Super Rugby Semifinal Preview

Saturday 28th July

Crusaders vs Hurricanes

Date: Saturday, July 28
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

If you listen to the pundits, this game is a foregone conclusion. The Crusaders will win it, leaving a shattered Hurricanes outfit floundering in their wake. Yet, I do not think that the result is pre-ordained and that the Crusaders will simply walk all over the ‘Canes. There can be no doubt that beating the Crusaders at home is hard enough, but beating them in a home playoff game has, so far, proven to be impossible. The Crusaders have been in 19 previous home playoff games, dating back to 1998, and they have won every time.

A 19-0 winning streak in home playoffs is a formidable record. The best in Super Rugby, and probably the best in the whole world.

This tells us that the defending champions hold a distinct home advantage going into Saturday’s semifinal against the Hurricanes in Christchurch.

(Three of those 19 playoff wins were against the Hurricanes.)

Add in another snippet of statistical information: Saturday’s 30-point win over the Sharks was the seventh time on the trot that the Crusaders have won a home playoff by 14 points or more.

But, as Muhammad Ali is reported to have said after losing his first fight against Ken Norton in 1973. “Even the best has to figure to get beat sometime!” – Whether that quote is actually from the Greatest’s lips or not, the sentiment is very true.

And just that will give the Hurricanes enough motivation when they take to the field in Christchurch!

They will also know that the last team to beat the Crusaders at home was themselves, the Hurricanes, in their final regular season game in 2016. (That would be 742 days ago by the time the game kicks off on Saturday.)

Another bit of motivation for the Hurricanes: The Crusaders can be vulnerable at home. They went down 29-0 in the opening 30 minutes to the Waratahs only to pull off a remarkable comeback to win 31-29.

A quick look at the Crusaders’ home record for 2018 is worth the effort. They have not lost in Christchurch this year. Their record tells that they beat the Chiefs 45-23, Stormers 45-28, Bulls 33-14, Sunwolves 33-11, Waratahs 31-29, Hurricanes 24-13, Highlanders 45-22, and the Blues 54-17. Last weekend they disposed of the Sharks 40-10.

They have scored 350 points in those 9 home games, and conceded just 167, giving us an average of 39-19.

This semi-final matches the two best teams in the 2018 season. They finished first and second on the overall log, with 63 and 51 points respectively. The Crusaders won 14 and lost just two in the regular season, while the Hurricanes won 11 and lost 5.

Very little separates these two sides in the statistics heading into this clash. Both have carried the ball an almost identical distance, with the ‘Saders making 11508 meters in 1818 carries, while the ‘Canes have made 11543 meters in 1768 carries.

Both teams have passed the ball with an 87,5% accuracy rate. Near identical offload counts show the Crusaders making 162 offloads and the Hurricanes 159. An 86% tackle success rate for the Hurricanes is matched by the Crusaders, almost to the exact mark. Even turnovers are almost identical as the Crusaders have made 47 and the Hurricanes 43.

The Crusaders edge the try-scoring stats with 81 to the ‘Canes 70.

The Crusaders’ discipline has been a slightly weaker point, seeing 9 yellow cards as they conceded 123 penalties in the season, with ruck and offside penalties leading the way. The Hurricanes have only seen yellow three times, while conceding 127 penalties, with offside being a real problem.

Lineout stats, scrums, linebreaks, kicks, even handling errors show two teams that are very evenly match across almost every aspect of the game.

Where, and how do we establish which of the teams is the more likely to win this game?

At the end of the day, I guess, we have to take another look at the Crusaders’ remarkable home record.

Team Talk:

It is with a certain hint of sadness that I read that veteran prop Wyatt Crockett has been dropped from the Crusaders’ team to face the Hurricanes in their Super Rugby semifinal on Saturday.

Crockett makes way for All Black Joe Moody who comes straight back into the starting lineup after recovering from a knee injury he picked up earlier this month.

Have we seen the end of a remarkable career? The end of an era? It would have been a fitting farewell for Wyatt Crockett, to see him play in the semi-final, and possibly another final, before he hangs up his boots, but it seems that this might not happen.

Joe Moody’s return is the only change to the Crusaders’ starting XV for Saturday’s semi-final against the Hurricanes at AMI Stadium in Christchurch.

Tim Perry will provide cover on the bench.

The Hurricanes have named an unchanged starting XV for Saturday.

After defeating the Chiefs 32-31 in last week’s quarter-final, Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has resisted the temptation to change a winning combination as they prepare to take on the defending champions.

The bench is also settled, although there is potential for one change with Ardie Savea bracketed with Reed Prinsep.

Savea has not played since he suffered a high ankle sprain in the All Blacks’ third Test against France on June 23rd, and must pass a fitness test before he is confirmed in the match-day 23.

Discussion:

There is much of interest in this clash. At a quick count 18 current All Blacks will take the field, with the majority of them wearing Crusaders’ colours.

In a number of positions there are fascinating match-ups, none more so that between the two flyhalves.

Richie Mo’unga is one of the pretenders to the throne currently occupied by Beauden Barrett. He is a superb ball-player with all the skills and technical nous of an international flyhalf. He has the ability to get his backline moving off the front-foot, and has an equal ability to attack the line himself. His passing is quick and accurate, and his kicking is pinpoint stuff. He is perhaps, just a little short on experience, but certainly has the talent!

He faces off against the man many rate as the best all-round rugby player in the world, Beauden Barrett.

And that might just be where the Hurricanes have something of a secret weapon in this critical semifinal clash.

2018 hasn’t quite happened for Beauden Barrett, yet. The world’s best player hasn’t looked quite at his best all year. Good, yes, but not stellar, the level where we are used to seeing him play the game.

In the Test series against France he was good, but not great, until he was concussed and could no further part in the series. Against the Chiefs in the last of the regular season match-ups, he didn’t look even remotely like the world’s best player, producing perhaps the worst Super Rugby game of his career as the 14-man Chiefs held on for a win.

It just seemed that something was wrong with his timing, and it affected his entire game.

Last week, in the quarter-final against the self-same Chiefs, he was so much better, but he still seemed to be holding back. He was more accurate, with some clever thinking, passing and kicking. He directed the ‘Canes defence well, but still seemed strangely subdued. He looked as if he was holding something back, almost as if he were hiding something.

It often takes a big match, an important derby, a critical occasion for the very best to suddenly step up to the mark and catch fire.

It might well be this week, this semifinal, this occasion where we see Beauden Barrett switch on the class and take the game by the scruff of its neck.

If that happens, the Crusaders will be in for a mighty fight!

This game will probably revolve around the set-pieces.

The Hurricanes are known for their free-wheeling attack in open play. Their reputation is of a team that will attack and counter-attack at every single opportunity, with potentially the most dangerous backline in the entire rugby world just looking for a chance to run.

While their reputation might suggest a team that thrives in broken play, the reality is that the Hurricanes score the vast majority of their tries off set-piece plays. Just in the last two weeks we have seen almost all the tries they scored against the Chiefs, in the loss and then the quarterfinal win, coming off a set-piece. Back on the 7th July against the Blues, Ngani Laumape bagged four tries, while there was one apiece for Julian Savea and Beauden Barrett. Savea and Barrett’s were both from scrums, along with one of Laumape’s. Two more came from Hurricanes lineouts,  while only the last was as a result of good lineout defence on the Blues’ ball.

In the quarterfinal win over the Chiefs, halfback TJ Perenara was twice able to power over from the base of rock-solid Hurricanes’ scrums.

Despite their reputation for counter-attack and taking the ball wide at pace, the Hurricanes’ strategy has visibly revolved around sound set-pieces and simply carrying the ball directly, hard and straight. Not crash-ball mind you, this is not a South African team! The ball carriers run exceptional lines into gaps and spaces.

If the Hurricanes’ scrum is as solid as it has been all season, and their lineouts work well, as they mostly do, they have a very real chance of ending the Crusaders’ run of 19 home playoff victories.

However, this is the Crusaders, the most clinical team in the game. They too base their game around rock-solid set-pieces, they too look to play the game directly, straight and hard.

Their midfield is of true international quality with the silky skills and game management of Ryan Crotty offset by the bustling power and menace of Jack Goodhue. They are formidable on defence and exceptional on attack. The mouth waters at the thought of these two opposing Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett.

The Crusader’s duo is perhaps the better defensive unit of the two, both being established midfielders and having played together as a partnership for most of the season. The ‘Canes midfield is less well established as Jordie Barrett gets shifted around between the fullback position and the midfield rather a lot. This might just be a slight weakness.

Both teams have an exceptional defensive record, with an 86% tackle success rate matched exactly. The Crusader defence is built on superior second line defending, with their cover defenders stopping whatever the midfield and outside backs have slipped or slowed. The ‘Canes have built their defence around a hugely quick line-speed and looking to catch the opposition behind the advantage line and then shutting down the space those opponents need to function effectively.

Both teams have the ability to crack an opposing defensive strategy open.

For the ‘Canes, Beauden Barrett can pop chips, grubbers, and small dinks over a rushing tackler, he can fire his kick-pass cross-kicks out to his wings Ben Lam and Julian Savea, and Nehe Milner-Skudder coming through from fullback. He also has the weapon of his own acceleration off the mark into gaps, along with the direct running of Ngani Laumape in the mid-field.

The Crusaders are more likely to use a pod of forwards to suck the Hurricanes defenders into contact before allowing the trickery of a Ryan Crotty to look for a gap in the defences.

Then there is the clinical execution of the Crusaders’ back division, a hallmark of their game all season.

The Crusaders are a side that plays superbly crafted rugby. They play with precision, power and a focus on relentless phase play. This is, perhaps, where they have the better of the ‘Canes.

The Crusaders also seem to have the better driving mauls, marshalled by Kieran Read and, especially, Codie Taylor. They are likely to use this weapon to push the ‘Canes back and suck in their cover defenders. There is also the formidable counter-shove expertise of the Crusaders scrum, used to disrupt and slow ball at the back of the opposing scrum.

As we go up and down the team sheets, matching player to player, unit to unit, division to division, team to team, these are two very evenly matched teams.

It will be a fascinating duel!

Prediction: 

This game is not easy to call.

If the game were to be played on neutral ground, I would suggest that the Hurricanes have the firepower and overall game to knock over the Crusaders, especially if Beauden Barrett is at his best.

The problem is this game is being played in Christchurch, and the Crusaders have been unbeatable at home in knock-out rugby.

And that is why I am going with the Crusaders, by around 10 points.

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