Last weekend saw two 3-point games playing out in Round 7 of Super Rugby Aotearoa and fans have another action-packed weekend to look forward to with the Highlanders taking on the Blues in Dunedin and the Chiefs hosting the Crusaders.
Only two tries were dotted down in the tight first half between the Highlanders and Chiefs – one of them a superb athletic effort by Chiefs winger Etene Nanai-Seturo and the other resulting from a crafty display by Highlanders flanker James Lentjes.
The Highlanders came out firing in the second 40 with Aaron Smith diving over in the second minute. Damian McKenzie’s boot kept the Chiefs in the game before they started to break away through a try by Angus Ta’avao, making the score 23-13, but Josh Ioane’s eye for the gap saw him shoot over the try line to bring the Highlanders back into the game. Ioane sent the ball through the uprights with five minutes to go to bring the scores level but it was McKenzie who had the final say – in the 82nd minute – with a well-struck penalty.
With the score at 27-20 with 17 minutes to play, the Hurricanes had put themselves into a strong position against the Crusaders, however, as is so often the case, the red tide gathered momentum in the last stages of the game. A try from Sevu Reece levelled up the scores which sent the game into golden-point extra time and it was a courageous drop-goal from the Crusaders’ David Havili which gave the game its final result.
The Highlanders will run out onto their home turf this weekend eager to make amends for their narrow loss in Round 7. However, they face a Blues outfit brimming with talent who are well rested after sitting out last weekend and back to winning ways after two consecutive losses in Rounds 4 & 5. Otere Black has been steering the side beautifully from the flyhalf channel while up front, the mobility and enthusiamsm of the Blues pack continues to impress. The loose trio of Dalton Papali’i, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu is a formidable one which the Highlanders will have out-do themselves to contain. Returning to the backs, Sam Nock’s battle with Aaron Smith will be something to savour while the young Caleb Clarke poses a very dangerous threat from the wing.
Shannon Frizell has managed to maintain his brilliant form from last season, proving himself once again to be a tower of strength from the side of the scrum and will no doubt have made up his mind to be a significant thorn in the side of Blues come Friday.
The Highlanders have some climbing to do after just two victories from six outings, which leaves them at 4th spot on the log. The Blues are still chasing the mighty Crusaders from second spot – the former’s three wins from five encounters rendering them with a total of 14 points to the latter’s 22.
The Chiefs will be aiming to take a leaf out of the Highlanders’ book when they challenge the Crusaders at Waikato Stadium on Saturday. In a truly superb performance, the Highlanders managed to get the better of the Crusaders in Christchurch during Round 6 (33-12). The men in red, however, climbed back on the winning horse a week later, putting away the Hurricanes – albeit narrowly – in Wellington 30-27.
The Chiefs enjoyed their third victory on the trot last weekend with a hard-fought win over the Highlanders and will now enjoy the characteristic sound of the cattle bells and passionate cheers of their home fans at Waikato Stadium when they duel with the log-leading Crusaders.
The Highlanders’ persistent and clinical waves of attack seemed to have the Crusaders’ defence at something of a loss. For a side which spends most of its time attacking with ball in hand, it appeared to be quite a shock to the system to have to be on the receiving end for most of the game – the Chiefs will have noted this and prepared accordingly.
From his spot at fullback, Damian McKenzie is still the heart and soul of the Chiefs outfit and much will depend on his form from the kicking tee and with ball in hand. Both the Crusaders’ pack and backline, however, are superb on paper and will take some stopping.
There is an enticing clash at flank where Chiefs breakdown master Lachlan Boshier comes up against Sione Havili while at scrumhalf, Brad Webber’s battle with Bryn Hall is sure to be something to behold.
While it is a big task for the Chiefs, the Crusaders have proved themselves to be beatable in the recent past and the challenge will be one that Clayton McMillan’s men will rise up to with gusto.