Super Rugby 2018
Highlanders vs Crusaders
Final Score: Highlanders 25 – Crusaders 17
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
In my preview to this, the Derby of Derbies in New Zealand, I suggested that the Crusaders are starting to look just a little vulnerable. There are just a few chinks in their usually impregnable armour.
And I suggested that the Highlanders would sense that vulnerability! I predicted a Highlanders win, by between 6 and 9 points.
Before you start thinking that I am bragging about my ability to predict the outcome of rugby matches, I must remind you that I also said the Sharks would beat the Brumbies and the Lions would run away from the Sunwolves by at least 35 points.
I am, however, quite chuffed that I called this one correctly.
This was a typical New Zealand derby, played with the intensity and focus of a Test match, with unrelenting passion and furious pace.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of this game, and the weekend as a whole, is the thought, a feeling perhaps, that Super Rugby is starting to recover some of that special allure, after a couple of truly dreadful years.
This game, plus a couple of others from this weekend, such as the games between the Chiefs and the Bulls, the Stormers and the Blues, even the Lions and Sunwolves, all provided great entertainment and some great rugby too. Rugby, played the way we all want to see it played. Thrilling stuff, with end-to-end attack and counter-attack, fast and furious, opportunistic sometimes, clinical at others. It does not have to be the most polished rugby to be truly entertaining rugby.
Those that have given up on watching Super Rugby may just think again if they get served this kind of show every weekend.
Both sides stayed true to their attacking roots, the Highlanders eventually got the upper hand and outscored the defending champions three tries to two.
The Highlanders won because they held on for most of the second half despite the Crusaders massive attempts to get back into the game, and then surged in those critical last 15 minutes. They showed the mongrel – both physically and mentally – to stay focussed into that final quarter, to keep the pressure on their much-fancied opponents, and in forcing the errors that gave them two kickable penalties and the daylight they needed on the scoreboard.
It was perhaps ironic that such an open running game was decided in the end by penalties, when both teams had declined kicks at goal earlier in the game. However, this typified the game as a showpiece of endeavour – go for the corner and maximum points rather than accepting a three-pointer and starting again from the middle. These two teams produced exactly what the fans want to see!
I thought that the real difference between the two sides lay with their half-backs. Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith simply turned on the class and controlled the game better than their Crusaders counterparts, the two Mitchells, Hunt and Drummond.
The commitment of the two opponents was quite compelling. It was unrelenting stuff, and neither gave an inch. The hits were earth-shuddering, the collisions fizzed and popped with effort and commitment.
The confrontation between the two loose trios was fascinating, as Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt and Liam Squire were almost impossible to separate in the on-field action. Whitelock put in some monstrous tackles, allowing the other two to feed off the dominance he created. Yet the Crusaders trio, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd, and Heiden Bedwell-Curtis were equally good doing their jobs, and especially at isolating the ball carrier and stealing possession.
In this game we saw The Highlanders take the ball into the ruck 78 times and lose possession 5 times, while the Crusaders took the ball in 89 times and lost possession 4 times. That is a 93,6% ruck success rate versus 95,7% – It does not get much closer than that.
In a game such as this, where both sides put their skills to the test and were prepared to have a go at every opportunity, it was inevitable that there would be handling errors, passes going astray, and the like. It comes as no surprise that the Highlanders made 20 handling errors and the Crusaders 26.
The Crusaders, in their endeavour to haul back the Highlanders lead strung together a massive 159 good passes out of 185 thrown. The Highlanders made just 84 good passes from 111 thrown.
Both teams carried the ball with intent, The Crusaders 126 times for 451 meters in total, and the Highlanders 117 carries for 410 meters. The high numbers of carries and the short numbers of meters made, is illustrative of the rock solid nature and huge line-speed of both teams on the defence. The Highlanders made 138 tackles and missed 19, while the ‘Saders made 114 but, unusually, missed 30.
This allowed the Highlanders to chalk up a high number, 30, of defenders beaten, while the Crusaders managed 19 defenders beaten. In contrast the Crusaders made 15 clean breaks and the Highlanders 11.
The scrum contest was another fascination for the purist. The Highlanders put the ball into the scrum 11 times and lost the ball twice. The Crusaders put the ball in just 4 times, and lost 1. Many had expected the ‘Saders to dominate this phase, but it was not to be.
The penalty count was 9 against the Highlanders and 7 against the Crusaders.
The game swung back and forth as first the Crusaders scored through George Bridge in the 6th minute, and then the Highlanders struck back in the 9th minute through Liam Coltman. In the 13th the Highlanders stretched it with another try, this time through Lima Sopoaga.
All three those tries were converted and the game then stayed at 14 – 7 through to half time.
Right through the first half and into the second the play moved from end to end and back. Eventually Elliot Dixon added a third try to the Highlanders tally, in the 49th minute.
The Crusaders bounced back 5 minutes later when Bryn Hall scored.
In the 65th and the 69th minutes Lima Sopoaga put the game away with two converted penalties. (Boy, the Highlanders are going to miss him next year!)
The Highlanders move to the top of the New Zealand Conference, sitting above both the Hurricanes and Crusaders. The Crusaders are also on a two-match losing streak, which is unusual for them!
This was a thoroughly enjoyable game of rugby to watch, with a certain little prayer of thanks that you were not involved on the field of play – it was far too ferocious for any normal person!
Tries: Coltman, Sopoaga, Dixon
Cons: Sopoaga 2
Pens: Sopoaga 2
Yellow Card: Naholo
Tries: Bridge, Hall
Cons: Hunt 2
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Aki Seiuli
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (cc), 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Kalolo Tulioma, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Samuel Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Chris King, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Billy Harmon, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Manasa Mataele