If you want a taste of what the rest of the world will be up against come September/October at the World Cup when they have to play either Australia or New Zealand then make sure you have access to a TV or the Internet this Saturday. This year’s Super Rugby competition serves up two enthralling semi-final prospects, with the core of the Wallaby and All Black sides being on show. The Hurricanes still look fairly unstoppable and the Brumbies although impressive with the rolling maul will have a Herculean task on their hands to try to knock the Hurricanes out in front of a loud and excited Wellington home crowd. The Waratahs have home advantage working for them coupled with some of the world’s most exciting runners, but the Highlanders are on fire and the motivation to end years of pain in Super Rugby has never been higher. Either way we are in for two potentially thrilling games.
The past weekend saw the anomaly of the qualifiers to determine which two teams would play the two guaranteed semi-finalists, the Hurricanes and the Waratahs. While the match between the Highlanders and the Chiefs provided us with plenty of excitement, the Brumbies/Stormers game was never really going to throw up too many surprises, especially once the Stormers two key players Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger were ruled out through injury. There were moments of bravery from the Stormers but to be honest they were weak opposition for a well organised Brumbies side who for once didn’t just rely on their devastating maul, but used the weaknesses in the Stormers defence to allow winger Joe Tomane to run in three superb tries in quick succession. The past weekend showed us just how much firepower both runner-up teams in their respective conferences have on offer provided they get the right opportunities – it should be a GREAT weekend!
Highlanders vs Chiefs
Final Score – Highlanders 24/Chiefs 14
The Chiefs as good as they are despite being plagued by injuries this year were always going to be up against it when taking on a Highlanders side who are, after years in the wilderness, finally filled with a sense of self-belief that has become inspirational to watch. Add to that the fact the game was to be played in front of a delirious Dunedin crowd and the Chiefs knew they had it all to do. To give them full credit they turned up full of intent and especially through the work of Brodie Retallick and one of the standout players of the season Damian McKenzie, they were a constant threat. However, the Highlanders were slightly better organised especially in defence as they completely neutralised the threat posed by Sonny Bill Williams and Tim Nanai-Williams. Furthermore, in a match where emotions were running high the Highlanders managed to keep their composure and discipline more effectively than the Chiefs.
The Highlanders started the match showing us exactly what they could do and a clear demonstration of their intentions. Some sheer magic from Highlanders scrum half Aaron Smith from a Highlanders line-out on the one minute mark set up an incredible passage of cross field play that resulted in sadly a disallowed try for winger Patrick Osborne. I have to admit that I shared the commentators view that it was a try but the TMO deemed that Naholo in the play further up the field had grazed the touch-line. Either way it was an incredible display of skills from the Highlanders and showed just what they are capable of.
The first quarter saw both sides trading penalties, until the Highlanders found yet another gear despite the Chiefs effectively sapping some of the Highlanders energy through a very physical contest. Off the back of a Highlanders scrum the interplay between scrum half Aaron Smith and winger Waisake Naholo was mesmerizing to watch as the two ran from halfway weaving through defenders and passing back and forth between each other and ultimately Naholo dotting it down. A piece of play any rugby fan would have felt privileged to watch.
The Chiefs still managed to keep the pressure on and brilliant work from their forward pack forced the Highlanders into errors, leaving them in charge at the break through well taken penalties from Andrew Horrell with the Waikato men ahead 9-8 despite the Highlanders having the majority of the attacking play.
Once again within minutes of starting the second half a turbocharged Highlanders outfit once again demonstrated some superb interplay between Aaron Smith and Waisake Naholo resulting in the winger’s second try through a sublime one-handed offload from Smith after the scrum-half peeled off the back of the scrum and once again skipped past a Chiefs defender. All of a sudden the Chiefs started to look tired and just a tad frustrated and it showed in their discipline. However, despite this purple patch they regained composure and through the solid work of forward powerhouse Brodie Retallick the Chiefs crashed over the line to get them back in the game.
The remainder of the game was a tense affair with plenty of back and forth. The Highlanders held their ground and looked threatening but the Chiefs seemed to have the edge on the territorial battle helped by some superb weaving and sniping runs from Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie. With the roar of the Dunedin crowd behind them, the Highlanders defence was superb and withstood everything the Chiefs threw at them. The only negative aspect of this for the Highlanders was losing Dan Pryor with a dislocated elbow ruling him out of this weekend’s semi-final clash with the Waratahs.
As the final whistle blew, a delirious Dunedin crowd left you in no doubt as to which team had won. The Highlanders won a tough physical battle and provided us with some truly stellar running and passing rugby. Although Aaron Smith and Waisake Naholo stole the show at times for the Highlanders, it was a solid team effort from a very motivated team. This team is on fire and is determined to make some history for a proud and passionate franchise. They may be playing in Sydney next week but if they step it up yet another gear, the men from Dunedin must surely be giving the Waratahs an anxious week of preparation!
Stormers vs Brumbies
Final Score – Stormers 19/Brumbies 39
Unlike the match in Dunedin, there were few who thought this would be much of a contest, despite the Brumbies having to traverse the Indian Ocean. They were easily on paper the stronger side, especially once it was learned that the Stormers would be without their two talismans Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger. As a result this match unlike the game in New Zealand earlier in the day felt more like a contractual obligation fixture then a genuine qualifier.
In the first half the Brumbies completely and utterly outclassed the Stormers. Their possession and ability to hang onto the ball was far superior whereas the Stormers seemed to resort to aimless box kicks and up and unders. It was good to see the Brumbies being expansive in their play and not just rely on their devastating rolling maul with one of the players of the season, David Pocock, as the sting. Brumbies winger Joe Tomane simply second guessed the Stormers defence continuously for the first 30 minutes and his three tries said it all. The Brumbies as they so often do were quick to the breakdown and left the Stormers very little time to think. As a result the Stormers often looked nervous and disoriented in defence. Consequently their defence was poor and Joe Tomane on the wing for the Brumbies was superb at spotting the gaping holes, coupled with some strong physicality in fending off hapless tackles from the Stormers. The Cape Town outfit rarely looked like they were in the match in the first half and their weak defence coupled with complete predictability in their attack, left the Brumbies comfortably in charge at halftime leading 24-6.
In fairness to the Stormers they never completely gave up, and there was some solid work from Damian De Allende at centre who really has impressed me in the latter stages of this year’s competition. The Stormers started the second half with intent and a brilliant intercept try from fullback Cheslin Kolbe after four minutes gave the Cape Town crowd something to cheer about. However it was short-lived and ultimately the Brumbies quickly reasserted their dominance. Perhaps the Brumbies were feeling complacent in the last quarter and they let their discipline slip resulting in a red card for Henry Speight after an unfortunate but nevertheless dangerous tackle on Juan de Jongh. With five minutes to go the Brumbies lost two men, Scott Fardy through a yellow card and the aforementioned Speight through a red card. However, even against 13 men the Stormers had too much to do and really never looked like they were going to make any significant inroads against the Brumbies. To add insult to injury the Brumbies 13 men eclipsed the Stormers 15 through a brilliantly worked try that led to Jesse Mogg dotting it down for the Brumbies 6th and final try. The fact that the try was scored through the Brumbies dominating the Stormers with just 13 men, really summed up the Stormers night. They looked disorganised in defence and attack, were often outscrummaged and much of their lineout work was a bad joke.
The Brumbies emerged the deserved winners and showed that they had a few more tricks up their sleeves than just the rolling maul. They will have to be even more inventive next weekend against the best attacking team in the competition when they face the Hurricanes in Wellington. In the end the Stormers were weak opposition for a team, the Brumbies, that has plenty of potential but needs to not build too much into this result if they want to emerge the winners next weekend in Wellington. Stay focused gentlemen, get over the jet lag and you could surprise us all!
Fixtures this weekend
Hurricanes vs Brumbies
Saturday, June 27th
Are the Brumbies the team to stop this year’s powerhouse team the Hurricanes, and to make matters worse can they upset the apple cart on the Hurricanes home ground? I may offend many by saying right up front that of the two semi-finals this is by far the easiest of the two to call. I do not mean to belittle the Brumbies in any way, they are a strong team who have shown that they have every right to be where they are. However, given the awesome attacking potential the Hurricanes possess in the likes of Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Julian Savea and the sheer speed at which these players operate the Brumbies are faced with a serious challenge. Add to that a forward pack that has shown few weaknesses and probably one of the most dangerous loose forwards in the game, Ardi Savea, the Hurricanes present a host of problems for any team.
Like I say, the Brumbies are good, very good and David Pocock alone has easily been the competition’s best number 7. However, up against better sides they have been relatively easy to read in attack. I don’t expect for one minute that the Brumbies’ Joe Tomane is going to get even an inch of the kind of space he was afforded in Cape Town. However, if Tevita Kuridrani and Matt Toomua fire for the Brumbies then anything is possible but I must confess to having seen relatively little of Kuridrani’s attacking potential this year even though Toomua has provided it in bucketloads.
However, I can’t help feeling that with everything to play for and in front of a home crowd the Hurricanes are just far too slick an outfit for the Brumbies to dismantle. They have a quicker and better organised halfback pairing in the shape of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett than the Brumbies Nic White and Christian Lealiifano. If they can fix some of the lineout problems they have occasionally had, then their forward pack should be able to outmuscle their Brumbies counterparts. Head to head the contest between the Brumbies Pocock and Hurricanes Ardi Savea will be fascinating as these two superb players have very contrasting styles in the loose, but are both excellent opportunists. In the end though if the Hurricanes release their truly spectacular back line then the Brumbies are going to have a very tough afternoon. It is here along with their halfback pairing that I think the Hurricanes will ultimately have the edge over the Brumbies. As a neutral, I am expecting this to be an entertaining and times tight fixture, but one which the Hurricanes will comfortably win in the end by at least 10 points or more!
Waratahs vs Highlanders
Saturday, June 27th
For me this in many ways should be the most closely fought of the two contests this weekend, however seeing that Kurtley Beale will not be featuring in the Waratahs lineup now, I am perhaps revising that opinion slightly. Nevertheless, these two sides look more evenly matched on paper than the Hurricanes/Brumbies clash. I expect this to be a much tighter affair than the game in Wellington, with passion and the desire to win being two critical deciding factors.
The Waratahs may have home advantage but they are up against an exceptionally motivated Highlanders side that is determined to make history and they have shown that they have the potential to provide exciting attacking rugby by the truckload. For all us neutrals while we may have been left speechless at times by the Hurricanes this season, it is the Highlanders who in many ways have captured the heart and soul of this year’s competition. From 9 to 15 the Highlanders have a group of players that have shown some of the most impressive creativity this season in attacking play. The Waratahs have also been impressive in this area with the partnership of Ashley-Cooper and Beale always providing plenty of razzle dazzle.
However, I can’t help feeling that the Highlanders are just that bit better than the Waratahs going into this fixture and easily the more motivated of the two. The Waratahs are reigning champions and are at home, whereas the Highlanders have everything to prove. On paper their forwards are probably equal though Reddish, Ainley and Dixon for the Highlanders have been real revelations this season. What is perhaps of concern for the Highlanders this weekend is the man chosen to contain the Waratahs troublesome number 7 Michael Hooper is the inexperienced James Lentjes. Not to write off Lentjes’ chances but I imagine Hooper to come out on top here and be at his best in spoiling Highlanders opportunities in the loose.
Nevertheless from 9 to 15, the Highlanders should easily get the best of the Waratahs. Ben Smith at fullback for the Highlanders is a much better and more intelligent player than Wallaby golden boy Israel Folau for the Waratahs. As we have seen all season, Folau is spectacular when up against inferior opposition, but the minute you put him under defensive pressure his decision-making ability breaks down badly and he becomes very easy to read and contain. While the Waratahs boast a solid and exceptionally competent halfback pairing in Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley, they will be hard pressed to contain the creative genius and lightning quick reactions of Highlanders and All Blacks’ scrum half Aaron Smith. Richard Buckman and Patrick Osborne have been no slouches for the Highlanders all season, and Waisake Naholo and Malakai Fekitoa have been simply devastating. Without Beale on the field for the Waratahs, I can’t help feeling that you have five quality backs for the Highlanders up against just two for the Waratahs in the shape of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau. Nick Horne can be impressive for the Waratahs if he maintains his discipline but that is often a big question mark.
In short, expect a very high quality game of rugby that smacks of test quality. However, in the end I am going to give this one to the men from New Zealand, despite a solid and well contested effort from the Waratahs. Provided the Highlanders don’t let the emotion of the whole occasion affect their composure, they have just a little more creativity and self-belief than their Australian counterparts. A potentially thrilling back and forth battle awaits but one I predict that the Highlanders will just take by 5 points. Whatever you have planned for Saturday, make sure this fixture is part of them!