Monday, July 20, 2020

Hurricanes-29 Blues-27

It was a straightforward enough try.  After winning a penalty at midfield, Beauden Barrett put an excellent touchfinder 5m from the Hurricanes’ line, and after Josh Goodhue hauled down “one off the top” at the lineout, the maul formed and proceeded to steadily march towards the whitewash where flanker Dalton Papali’i got it down.

What made this score worth of placing at the start of the writeup wasn't the set piece itself rather all that came before it.  When Goodhue plucked that dart out of the air on the 28th minute, it was the first time a Blues player had been in possession of the ball in opposition territory since all the way back at minute 8 when Beauden crossed for the Blues’ first try. 

So not only had they bookended this 20-minute spell with scores, in the meantime they managed to spend that entire time in their own half, much of it in their own 22 and down a man, without conceding. 

My point is this - if you want to consider yourself to be a realistic challenger to the Crusaders for top spot and you weather this Hurricane storm to build a two score lead away from home, you need to be bringing that margin all the way to the final whistle.  Bottom line is that they didn’t, and as a result it looks as though their true level in this tournament is nothing more than a race for second spot.

Of course there is another possible way to spin this result, especially when you add it to last week’s defeat in Christchurch.  Maybe my decision to harp on the Blues for the remainder of Super Rugby Aotearoa has jinxed them?  Best not dwell on that too much and soldier on…

For the neutral, this was arguably Super Rugby at its best.  Four tries each, five lead changes throughout, and the result in doubt all the way to the final play.  Even the most critical European eye with issues about defensive frailty on that side of the world couldn’t deny they enjoyed the 80 minutes.  That said, you also couldn’t deny that both sides displayed more weaknesses than they’d have liked to on the night, meaning the spoils went to the one that had showed the least of them.

In the end it was an inability to withstand straight running with the ball that proved the difference, and this is born out by the stats as the Hurricanes out-ran their guests by a whopping 571m to just 202.  So why did they win by only two points?  You’ll have to ask their coaching staff because if anything they didn’t run with the ball enough IMO.

Leading the way on the carrying front was Ngani Laumape.  Literally from the opening kickoff he was their go-to carrier from the 12 position and his nearest challenger on the “metres gained” chart was 98m behind him by full time.  Just 3 minutes in a long miss pass put him in space and he smashed through all comers (including former team mate Beauden) to get to the try line.  It was made to look so easy that you really couldn’t see anything but a tonking on the cards unless the Blues got things together.

Yet for the next few minutes, the home side decided to go different routes.  Jordie Barrett grubbers one through, then we have bouts of kick tennis...had they forgotten what had just happened???  I’m no rugby strategist but surely “keep giving it to Laumape until they work out how to stop him” was the way to go???  Eventually Jordie kicked one out on the full and the Blues had their own first chance to put together an attacking set on 8 minutes.  For this try the space was found up the middle as Beauden atoned for his earlier defensive shame by selling a show and go that sent him through to nudge his side back in front by 10-7.

This convinced the Canes to go back to their Plan A of choice, and once again Laumape smoked the opposing full back and the only thing stopping him this time was a bit of goal line treachery from winger Emoni Narawa which was rewarded with a 10-minute spell in the sin bin.

During this long spell on the attack, they did manage a couple of decent chances, only for Jordie’s try to be ruled out for a forward pass and then his attempted three pointer coming back at him off the upright.  The rest of the time, the Blues defence managed to hold them out, and in a way their organisation overall deserves some credit, especially Reiko Ioane and Dalton Papali’i who had 35 tackles between them and I’d guess at least 30 of them were on Laumape.

But like I said, the Blues managed to not only keep them at bay but actually extend the lead at the end of that spell but a missed conversion served as a warning (a bit like last week albeit much earlier), that there was still a lot of work to be done.

And when it comes to a penalty at halfway leading to a short lineout followed by an easy maul to the tryline, the Hurricanes showed some form themselves as soon as they had the chance.  In this case it was their lock Reed Princep getting it down, and when Ardie Savea did a bit of long distance running of his own towards the end of the half, Jordie was able to pop over a penalty to leave us all square, and right back where we started, going into the break.

Despite the fact the Blues had already surrendered their 8-point advantage by the end of the first half,  losing Otere Black right at the beginning of the second was a major blow.  He might have made an error or two with placekicks in recent weeks but overall his solid contributions from 10 have been key to a lot of his side's positives in this tournament.

When he slid in to tidy up a loose ball around his own 22 (an overthrown lineout by Dane Coles, part of a litany of errors from both teams) he was challenged (fairly) by Ben Lam resulting in a collision between his head and Ben's knee.  A breakdown formed around him, and when it eventually cleared it was pretty obvious that he had been shaken by a head knock.  Much to my surprise before the next lineout referee Ben O’Keeffe had to tell him that the match doctor was requesting that he have an off-field HIA.  Obviously I was glad to see the intervention but what the hell was the Blues' physio thinking???

Anyway this resulted in a major shift in the Auckland franchise’s tactical approach, with Beauden forced to do more of the creative creative thinking.  And the challenge became greater when another Laumape crash ball, followed by one from his able sidekick centre Umaga-Jensen, got them all the way to the line before eventually Coles walked under the posts to put the Canes 7 points ahead.

Once more, the home side seemed to go back into their shell, like they didn’t need Laumape’s carrying so long as they were in the lead.  Between that and Beauden’s new role there proceeded to be long bouts of kick tennis and mistakes from both sides until eventually one gave the visitors another 5m lineout, and from there, they managed to replicate the earlier score only with Akira Ioane, in at Number 8 instead of injured wunderkind Hoskins Sotutu, being the one getting it down.

Now the scores were level and we were wondering if this could be the first example of the “golden point” extra time this competition was meant to be trying out.  To be honest, I reckon the way this match went then it would have been fairer to just leave it as I draw because neither seemed to have the killer instinct to bring a lead home, but when TJ Perenera tried to repeat an earlier incident when he cheekily pinched the ball from the back of a Blues scrum, he instead shipped a penalty and suddenly they had another chance to maul over from close range.

And you know what?  That’s exactly what they did.  It was hooker Eklund’s turn to do the carrying and the dotting down before Beauden shanked the conversion to leave the lead at just the 5 points with the final quarter to come.

The mistakes continued.  At one stage the Blues defence seemed to be performing heroics at midfield when they denied their hosts for 18 punishing phases when not even Laumape could find a way through, only for them to blow it when Papali’i was pinged for going in from the side.  Yet as the Canes tried to take advantage, Perenara, who seems to always move over to outhalf for the final quarter these days, kicked out on the full.

I suppose it could be argued that the reason the home side didn’t kick for that long spell was because they were softening up their opposition for the closing stages and if that’s true, it worked a treat.  On their next series it seemed every carry, whether it was Laumape or anyone wearing gold, was gaining ground and eventually they got a penalty which meant it was their turn to test the opposition resistance to mauls after short lineouts.

That was to be another test that was failed, and with although the ever-increasing amount of Canes joining the maul got them over the line, they proceeded to block the official’s view of a grounding once there, although luckily (and possibly unjustly) for them, the on field decision was for a try.  After a few looks by the TMO, there were just too many arses in the way so the decision stood.

Now the Blues were left with an opportunity to win the lead back with less than 5m on the clock, and it fell to Jordie.  The much-anticipated “Battle of the Barretts” had some iffy moments throughout from both brothers, but this strike under pressure was definitely worthy of victory on both sibling and team levels.  He also planted a monster kick to touch off the restart that meant his brother had to lead the charge from further back than he’d have liked.

In these dying stages of the match the Canes bench played a major part, with first Isaia Walker-Leawere swatting down the lineout after that exit clearance allowing for more clock to be eaten up and finally right at the death, a big hit from sub hooker Asafo Aumua forced a knock on that effectively ended the contest.

Again I’ll say that the draw would have been the fairer result but that said, in the end, and I mean the VERY end, the Canes did show themselves to be more capable of protecting a lead so I guess they shaded it.  Nevertheless, this had all the hallmarks of a battle for second place and I very much doubt the table topping Crusaders will be having too many complaints about how the tournament looks now.

In fact, there’s every chance the Blues could be back in 2nd spot by this time next week.  They host Warren Gatland’s hapless Chiefs on Sunday, while the Hurricanes will have to triumph in Christchurch if they are to keep their winning streak alive.  Definitely a lot more to look forward to - who knows I might even drag myself out of bed at 4am to watch it live.  Maybe then we’ll know for sure just how much of a jinx I am to these particular boys in blue!  JLP




Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019