So after much debate around the vagaries of the conference system in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, there is little doubt that the two best teams in the competition are now squaring up against each other in a mouth-watering final. Last weekend’s semi-final action provided us with thrills and spills aplenty but left most in little doubt that the Highlanders and the Hurricanes both have something special. For the Hurricanes it is an all round sheer class that will be very hard to beat, while the Highlanders have shown that if you weld the right group of players together, even if they don’t necessarily boast the biggest names in the game, and instill a strong sense of self-belief in them – then anything is possible. The Hurricanes all-star roster has dominated this year’s competition while rising talents like Nehe Milner-Skudder and Ardie Savea have been revelations this season. Although the vast majority of the Highlanders players may not be household names outside of New Zealand, any team that can boast the likes of Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa instantly has some outstanding international pedigree. These are two solid teams at the top of their game and this weekend’s match up should be nothing short of enthralling!
Hurricanes vs Brumbies
Final Score – Hurricanes 29/Brumbies 9
For many there were to be few surprises in Wellington on Saturday. The Brumbies came into this game off the back of an exhausting travel schedule in two weeks despite a good showing against a weak Stormers side in Cape Town the week before. The only real question on the park on the day was would the Hurricanes two-week break cause them to lose any momentum in such a critical match. From what we saw it was pretty clear that this ultimately was a non-issue. The Hurricanes have dominated this season’s Super Rugby and this past Saturday was no different. The Brumbies despite their obvious fatigue put up a brave fight at times but were essentially neutralised and outplayed by a superior Hurricanes side at the top of their game.
Despite the scoreline, the Brumbies put on a remarkably brave show in the first half and for the first twenty minutes despite continuous onslaughts from the Hurricanes the scoreline stood at 0-0. Furthermore at the end of the first half the score was only 12-3 in the Hurricanes favour. Full credit must be given to the Brumbies for putting up a solid and courageous defensive effort in the first half. In reality that was the only consolation for them in a match where the Brumbies were denied any real quality possession and only really got to play defence as well as hardly having any attacking play. To add insult to injury the Hurricanes used the Brumbies own tactic of a rolling maul much more effectively than the Australians with the added satisfaction of points to go with it.
As predicted, the Brumbies were simply not afforded the space they had been given the week before in Cape Town. As a result, all their attacking threats in the form of Matt Toomua, Tevita Kuridrani and Joe Tomane were denied any quality ball and such was the ferocity and speed of the Hurricanes counter attack these players were constantly having to shore up the Brumbies defences. When the Brumbies back line did get the ball they were put under such intense pressure that the errors came thick and fast.
The Hurricanes started the game on the attack and kept it up though they were held at bay for the first twenty minutes by a resolute Brumbies defence. Julian Savea got the ball rolling in the try department for the Hurricanes after some initial superb work from namesake Ardie Savea as the openside flanker made a barnstorming start to the game and as he has all season turned heads and surely must still be very much on Steve Hansen’s All Black radar despite missing the initial call up. The Hurricanes next try showed up the superb skills of this year’s danger man Nehe Milner-Skudder for the Hurricanes and the sheer finishing prowess and speed of the tournament’s leading try scorer TJ Perenara for the Hurricanes.
So at halftime the scores stood comfortably in favour of the Hurricanes at 12-3, but it certainly had been no whitewash and the Brumbies could take some pride in a resolute defence which admittedly was starting to show some cracks and fatigue. More than anything this was evidenced as the Hurricanes got the second half underway by serving up the Brumbies a taste of their own medicine by Ardie Savea scoring off the back of a rolling maul. When the opposition team are using your own tactics against you and succeeding then you know it is going to be a long, hard and painful day at the office. The Hurricanes knew exactly how much of a threat the Brumbies David Pocock is and were determined to not let him get any kind of momentum and what better way to do so than to constantly keep him in a state of desperate defence against his own preferred method of attack.
Halfway through the second half, the Brumbies did manage to carve out some quality possession but at this stage were chasing a significant scoreline deficit and also clearly battling fatigue. As fullback Jesse Mogg’s facial expression showed as he knocked the ball on inches from the try line, it had been a bridge too far for the Brumbies with the odds simply stacked too high against them. Hurricanes fans were dismayed to see Ardie Savea leave the field with a knee injury and will anxiously be awaiting his fitness verdict for this weekend’s final. However, the Hurricanes would still have the last laugh as Matt Proctor would charge across the line in the final five minutes of the game.
It was not quite the thrashing that some were predicting but the Hurricanes clearly ran the game from start to finish against a brave Brumbies side and all credit to the men from Canberra for getting this far. The Hurricanes simply showed us what a class outfit they are with the perfect blend of youth and experience. The Hurricanes will be exceptionally hard to beat at home this weekend, especially as the majority of their senior players such as Nonu and Smith will be pulling on the yellow jersey for the last time before heading overseas. They are very much the complete team and could be almost described as an experimental All Black XV – Highlanders beware!
Waratahs vs Highlanders
Final Score – Waratahs 17/Highlanders 35
Sadly much of the spectacle of this game has been overshadowed by referee Craig Joubert’s critical call leading to a penalty try for the Highlanders. For me, regardless of the rights or wrongs of this call and I tend to err on the side of it being slightly questionable, there is no denying that even without it the Highlanders would still have comfortably won this match. Whereas the two-week break had little or no impact on the Hurricanes it was clearly an issue for the Waratahs. They lacked form for much of the match and given a Highlanders mid and back field that has been rock solid, the Australians looked outclassed with their two key players in this area, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau being given little if any room in which to operate and create opportunities for the Waratahs. Just as the Hurricanes shut down the Brumbies attacking platform the Highlanders effectively did the same with the Waratahs.
As I have said all along the Highlanders are a team that has perhaps more than any other team in the competition this year really gelled as a unit with an incredible amount of self-belief, especially once they start to get the upper hand. This was clearly in evidence in Sydney. By the second quarter of the second half the Highlanders had mastered the Waratahs and the game was theirs for the taking which they did in no uncertain terms. The Waratahs on the other hand just couldn’t seem to string together a cohesive set of plays and their finishing in the set pieces and ball handling were simply far too sloppy in attack. There was no question that the Waratahs lacked the presence of Kurtley Beale in the centre and Israel Folau who had been switched from fullback to centre to cover for him was clearly out of sorts.
It was the Waratahs however who would be the first team to make everyone sit up and take notice in the opening minutes of the game as a brilliant cross field kick from fly half Bernard Foley found Rob Horne and it was the Australians getting the first try on the board. Such was the skill and confidence of the move, that you couldn’t help feeling that perhaps the skill and experience of the Waratahs as defending champions would ultimately come to the fore and it would be the Australians day against the Kiwi upstarts.
Nevertheless ten minutes later the Highlanders in the form of Aaron Smith would strike back. As he has done all season, Smith seized the opportunity off the back of a Waratahs scrum by intercepting an easily read pass and the “everywhere” man would once again strike for the Highlanders. It was this moment that clearly imbued the Highlanders with that spark of self-confidence and belief that anything is possible. From then on they quietly built momentum to the point where by the end of the match there was no doubt that it had been their game all along.
The Highlanders ended the half just in front by one point as having scored another try through the exceptional Richard Buckman, the visitors had the edge through two tries versus one for the Waratahs. However, it was the fact that on attack the Highlanders looked the more composed and settled team and were outscoring the Waratahs in the try department that was giving the men from New Zealand the edge. Even without the controversial penalty try in the second half, the Highlanders outscored the Waratahs four tries to one by the end of the match (five if you count the penalty try).
The second half started as a tense battle and remained so with the Waratahs just edging ahead through a penalty kick. However, come the 54th minute the Highlanders struck back through another of their danger men Waisake Naholo. The Waratahs were looking increasingly frazzled; they were being outplayed in the scrums, outreached in the lineouts and their kicking and running game was riddled with errors. You were beginning to get the feeling that there was only going to be one outcome in this match and it was going to favour the men from New Zealand.
Then came that controversial penalty try. It was close, so close but you could understand the referees and the TMOs view of the affair even if you had trouble agreeing with it. In fairness to Joubert he did penalize a fellow South African so I hardly think you can accuse him of bias. Also if you look at the offending player for the Waratahs, Jacques Potgeiter’s disciplinary record this season which hasn’t been good, you could perhaps see why the referees would perhaps feel that his actions smacked of foul play. However, once the debate died down I think the point is more that even without this decision the Highlanders at this stage were still well on the way to running away with this game – and that is precisely what they ended up doing.
The Waratahs even by their own head coach’s admission had just been too sloppy to really be able to contain or provide an answer to the Highlanders’ tightly knit attacks, solid defence and brilliant opportunism in the loose. In the end the jubilation on the Highlanders’ faces at the final whistle confirmed that this team who really have been the “little engine that could” all season, thoroughly deserved the win and a place in the final. There is no doubt that New Zealand rugby is boasting some pretty extraordinary form this season with the Hurricanes showing some real skill and the Highlanders showing us that sometimes it’s that X-factor that comes from being a tightly knit group of players running high on self-belief that can actually defy the odds and win the big games. For all the lesser ranked teams going into this year’s World Cup, they would do well to study the Highlanders and try to capture some of that magic they have shown us all season!
Fixtures this weekend
Hurricanes vs Highlanders
Saturday, July 4th
So this year’s Super Rugby season comes to a conclusion and in spite of a conference system that many felt was unbalanced, we still end up with the two best teams in the competition facing up against each other. It’s going to be fast and furious and expect lots of fireworks. After a stellar season, Super Rugby finals can often be overhyped and disappointing affairs but I think this year will provide plenty of drama.
I have to admit finding this one very hard to call. On sheer form alone then I think you have to give it to the Hurricanes and it would be hard to argue against it. They have been clinical and focused all year and have produced some of the most spectacular rugby of the competition. TJ Perenara as leading try scorer has been a constant source of excitement. The centre pairing of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu have been showing the form of their careers and consistently found space for the likes of the electric Julian Savea and find of the year Nehe Milner-Skudder. Skudder in particular has stood out for me, and this young man surely has a truly outstanding future ahead of him in an All Black jersey – his form, speed and skill set this season have been simply incredible. With the Hurricanes boasting a forward pack having many key All Black stalwarts plus a healthy mix of younger talent, there is little question that in terms of youth and experience this is probably the most complete team in Super Rugby if not rugby in general right now. The only real question for me in what the Hurricanes will look like on Saturday, is will they have the incredible talents of openside flanker Ardie Savea? Ardie Savea has along with Skudder been for me one of the real revelations of this year’s season, and I still can’t help feeling a little surprised that he has not been named in the All Blacks plans, though as many have said it is surely only a question of time and don’t be surprised to see him on the plane to England come September.
As for the Highlanders, they too boast a very solid outfit. While not having as many all-star names as the Hurricanes they probably still have the form player of the year in the shape of Aaron Smith at scrum half. As “the everywhere man” you often find yourself having to go back to the slow motion replay to see him score, that’s how quick he is – all over the park. He has never ceased to impress me in an All Black jersey and I see no reason for this Saturday to be any exception. Meanwhile the rising stars of Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo have consistently shown their All Black pedigree while Ben Smith at fullback often seems to be the glue that holds it together. Meanwhile Richard Buckman and Patrick Osborne get better with every outing along with Lima Sopoaga at fly half and you have a set of players from 9 to 15 who are probably the best synchronised outfit in international rugby right now. What their forward pack lacks in big names and experience they have more than made up for with talent and spirit and regularly outmuscled bigger name packs around the park.
In short I can’t really find any weaknesses in these two teams, but ultimately can’t help feeling that the only gap here really is experience and a slight edge on form. On those grounds I am going to have to give it to the Hurricanes, but not by much, at the very most 5 points. The Highlanders will push and challenge them hard for the full eighty minutes. If at any point they start to get the upper hand then I strongly believe that given their incredible self-belief and never say die attitude they could pull off one of the competition’s biggest upsets in history. The Highlanders have had a fairy tale season based on solid organisation, hard work and an incredible spirit – something we have all been privileged to watch. Even though they may not lift the trophy after 80 minutes on Saturday, they nevertheless have shown us that given the right attitude anything is possible and this hopefully will serve as inspiration to any team going into this year’s World Cup who is wondering how they might take on the All Black juggernaut. In short, the Highlanders rise from the ashes this season has been a great advertisement for international rugby. Even if the men from Dunedin don’t lift the trophy on Saturday they can rest assured that they have captured the heart and soul of the competition this year as well playing some of the best rugby we have got to watch this year. Strap yourselves in ladies and gentlemen – it’s going to be a scorcher!