Super Rugby

Semifinal Previews

At Last! Sanzaar have managed to appoint NEUTRAL REFEREES!!!

The semi-finals kick-off on Friday evening in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when the Jaguares, playing in their first ever semi-final, host the Brumbies from Canberra. This Argentina versus Australia clash at Jose Amalfitani Stadium will be refereed by New Zealand referee Mike Fraser.

The next day in Christchurch the defending champions, the Crusaders, will host the Hurricanes in an all-Kiwi clash at Orangetheory Stadium. The referee will be Australian Nic Berry .

Semifinal Stories

There had been 23 seasons of Super Rugby prior to the 2019 competition, which means we’ve seen 46 semi-final games thus far in the competition.

38 of the previous 46 Super Rugby semi-finals have been won by the home team on the day, and the last time an away team managed a win in a semi was in 2015 when the Highlanders picked up a win against the Waratahs in Sydney.

The Crusaders have featured in, and won, more semi-finals than any other team in the competition’s history. They have played in 18 semifinals and won 13 of them. 

The Hurricanes are next on the list for the most semifinal appearances, having played in 10 semis, but their record has not been great, they have only won three times, and lost 7 of those semifinal games.

The Brumbies are third on the rank for all-time semifinal appearances, with 9 semis on their scoreboard, winning six and losing 3. Interestingly, the Brumbies are one of only four teams in Super Rugby history to have won a semi-final outside their home country, in fact, they are the only Australian team to have managed this feat.

The Jaguares are playing in their first ever semi-final.

(The Lions are the only team in Super Rugby history to have never lost a semi-final.) 

Super Rugby semi-finals in recent history have been close affairs. The last time a semi-final was decided by a single-figure margin was in 2013, with all semi-finals since decided by an average margin of 18 points per game.

Only twice in the last nine Super Rugby seasons has any team managed to win a Super Rugby semi-final when trailing at half-time.  The Chiefs were able to bounce back against the Crusaders in 2013 and the Lions pounced late to beat the Hurricanes in 2017.

On to the weekend’s games:

FRIDAY 28th June

Jaguares v Brumbies

Venue: Jose Amalfitani Stadium, Buenos Aires
Date Friday 28 June
Kick-off 20h05 local; 23h05 GMT; 01h05 SA Time (Sat 29th); 09h05 Canberra time.
Referee Mike Fraser
AR1 Glen Jackson
AR2 Federico Anselmi
TMO Santiago Borsani

This could get really interesting, not only from the Super Rugby perspective, but also from the international perspective. 

The Jaguares will undoubtedly provide the bulk of the Argentinean Pumas side for the Rugby Championships and the World Cup that follows shortly afterwards.  

Unless Michael Cheika has deliberately avoided watching Super Rugby in 2019 and persists with his inexplicable preference for anyone who wears a Waratahs jersey, the Brumbies should also provide the bulk of the Wallaby squad for the same Championships and World Cup.  

This game will give us some insight into the level of quality and, perhaps, parity, between the two countries.

Add the fact that the Jaguares find themselves in unchartered territory as they make the final four of Super Rugby for the first time, while the Brumbies haven’t appeared in a semifinal since 2015.

I might not watch the game live, it is scheduled right in the middle of that time of the night where I am in the deepest of sleep, but I will be watching my recording later on in the morning, once the sun is up and I have a couple of coffees under the belt. (Oh, and after I have watched the Crusaders and Hurricanes battle it out over in New Zealand.)

Team Announcements:

Jaguares:

The Jaguares received a big boost ahead of their Super Rugby semifinal against the Brumbies in Buenos Aires on Friday. Jaguares coach Gonzalo Quesada named Guido Petti in a full-strength squad for the semi-final after the lock recovered from an ankle injury.

Petti retains his spot in the second row with Tomas Lavanini.

Prop Enrique Pieretto and flanker Marcos Kremer have also recovered from injuries sustained last week to take their place in the squad, but the latter has been relegated to the bench with Tomas Lezana starting at openside.

There is just that one change to the starting XV that beat the Chiefs 21-16 as Lezana comes into the team to take over the No.7 jersey.

Wing Ramiro Moyano returns to the matchday squad this week and replaces Santiago Carreras on the bench.

Jaguares: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Sebastián Cancelliere, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente (captain), 11 Matias Moroni, 10 Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, 9 Tomas Cubelli, 8 Javier Ortega Desio, 7 Tomas Lezana, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Santiago Medrano, 2 Agustin Creevy, 1 Mayco Vivas.
Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Marcos Kremer, 20 Francisco Gorrissen, 21 Felipe Ezcurra, 21 Domingo Miotti, 22 Ramiro Moyano.

Brumbies:

Christian Lealiifano will make his 150th Super Rugby appearance for the Brumbies when they face the Jaguares in Friday’s Super Rugby semi-final.

He will lead a largely unchanged side into the semifinal.

The only change to the starting XV that dealt with the Sharks in Canberra last weekend sees Lachlan McCaffrey come into the side at number eight, promoted from the replacements bench following the injury sustained by Pete Samu.

With McCaffrey in the run-on side, Murray Douglas is in line for his 11th appearance of the season as he takes his place amongst a strong-looking set of replacements. The brumbies again opting for six forwards and two backs in their replacement mix.

Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Toni Pulu, 10 Christian Lealiifano (c), 9 Joe Powell, 8 Lachlan Mccaffrey, 7 Tom Cusack, 6 Rob Valetini, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Connal Mcinerney, 17 James Slipper, 18 Leslie Leuluaialii-Makin, 19 Darcy Swain, 20 Murray Douglas, 21 Jahrome Brown, 22 Matt Lucas, 23 Tom Wright

Thoughts:

The Brumbies played some very clever rugby last weekend, as they dismantled a rather too-confident Sharks outfit.

The cleverness was to be found in the way they had analysed the Sharks’ game plan, and then devised strategies and tactics to dismantle that plan. 

They knew that the Sharks have a very good lineout drive/maul. That was an area they focussed on, and they worked out how to defuse the Sharks power in the maul, shifting their own weight to counter the Sharks changes of angle, while driving through the middle to split the Sharks apart.

They also knew that the Sharks defend the close channels around the rucks and on the fringes of the maul or tackle areas with their props and locks. The Brumbies knew that these big, heavy hitters were very good at stopping their counterparts, the equally big and heavy men of the opposing front five, if they charged into the collision looking for some physical advantage. Yet the Brumbies also saw that these big, heavy hitting Sharks were somewhat slow and ponderous when faced by forwards that shifted the attack at the moment  of impact, passing the ball to support runners with pace and momentum and sometimes to the quick running, stepping, and passing of backline players.

If you go back and look at that game again, you will see how the Brumbies exploited the slowness of those big Sharks, by running straight at them at pace and targeting the inside shoulder – simple, basic attacking rugby, but then quickly shifting the ball in the micro-moment before the collision. The first try was copybook stuff as Rory Arnold focussed on the inside shoulder and popped a beautiful pass to Pete Samu at pace, and straight past the lumbering Sharks.

Two more tries came from attacking that channel. Scott Sio popped an inside pass to Henry Speight who ripped through the big Sharks like a hot knife through butter. Later it was Joe Powell that ran at the edge of a ruck and broke through for the score.

It was a plan, and it worked.

This sends two messages to the Jaguares. First, the Brumbies are an exceptionally well coached side, with a coaching squad that reads the opposition and plans accordingly.

Secondly, the Brumbies are playing with extraordinary discipline as they start with a plan, and stick to it! They are executing the basics very, very well too.

The Brumbies will have taken note of the Jaguares strengths and weaknesses, especially the weakness of their scrummaging unit. They will be looking to exploit that weakness as much as possible, using scrum ball as an attacking option as well as an opportunity to suck a penalty or two if the Jaguares crumble.

The Brumbies will also know that the Jaguares lineout has been superb, with Guido Petti the top lineout stealer in the Super season. However, the Brumbies have the next two best ball stealers in the game, with Rory Arnold and Sam Carter equally adept at poaching opposition ball. They will be looking for ways to counter the Jaguares lineout.

(When the Jaguares took on the Chiefs, it was noticeable that they would choose the lineout option when offered the choice between a scrum or a lineout.)

We will have to wait and see what the Brumbies have in store for the Jaguares in the set-pieces.

The Jaguares will also have to be on their toes in the driving mauls, as the Brumbies have developed a very good technique in this area. The hosts’ disciplines around the fringes of the maul will have to be spot-on or they will concede unnecessary penalties.

The Jaguares like to play a game focussed on gaining territory and playing in their opponents’ half. They get into the opposition half, and then play a determined, patient waiting game as they turn on the pressure, slow the ball, interfere with the flow, obstruct the pass, and wait for the inevitable mistake and opportunity to pounce. Their defence has been superlative, evidenced by their work against the Chiefs last weekend, and they wear out the opposition attack until the cracks appear, at which moment they launch the counter-strike.

The Brumbies also like the territory game, but are more focussed on getting within range of the opposition goal line and then setting up scoring opportunities. Very much like the Chiefs did last weekend, only to smash themselves silly against a resolute Jaguares defensive wall.

I am expecting more of the same this week.

This is a game the Jaguares know well, and they are very good at it!

Prediction:

The Jaguares, at home, with the Brumbies having had to travel halfway around the world for the game, with stops in both Sydney and Auckland. 

It is a long way to travel, into a hostile environment.

The Jaguares will win, by 9 points.

SATURDAY 29th June

Crusaders v Hurricanes

Venue: Orangetheory  Stadium, Christchurch
Date Saturday 29 June
Kick-off 19h35 local; 07h35 GMT; 09h35 SA Time
Referee Nic Berry
AR1 Jaco Peyper
AR2 Paul Williams
TMO Ben Skeen

Where the previous semi-final will be one with both teams playing for territory, with a tactical approach looking to create the scoring opportunity, this one will be about skills and pace and striking from every conceivable position on the field. A different tactical approach perhaps, but not an unknown or unexpected style. 

This is what you expect when two New Zealand teams face off.

Whichever way we look at it, this is probably the biggest game of the year in a New Zealand context.

This is so much more than just a Super Rugby semifinal between two New Zealand teams. This is, in reality, an All Black trials match, albeit an unofficial one.

Every single player that takes the field in this semi will know that the All Black selectors are watching. Closely.

We know that the bulk of the All Black squad will come from these two teams, with the Crusaders perhaps having a couple more representatives than the Hurricanes.

That will simply add to the fire and fury we can expect in this game. 

It will be a typical New Zealand derby, with unbelievable skills, total commitment, and an exceptionally high tempo of play. 

These are two sides that know each other very well, and both have similar styles of play – that is the New Zealand way.

Team Announcements:

Crusaders:

Scott Robertson has named an unchanged matchday 23 for Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-final with the Hurricanes in Christchurch.

The squad includes 27-year-old loose forward Jordan Taufua, who has been named on the bench for this game in what will be his 100th appearance for the Crusaders.

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

Hurricanes:

TJ Perenara will become the most capped Hurricanes player when he starts in the Super Rugby semi-final against the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday.

Perenara will go ahead of former Hurricanes team-mates Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith when he makes his 127th appearance, eight seasons after he made his debut against the Stormers in Cape Town.

He will again partner fellow centurion Beauden Barrett in the inside halves, the 101st time they will combine in those positions.

John Plumtree was forced to make just one change to the Hurricanes’ starting side.

That change is on the wing where Salesi Rayasi replaces Wes Goosen who aggravated a hamstring injury against the Bulls.

The bench features the return of utility forward Vaea Fifita from suspension while James Marshall has recovered from an elbow injury which ruled him out of the quarter-final. The other change sees Xavier Numia replace Fraser Armstrong.

Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Salesi Rayasi, 13 Peter Umaga-Jensen, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Isaia Walker-Leawere, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 Asafo Aumua, 17 Xavier Numia, 18 Ben May, 19 Kane Le’aupepe, 20 Vaea Fifita, 21 Richard Judd, 22 James Marshall, 23 Jonah Lowe

Thoughts:

Two teams, on paper, that look exceptionally well matched. The Hurricanes have a back division for which most international coaches would exchange a couple of body parts to have at their disposal. At least 5 of the starting backs are likely to feature in the All Black squad for the World Cup. Jordie Barrett, Ngani Laumape, Ben Lam, Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara must be on Steve Hansen’s short list already.  The other two might be future All Blacks if they continue on their current trajectory. Peter Umaga-Jensen has already represented New Zealand at u/20 level and certainly has the DNA for the big game – he is the nephew of former All Blacks, Tana Umaga and Jerry Collins. Salesi Rayasi has played Sevens rugby for New Zealand, U/20 rugby for Samoa, and is the son of former Fiji international Filipe Rayasi. He took a break from rugby to pursue a career as a basketball player before coming back to the game. 

The Hurricanes have an exceptionally potent back division.

So do the Crusaders! There are probably 5 All Black candidates in that starting lineup too! They might not have the out-and-out striking power of the ‘Canes, but they too have a back division most coaches only dream of.

The match-up between the two flyhalves has every rugby lover salivating.

Beauden Barrett, the world’s leading flyhalf for the last five years or so, up against the free-spirited running of his understudy, Richie Mo’unga.

They are likely to travel to the World Cup as the All Blacks’ first- and second-choice flyhalf options, and international opponents will not relish taking on either of them.

Whomsoever gets it right on the day is likely to be leading his team to victory in this clash.

If they are both on form, it will be worth the price of a ticket just to watch the clash.

Perhaps this game will be decided by the forward collisions?

If there is a weakness in the Hurricanes’ team, it’s their set-piece. Their scrum is up with the best, perhaps even slightly better than that of the Crusaders, but their lineouts are the exact opposite – second worst in all of Super Rugby.

Undoubtedly, the Crusaders’ pack is their strength. Their scrum is powerful, and their lineout is above average, but it is in the forward collisions in open and broken play where the Crusaders are head and shoulders above the rest. They play the midfield game, the rucks and mauls, the collisions and the tackles, with a ruthless efficiency seldom seen from anyone else.

This may well be where they have the edge over the Hurricanes, and this may well be where this game is decided.

The Hurricanes will know that the Crusader defence is superlative, efficient, focussed, and as good as it gets.

Yet they will also know that this is perhaps the one area where the Crusaders might just be vulnerable. Much like the 2017 British & Irish Lions figured that the key to unlocking the All Blacks was to rush their defence and rattle them,  the ‘Canes will be looking to put that kind of pressure on the Crusaders in this game.

Yet, the counter to the rush defence is skill – and that is where Richie Mo’unga has been an absolute revelation in 2019.  He has used a kicking game, designed to drop pinpoint kicks in behind the onrushing defenders and onto his wide receiver/runners as the tactic to nullify the rushing defenders, and it has worked beautifully.

Mo’unga has proved a sublime tactical kicker on attack and defence and a dangerous ball-carrier and distributor with an uncanny ability to put teammates into gaps.

The Hurricanes will be keeping an eye on Mo’unga on Saturday. 

Of course, he is up against the best. Beauden Barrett invented the kick-pass as a tactical ploy to break the rush defence. Beauden Barrett’s ability to put players into gaps is beyond measure. Beauden Barrett has an additional strength, as he favours the double-around-and-join-the-line play which gives him a second bite at the cherry, where he frequently breaks through to sprint away, but it is also a move where he creates more opportunities for support runners than does Mo’unga.

Interesting too is the fact that the two teams like to play different variations of the overall New Zealand style of rugby. The Crusaders like to keep the ball in hand, while the ‘Canes prefer to mix it up, and often alternate ball-in-hand plays with a kicking game to gain ground and create try-scoring chances. Barrett kicks the ball more than does Mo’unga, and is at the top of the stats table for meters gained through kicks.

Another interesting difference between the two teams is that the Hurricanes favour the inside pass and offload primarily with Barrett taking the ball to the line and letting it go to the likes of Ngani Laumape, or a wing running the inside line, while Mo’unga lets the ball go to Ryan Crotty, who then takes the ball to the line before playing it back inside to Mo’unga or out to Jack Goodhue running onto the ball. Slight variations to the same tactic, but the results seem to favour the ‘Canes as Laumape has scored from that tactic more than any of the Crusaders.

If I go back to my initial thought – this game may well be decided by the clash between the two packs of forwards.

If the Crusaders get on top and provide their backs with front-foot ball the Hurricanes could be in for a long afternoon of defending. 

If the Crusaders lose the forward battle, with Barrett playing onto front-foot ball, the Crusaders might have a problem. Their close-in defence sometimes wobbles, where the combination of Bryn Hall and Richie Mo’unga does have a weakness. Mo’unga in particular tends to back away from the tackle somewhat. 

However, this is knock-out rugby, despite the unofficial status as an All Black trial. At the end of the day winning and losing is the difference between a successful season and the end of the season.

One team’s season ends on Saturday.

Prediction:

The Crusaders just seem to have it all – Home ground advantage, and imperious form, together with that one critical element – Confidence. They know how to win. They know how to win in finals rugby too.

The Hurricanes have not been in quite the same form as the Crusaders, and therein lies the big difference.

The Crusaders, by 12.