Super Rugby Semifinal Review

Saturday 28th July

Crusaders 30 vs Hurricanes 12

Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 Local; 08:35 BST; 07:35 GMT; 09:35 SA Time
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser, Ben O’Keeffe
TMO: Shane McDermott

“The Crusaders might as well be crowned champions now. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of need to ask them to play the final – as, barring some kind of impossible to foresee disaster, they are going to win it.”

That is the sentiment being expressed in the New Zealand media today. That line is a direct quote from an article by Gregor Paul in the New Zealand Herald. Paul may be one of the more NZ-biased reporters in the New Zealand firmament, but he is really only expressing the views of the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders. “The Crusaders are unbeatable, especially in “finals rugby” and more especially at home in Christchurch.”

Let’s put aside any desire to argue with Mr Paul and the rest of the New Zealanders for the moment. They have a right to be celebrating the Crusaders at this time.

Their 30-12 win over the Hurricanes was no demolition job, but it was a clinical, systematic dismantling of the second best team in the 2018 Super Rugby tournament. Piece by piece, segment by segment, the Crusaders took the Hurricanes’ game apart like a technician breaking down a computer and removing all the parts until just the casing is left behind.

On the attack, the Crusaders were precise, clinical, and focussed. On defence it seemed as if they were happy to let the Hurricanes bash away all afternoon, coolly waiting for the visitors to cough up another error. They seemed to know that the ‘Canes would make a mistake, and they obliged, time and again.

Let’s also be blunt, the Hurricanes seemed well short of ideas and enterprise in this critical game. At times it seemed as if they were simply going through some well-practiced routines, but without any confidence in the outcome. They just did not seem to know how to pick open the Chiefs’ defensive lock.

The Crusaders have a knack of latching on to every mistake an opponent makes and then ruthlessly and efficiently punishing that mistake. Be it a turnover ball deep inside the ‘Saders 22, a fumble at the base of the ruck, or a knock-on on the halfway line, the Crusaders are onto it in the blink of an eye and immediately turn it to an advantage play. They pounce on mistakes as a well organised, cohesive striking unit.

The Crusaders did what the Crusaders do so very well, they established forward dominance, forcing the ‘Canes to play off the back-foot for most of the afternoon. In contrast, their back division received quick, clean, front-foot ball in abundance, and it allowed Richie Mo’unga to deliver a sublime performance at 10, completely overshadowing Beauden Barrett in the battle of the flyhalves.

He was right on top of his game and he produced a display of tactical wizardry as he dictated the game right to the end. He chose the right option every time, passing, holding, or kicking. He ran well, he kicked with sublime accuracy, and he gave great front-foot ball to his midfield, with superb timing.

Based on this game, Steve Hansen has no option but to start Mo’unga as his run-on flyhalf in the Rugby Championships, with Barrett as back-up on the bench, and Damian McKenzie as a utility back rather than the back-up flyhalf. (What coach would not love to have that kind of talent at his disposal?)

If anyone ever doubted Mo’unga’s temperament under big match pressure, this game should sweep those doubts away.

Of course, he had the steady support of Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue just outside him, which is worth gold. It is a pity that Crotty is so injury prone and concussion-fragile, with yet another HIA to add to his collection during this year alone.

Beauden Barrett is a known factor, a class act, although he has been a bit off his best in 2018, and he was playing behind a retreating Hurricanes pack on Saturday. He was simply not given the kind of ball and opportunity given to Mo’unga, and struggled to impose himself on this game. His midfield was also less cohesive than that of the ‘Saders, with the combination between Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape that just did not seem to click.

During the regular season Ngani Laumape has been one of the Hurricanes’ success stories as they have used him as the direct attack kingpin off their set-pieces and in broken play. Somehow, in the most critical game of the season, they changed his role to decoy runner rather than ball carrier. Whether their tactical planning suggested that the Crusaders’ defence would be focussed on him and that this might present opportunities in the outside channels, we will not know for sure, but it did seem as if that was what they were trying to do. They only started to use him late in the final quarter of the game. It was probably a tactical error and they should have changed to using his considerable carrying prowess much earlier than they did.

Another feature of this game was the Crusaders’ ability to get off the line on defence. They were lightning quick in shutting down the options available to the Hurricanes. When the ‘Canes kick the ball 19 times in a game, it is because they are under pressure.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of the Hurricanes starting to feel the pressure was their 21 handling errors. The Hurricanes do not make that many handling errors in a game. Ever. There were silly errors by players who you would least expect it from. Nehe Milner-Skudder knocking a ball?

This was a fine team effort by the entire Crusaders squad, and that is why they are so good – they use every man they have and every man gives his all.

They were focussed from the kick-off to the final whistle, with intent and commitment. There were few weaknesses, few soft spots for the Hurricanes to exploit. And then there was the unrelenting pressure they brought to bear on the ‘Canes. One team cracked a bit, and it was not the Crusaders.

The loss ends the Hurricanes tenure for Brad Shields (Wasps), winger Julian Savea (Toulon), loose forward Blade Thomson (Scarlets), lock Michael Fatialofa (Worcester), flyhalf Ihaia West (La Rochelle), and coach Chris Boyd (Northampton) who will all head overseas.

Any Crusaders who are thinking of leaving still have some work to do next weekend.

The scorers:

For Crusaders:
Tries: Mo’unga, Bridge, Havili, Ennor
Cons: Mo’unga 2
Pens: Mo’unga 2

For Hurricanes:
Tries: Savea, Lam
Con: B Barrett

The Teams:

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor

Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Jordie Barrett, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Gareth Evans, 6 Brad Shields (c), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Michael Fatialofa, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Ardie Savea/Reed Prinsep, 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Wes Goosen