Cracking Kiwi derbies revealed some telling truths. The biggest? Super Rugby is alive and well


We’ve finally reached that moment of truth when the top Super Rugby teams need to find their best form for the playoffs, and Test selectors look with keen interest on how contenders and pretenders cope with the big match pressure. It’s amazing that in the 48 hours after The Roar published my All Blacks selection article we’ve learned so much more about some of the players I “selected” – and the true state of the top end of the New Zealand game.

With Super Rugby coming to an unpredictable head and an inspirational new All Blacks coach about to select his first squad, things are so exciting that I’ve been moved to write two articles in two weeks. Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of it.

So let’s take a quick look at last week’s Kiwi derbies and see what we’ve learned.

Truth one: The quality is still there

Brett Cameron of the Hurricanes. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

So many people love to moan about the quality of this year’s Super Rugby, especially that of perennial champions the Crusaders. Well, those two Kiwi derbies were pretty good evidence that standards in at least the top four New Zealand teams are still as good as you’ll find anywhere. On a weekend when composure deserted the two best teams in Europe, high-intensity defences forced some errors but attacks were good enough to execute twelve tries. Our best players can still turn it on when it really matters.

Truth two: Crowds are growing

People keep saying that nobody is interested in Super Rugby anymore but NZ crowds, TV audiences and streaming numbers are all up. After the recent multitudes in Auckland, last week saw near-capacity attendances in Christchurch and the Tron, where officials have made a real effort to improve the game night experience this season. Kudos also to regulators and refs who have done a great job to speed up the game. Oh, and the players and coaches for some scintillating rugby.

Truth three: Nearly everyone will be Drua fans on Saturday

Sympathy for the Rebels in possibly their last-ever regular season match will be parked this weekend, as supporters of the top five teams sweat on a Drua win in famously humid Lautoka. If they fail, the unthinkable is likely – the Crusaders could make the playoffs.

Against the Blues, the Crusaders put together a fast and furious combination of controlled violence and quick thinking, clinical attack. They proved that with the likes of Ethan Blackadder, Codie Taylor and Fergus Burke back, and Scott Barrett to come, they’re still a very good team. Seriously, how impressive were Taylor and Blackadder against the Blues? Nobody will want to face them in a knockout match with their season on the line.

Although it has to be said that, like their mediaeval forebears, the Crusaders have struggled to cope with opponents while on their travels this season. That could prove crucial because they have no chance of a home playoff.

Rain is forecast in Lautoka from now until Saturday. Rebels fans will be hoping that this and the pressure of the situation will help Melbourne turn the game into a scrappy forward battle which will suit Taniela Tupou and his forward colleagues down to the ground… or, in this case, mud if the last wet weather game at Churchill Park is anything to go by.

Taniela Tupou. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Of course, their biggest match of the season is the following weekend. So it’s possible that Thor and his most talented teammates will be spared the challenging tropical expedition. Wouldn’t that cause consternation for the eyepatch crew?

Truth four: The Saders and Canes’ scrums are powerful weapons

When the Super Rugby squads for this year were announced, the disparities in front-row depth were clear. While the likes of the Chiefs were clearly going to struggle, the defending champions had five experienced All Black props and one NZXV rep to add to the first-choice Test hooker. That stockpiling of talent simply cannot be good for New Zealand rugby.

Therefore it was no surprise to see the Crusaders put the Blues scrum to the sword on Saturday night. It was also significant that the Hurricanes scrum held firm even without Tyrel Lomax and Asafo Aumua. When those two big All Blacks return to join breakout loose head Xavier Numia, they’ll dominate most teams.

Across the ditch, it was no surprise to see Tupou and his mates send the front row of Australia’s top team into reverse and repeating that could be the Rebels’ only hope in the event of a quarter-final rematch. It’s been a shock to see the once mighty Brumbies scrum become a liability in big games this year.

Truth five: The Hurricanes have different ways to win

Earlier this year at the Cake Tin, the Canes beat the Chiefs through first-half scrum domination and an overwhelming second half display from Asafo Aumua and a stacked loose forwards bench. Against the Chiefs, these weapons were absent due to injuries to internationals Aumua, Lomax, Du’Plessis Kirifi and Brad Shields, but they still just about got the job done.

The Canes’ defence showed great resilience against perhaps the most dangerous back line in the comp and if they can secure top spot and get back to near full strength, they will be very tough to beat.

Truth six: Love can handle Test-level aerial bombardments

In last week’s article, I mentioned how poor New Zealand were under the high ball in the World Cup final, especially Beauden Barrett, and how good England’s high kick/chase game is.

Ruben Love of the Hurricanes. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

I hadn’t seen enough of Ruben Love’s bomb disposal skills to comment on them but all that changed on Friday night as he twice leapt high above the traffic to claim a spectacular catch. A lot of first-fives like Damian McKenzie who have moved to fullback are a bit on the diminutive side and pressure-oriented teams like England and the Springboks can make their lives very difficult. That sort of weakness can be probed relentlessly to decisive effect, like an experienced MMA fighter whose opponent is limping on a sore leg.

It doesn’t look like that will be possible with Love, who has the height of Beaudy and the athleticism, skills and bravery of DMac. That will help counter one of England’s greatest threats and avert possible disaster.

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Truth seven: The Blues are a different prospect without Papalii

For the first time this season against a top opponent, Dalton Papalii was missing from the Blues defence and it showed big time. The northerners have boasted defensive stats rarely seen in Super Rugby, but on Saturday they lost the breakdown and that was the game. Fourteen penalties and four Crusader tries later they were left battered and defeated.

Modern defensive systems rely on a high quality, specialist openside to captain the defensive line and make a shedload of tackles. Modern attacks need one to secure the key offensive breakdowns.

Both the Blues on Saturday and the Chiefs all season have seen a marked drop off, just through having a solid journeyman in the No.7 jersey. When you have a non-specialist filling in, you can get the Chiefs v Reds in New Plymouth last year. Or the eight minutes at Twickenham in 2022 after Papalii was rested, Ardie Savea moved to openside and Hoskins Sotutu came on at 8.

Look who showed up to training today ????️????️

— Hurricanes Rugby (@Hurricanesrugby) May 28, 2024

Under the tutelage of Stern Vern Cotter, Papalii has bossed this role in Super Rugby and has done it well in Sam Cane’s absence at test level in the past. Omitting him to select an extra ball player could be a disaster of Akira proportions.

Truth eight: Blackadder is still a force of nature

Saturday’s transformed Crusaders performance was made possible by stellar displays from the returning Codie Taylor and Ethan Blackadder. How they have been missed.

Less than two years after his match-losing implosion against Argentina on the same ground, Taylor has matured into a tough world class tight forward and the All Blacks’ number one rake. Against the Blues, he was into everything, but the standout moment was when he spotted the chance to take a quick tap, ran diagonally and launched six-foot-four Chay Fihaki at a flat-footed defender on the line. Mastering his core roles hasn’t cost him his ability to play brilliant heads-up rugby like an international back.

My “selection” of Taylor in the No.2 jersey aroused little dissent but Ethan Blackadder as the reserve loose forward raised a lot of eyebrows. With his injury record I can’t blame them, but nobody else in New Zealand rugby can cover all three positions with his work rate and punishing physicality.

The day before his Dad won the Japanese final against legendary Crusaders coach Robbie Deans, Junior played the house down in his second-string position of openside. In an all-action, 80-minute comeback performance he hit 39 rucks, made 12 carries and produced 24 punishing tackles without a miss.

Ok, he will need to be managed through the season, but if there’s a big Test where physicality is at a premium and he’s fit to go, he has to be there.

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It was quite a weekend of Super Rugby. You’ve read the truths as I see them – but what are yours? As always feel free to disagree.

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