After a weekend of full-on Super Rugby action, our focus was brought to the All Blacks and Springboks squad announcements their 2016 squads. Big news for debut players named and some of those stars played big parts in last minute wins and in brutal local derby games played Friday and Saturday night, as the results leave the Crusaders in command after 14 rounds.
The sides are now on stand by mode for the ‘International Window’ of test matches across all conferences, so the current standings will remain like this until Round 15 re-commences the competition, Friday July 1st.
Top placed New Zealand side 1# Crusaders 45 | 5# Chiefs 42 | 6# Hurricanes 40 | 7# Highlanders 38 | Blues 30
Top placed South African side (Conference 1) 3# Stormers 36 | Bulls 32 (Conference 2) 2# Lions 42 | 8# Sharks 35
Top placed Australian side 4# Brumbies 34 | Waratahs 34
Fans enjoyed three big clashes involving New Zealand (NZ) sides, with a Friday and Saturday night local derby that held fans attention firmly as each side could literally ‘make or break’ their season on the result. The NZ conference was so closely balanced prior to this week, the Hurricanes v Highlanders match would potentially entrench a fourth NZ side in the qualifying stages, or they could leave with a ‘a gap too far’ to make up on.
The same applied for the Blues team, even though they only have a mathematical chance, there is always a chance in that epic tussle between the two major centres from each island of the ‘Land with the long white Cloud’. A Blues v Crusaders match is tense, with everything put on the line and the Eden Park crowd usually expect the best from their men–and usually receive it.
Last Word On Sports produced two detailed match reports which described two of this weekends games(HURvHIG, WARvCHI) but it is never as easy as that to just ‘describe’ these games. They have history behind them, and they always bring out the best in those teams. Be it local, or away at Allianz Stadium. Coaches place an even bigger focus on them, treating them in isolation; as the Hurricanes and Highlanders had to, since they each returned from their final bye weeks. So both those teams had one single weekend to place all their emphasis upon.
RESULTS: Friday 27 May – Hurricanes 27 Highlanders 20 | Waratahs 45 Chiefs 25 | Saturday 28 May – Blues 21 Crusaders 27
Visiting Westpac Stadium to cover this match personally, it must have been on everyone’s calendar as the ‘replay of the 2015 Final’. That could have been noted pre-season of course but many fans who made the trip to Wellington (including a small but loud percentage of Landers Army supporters) came because they expected some top-class rugby. They did not leave disappointed.
Fans attending would have found the sides placings on the ladder to also be a key factor to brave the wind and rain. Four or five valuable competition points would ‘make or break’ the next stage of the competition for both sides, so it was all about achieving a goal to reach the quarter finals–or to bravely play out the next three rounds with little chance of qualifying. It was up to the players out on field.
The Hurricanes walked away with the victory 27-20 as they maintained their status as a leading contender and in the last three rounds, a much larger desire to win those final games will exist. The more expressive side triumphed, with some players who were strangely quiet (Ben Smith and Aaron Smith) while others stood tall, like the Canes scrum which was directed well by TJ Perenara (pictured) As a result, they have switched places on the ladder and the only favour that the Highlanders hold is a slender points differential lead over the Canes. Vanquished head coach Jamie Joseph still see’s the big picture.
“There is a long way to go, three All Blacks games [against Wales] coming up, two or three injuries to key opposition players in that series and then she’s back on again”.
In the second match of the night, the former table-topping Chiefs went to a ground where they have had little success. The Chiefs have won only twice against the Waratahs in Sydney in Super Rugby in nine attempts [courtesy of OPTA Stats] and even though the 2016 side had not lost away from home, it would still be a daunting task. That task proved to be one the Dave Rennie coached side could not improve upon, losing 45-25
The opening half was a back and fourth exchange. Tries scored, big breaks made by Israel Folau and from Seta Tamanivalu that characterized the opening half. Even a yellow card would not allow for any huge advantage, and Chiefs fans were tearing their hair out when Michael Hooper scored. A real test match atmosphere, the game swung back to the Chiefs advantage and fans believed normal transmission had resumed.
Thought so–and you often presume too much in sport and a double-strike soon had the home side on top. It must have taken the wind out of the visitors sails, and while like in any great contest, they did not give up (Tony Pulu scored a great try) they were not able to hold the opposition out or make a big comeback. Their only bright note was that they prevented the Tah’s from taking a bonus point; six tries to a credible four. As so often in 2016, the new scoring system would have the final laugh.
The result would catapult the home sides ambitions this year, as they now sit equal on competition points with the ACT Brumbies–who won at home 66-5–and those two sides now firmly set their sights on the prime Australian conference home quarter final spot. The Brumbies appear to have the easier home run, and an important differential advantage over their New South Wales neighbours that will prove very important if they stay level on points. That is not to say that Daryl Gibson’s men are ‘done for’. They will determine their own destiny, and who is to say that they don’t both manage to qualify.
BLUES 21 CRUSADERS 27
The horrible weather in the ‘City of Sails’ made the ball greasy, the ground a little slippery and it tested every players skillset. Thankfully, it was not a muddy encounter of the 60’s and 70’s (thank goodness for drainage) but the traditional rivalry still made it an occasion.
Wyatt Crockett had taken the record off longtime Blues hero Keven Mealamu, of the most capped Super Rugby player–165 games. An immense number of games for a man still running at full pace, one could see Crockett reaching 200 games, his physical presence still makes him a formidable opponent for any scrum forward, and the scrums would get a workout tonight.
Just the four tries scored in these conditions, but the opening try was made by Israel Dagg–a player returning to top form–and finished with a magical short pass by leader Kieran Read to their big Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo. Brilliance that was only seen sparingly, as the tight-forward encounters dominated and Crusaders used their apparent dominance to charge forward often, only to be sent back by a bruising Blues tackling force, that lasted for nearly the entire night.
Ihaia West was impressive tonight. While not the accurate kicker that would guarantee his place for his kicking, he is a great cog in the Blues machine, working with his backline and noticeably in organizing the line. For years this team have changed first-fives (if you can remember Benji Marshall, you’ll know what I mean) but in West they might have a grafter who seems to be finally ‘getting it’. In one of his best examples of the promise shown in Hawke’s Bay colours, when given a chance at the line tonight after a blistering offensive-defensive tackle by Jerome Kaino, they ball was spread quickly and West gave the dummy, scored the try.
His missed conversion and penalties might be seen as the ‘difference’ in the final scoreline [5 points, if they had been taken that is] but many would believe that the desire to win that the Crusaders hold is greater. That side would have worked harder to even the scores (if the points were conceded) to overcome any obstacle. That is the ‘Crusader way’. Find the way to win, and even though finals and championships may have passed them by, the 2016 vintage look to be in command.
They had gone eight games unbeaten until the Highlanders sank their record, but the rebound is obvious. Todd Blackadder has instilled more belief this season, so that matches like this–difficult to impossible to overcome–are won by attrition. Won with a combined effort that with so many changes in players pre-season (retirements and lost first-fives) Blackadder has directed them to be indomitable and with a ‘spine’ that others fail to demonstrate. It was rugby for the purists tonight, wet weather rugby and while in earlier games they used attack and formations to break down the opposition, tonight it was concentration and conviction that won them the match 21-26.
It is that ability to persevere that won them the game tonight. Some might think the teams were close in skill-set but in the end, the mindset of the Crusaders is engineered for success. The Blues are comfortable to perform, but accept failure too easily. They were on the verge of losing by more than seven points until an ugly late match tackle felled West. The crowd bayed for a ‘penalty try’ but it was not even a consideration. Piers Francis kicked the penalty and it re-gained a sense of respectability to the scoreline.
Crusaders in Command After 14 Rounds
Now all the Super Rugby sides must go into a form of ‘rugby hibernation’ as the June International window opens and many of their best players are removed from the franchise environment, to perform at the highest level there is [mind you, several of the latest Super Rugby matches would argue that point]
Teams will concentrate on their internal systems, work on team culture and tend to any niggling injuries so that by July 1st when Round 15 kicks-off. Importantly, teams must not sit idle–there is no holiday in any sport. Follow Last Word On Sport as we examine the sides prior to the restart of the competition and report of the International results over the next month.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Ardie Savea. The picture below shows the flanker running in for his second try on Friday night, which put an explanation mark on this massive encounter. It could have easily been a draw–which nobody would have been content with–but when Savea broke the ruck, pushed past Tom Franklin and Fumi Tanaka to cross over the line, to the jubilation of the crowd. It was ‘game, set and match’ to the Hurricanes, as they kept their play-off chances alive.
The icing for Savea was his announcement in the All Blacks side which had been foretold when he was an apprentice on the 2014 Northern tour. That introduction was only a ‘foot in the door’ and crucially, in recent weeks Savea made the critical decision to sit-out the All Black Sevens team, he must have known that a test match position could be his if he performed at the top level. This week, back from a misdemeanor that saw him punished for a curfew break, he took this single match by the throat and made it his stage to show the world ‘I am ready’.
And we are all very happy Steve Hansen and company agree.
“Main photo credit”