Aaron Smith needs to have another blinder for the Highlanders to have any chance of beating the Hurricanes in the Vodacom Super Rugby final in Wellington on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Hurricanes and the Highlanders deserve to contest this year's decider. Both sets of forwards have done the business at the breakdowns and collisions. Both sets of halfbacks have taken excellent options in terms of kicking and attack. Both teams have played an exciting yet effective brand of rugby.
That said, the stats confirm the two teams differ in playing style. The Hurricanes have the edge going into this clash, given the game will be staged at the Cake Tin. And yet, it's the Highlanders who have a game plan that's best suited to finals football.
With John Plumtree in tow as the new forwards coach, the Hurricanes have improved in key areas. The men from Wellington have also beefed up their defence, and are one of the stingiest sides in the competition in terms of conceding points. These improvements have served to boost their overall win record, but make no mistake, the Hurricanes are still an attack-minded team.
The Hurricanes boast the most carries (126.1) per game in 2015. They don't kick the ball too often (they have averaged 18.2 kicks from hand per a game, the third least in the competition), and it's in the final quarter of a game where they are at their free-running best. To date, they have scored 19 tries in the final quarter, more than any team in this year's competition.
The Highlanders' stats suggest they have a contrasting style of play. They rank second in the competition for kicks from hand (25.4 per game), and are way down the list for carries (11th). They play the percentages, and when they attack, it's usually from turnover ball.
This no-name brand Highlanders pack has surprised a lot of teams this season. If they can outmuscle the Hurricanes at the set pieces, which is possible considering the Hurricanes' shoddy lineout record, they will give their backs a platform from which to play. The Highlanders will also fancy their chances at the breakdown given the Hurricanes' star forward Ardie Savea is battling with an injury, and may not play any part in the final.
If the Highlanders win the forward battles, they will neutralise that Hurricanes backline. TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder will not have sufficient space to work their magic.
And if the Highlanders have the momentum up front, we should expect to see scrumhalf Aaron Smith translating that dominance into field position and scoring chances.
The All Blacks No 9 has developed into a fine tactical kicker, but it's his decision-making that sets him apart from so many others. Smith sums up the situation very quickly. Whether the Highlanders are playing from the set piece, or looking to use turnover ball to their advantage, Smith is usually the key man.
The Hurricanes won 14 of their 16 league games, and hammered the Brumbies in last week's semi-final. They should be confident ahead of this game, even more so when they remember the recent clash against the Highlanders, which ended 56-20 in their favour.
At the same time, they need to be honest about their recent win against the Brumbies. The Australian side went into the game on the back of a draining travel schedule that saw them traverse the Indian Ocean twice in the space of a week. Knowing this, the Hurricanes altered their tactics in the semi-final, and tried to get the Brumbies to chase the game from an early stage.
This week's final will be more closely contested. The Highlanders were impressive in their semi-final win against the Waratahs. That performance was a statement: they have the forwards to outmuscle any opponent, and they have the tactical kicking game to win a big play-off.
Unless the Hurricanes can match that physicality up front, they will add yet another play-off loss to their record. Unless Perenara and Barrett deliver a tactical master-class, the Hurricanes may fall short.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Hurricanes 14, Highlanders 11
In Hurricanes' territory: Hurricanes 7, Highlanders 5
STATS AND FACTS
– The Highlanders have been victorious in each of their last four trips to Wellington (that June clash was played in Napier).
– Since losing to the Highlanders in round 14 of the 2014 season, the Hurricanes have won 10 of 11 home games.
– Both these sides lost their sole appearances in the Super Rugby final; both at the hands of the Crusaders.
– The Highlanders have averaged 136 tackle attempts per game this year (Rank 4). The Hurricanes have averaged 142 (Rank 2).
– The Hurricanes’ lineout success rate (81%) is the 13th best figure in the competition, while the Highlanders’ (89%) is the third best.
– The Hurricanes have scored the most (19) and conceded the joint fewest (7) tries in the final quarter of matches. The Highlanders lead the way for tries in the second (20) and third quarters (20).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Hurricanes||Beauden Barrett (112)||TJ Perenara (11)||Julian Savea (1,155)||Brad Shields (164)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (183)||Waisake Naholo (12)||Waisake Naholo (1338)||Elliot Dixon (157)|
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea/Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Motu Matu’u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Callum Gibbins/Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 Matt Proctor.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Shane Christie, 21 Gareth Evans, 22 Fumiaki Tanaka, 23 Marty Banks.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Craig Joubert (South Africa)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Photo: Duif du Toit/ Gallo Images