Two seismic Super Rugby semi-finals will take place tomorrow as the Lions face the Highlander in Johannesburg and the Hurricanes take on the Chiefs in Wellington
Three teams from New Zealand and one from South Africa clash this weekend for a place in the Super Rugby Final on August 6. The first semi will be contested by the Hurricanes and the Chiefs, at the Westpac Stadium, followed by the Lions hosting the Highlanders at the Emirates Airlines Park later in the day. Below, we take a look at some of the key battles that could decide the games.
Hurricanes v Chiefs – Westpac Stadium, Wellington [July 30, 08:35]
Both teams put in monumental performances in their respective quarter-final matches last weekend. The Canes’ defence proved impenetrable, as they denied the Sharks from scoring any points, running out comprehensive 41-0 winners. It was a shambolic showing from the Natal men, with captain Tendai Mtawarira calling it “an embarrassing effort”. The win marked the first time in Super Rugby history that a quarter-finalist had been whitewashed. Later the same day, the Chiefs dominated the Stormers 60-21, showcasing clinical attacking play, replicating performances that saw them lift back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
Beauden Barrett v Aaron Cruden
On Saturday, Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden’s sole focus will be on their team’s performance over 80 minutes, but fans around the globe will be dissecting their individual performances, and speculating about which one will be wearing the All Black No.10 jersey against Australia on August 20.
Both can stake a genuine claim. Last week, Barrett showcased a masterful kicking display against the Sharks, slotting three conversions and a penalty in gale force winds and driving rain. Cruden also did no damage to his reputation by providing a sturdy platform and quick ball which enabled his side to chalk up 60 points.
Historically, Steve Hansen has opted to start with Cruden, and bring Barrett off the bench as an impact sub. But if the young Hurricane gets the best of Cruden this weekend, it’ll give Hansen a selection headache.
As a result of Damian McKenzie’s unerring accuracy with the boot this season, including 18 penalty goals and 43 conversions, Cruden has been absolved of place kicking duties of late – similar to the dynamic shared between England team mates Owen Farrell and George Ford – and as a result, a weight has been lifted from the 27-year-old’s shoulders, enabling him to focus on his game management and ball distribution, two areas that will be key if the Chiefs wish to reach the final.
An attacking five-eighth, Barrett is most dangerous when playing off the cuff, and he will not hesitate to hit a gap, if one opens, in the Chiefs defence this weekend. The occasion got to Barrett in last year’s final, when it seemed as though he switched off in defence, enabling Lima Sopoaga to outshine him. But Barrett is a different calibre of player to last year. Emboldened by a World Cup winners medal, he has added a level of consistency to his game and is a more level-headed, mature fly-half oozing in confidence. The Cake Tin will have a Test match atmosphere on Saturday.
Ardie Savea v Sam Cane
Ardie Savea and Sam Cane are two men expected to fiercely contest the All Black No.7 shirt for years to come, and on Saturday we get the first notable instalment of their duel. Savea is a modern day back-rower: lean, explosive and blessed with a wing’s pace. Cane is a more traditional 7, similar to his mentor Richie McCaw, hard-working and capable of putting in a technical masterclass at the breakdown.
Cane has long been tipped as the heir to McCaw, and already oozes leadership qualities beyond his 24 years, but Savea’s attacking prowess makes him a more dangerous threat. He’s played one less game than Cane this year in Super Rugby, and has made double the metres, beaten double the defenders, had quadruple the amount of clean breaks and supplied more try-assists. But his defensive nous tends to be overlooked, with Cane’s supporters suggesting that their man does ‘the work that nobody sees’, when in fact Savea’s statistics are just as noteworthy.
Cane has missed more tackles and has a lower tackle success percentage with 91.4% this season, compared to Savea’s 92.1%. Saturday will be a seismic battle between the two back-rowers, and Ardie Savea has an opportunity to nail down the All Black jersey after wearing it with distinction in his fleeting appearances against Wales in the summer.
Lions v Highlanders – Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg [30 July, KO 14:00]
Defending Super Rugby champions, the Highlanders, squeezed past a resilient Brumbies team 9-15 in Canberra last week, scoring two well-worked tries along the way. The Lions have bagged the most tries so far in Super Rugby this season – alongside the Chiefs – with 76, and have been credited for playing an ‘NZ-style’ of attacking play. They saw off the Crusaders 42-25 in Johannesburg last week, in a game that saw them up 12-0 within six minutes.
Aaron Smith v Francois ‘Faf’ de Klerk
This clash of the No.9’s screams experience versus youth. Aaron Smith is unchallenged as the best scrum-half in the world; he can turn a game on its head with a sniping run, late offload or penetrative box-kick and he was at the heart of everything the Highlanders did right in last year’s Super Rugby triumph. He will be just as important this weekend.
Faf de Klerk made his Test debut against Ireland in June, and is a player who thrives on quick ball. He has enabled his team to play at a high-tempo, by burrowing into every breakdown, giving fly-half Elton Jantjies the best platform to play free-flowing and expansive rugby. De Klerk has to implement an intelligent tactical kicking game on Saturday, hoist box-kicks skyward and weight clearing ones adroitly. Field position will be paramount.
Bragging rights are on the line, and with Test matches between New Zealand and South Africa fast approaching, expect both scrum-halves to be at their very best.
Waisake Naholo v Ruan Combrinck
Waisake Naholo announced himself on the international scene last year when New Zealand hosted Argentina in Christchurch, and he imposed himself quickly. A route one winger with an eye for the line, Naholo has adopted the Lomu blueprint, often opting to run over his opposite man rather than around him. The 25-year-old has scored four tries in five starts for the All Blacks’ and seven for the Highlanders this season.
Similarly, Ruan Combrinck has made a formidable first impression on the world stage. Coming off the bench at half-time to debut against Ireland in June, the farmer’s boy from Vryheid put in an inspiring performance, scoring a try and helping his side snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Combrinck boasts the more impressive club credentials heading into Saturday. The wing cum full-back has beaten more defenders (48) than Naholo (17) . Nevertheless, the defending champions will look to utilise their dangerous wing, and if Naholo gets ball in space, he will cross paths with Combrinck, and we’ll get to see who comes out on top.