With the prospect of some exciting summer tours by Ireland, England and Wales rapidly approaching, we turn our attention to the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club rugby competition, Super Rugby, to get an idea of who we may be looking at come June. This year’s Super Rugby has been enlarged by three teams, one each from Argentina, Japan and South Africa. So far this season New Zealand teams have been the dominant force and we start our look at this outstanding competition with an examination New Zealand’s top three teams who were all in action this past weekend, the Crusaders, Chiefs and Highlanders. The Crusaders who are rapidly gaining in momentum after a slightly shaky start to their campaign would dominate the Reds in Christchurch, while last year’s Champions the Highlanders took on the best team of the competition so far this year the Chiefs in Waikato in a thrilling encounter which showed the Champions at their best. Despite the vagaries of the conference system for this year’s Championship if these three New Zealand teams keep up their current standards then the possibility of an All New Zealand final looks to be an increasing reality.
Crusaders vs Reds
Final Score – Crusaders 38/Reds 5
The Crusaders after a slightly slow start to their Super Rugby campaign are going from strength to strength as the competition gains momentum. This was a masterclass performance from a team on the rise, despite the clear inferiority of the opposition offered up by a weak Reds team. After a disappointing season last year, the Crusaders seem to be back to their winning ways and clearly enjoying the process.
The Crusaders came storming out of the blocks in the first eight minutes to score two tries, both through Fijian winger Jone Macilai and ably assisted by fullback Israel Dagg on both occasions whose return to form after a long spell of injury seems to be complete. Both players must surely be on All Black Coach Steve Hansen’s radar, especially Macilai as he is soon likely to be eligible to play for New Zealand. Despite a porous Reds defence at key moments, the surprising factor was that despite this the Australian outfit had the lion’s share of possession in the first half but struggled to make any of it count in their favour unlike their opponents who used what little possession they got to devastating effect. Just before half time the Crusaders would strike again through lock Scott Barrett, but it was that man Macilai who was in the thick of things who provided the offload to get Barrett across.
Licking their wounds, the Reds clearly went to the dressing room trying to understand how so much possession had produced so little reward as they trailed 21-0. Their fortunes would improve little in the second half as Macilai would strike again shortly after play got underway and get his well earned hat-trick of tries for the Crusaders and put them in a seemingly insurmountable lead at 26-0 after a mere 42 minutes. Two minutes later however, the Reds did produce their one piece of magic for the evening after a brilliant chip kick from fly half Jake MacIntyre put centre Campbell Magnay into space and off to a glorious 50 metre run leaving the Crusaders defence in the dust. The Reds were unable to get the extra two points after the Crusaders startled kicker Jake MacIntyre by charging down the conversion attempt but it served to galvanize the Australian team back into action.
The Crusaders had suffered from lapses in discipline throughout the match capped off by Captain and number Eight Kieran Read’s yellow card just shy of the hour mark for pulling down a Reds maul. Despite this however the Reds were still unable to turn pressure into points. The Crusaders knew that a bonus point was vital if they were to turn their shaky start to the season around and as a result they were slowly able to put the screws on an increasingly fatigued Reds team despite being a man down. With fifteen minutes to go. Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor would put flanker Jordan Tafua into space with a well timed dummy which fooled the opposition and the big loose forward would go on his own tearing 50 meter run down the right wing to seal the match for the men from Christchurch. Taylor himself would score shortly before the final whistle to seal an emphatic win for the Crusaders.
Despite some solid possession from the Reds it had been all about the New Zealanders as they ran in 6 tries to one. The Reds made too many errors particularly in terms of handling and their defence was simply too porous at key moments in the game. Add to that a superior level of fitness and team cohesion from the Crusaders and it was clear that the New Zealanders have found their rhythm again. The Crusaders have been one of the most successful teams in Super Rugby history and after a brief period in the wilderness of the competition they look set to make a dramatic return to the competition’s loftiest heights while giving New Zealand selectors plenty of food for thought as they consider the All Blacks opening salvoes of 2016 against Wales in June.
Chiefs vs Highlanders
Final Score – Chiefs 13/Highlanders 26
The two best teams in the competition put on a thrilling spectacle that showcased the exceptional skill levels on display in this tournament and why New Zealand teams are still the benchmark outfits in the competition. There is more than just a possibility that we may be seeing these two sides going head to head against each other in the final at the beginning of August. Meanwhile the pedigree in these two squads leaves All Black selectors spoilt for choice as Coach Steve Hansen and his team look to assemble yet another all conquering New Zealand side after the heroics of the World Cup last year. Having said that however, this was not a vintage showing from the Chiefs and the Highlanders were the sharper team on the night forcing the Chiefs into a series of errors that we are simply not used to seeing from them. The standout player of the night was winger and All Black Waisake Naholo who made a spectacular return from injury for the Highlanders and was a constant threat all night.
Billed as the match to watch this weekend, a packed Waikato stadium settled in for an eagerly anticipated 80 minutes. It was Chiefs fly half Aaron Cruden who would get the home side in the lead after the first five minutes with a well taken penalty, but an uncharacteristic lack of discipline from the Chiefs would see the Highlanders return the favour twice and take the lead to 6-3 for the men from Dunedin. The Chiefs were clearly the team getting more of the possession in the first quarter but a raft of handling errors would see them fluff out some key opportunities to string a solid attacking platform together. Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie who has been the revelation of this year’s competition had by his standards a very poor evening. As skilled as he is, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that in this match he was trying to be a tad over ambitious and as a result left the rest of his team struggling to catch up with him at times. There is no denying McKenzie’s abilities, but against a very composed and structured Highlanders team he often tried to do too much without a sense of where the rest of his teammates were on the pitch. A sobering adjustment to the demands of the top levels of this competition, and one which McKenzie is likely to adapt to very quickly in his next outing for the Chiefs.
An incredible passage of play from the Highlanders on the half hour mark which would see them pass the ball from one side of the field to the other and then back again through multiple phases, would result in the first try of the evening. On a few occasions the passing was so ambitious you felt that an intercept was clearly on the cards for the Chiefs, but they just didn’t seem to have the foresight needed to get the better of the Highlanders’ adventurous play. Highlanders’ hooker Daniel Lienert-Brown would seize a scrappy loose ball and charge through a gaping hole in a scrambling Chiefs defence. The Highlanders were now seemingly in control at 13-3. Controversy would then follow on the stroke of half time as a bizarre collision between Highlanders lock Elliot Dixon and Chiefs centre Charlie Ngatai, would see Ngatai receive a yellow card for a dangerous tackle. Repeated video replays clearly showed Dixon leaping over Ngatai as opposed to being tackled by him and falling awkwardly. It was an unfortunate accident and there was no clear evidence of foul play, but Ngatai was still the unlucky recipient of a yellow card.
The Chiefs would start the second half a man down. Immediate pressure from the Highlanders would give a clear demonstration of just how tightly knit and organised this team is as a whole would as winger Waisake Naholo bagged his second try in the corner for the Highlanders. The Chiefs would strike back through a brilliant example of open running rugby down the left wing and a series of sublime offloads would put fly half Aaron Cruden over in the corner. It was now 18-8 for the Highlanders with half an hour to go. Naholo would strike again for the Highlanders as the game entered the final quarter. He had been outstanding all night and not just in scoring tries. His work at the breakdown was extraordinary. Blisteringly fast with ball in hand but also just as effective as a loose forward in the breakdowns, expect to see this player wearing an All Black jersey for much of 2016 – as versatile is an understatement of the highest order when describing Naholo’s abilities.
Sam Vaka would score the only other try of the night for the Chiefs as the home side would restore some respectability to the score line as proceedings would wrap up with the Highlanders getting a resounding 26-13 victory. The match had lived up to its billing even if the Chiefs were not quite at their best while the defending Champions the Highlanders appeared to be in a league of their own even away from home against the second best team in the competition. I would not be surprised to see these two teams battling it out in the final as this dip in form from the Chiefs is most likely just a blip on the radar. However, there is so much talent in these two teams that All Black selectors could simply select their squad from the 46 players who ran out onto the pitch in Waikato and feel confident that they had a side that could match any of the world’s best. Add to that mix players from the Crusaders along with the rapidly improving Hurricanes and New Zealand looks very much like once again they will be the team to beat in 2016! If the rest of the world hasn’t started watching Super Rugby yet, then now is the time to start if they want to have an idea of the exceptionally daunting task they are going to be up against over the next four years till the World Cup in Japan in 2019.