Archive for the ‘Super Rugby 2015’ Category

As most of us are still catching our breath after one of the most memorable Super Rugby finals I can recall, we look back on a remarkable day in Wellington that reaffirmed the value of the competition even if in its present and proposed future format some serious overhauls are required!  Despite the vagaries of the conference system which left much to be desired this year and is already presenting a myriad of headaches for next year’s expanded competition, we got a final that we all deserved and which saw the two most exciting teams in this year’s tournament, New Zealand’s Hurricanes and Highlanders, battle it out for the spoils.  It was end to end stuff and the sheer frenetic pace of it all must have been exhausting for the spectators let alone what the players must have felt like at the end of 80 minutes of intense rugby.  It was fast with amazingly few stoppages, while at the same time being very physical and South African referee Jaco Peyper did a superb job of ensuring a fair and free-flowing game.  It was a thrilling afternoon and a wonderful advertisement for our glorious game!

Hurricanes vs Highlanders
Final Score – Hurricanes 14/Highlanders 21
Wellington

I always said that ultimately this match would come down to self-belief and as the underdogs in this match the Highlanders did not prove me wrong, and in the end put on a display that can only be described as inspirational.  This is not to detract from the Hurricanes, who put in a massive performance, but ultimately once the Highlanders got some real momentum that self-belief and team spirit that has caused this once proud franchise to rise so spectacularly from the ashes in the last two seasons really took hold and they became the team to beat.  A resolute defence by the men from Dunedin kept a Hurricanes side at bay in the last quarter despite repeated assaults on the Highlander Fortress.  It was edge of the seat stuff, but in the end the Highlanders were just more composed and structured. As a result the Hurricanes suddenly found themselves in a position they weren’t accustomed to and consequently they just didn’t quite have the finishing touches needed at times which only gave the Highlanders even more confidence to pull off the upset of the season!

The first ten minutes of the game saw both teams exploding out of the blocks at a furious pace with the ball going from end to end.  It was obvious that the nerves that go with such a big encounter were clearly being settled as both teams made an initial uncharacteristic set of errors as they both tried to match the pace at which the game was unfolding.  Within the first ten minutes however, there were two things that immediately stood out that were going to be a problem for the Hurricanes.  Firstly, the lack of the phenomenal Ardie Savea due to injury was clearly telling as the Highlanders were clearly winning the battle of the forwards.  Savea’s presence for the Hurricanes this year especially in the semi-final was a key part of their success, and his absence was strikingly evident in the final.  Secondly, Beauden Barrett’s recent return from injury really hadn’t given him the legs yet to really cope with the kind of intensity on hand in a Super Rugby final.  For the most part Barrett had a weak game and his kicking was way below his normally stellar standards, which made the decision to give him the kicking duties instead of the season-long reliability of James Marshall all the more puzzling.

In a game which constantly fluctuated from one end of the field to the other, it was the Highlanders who were looking the more composed side with ball in hand as well as a more settled and structured outfit once they had possession.  All too often the Hurricanes would build momentum to then lose the ball just when it looked like they were assured of a try.  Aaron Smith, as he has all year, was having a stellar outing for the Highlanders as the “everywhere man” popped up all over the park looking for work.  Ben Smith epitomised the role of the inspirational Captain and more than once created some inspired counter attacks as well as being a solid last line of defence.  Cool, calm and collected under pressure, Ben Smith’s performance for the Highlanders epitomised that of his team as a collective.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that they were lacking that crucial finishing touch the Hurricanes still had the better of the territory and possession for much of the first half and were constantly threatening the Highlanders try line with constant breaks by Nehe Milner-Skudder, TJ Perenara and Ma’a Nonu leading the charge.  In the end, it was inevitable that top try scorer of the competition, TJ Perenara would set up the first try of the game for the Hurricanes with a superb floating pass to put Nonu into space and enable the centre to crash over the line.  However, once again Barrett missed with the conversion and the Highlanders were just ahead by a point 6-5.

What happened next, whichever way you look at it was brilliant.  Sure it was probably one of the most controversial tries of the tournament, but I still can’t help feeling that the TMO got it right, and in a way you kind of had to award it to Elliot Dixon on the basis of sheer effort if nothing else.  Either way you couldn’t help feeling a sense of awe as Elliot Dixon from a superb Aaron Smith offload, at the Hurricanes 22 metre mark dragged four Hurricanes defenders all the way across the try line.  The video replay was a 50/50 call but you couldn’t help but admire the sheer audacity and power of the man.  Judge for yourself below but either way it is a moment we will be all talking about for weeks to come!  On the basis of that effort alone along with his phenomenal work rate all season, don’t be surprised to see Dixon somehow get slotted into the All Black side come September!

So as we headed into the second half it was the Highlanders ahead by 13-5.  For me it was here that the X-factor of the Highlanders success this season, their incredible self-belief, kicked in.  They may have known they were considered the underdogs but it was now clearly obvious that if they kept up the pressure and stayed focused they could actually win this.  Just like the Dixon try, another piece of strength and commitment from the Highlanders resulted in another superb try as Elliot Dixon selflessly offloaded to Waisake Naholo and the winger rolled and flipped his way over two Hurricanes defenders.  In a superb passage of play with all the Highlanders working seamlessly and selflessly as a team from one side of the pitch to the other, the try was a just result.

The Hurricanes would soon strike back but once again their finishing just wasn’t there under pressure as evidenced by winger Julian Savea’s agonizing knock-on just millimetres from the try line.  They threatened continuously but the pressure was starting to tell as their lineouts had been poor all night, and in the final quarter despite mounting an intense assault on the Highlanders defences, the Highlanders read them well and absorbed the pressure and ensured that the Hurricanes would invariably end up going backwards.

With ten minutes to go, Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, who was having a much better game than his Hurricanes counterpart Beauden Barrett, was replaced by Marty Banks.  To add insult to injury, Banks kept threatening in the pocket for a drop goal, and sure enough with three minutes to go Banks slotted one for the Highlanders to finally put the game out of reach for an exhausted Hurricanes team.  As South African referee Jaco Peyper who must be commended for allowing a fantastic free-flowing game of rugby, blew the final whistle the joy and jubilation was there for all to see on the faces of an ecstatic and emotional Highlanders team.  There was no question there had been two very, very good teams out there on Saturday, but the Highlanders just had the edge and showed us how much of a game winner passion and self belief can be.

It had been an incredible final and had the aura of a World Cup final to it and is certainly a game many of us will remember for a long time to come.  Perhaps what it showed more than anything else for me was that as we head into a World Cup, put the right group of individuals together whether or not they are big names, and with the right coaching, commitment and sense of purpose and self-belief then you realise anything is possible.  For any of the countries looking to cause an upset this SeptemberOctober, a video of the Highlanders performance in this year’s Super Rugby final should and must be absolutely essential reference material!  And for all the twenty participant countries in this year’s Rugby World Cup – you’ve been warned a certain Aaron Smith is coming to a pitch near you!

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
Wellington

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
Sydney

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
Wellington

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!

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
Dunedin

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
Cape Town

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
Wellington

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
Sydney

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!

After a relatively inconsequential weekend for the three conference winners from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the stakes suddenly become very real this weekend as we head into the qualifier knock out round for Super Rugby.

The Lineout is not covering any of last weekend’s matches in detail as for all intents and purposes they had little bearing on the overall scheme of things and how this coming weekend would pan out.  New Zealand conference winners, the Hurricanes played the Chiefs, but were already guaranteed a home semi-final spot so even an unlikely loss to the Chiefs would not really have mattered.  However, the Hurricanes turned it on in their usual style and easily emerged the winners.  The Chiefs were competitive all match and it was great to see All Blacks and Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick back to his very best.  Worryingly though for the Chiefs their star scrum half Augustine Pulu was ruled out of any further Super Rugby action with a broken arm.  However, as good as the Chiefs were they were still outclassed by an essentially full strength Hurricanes side and it really remains to be seen whether anyone can take out the Men from Wellington when it really matters.

For the Australian conference the Brumbies had it all to do to try to knock the Waratahs out of the top position on the Australian table.  The Waratahs had a comfortable last game at home against the hopeless Reds so there never really was going to be much of a competition there.  Although the Waratahs played a poor first half, they soon found all the right gears in the second and essentially eclipsed a woeful Reds side.  The Brumbies on the other hand had the unenviable task of trying to dismantle a rejuvenated Crusaders team who were playing their last game with iconic teammates  and All Blacks Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.  That the team was fired up to give these two legends a fitting send-off was an understatement!  Even at home the Brumbies didn’t really stand a chance, especially when you figure Fiji’s version of Jonah Lomu – Nemani Nadolo into the equation.  The Fijian winger has been truly incredible this season for the Crusaders and is a one man wrecking ball striking fear into the hearts of all his opponents.  Australia, England and Wales are surely racking their brains as to how they are going to contain this Fijian cruise missile in the pool stages of the World Cup.  Sure enough Nadolo did not disappoint in the match against the Brumbies and was instrumental in everything the Crusaders did in Canberra as well as scoring two tries of his own which showcased the man’s exceptional range of talents.  The Brumbies looked good all match but unless they are using their tried and trusted as well as devastatingly effective rolling maul, they don’t seem to really have much else to terrorise opposing teams with.  In short it was a bridge too far for the Brumbies, especially given the stroll in the park their rivals for top spot in Australia, the Waratahs had to deal with.  As a result, the Brumbies now face the unenviable task of having to make the trek across the Indian Ocean to Cape Town to take on the Stormers in the qualifiers.

Meanwhile in Durban, a South African derby between the Sharks and the Stormers was a fairly pointless affair as the results earlier in the weekend had sealed the fate of the Stormers for the coming weekend -a home qualifier against either the Brumbies or Waratahs which as we know is now to be the Brumbies.  It was a torrid affair which saw a Stormers B team be dismantled by a Sharks team that after an awful season needed to salvage some pride as they said goodbye to Sharks and Springbok stalwarts the Duplessis brothers.  In short, a meaningless game which had no real bearing on the overall Super Rugby picture.

Fixtures this Weekend

Highlanders vs Chiefs
Saturday, June 20th
Dunedin

What a massive prospect this one is going to be! Both these teams have easily been the runners-up to the Hurricanes all season, and despite numerous debates in the press about the seeming unfairness of the conference system, I can’t help agreeing that is unfortunate that only one of these superb teams will get to duke it out with the Hurricanes in the semi-final. Nevertheless, it is what is and we still have a mouth-watering prospect for any rugby fan to look forward to this Saturday.

In terms of how to call this one, it’s almost impossible. These teams are so evenly matched that there is very little between them. On paper I would say that as the Chiefs are without star scum half Augustine Pulu, and given the fact that the match is being played in Dunedin, I would just and I emphasise JUST give the Highlanders the edge. In the battle of the forwards I think especially given the fact that they will have the mighty Brodie Retallick, the Chiefs should just have the edge. However, once the ball gets distributed by Highlanders and All Black scrum half Aaron Smith, then you know that the Men from Dunedin’s back line is going to take some serious stopping. Highlanders fullback Ben Smith has been inspirational all season and you know in front of a home crowd with everything to play for he will be even better.

The Chiefs will be playing Damian McKenzie at fullback, and while I have been exceptionally impressed with him at halfback it will be interesting to see how and if he will be able to contain his opposite number Ben Smith. Sonny Bill Williams was very impressive for the Chiefs last weekend and alongside cousin Tim Nanai-Williams expect some fireworks in midfield.

In short it is going to be close, ever so close but if I were a betting man I would be willing to stick my neck out and just give it to the Highlanders by 2 or 3 points. Either way it will be a battle royale that every rugby fan should make sure they catch!

Stormers vs Brumbies
Saturday, June 20th
Cape Town

Two very physical sides will take each other on in Cape Town on Saturday with two distinctly different methods of attack. The Brumbies will aim to keep possession through solid work from their forwards, with Scott Fardy, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander and Scott Sio at the forefront, building pressure until they can release their devastating rolling maul with danger man of the season, David Pocock at the back as the stinger. In short, this element of the Brumbies game plan has been so strong that it has meant that star backs like Matt Toomua and Tevita Kuridrani have often been left in the shadows for much of the season, which is a shame as in a Wallabies jersey this pair has given us some terrific displays of running rugby. There was concern that after a concussion scare in last weekend’s game against the Crusaders, Pocock may have been ruled out of this contest and the Brumbies would be less than effective. However, as we saw last weekend, his replacement Jarrad Butler was more than able to cover for him, scoring a try of his own from the back of the rolling maul.

The Stormers on the other hand will be without talismanic captain Duane Vermeulen and it remains to be seen how well they will hold up against concerted forward pressure from the Brumbies. There is no doubting the Stormers awesome physicality, especially in the form of Eben Etzebeth and Schalk Burger. These two will be at the forefront of organising the Stormers defenses and we have seen repeatedly how effective Eben Etzebeth is at last-ditch defence. Expect to see a reborn Schalk Burger developing a full head of steam and bludgeoning his way through the Brumbies’ defences. If Burger breaks through then expect to see Stormers centre Damien De Allende at centre show off his own brand of high-speed physicality as he wreaks havoc in midfield especially since he seems to have cured his ball handling problems in his last two outings. If De Allende is effective in the centre then expect some dazzling speed and breaks on the wing from revelation of the South African season, Seabelo Senatla as the former Blitzbokke gets to show off his skills. Lastly, the diminutive pocket rocket at fullback, Cheslin Kolbe has amazed everyone with his skillset as he has shown he is more than capable of attacking from deep and making huge gains into opposition territory. Despite his size he has never shied from the physical aspect of the game and is solid physically both in attack and defence.

In short, another one that will be hard to call. On paper the home ground advantage for the Stormers will be very hard to beat even without Duane Vermeulen. However, I can’t help feeling that as many others have said the Brumbies experience at the knockout stages in Super Rugby will ultimately see them through an exceptionally difficult and challenging encounter. It will be physical, very physical but if the Brumbies can handle it, I expect them to just carry the day. In short, the Brumbies to take it by no more than 2! Another incredible contest awaits us all – let’s hope it lives up to it!

In a weekend that left us with few surprises, the only real question on everybody’s lips was who would upset the pecking order in the South African conference?  The dominant Stormers were up against the surprise form team of the season for South Africa, the Lions, in Cape Town to determine who would win the South African conference as well as have a shot at a home semi-final.  Given South African teams’ record on the road in the last year, for the Stormers to realistically stand any chance to get to the final they HAD to secure a bonus point win against the Lions to make this a reality.  In probably one of the most intensely physical games I have seen this year, the always bold and courageous Lions denied the Stormers their ticket for that home semi-final while at the same time raising injury concerns for the Springboks in their upcoming Rugby Championship and World Cup campaigns.  For the Australians, the Waratahs comfortably dispatched an initially highly competitive Cheetahs side in Bloemfontein.  Meanwhile in New Zealand the ultimate Super Rugby team of 2015, the Hurricanes, destroyed the Highlanders as the team sought to honor the memory of their former teammate Jerry Collins, whose tragic loss in a car accident that day in France was marked around the rugby world with great sadness.

Hurricanes vs Highlanders
Final Score – Hurricanes 56/Highlanders 20
Napier

With the tragic news of the death of former Hurricanes and All Black player Jerry Collins, foremost in the minds of the men from Wellington they set out to honor his legacy by completely blitzing a valiant but hapless Highlanders side.  You could sense the emotion in the Hurricanes players especially from Captain Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu who both started their careers alongside Jerry “the Hitman” Collins when he was at the peak of his career. What we saw from the Hurricanes was a blistering performance where the entire team stuck up their hands for All Black selection as they ran in eight tries against a spirited Highlanders side who scored three of their own.

It was some vintage rugby and even though most of us could have predicted the result days in advance, it was nevertheless a really exciting game to watch.  Beauden Barrett at number 10 for the Hurricanes made a superb return to form from injury which must have been of great comfort to All Black selectors, but four players in particular for me really stood out once again and surely must have cemented their role in the All Blacks’ plans for England come September.  TJ Perenara at scrum half was simply fantastic while Ma’a Nonu after a few dips in form in an otherwise stellar season was back to his absolute best.  Ardie Savea at openside flanker has been a complete revelation for me this season and is surely an able replacement for All Black legend Richie McCaw when he retires after this World Cup.  Savea’s speed, ball handling skills and sheer strength and tenacity have been a key platform in helping the Hurricanes reach the lofty heights they have this season.  Expect to see him starting in the number 7 jersey for New Zealand a few times over the coming months.  Lastly, a player who has truly stood out this season both on the wing and at fullback is Nehe Milner-Skudder who has more WOW factor than most countries would know what to do with.  Although he didn’t actually score a try in this match he was intricately involved in all eight of the Hurricanes efforts.  His speed, tacking and incredible offloading ability under pressure are breathtaking to behold.  Once again we will definitely be seeing this gentleman in a black jersey over the coming months.

Despite being up against a truly world-class Hurricanes side which as I say is for all intents and purposes an All Black “experimental 15” the Highlanders despite resting some of their All Black contingent were no slackers on the day and managed to score three well worked tries of their own and still remain in the hunt for a Super Rugby playoff spot.  They were always competitive and at several points in the game had the ascendancy and never looked down and out.  Ultimately however the Hurricanes were just too good and too polished, as a full strength side took on a willing but under strength one.  It was really only in the final 15 minutes that the Hurricanes slammed the door on the Highlanders and stole the match.  The Highlanders may have lost the match but the despite the scoreline they held their own for long enough to ensure that their ambitions in the competition are still very much alive.  The question ultimately still remains though, after this weekend who really can stop the Hurricanes?  To be honest, at home in Wellington I think they will prove to be untouchable while the All Black selectors luxuriate in a wealth of choice that is surely the envy of the rest of the world.

Cheetahs vs Waratahs
Final Score – Cheetahs 33/Waratahs 58
Bloemfontein

Once again to a large extent a fairly predictable result here.  The Cheetahs at home are always a brave and resilient side and there was plenty of evidence of this legacy last Saturday in Bloemfontein, so much so that at a half time it was almost possible to believe that an upset was in the making as the score was only 29-21 in the Waratahs favour.  What would ultimately cost the Cheetahs however was a complete defensive breakdown in the second half, which allowed the Waratahs a succession of easy tries.  The Cheetahs defense by the end of the match was in such disarray that even their own fans were shocked to see a Cheetahs player resort to a cheap football style blatant trip on the Waratahs’ danger man Israel Folau in a futile attempt to stop him completing a hat trick of tries.

The win sealed the Waratahs’ place at the top of the Australian conference and with an easy game against one of Australia’s weakest team the Reds next weekend, it is fairly certain that the Waratahs will remain in this position.  Despite an increasingly porous defensive game there was some heart from the Cheetahs and some cheer for the Springboks as Cornal Hendricks made a dramatic return to form scoring two superb tries for the South African side.  But other than that there really wasn’t much to get excited about as a Cheetahs fan.  Even superstar fullback Willie le Roux was ominously quiet and let’s be honest from a Springbok perspective there hasn’t been much to get excited about in the last year from this exceptionally talented player as he continues an alarming dip in form, even allowing for injury problems this year.  It is hoped that for the Springboks Le Roux will make his comeback in the upcoming Rugby Championship and carry this through into South Africa’s World Cup campaign as they desperately need his skill set.

As for the Waratahs, once they figured out how to run the Cheetahs ragged they were a composed and ruthless side who especially in the second half kept up relentless pressure on their South African opponents.  Folau was provided with ample space to run and weave his way through a disorganised and lacklustre Cheetahs defence.  Although his performance was hailed by many as a prime example of why he is such a dangerous player for both the Waratahs and Australia, I couldn’t help feeling that up against a quality side we wouldn’t have seen nearly as much of Folau as we did last Saturday.  So far this season he hasn’t really stood out for me and continues to display many of the qualities that often make him so quiet in a Wallaby jersey despite his considerable talents.  He was good in Bloemfontein because his teammates were particularly effective and giving him space and dismantling a weak defence.  If the Waratahs go up against the Hurricanes in the playoff stages I would hazard a guess that Folau will have a much harder day at the office than he did in Bloemfontein.

As always for me this season one of the standout players was Adam Ashley-Cooper for the Waratahs and it will be interesting to see if he can translate his superb form onto the world stage with the Wallabies.  He is playing some of the best rugby I have ever seen him play in the last year, and will be a potent attacking threat that other teams will have to work hard to neutralize.  There were also stellar performances from Hooper at flanker resulting in  a try of his own, while Matt Carraro had a superb afternoon on the wing with two tries. Kurtley Beale for the Waratahs is having an outstanding season at centre and his distribution and line breaks were instrumental in setting up a number of the Waratahs tries. He has definitely had a form season this year and more important from a Wallaby perspective has for the most part demonstrated a solid consistency in using his talents week after week. Lastly the halfback partnership of Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps was highly effective and resulted in a try for Foley and in my opinion should be the pairing of choice for Wallaby coach Michael Cheika, even though they benefit from his coaching at the Waratah level. I can’t help feeling that they are calmer and more consistent under pressure than the Brumbies partnership of Nic White and Christian Lealiifano.

So in short a superb performance from the Waratahs that clearly showed why they have got to where they are this season and makes them not only a contender for the title this year, but also provides Wallaby selectors and national coach Michael Cheika with lots of options.

Stormers vs Lions
Final Score – Stormers 19/Lions 19
Capetown

As mentioned earlier the Stormers HAD to win this to clinch the South African conference and more importantly get themselves a home semi-final. South African teams have had a poor go of it on the road in this year’s competition and in order for them to progress beyond the semi-final stage I can’t help feeling that without a home semi-final their chances are slim to nonexistent, especially given the fact that they would most likely be playing this year’s juggernaut the Hurricanes in Wellington. The Stormers managed to win the South African conference through an intensely physical and classic South African derby encounter.

At the end of the match as a spectator you almost felt you had to check yourself for bruises. It may not have been the most exciting game but there was heroism in defence and a physicality to the game that was downright brutal at times. One thing South African teams haven’t lost is the ability to provide the most intense physical challenge on the planet, and this was in evidence by the bucketload in Cape Town. Despite lacking their inspirational Captain Duane Vermeulen due to injury, the Stormers never let up once for the full eighty minutes and Springbok supporters must have been heartened by the physical presence and courage shown by Vermeulen’s replacement Nizam Carr who had a fantastic game and scored a well-earned try of his own. The Stormers to a man played a solid game and perhaps the only weak link in their armor was replacement fly half Kurt Coleman who had a poor afternoon with the boot after being called on to replace Demetri Catrakilis after he retired early on when floored by a massive tackle. There were also numerous sightings of Schalk Burger developing a full head of steam and bludgeoning his way through a resolute Lions defence. It was a match in which no quarters were given and players on both sides gave everything they had.

But in a game that was more of a wrestling match at times than anything else the moment that stood out was a bit of magic from diminutive Stormers fly half Cheslin Kolbe. Despite his small stature the fullback has played well above his weight all season and never shies from the physical aspect of the game. His superb chip and chase that resulted in the try by Nizam Carr was pure genius and a masterful display of hand and footwork matched to superb speed. In terms of sheer physicality though the man of the match for me was Eben Etzebeth whose strength was superhuman in defence as he consistently held up wave after wave of Lions players trying to breach the Stormers line. There is no doubt that Etzebeth will play an enormous role in the Springboks campaigns in the Rugby Championship and World Cup.

The Lions for their part matched everything the Stormers threw at them for the full eighty minutes and their never say die attitude which has been on display all season was there for everyone to see. As the final whistle blew you felt yourself collapsing with the players on the field. It was a powerhouse game of rugby which surely must have given South Africa’s opponents on the world stage much food for thought. While the draw means that it now will be very difficult for the Stormers to realistically take their campaign beyond the semi-finals, it has shown that South Africa has much to work with. With injury concerns to some of their key players, particularly Duane Vermeulen, surely the focus of South African rugby must now switch to reflecting on a hard-fought Super Rugby campaign, and building a strong injury-free Springbok side for the Rugby Championship and World Cup. While this may ultimately mean that for all intents and purposes despite winning the South African conference the Stormers Super Rugby campaign is essentially over, sometimes it is more important to focus on the bigger picture. We wait and see if common sense and the greater cause will prevail!

The Lineout continues its coverage of the business end of this year’s Super Rugby competition by focusing on the top teams from each of the three conferences in the competition.  It was a terrific weekend and all three matches served up some spectacular rugby.  Australian conference leaders the Waratahs, took a heady fall in Johannesburg against a Lions side that has shown week in and week out that guts and passion can get you results with some of their players surely being given some serious consideration for a World Cup Springbok place.  South African table toppers the Stormers made an emphatic statement in Cape Town as Springbok sevens superstar Seabelo Senatla dazzled us all with his speed and footwork.  Lastly in New Zealand, the Crusaders who have struggled all season showed us that the all-conquering Hurricanes can be beaten as they put on a vintage performance with All Black legend Dan Carter returning to some serious form.  In short, breathtaking stuff and a glorious advertisement for this superb competition.

Crusaders vs Hurricanes
Final Score – Crusaders 35/18
Nelson

Going into this match the Hurricanes looked practically invincible and up against a Crusaders side that has been lacking its customary form this season, the result seemed a foregone conclusion.  The actual result not only surprised many but was done in such an emphatic manner that it showed that these last few rounds of the competition could go any way.  Exciting stuff!

The Crusaders welcomed back Dan Carter to the fold after a long absence due to injury and he did not disappoint and showed why he is still one of the greatest flyhalves the game has ever seen, as well as adding to the truly incredible depth of world-class number tens New Zealand has going into the World Cup – kind of depressing if you are not an All Black supporter!  Furthermore, Fijian international winger Nemani Nadolo (the Incredible Hulk with rocket packs for boots)  was truly devastating in attack and defence and surely must be making the England coaching staff nervous as they will have to face him in the opening match of the World Cup in September.

It was however, the return of Dan Carter that really showed us the class of old of this Crusaders team.  He read the game perfectly, calmly assessed every situation and never missed with the boot.  With that kind of competence and assurance a team becomes exceptionally difficult to beat and despite some strong comebacks from the Hurricanes especially in the second half, they never really looked like they could unlock the Dan Carter and co master plan.  Being on the wrong end of the game’s momentum for much of the match was something it was painfully evident that the Hurricanes were obviously not used to. As a result they often looked confused and sloppy, with their defence at times being truly woeful. Traditional key players for the Hurricanes such as Ma’a Nonu looked completely out of sorts on the pitch under a relentless Crusaders assault led by turbo tank Nadolo who will terrorise defences later this year at the World Cup for Fiji.

Relentless pressure from the Crusaders and constant quick ball left the Hurricanes defence scrambling right from the get go and several defensive breakdowns which Carter used to assuredly put the Crusaders in front on a series of penalty kicks. It was Nadolo who was instrumental in getting the Crusaders first score, as he barreled through a few tacklers and then through a superb offload set up some sublime passing from the Crusaders for Mitchell Drummond to get the men from Christchurch their first try. Despite a difficult kick, Carter showed he hasn’t lost his touch and the Crusaders were comfortably in charge at the 30 minute mark 16-3.

Playing against 14 men after a harsh yellow card for the Crusaders, the Hurricanes took full advantage of their extra man to get Dane Coles to crash over the line for their first of two tries. It wasn’t your traditional hooker try from the base of the breakdown but instead showed some superb footwork and sprinting through the Crusaders defence and atoned for a surprisingly poor performance from Coles in the lineouts.

The talk at halftime was obviously fairly serious in the Hurricanes changing room and the men from Wellington came out full of intent. Ardie Savea at number 7 who has impressed all season benefitted from a superb kick from Ma’a Nonu which was well used by Conrad Smith who then found the flanker ready to finish it off. It was a rare moment of brilliance from Ma’a Nonu who otherwise had a woeful match.

However, Nadolo continued to spoil the Hurricanes brief moment of optimism by wrecking every Hurricanes attack and often acting like a loose forward and getting some superb turnover ball for the Crusaders. Perhaps the moment that best summed up a bad day at the office for the Hurricanes was Nadolo’s own try towards the end of the second half as he popped the ball down across the line after a superb kick into space from Carter. Nonu appeared to not even contest the ball even though it landed within his reach but instead, in a move he will probably be re-examining all week, attempted to push a charging Nadolo coming at speed out of the way.

In the end it was a thoroughly well deserved win for the men from Christchurch and has clearly shown that as good as they are the Hurricanes are easily beatable especially if you surprise them. Call it complacency perhaps but either way the Hurricanes will have to pick up their game dramatically as they take on another challenger for the spoils next week in the form of the Highlanders.

Stormers vs Cheetahs
Final Score – 42/Cheetahs 12
Cape Town

Despite an often very brave performance from the Cheetahs they were never really in this match, and even without Schalk Burger the Stormers showed some real pedigree. Duane Vermeulen continued to show why he is probably the world’s best number eight right now and an exceptionally versatile player. Could we be seeing him as Springbok captain for the World Cup, as he is a truly inspirational player to the rest of his teammates? Fantastic in defence and on attack, and amazingly as good under the high ball as some of the best fullbacks in the international game, Vermeulen is definitely the complete rugby package and no doubt will play a big part in Springbok coach Heineke Meyer’s planning for South Africa’s upcoming World Cup campaign.

Sadly for the Cheetahs, who to give them their credit never gave up for the full eighty minutes, they were completely outclassed by the Stormers who themselves have shown enormous progress in some previously weak areas of their game such as the lineouts and scrums, despite having a roster of players who should arguably be dominant in such set pieces. However, in this match the Stormers looked comfortably in charge of all aspects of their game. Argentine number 5 Manuel Carizza was superb alongside Eben Etzebeth in the lineouts and scrums while the front room engine of Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch and Scarra Ntabeni was devastatingly effective, Koch and Kitshoff in particular having a stellar game. Nizam Carr and Siya Kolisi provided further support in the back row and there was no question that it was the Stormers’ day while Springbok coach Heineke Meyer has much to be excited about come selection time.

However, for me in this match there were two revelations that I was not expecting. Springbok sevens star Seabelo Senatla was truly outstanding on the wing and seamlessly made the transition to the 15 a side game. What really impressed me was not just his speed and dazzling footwork, but also his strength and tenacity particularly in the tackle which you don’t often see from sevens players. The man was everywhere on the pitch even throwing his weight in with the forwards when needed. His own two tries in the match were joyful expressions of exciting running rugby. Add to that some sublime passing and handling skills and if he keeps it up this is a very exciting Springbok prospect for the World Cup. The other revelation for me was Damien De Allende, who I must confess I have often and with some reason regarded as a slightly overrated player. Well after this match, Mr. De Allende if you can keep it up I hope you will accept my heartfelt apology. De Allende in this match was immense and put in a superb afternoon’s work. Almost unstoppable due to his strength once he had a built up a head of steam with ball in hand, he too showed off some superb passing and footwork skills coupled with some excellent physicality in attack and defence. In past matches, particularly in a Springbok jersey, I have often found him to be rather nonexistent on the pitch, but not this past weekend. If he keeps it up and is able to work well with South Africa’s other impressive centre Jan Serfontein, this could be an exceptionally dangerous centerfield pairing for the World Cup.

So yes it was the Stormers’ day and deservedly so. The Cheetahs in their last match for coach Naka Drotske were brave but ultimately outplayed and outclassed. It hasn’t been a great season for them and surely one that they will want to forget and move on to next year’s season and this year’s Currie Cup. Always courageous and dogged especially in defence they just didn’t have the speed and skill set of their Cape Town rivals. We wish them well for the rest of this year, while South Africa’s hopes for the competition seem to rest squarely with the Stormers, with the Bulls and the Lions providing the heart and in the Lions’ case a lot to cheer about!

Lions vs Waratahs
Final Score – Lions 27/Waratahs 22
Johannesburg

The Lions have increasingly shown this season that if you take a bunch of players that are’nt the biggest names in the sport but manage to motivate the living daylights out of them then the sky is potentially the limit.  The Lions have definitely become the all-star underdogs of the tournament and are turning heads in and outside South Africa.  Solid defensively and electric with ball in hand they have been a consistently exciting team to watch.  On top of that two of their players, Jaco Kriel and Ruan Combrinck must surely be firmly in the sights of Springbok coach Heineke Meyer.

The Waratahs arrived in Johannesburg enjoying a brief period at the top of the Australian Super Rugby conference, even though the Brumbies are chasing them hard for the spot and are most likely to return to it after this weekend’s action.  Nevertheless, the Waratahs boast a significant Wallaby contingent and have proved to be a more than capable side.  The Lions on the other hand have been enjoying the reputation of giant slayers this year and their end of season form has been outstanding.

The Lions got things off to a cracking start with a beautiful offload from fly half Jantjies to the Lions electric winger Ruan Combrinck resulting in the first try for the men from Johannesburg.  The Waratahs were quick to reply and despite there being a bit of a grey area about the ball being knocked forward the Australians got their first 5 pointer of the evening through some solid work from the forward pack.

In a game that was full of exciting running from both sides, and the Waratahs Adam Ashley-Cooper being particularly impressive all match, there was tension from start to finish.  However, after their first try it started to look like the Waratahs were going to gain the ascendancy until the Lions Ruan Combrinck once more decided to make a statement.  Starting a brilliant movement from within their own half, Combrinck broke out on a brilliant run and went to ground. From there the rest of his pack effectively recycled the ball through another 5 phases to then ultimately have the Lions winger crash over in the left hand corner from some brilliant passing to seal off the move he had started.  Heady stuff from the Lions winger that showed pace and vision backed up by some brilliant supporting play from the rest of his teammates.

From there the game would seesaw back into the Waratahs favour, with Wallaby mainstays Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper working exceptionally well together.  However, despite repeated breaks from these two the Lions were able to effectively regroup and slow the Waratahs down spearheaded by the immense work rate of Lions flanker Jaco Kriel who put in a huge shift all night.  Adam Ashley-Cooper would nevertheless score a superb try from a beautifully worked pass from Kurtley Beale.  Rob Horne would be next to benefit from some Beale magic as he too was put in space by the Waratahs centre and able to add to the Waratahs scoreline.  However, in between these two scores, after a moment of recklessness from South African born Jacques Potgeiter for the Waratahs caused the Australians to be down to 14 men for ten minutes, and despite another superb break from Beale the Waratahs momentum was brought to a screaming halt by Jaco Kriel who secured the Lions a valuable turnover.  From there the Lions kept possession through some quick phases and the Lions centre Vorster would get the Lions another five pointer, ably converted by Jantjies.

The remainder of the game was a tense affair but the Lions were able to hold on despite Jantjies penalty kicking going severely off target in the last 20 minutes of the match. In short an impressive and dogged performance from the Lions that was effective but also showed plenty of flair and panache in attack. Both teams gave us a great show of running rugby. Interestingly, Wallaby danger man Israel Folau was rarely a threat for the Waratahs the whole match. To be honest, for much of the last year I have rarely regarded Folau as much of a threat and his performance this weekend if anything reinforced my opinion. Put him under pressure and he makes far too many errors and his defensive play is in general pretty woeful. There is no doubt that Folau is a talented and gifted player but one far too easy to read and opposition sides certainly seem to have got the measure of Folau and how to contain and neutralize the threat he poses.

The Lions emerged the deserved winners in what I thought was the most exciting match of the weekend. The Lions have really shown that they are everybody’s favourite underdog team in the competition. As they now sit second in the South African log – what further surprises has this gutsy group of individuals got in store for us? Either way, I think it is fairly certain that people will be cheering them on and quietly admiring their dedication and obvious enthusiasm. If they are hoping for a place in the knockout stages – on the basis of their current form it is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. Whether you’re a Lions supporter or not, I am sure you’ll probably take more than just a look at the highlights of their remaining games!

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
Rotorua

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
Auckland

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?