slow this side down would be if they lost their impressive first-five. In the same way that Dane Coles is fundamental to their success, TJ Perenara works in tandem with forwards and backs and that Barrett has the insight to share the ball or kick–all the cogs in the Hurricane machine are working in unison.
Heaven forbid anyone of those cogs are broken or injured.
By Saturday, many fans had been drawn to the great performances in Super Rugby round eight, so this clash at Eden Park was popular due to the fan engagement levels as much as a strong historical element. This was the 20th anniversary of the very first *1996 Super Rugby Championship, and some of those team members formed a guard of honour when the Blues ran onto the field, to face the Sharks.
Full match report, click here.
So after eight rounds of Super Rugby, we have seen some great rugby. Across in Australia, the local derby match between the Waratahs and Brumbies had massive implications for both sides. Eventually won after a hatrick of tries to Joe Tomane that ends a 14 year drought of wins in Sydney, 20-26. It solidifies the Canberra teams status as ‘Australian Group’ leaders, with a cushion between themselves, the Rebels and the Waratahs.
In Africa, both groups appear to be elevating the strongest teams naturally and keeping the new sides, the Sunwolves, Kings, Jaguares in positions that have less influence on their competitions outcome but no-one should question their importance. Whether being beaten by 90 points or competitive intra-conference matches (Sunwolves v Cheetahs 31-32) the increased number of sides has given fans across the globe more exposure to the game, and that can only be good for the sport.
- Top placed NZ Super Rugby side 1# Chiefs 29 | 5# Crusaders 27 | 6# Hurricanes 25 | 7# Highlanders 23 | Blues 16
- Top placed South African side (Conference 1) 2# Stormers 23 (Conference 2) 4# Lions | Bulls 19 | Cheetahs 12
- Top placed Australian side 3# Brumbies 21 | Rebels 17 | Waratahs 12
At two-fifths of the way through this season, teams are at stages where a Bye can allow the chasing pack to ‘catch up’ slightly. The Chiefs lead all comers, no question. They will be tested over the next three rounds, as first the Hurricanes challenge them in Wellington followed by the Sharks in their outlying ground of New Plymoth. The challenges don’t let up when on the 7th of May the Highlanders step up to the plate in Hamilton. What a great stage in the competition–potentially 15 points are on offer, but also a risk of losing that amount to the pack. How could that happen you ask?
It is because this is Super Rugby. It is cut-throat and NZ Super teams will provide that competition that not only makes the hosts better, but can benefit the visitor in points and/or standings. Imagine the Hurricanes making a jump over the Crusaders (if they were to fall in Canberra) and imagine if on the following weekend the Brumbies head over to Dunedin and leave happy with five points [the Highlanders will do their very best to prevent that] but all these machinations are perceivable, and must not be scoffed at.
The Blues too will believe that after their second bye, they emerge on a run of seven straight games where potentially they could collect 35 points, could travel like the Hurricanes must do, over to the republic and each takes two or three victories with them. Then all sides will be smiling by the final stages of the 2016 competition. Wow, anything is possible but on form, the top four sides will need to ‘watch over their shoulders’ as every side from the Bulls to the reigning champion Highlanders can build a points base to challenge the current leaders.
Some great rugby lies ahead next week.
FIXTURES – Friday 22nd April – Highlanders v Sharks, Dunedin | Saturday 23rd April – Hurricanes v Chiefs, Wellington | Brumbies v Crusaders, Canberra | Blues BYE
Player of the Round: Israel Dagg. While Joe Tomane crossed three times, the two tries from ‘Izzy’ was worth more than points. A huge sigh of relief rang around AMI Stadium when he asted the match and put a huge tick next to his name. Followed by the celebration of Ryan Crotty’s 100th Super game, the boy from Hawke’s Bay had the most impact on a match that gives Saders fans much hope of a good placing when the regular season is complete.
Welcome Back Izzy!
“Main photo credit”