Last weekend’s Super Rugby quarter-finals certainly did not disappoint in terms of thrills and spills. The Hurricanes were lucky to hang on to a narrow one point victory against the Chiefs, with the latter setting the final three minutes of the match alight and giving Hurricanes supporters serious blood pressure problems. There were few if any surprises in Christchurch as the dominant team of the competition, New Zealand’s Crusaders cruised past South Africa’s Sharks.
Meanwhile in Sydney the Waratahs looked done and dusted by the end of the first half as the Highlanders had run rings around them. In the second half we were treated to the comeback performance of the tournament, as the Waratahs would rebound from a 23-6 deficit, and put 24 unanswered points past the Kiwi outfit to win the match 30-23. Finally in Johannesburg, it was clearly a bridge too far at altitude for the underdog team of the tournament, Argentina’s Jaguares. Despite an exceptionally strong showing in the second half of the tournament which saw the South Americans clinch their first ever spot in a Super Rugby playoff round, taking on the Lions on their own ground was always going to be a big ask. The Lions, as they have done for the last few years, really seem to come into their own at this stage of the tournament and last weekend was no exception, with a superb all round performance comfortably securing them a spot in this weekend’s semi-finals, and a home game to boot.
So let’s have a look at the two mouth-watering fixtures we are being treated to this weekend in closer detail.
Crusaders vs Hurricanes
Saturday, July 28th
The question really comes down to can anyone stop this season’s top form team the Crusaders? If any team is likely to do it then the Hurricanes probably stand the best chance. They’ll be upset about their defensive lapses in the final quarter last weekend against the Chiefs which almost saw them lose their semi-final spot. Nevertheless, the Hurricanes possess some of New Zealand’s best rugby talent in their ranks and as a result despite the seeming invincibility of the Crusaders, they will be more than up for the challenge.
What we are in store for this weekend is a battle royale between two exceptional sides. The Crusaders are back to the type of form that saw them mop up the competition year after year, and as Super Rugby’s most successful franchise they clearly have a solid track record on which to build. The Hurricanes have been the one side that has consistently snapped at their heels over the years, and as a result the rivalry on show this Saturday will be well worth the price of admission.
The Crusaders forward pack boasts a wealth of experience and talent that the Hurricanes will be hard pressed to beat, and in the front and second rows, we are fairly certain that it is going to be the Crusaders who will be dictating proceedings. The Crusaders front row is for all intents and purposes an All Black platform, and the familiarity of these three with each other under pressure will be a formidable asset. With Kieran Read back in the mix for the Crusaders, and seemingly back to his best from the moment he walked onto the pitch earlier this month, it will be difficult for the Hurricanes forward contingent to match up to the experience that the Crusaders will possess under the leadership of Read in the forward battles.
Despite the Crusaders likely dominance up front, once it comes to the question of who is pulling the strings behind the scrum and at half back, the Hurricanes suddenly come into their own. The Hurricanes half back pairing is absolutely world-class in the shape of scrum half TJ Perenara and fly half Beauden Barrett, even if the latter has lost some of his customary flair this season both in a Hurricanes and All Black jersey. We think that TJ Perenara based on form may well pip regular All Black stalwart Aaron Smith for the starting 9 jersey in next month’s Rugby Championship, such is the form of the feisty scrum half. The Crusaders offering is perhaps less well-known but has proved this season that they will be names to watch in the future. Richie Mo’unga in particular is likely to figure in All Black Coach Steve Hansen’s plans for both the upcoming Rugby Championship and the World Cup, especially as depth at fly half has been a problem for New Zealand.
In the backs, the two sides will be much more evenly matched, and this is where the most sparks are likely to fly on Saturday. In a very tight contest we are tipping our hats in favor of the Hurricanes here by the slightest of margins. Winger Julian Savea, aka “the Bus”, seems to be back to his barnstorming best in his final season in New Zealand before the lure of the Euro next year in France takes him away. Meanwhile his partner out wide Ben Lam has the potential to shred the best of defences. With Jordi Barrett and the exceptional Ngani Laumape at centre and speedster Nehe Milner-Skudder at fullback, this is an exciting set of options in the backs. Much as one would see the Crusaders forward pack being a starting All Black contingent, one could say the same of the Hurricanes offering from 9-15. The Crusaders also have some exciting talent on offer, but the sheer pedigree and class of the Hurricanes in this part of the park will really take some beating.
In short, hard to call but we think that home advantage and the consistency of form for the Crusaders will see them take a tight and exciting contest. Despite the Hurricanes prowess in the backs, we expect to see the Crusaders forward pack slam the door on the kind of possession that the Hurricanes would need to unleash their strike weapons at the back. Furthermore, as we saw last weekend, the Crusaders ability to create turnovers under pressure and then turn them into counter attacks from deep is extraordinary. The Hurricanes will be up for the challenge and should make this a spectacle well worth watching, but ultimately the Crusaders to take it by a converted try and thus seven points!
Lions vs Waratahs
Saturday, July 28th
The Waratahs comeback last weekend against the Highlanders was without question one of the highlights of this year’s Super Rugby season. We had to confess that at half time we had written the Australians off, as it seemed to mirror the poor form of Australian sides in the competition in the last few years. However, we perhaps forgot to factor in the utterly remarkable ability that three Waratahs players have to completely turn a game on its head. Fly half Bernard Foley, centre Kurtley Beale and fullback Israel Folau are extraordinary players, and Beale in particular has consistently been front and centre of our pick for a World XV in the last two years. Beale’s ability to create opportunities in the blink of an eye is exceptional and he is just as good at doing it for the Waratahs as he is for the Wallabies. In short the man is a magician. The Lions will be desperately trying to figure out how to contain him for a full eighty minutes, especially with Folau and Foley set to be some of the rabbits he is likely to pull out of his hat.
That being said however, the Lions have their own secret weapon in the shape of Hooker Malcolm Marx. Much as Beale is to our World XV in the backs, Marx has a similar role in the forwards. A truly exceptional player who can also create opportunities out of thin air, coupled to an ability to generate turnovers at will. If you need further evidence, just flip over to our TV listings page where we have video highlights of the Lions/Jaguares match last weekend.
Up front, at home and with the altitude we are putting our money wholeheartedly on the Lions. Even Ruan Dreyer who was the weak link in the Lions and Springbok front row last season seems to have finally got his technique right, making the Lions a significant threat at the coal face of the scrum. The Waratahs also look solid but the Lions with Malcolm Marx front and centre should easily get the best of the contest here, ably supported in the second row by Franco Mostert whose work rate last weekend was exceptional. The Lions dominance should also continue in the back row, with Captain Warren Whiteley back to his best form after a lengthy spell out with injury, and Kwagga Smith possessing more X-factor than most defenses know what to do with, despite a rather quiet showing from him last weekend. The Waratahs will be competitive here, make no mistake, but the Lions should have the upper hand by a comfortable margin.
Much like the Crusaders/Hurricanes match up though things start to even out, once you start looking at the back and half back pairings. Bernard Foley at number ten for the Waratahs has had an outstanding season and was superb last weekend against the Highlanders. While his opposite number for the Lions Elton Jantjies also had an excellent outing last weekend, we still feel he is a liability under pressure. His weaknesses in a Springbok jersey despite his obvious talent are well documented, especially if he starts kicking away possession and putting high balls up for Israel Folau to run riot with.
The sheer genius of Kurtley Beale at centre and fullback Israel Folau will be what the Waratahs will be counting on at Ellis Park to get them out of jail. Taqele Naiyaravoro is also likely to cause all kinds of problems for the Lions defences, as will Beale’s centre partner Curtis Rona. However, Ruan Combrinck on the wing for the Lions and Harold Vorster at centre were outstanding last weekend and will provide plenty of challenge of their own for the Waratahs defences. Winger Aphiwe Dyantyi caught our eye in South Africa’s recent demolition of England in June, and Andries Coetzee looked very good against the Jaguares last weekend, despite blowing somewhat hot and cold this season.
Once again, another fascinating contest awaits, and the battle of the halfbacks on Saturday will be key. However, even if Jantjies has a wobble we still feel that the Lions at home will be a bridge too far for a Waratahs side that has built some remarkable momentum this season. There will be plenty of sparks and moments of genius from both sides, but our money is firmly on the Lions to set up a repeat of last year’s final with the Crusaders. The Lions to grind out a win over a classy Waratahs side by four points!
We’ll end this with a shout out to Gareth Mason and his YouTube channel. If you want passion and enthusiasm about the game, then give the G-Man a bit of your time every week. We thoroughly enjoy his enthusiastic musings on our great game, and his output is remarkable. So give his preview of the weekend’s action a thumbs up!