The Vodacom Super Rugby semi-final in Christchurch highlighted New Zealand rugby’s strengths as well as its vulnerabilities. The Springboks would do well to take note, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Saturday’s semi-final had something for everyone. The flow of the contest and indeed the finish made for an unforgettable spectacle.
The Crusaders played a smart tactical game in the first 30 minutes, using their accurate kicking game to set up aerial contests in centre-field and to exploit the space behind the defensive line. For half an hour, it was as if the All Blacks were wearing red.
Not that the semi-final was a dull, risk-averse contest. The offloading by the Crusaders forwards was outstanding. The masterful manner in which Beauden Barrett manipulated the Crusaders midfield and often exposed defenders in the wider channels was a statement in itself.
Was Steve Hansen impressed? The All Blacks coach was spotted in the crowd, alongside several selectors and assistants.
The attacking variation shown by both sides confirms that New Zealand rugby remains in a good place. On the other hand, the inconsistency on defence – the Crusaders missed 40 tackles overall while the Hurricanes leaked a couple of soft tries – suggests that the players may have work to do in the lead-up to the World Cup.
Richie Mo’unga has a lot of strengths but defence – as his overall tackle-success rate of 65% indicates – is not one of them. The flyhalf missed 50% of his tackle attempts on Saturday, and the Crusaders backline struggled in this area once Ryan Crotty left the field after 48 minutes with an injury.
Rassie Erasmus and his own coaching team would have watched this game with interest. Since his appointment in early 2018, the Bok coach has hammered on about developing South Africa’s kicking and aerial skills. While there have been a few exceptions, the local players continue to lag in what are crucial areas of the game.
The level of execution in the play below should worry the All Blacks’ opponents.
The Crusaders kick for George Bridge to chase. The winger claims the ball in the air and then fires a pass to Crotty. The All Blacks centre goes on to set up Sevu Reece’s first try with a well-weighted kick into space.
There were several examples of Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett using the boot to beat the opposition defence. The clip below shows Mo’unga finding space – and ultimately creating a try – via a beautiful chip kick.
The All Blacks have not been at their best over the past few seasons. They paid the price for a high-risk approach when they conceded five tries and lost to the Boks in Wellington last year. They were outmuscled and outplayed in a subsequent Test against Ireland in Dublin.
Their attack and kicking game has not been as accurate when their forwards have been forced on to the back foot. Their defence – which was largely credited for their success at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups – has proved vulnerable.
Barrett was put under pressure by the Crusaders in the early stages of the semi-final in Christchurch. He and the other Hurricanes players battled to employ the kicking game or attacking plan for much of the first half.
Overall, it was a contest that witnessed a great deal of kicking. The Crusaders kicked from hand 32 times and the Hurricanes 33.
The way the Hurricanes and Barrett, in particular, adjusted in the second stanza changed the game. The best players and teams are those who adapt in a short space of time. The Hurricanes, who were 13-0 down at one stage, made the necessary changes and came within two points of a shock playoff win in Christchurch.
Perhaps that should also serve as a reminder that these top Kiwi players are never beaten until the final whistle.
The All Blacks won’t be slowing down any time soon. The recent performances by the top New Zealand sides have shown that the country is constantly searching for innovative ways to bend and break an opposition defence.
That approach may present opportunities for the opposition, though. The end-to-end nature of the second half in Christchurch witnessed a lot of turnovers and counter-attacks.
The Boks are still a long way off matching the All Blacks across the various departments. And yet it would be a stretch to suggest that the New Zealanders are invincible or that they won’t be punished in one or two areas come the World Cup.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images