Super Rugby Quarterfinal Preview

Friday 20th July

Hurricanes vs Chiefs

Date: Friday, July 20
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local, 07:35 GMT, 09:35 SA Time
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant, Paul Williams
TMO: Glenn Newman

This is a quarterfinal, which is a little silly. Two of the top three teams on the log have to meet in a quarterfinal which will, inevitably, result in one of the better teams being knocked out of the competition.

In the real world, these two teams would probably be meeting in a semi-final, or perhaps in the final of any competition. However, this is the fantasy land that is Super Rugby, where lesser teams are ranked ahead of the points leaders on the log, simply because of their nationality.

What should be an epic clash for honours at the very end of the season ends up being something less of a game, a quarterfinal, and the elimination of one of the top teams of the season.

Whichever way you view the structure of this competition, the game scheduled for Friday the 20th is likely to be an epic.

When they are on form, the Hurricanes and the Chiefs are two of the most exciting, entertaining teams in the rugby world. Both teams play the game with pace and intensity that is well above average, and both teams are loaded with individuals who have skill sets and abilities of an extraordinary level.

Some of the best rugby players in the world will be out on that rugby field on Friday, with the likes of Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Solomon Alaimalo, Jordie Barrett, Charlie Ngatai, Ngani Laumape, Ben Lam, Liam Messam, Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, and TJ Perenara all capable of breaking a game wide open on their own. To see them playing with and against each other in a game of crucial importance simply elevates the expectations of an epic confrontation right through the ceiling of rugby possibilities.

An added interest in this game is that it could be the last time a number of players grace the rugby fields of New Zealand.

Five of the Hurricanes team, a coach and four players will leave the ‘Canes and head off to further their rugby careers elsewhere. Coach Chris Boyd is off, as are Julian Savea, Ihaia West, Blade Thomson, Michael Fatialofa, and Brad Shields. All begin overseas contracts once this Super Rugby campaign comes to an end.

On the Chiefs’ 2018 roster we also know that Liam Messum is leaving to play his rugby in Toulon, while Johnny Fa’auli’s red card and suspension means that he has also played his last game for the Hamilton based outfit as he heads to Japan.

No single one of those players who will leave at the end of the season will be planning an exit after this coming weekend. They will all be thinking about next week’s semi-finals, and perhaps the final after that.

And that focus will contribute to the epic nature of the game that will be played on Friday.

Set your alarm, take time off from work, set the recorder, make the coffee in a flask, put the beers in a cooler box, keep the snacks at your elbow, and empty the bladder before kick-off, you will not be wanting to miss a second of this game.

It could very well be the game of the 2018 season.

Team Talk:

Hurricanes prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen will make his 100th Super Rugby appearance in Friday night’s highly anticipated quarter-final against the Chiefs at Westpac Stadium.

The 27-year-old made his debut for the Hurricanes in 2012 against the Stormers alongside long-time teammates Ben May, TJ Perenara and Brad Shields.

He will be the fourth player this season to reach the mark after Beauden Barrett, Perenara and Shields.

Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has named a largely settled squad for the quarter-final.

Captain Brad Shields has been bracketed to allow him as much time as possible to get over a rib injury while Gareth Evans will start in the number seven jersey in place of Sam Henwood.

There are minimal changes in the back line, although Boyd has moved Jordie Barrett to centre to allow the return of crowd favourite and centurion Julian Savea to the starting XV.

Savea will be on the right wing with Ben Lam on the left as Nehe Milner-Skudder moves to full-back .

Wes Goosen, who is still recovering from the head knock he suffered last week, has been bracketed on the bench with Jonah Lowe while the squad has been further strengthened by the return from injury of All Black Vaea Fifita.

Sam Cane will make his return for the Chiefs on Friday as the loose trio is shuffled, with Liam Messum starting at 8. Lachlan Boshier continues in the 6 jersey as Jesse Parete and Mitchell Karpik drop to the bench.

The team is boosted by the return of some key players. In the forwards, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Nathan Harris are back in the front row, so Liam Polwart, and Sam Prattley move to the bench.
Michael Allerdice replaces Tyler Ardron in the second row, Ardron drops out of the match-day 23.

In the backs, Damian McKenzie comes back in to fly-half replacing his brother Marty, who drops to the bench. With Charlie Ngatai starting at 12 and Sean Wainui slotting back in to right wing as Tony Pulu drops out of the match-day 23.

Discussion:

If this discussion was going to be all about consistency, I guess we would talk about the Chiefs as favourites and the Hurricanes as something of an outside chance as winners.

The two teams faced off a week ago in the final game of their respective regular seasons. The Chiefs knew that they had to win by a clear margin of 22 points if they wanted to host this week’s quarterfinal, and they knew that, realistically, it was not the most likely outcome of a game against the Hurricanes.

Hence they rested a whole group of their first choice players, including captain Sam Cane, All Black hooker Nathan Harris, and game-breaker Damian McKenzie.

Despite the depleted starting 15, the Chiefs took the game to the Hurricanes, running rampant against the ‘Canes usually rock solid defence, and leading 21-0 at the halftime whistle.

The Hurricanes fought back after half-time, assisted somewhat by the red card shown to Johnny Fa’auli in the 62nd minute.

The truth is that a second string Chiefs gave the Hurricanes much to think about, albeit at home in Hamilton.

The Hurricanes are at home this time around, and will certainly be more motivated this time around, it is the Chiefs that will take confidence from that last game.

The Hurricanes, despite the obvious quality of their entire team, have struggled with their game in recent weeks. Their set-pieces and set-piece rehearsed plays have worked like clockwork, but the off-the-cuff moments have been lacking. That sparkle of instant initiative that has been a hallmark of the ‘Canes for the last three or four seasons has been missing.

In the second half of the game against the Chiefs we started to see glimpses of the ‘Canes at their best, but it was still just glimpses, and not a consistent 40 minutes of pressure.

What then, can we expect on Friday?

The Chiefs will continue to play the game that has worked for them all season. They will rely on their forwards, especially the scrum set-piece and their loose trio over the loose ball to get the front-foot ball to Damian McKenzie, at which moment anything can happen, and usually does. It is interesting that they have scored around 40 tries off the quick ball close in, going through one or two, even three rapid phases to create the scoring opportunity.

The Chief’s backs have some exceptional strike runners, with Charlie Ngatai adding his game management to the willo‘-the-wisp that is McKenzie. Runners like Solomon Alaimalo, Sean Wainui, Anton Lienert-Brown, and Shaun Stevenson simply feed off the chaos that McKenzie creates, while running off the shoulder of Ngatai when he is given the ball.

The Hurricanes have a “dream-team” look about their back division, starting with the half-back pairing of Perenara and Barrett, with Ngani Laumape in the form of his life at 12, and then Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea, Jordie Barrett, and Ben Lam running the wider channels. Only Lam is not an All Black, yet.

It is interesting to think about the form of individuals in that ‘Canes backline and how that form has influenced or changed the way they are playing the game in 2018. Last year Beauden Barrett deployed the kick-pass on a number of occasions, and often more than once or twice in a game. He used the kick-pass whenever broken play ball reached him quickly and going forward, as it exploited the fluidity of defences rearranging themselves out wide. He also often kicked the ball wide and deep for his big wingers to chase and contest in one-on-one confrontations.

This year he has used the kick-pass on far fewer occasions, mostly because he has two of the form close in runners in the game playing off him, with Laumape taking the midfield ball up and Ben Lam the inside pass and the cutback. Both players have scored plenty of tries or set up plenty of tries using that play, hence the holding back on the kick-pass.

Lam has scored 14 tries and Laumape 9 – between them they have scored 23, or 35%, of the Hurricanes 66 tries this season.

Why bother with the risk of an interception of the kick-pass when your close-in runners are breaching the opposition with persistent regularity?

The two back divisions seem fairly evenly matched, although the Chiefs seem better at the broken play attacks, while the ‘Canes are better at the pre-planned, rehearsed options.

It is among the forwards where the Chiefs could have the edge, with Retallick and Allerdice as a powerful second row that provides grunt in all phases of the game, and a loose trio that includes Liam Messam and Sam Cane. Nathan Harris provides an extra ball carrying option out wide.

The Chiefs are ranked first in terms of their per-game scrum success rate (95%), whilst the Hurricanes seem to have a slight edge in the lineouts..

The Hurricanes have conceded just 43 tries all year, ranked second only to the Crusaders, and are right up near the top in tackle turnovers, fourth in the stats while the Chiefs are down in 9th. They have missed just 292 tackles all season, making 2173. That is a very good 89% tackle success rate. They will aim to suffocate the Chiefs through their line-speed on defence.

The Chiefs are not far off the ‘Canes in defence, having made 2111 tackles and missed 297, which gives them an 88% tackle success rate.

The Hurricanes have won nine of their last 10 games when hosting New Zealand opposition, they are also on a 9-game winning streak at home, and that very fact of home-ground advantage will probably make them slight favourites, yet the Chiefs have won four of their last six games against the Hurricanes! And that single loss at home to a New Zealand team was also against the Chiefs last season.

Whichever way you want to look at this game, it promises to be one of the better games in a long long time. Enjoy it for what it is!

Prediction:

I have gone back and changed my pick on our local on-line prediction game site three times. I chose the ‘Canes, then changed to the Chiefs, went back to the ‘Canes, and now I am going back to change my pick again. I am going with the Chiefs.

Firstly, they are the Hurricanes’ bogey side. Secondly, they have been in much better form than the home team of late, and third, they have last week’s win to add to their confidence levels.

One on one, the Hurricanes are perhaps slightly better, but team on team these two outfits are very evenly matched.

Based thus on form and confidence, it has to be the Chiefs.

The Chiefs, by a close 5.

The Teams:

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)/Reed Prinsep, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Michael Fatialofa, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Reed Prinsep/Sam Henwood, 21 Jamie Booth 22 Ihaia West 23 Wes Goosen/Jonah Lowe

Chiefs: 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Shaun Stevenson, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Jesse Parete, 20 Mitch Karpik, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Alex Nankivell