As promised the Lineout takes up residence in the Southern Hemisphere as we look at the business end of the Super Rugby competition and this year’s abbreviated Rugby Championship. What is already clear is that New Zealand sides, the Hurricanes in particular are showing that they are in a league of their own. As the Super Rugby tournament winds up, each week we will look at the performance from the top rated team in each of the three participating countries. This past weekend the Bulls represented South Africa and the Hurricanes as they have been all season were New Zealand’s top side. Australia’s top side going into the weekend the Brumbies had a bye so for this week we won’t be providing any Australian coverage but will pick up next week with the Waratahs who now top the Australian table.
Chiefs vs Bulls
Final Score – Chiefs 34/Bulls 20
In a thrilling contest, the Chiefs showed the depth and talent that New Zealand has and which is making them such a threat come September/October. As I have hinted at before there is obviously some secret factory buried deep in the Southern Alps somewhere that is quietly turning out a constant stream of rugby superstars in the making. Despite the fact that the Chiefs have been battling with an endless stream of injuries to their forward pack, most notably the phenomenal Brodie Retallick, they showed last weekend that they somehow have the ability to find yet another set of able replacements, even if that means calling on players who should have been sitting on the sidelines providing commentary as was the case with veteran lock Ross Filipo. For the Bulls on the other hand, it all started off well and they were certainly more than competitive in the first half, however the problem South African teams seem to suffer on the road played out to the full in the second half and ultimately ended in a defeat which would knock them out of the top spot on the South African table.
The Bulls started well, and after an early Chiefs rush at the line was deemed just short, the Bulls effectively dominated the first quarter of the game with two superb tries from Jan Serfontein and Bjorn Basson. For me as he has so often in a Springbok shirt, Jan Serfontein impressed throughout the match and should be a no brainer for Springbok coach Heineke Meyer for one of the centre berths come the World Cup. The game then started to go the way of the Chiefs as local boy Liam Messam got across the Bulls white line after some sustained pressure. The Bulls managed to hold some quality possession but what kept getting everyone’s attention was the work rate of Chiefs scrum half Augustine Pulu who had a stellar match and must be catching the attention of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Chiefs fly half Damien McKenzie was also someone who stood out all match and just reconfirms the point that New Zealand has a truly phenomenal talent bank of skilled flyhalves making All Black legend Dan Carter almost redundant to New Zealand’s World Cup plans.
However, at the break the Bulls were still looking good for their work effort as the score stood at 15 apiece, but as the clock wound down in the first half, you couldn’t help feeling that the Chiefs were building for something special in the second half. That is exactly what we got as the referee blew his whistle to start the final 40 minutes. What was evident throughout the match, was that despite the Chiefs being under strength in the forwards department as many of their key players were out with injury, their forward pack was still able to mix it up with the best that the always physical Bulls had to offer. Add to that the electric pace of Damien McKenzie and Augustine Pulu at fly half and scrum half, as these two were everywhere on the park for the full eighty minutes, and you realize the extraordinary depth New Zealand selectors have available to them going into the World Cup. Pulu and McKenzie have enormous potential and no doubt are likely to end up somehow in the mix for September/October.
The Chiefs dominated possession in the opening stanzas of the second half and then at the 53 minutes mark produced some real magic as scrum half Pulu went on to score two superb tries through some exceptional footwork in the space of five minutes. His second try was set up by a blinding run from Damien McKenzie who almost looked like he was going to score himself, before lock Ross Filipo in a superb display almost added his name to the honors. However, Pulu as he did all night spotted the gaps after Filipo was brought to ground and once more darted and dived across the Bulls white line. It was turning into a very exciting if slightly one-sided contest.
The Bulls fought back valiantly and on occasion looked like they might get back into the match, but as time wore on, and they couldn’t get results from their efforts, you could see the error count and frustration grow for the South African side. After that as we have seen so often with South African sides in the last year, including the Springboks, away from home they start to fold. Bulls fly half Handre Pollard missed a crucial conversion and thereafter showed an alarming South African trend of kicking away perfectly good possession when under pressure. The Bulls game plan in the last ten minutes seemed to fall apart with an emphasis on pointless kicking and the Chiefs could sense that one more opportunity was there for the taking before the final whistle. Replacement fullback Tim Nanai-Williams spotted a gap in the defence after another superb offload from McKenzie and the Bulls were left scratching their heads as to how despite a relatively positive showing they ended the day 14 points behind the Chiefs. With another gruelling game on the road against an on form Brumbies side, it looks like a road trip the Bulls are going to want to forget. The Chiefs on the other hand showed what a class outfit they are as well as how much depth there is in New Zealand rugby. It would seem that we are perhaps heading for an All-New Zealand showdown, reinforcing the belief amongst many that the men from the Land of the Long White Cloud will be the ones to beat come September/October.
Blues vs Hurricanes
Final Score – Blues 5/Hurricanes 29
In a match that essentially confirmed the Hurricanes as THE team to beat in this year’s competition, the Blues had very few answers to the powerhouse approach from the men from Wellington. To be honest there wasn’t much to get excited about in this match. In wet and rainy conditions we knew we were going to get a match likely to be strewn with handling errors particularly on the part of the Blues who have been struggling with form all season.
The Hurricanes, despite the conditions showed that they were ultimately the better organised and disciplined side. Furthermore when opportunities came their way they showed us some slick execution. The Blues didn’t have much possession in the first half but despite some discipline lapses they remarkably found themselves only 3 points down with 5 minutes left in the first half. In the last five minutes, the Hurricanes ramped up the pressure through their forwards and some solid possession and the knowledge that holding on to the ball rather than expansive passing was the key. Prop Chris Eves was the first to crash over the Blues white line followed up minutes later by scrum half TJ Perenara who has been electric all season following up on some superb grinding forward work from the pack. All night Hurricanes fly half Otere Black who I must confess I had never heard of prior to this match was solid with the boot on the conversions and overall had a good kicking game. Once more proving the point that the mystery fly half factory deep in the heart of the Southern Alps is continuing to pump out quality products.
In the second half, the Hurricanes just simply held onto possession, kept the ball back in the Blues half and just ground out the Blues. There were the odd flashes of brilliance from the Blues and which ultimately resulted in their only try and points of the night through Matt Vaega which sadly Matt Hickey wasn’t able to convert. Certainly from the Blues kicking game on display they obviously haven’t placed any orders with the secret fly half factory in the Southern Alps.
With ten minutes to go the Hurricanes would have the final shout through another superb effort from winger Nehe Milner-Skudder who is another who must surely be putting his hand up for All Black selection. The Hurricanes winger has been a revelation all season and a consistently exciting player with ball in hand. Despite the conditions the Hurricanes played with confidence all night and ended the proceedings as comfortable and convincing winners. For the Blues they know their season is pretty well over in terms of Super Rugby and a process of rebuilding is much-needed across the board. The Hurricanes certainly look the team to beat and as they march inexorably towards this year’s final we are left wondering if there is anyone out there who really can derail the Wellington juggernaut?