The Wrap: 79-minute Blues still have to prove they’re not Super Rugby’s biggest choke artists as Hurricanes slip into playoff pole position


With the race for positions at the rear of the Super Rugby finals grid settled early on Saturday afternoon, attention switched to the pointy end of qualifying, and fans weren’t left disappointed.

The Hurricanes overcame an early Highlanders’ try and another confounding kit clash to purr away to an impressive 41-14 win in Wellington; the same location where they will host the final, if they keep winning.

There’s every chance of that happening; they boast multiple threats forward and back, and have a knack for knowing when to hit turbo boost when a sniff of an opportunity presents itself.

Salesi Rayasi was the chief beneficiary – his hat-trick could have been more – but the Rebels next week will have to keep a close watch on all 23 players. At the top of that list, looking fresh and hungry, is Asafo Aumua, who proved too dynamic for the Highlanders’ defenders to deal with.

The Highlanders were by no means poor; they’ve made strong progress over the last month and will travel to Canberra next week feeling like they have a strong chance.

That said, there’s also a sense that this season rushed up on them and Clarke Dermody a bit too quickly, and, no matter what happens next week, they’ll be a better proposition next year.

Before we leave this match, here’s how communication between the respective managements played out in the lead up;

Hurricanes: “We’ll wear black and yellow shirts, with black shorts.”

Highlanders: “No worries, we’ll wear navy blue and yellow shirts, with navy blue shorts.”

SANZAAR: “All sweet. If people can’t tell the difference between black and navy on their TV screens they’re not the sort of fans rugby is looking for.”

Salesi Rayasi of the Hurricanes. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

With the bonus point secured, the Hurricanes sat back to cheer on the Chiefs in Auckland. That must have felt like a lost cause, such was the Blues’ physical dominance, until Josh Ioane’s last-ditch try shocked the home crowd and turned everything on its head.

The respective game styles had been established early; the Chiefs looking to get the ball in Damian McKenzie’s hands as often as possible; the Blues revving up their power re-cycle game.

Key to that is the brute power of their cleanout, no better illustrated by the way Ricky Riccitelli smashed over the top of Dalton Papalii to open a channel for Hoskins Sotutu to pick, spin and score.

But for all their imposing dominance, the Blues never quite got the breathing space they needed. Tupaea’s easy stroll to the line, from a quick tap in the 68th minute, was almost impossible to reconcile against all that was going on elsewhere.

Post-match, Sotutu spoke about requiring an 80-minute performance to be able to win the competition. It’s easy to understand what he was getting at. 79 minutes proved enough to beat the Chiefs, convincingly enough, 31-17. There’s a fortnight’s worth of rugby still to play out before the final, but will that missing minute be the one that costs the Blues the title?

The bonus-point stealer! ????#BLUvCHI #SuperRugbyPacific

— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) June 1, 2024

Aside from tension around the bonus point quest, the other big talking point from the match was Chiefs’ captain Luke Jacobson’s collision with Blues halfback Finlay Christie in the 60th minute.

It didn’t take long for referee Ben O’Keeffe to cop a hammering from northern hemisphere pundits, convinced that southern hemisphere rugby doesn’t take head injury seriously. Understandable enough; a halfback standing over the ball has every right not to expect to be hit in the head by an opponent flying through the middle of the ruck.

But it was also possible to see where O’Keeffe was coming from in penalising Jacobson without further sanction. Jacobson was attempting a clean-out on Riccitelli, and took an inadvertent deflection on the way. A ‘rugby incident’, to use the popular vernacular.

My view is that this still doesn’t absolve Jacobson from responsibility. He became, in effect, a flying missile, who lost control of his trajectory. Yes, he was bent over, and yes, there was no intent to make contact with Christie. But it was the reckless nature of his action that ensured he did.

For his part, Christie reeled out of contact, appearing momentarily dazed, then lay on the ground for some time before he was treated. He was then subbed off, and made his way straight to the bench, without being subjected to a HIA.

There are two possible explanations for this; the Blues’ medical staff instantly ruled the matter a Category 1 concussion, which means no requirement for an assessment and an automatic stand-down for Christie next week as he undergoes return-to-play protocols.

The other possibility is that the matter was let slide. Let’s hope it’s the former.

Also sliding were the Crusaders, into the history books as they failed to qualify for a final series for the first time in Super Rugby history. That’s an outstanding achievement by the way, although everyone knows records are meant to be broken; after all, even the Bledisloe Cup will return to Australia one day.

Their 43-10 win over Moana Pasifika was the performance of a side much better than their ninth place suggests. But that’s the price paid for such a slow beginning to what is a short season. Oh, and how costly does Taha Kemara’s confusion over the shot clock in Sydney, or Quinten Strange’s panicked slap over the dead-ball line in Canberra, look now?

Tom Wright and Len Ikitau. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The Crusaders had their hopes raised when the Rebels went out to a 19-12 lead against the Drua, but one of the Rebels’ Achilles heels this season has been the way they’ve shipped points in batches.

With a try conceded approaching half-time, another three came in 12 minutes after the break. The Drua had seized the momentum while the Rebels’ self-belief, and ability to nail first-time tackles, had drained away.

There’s an old saying, or perhaps it’s a Tom Waits line, which goes ‘when you’re down and out, you’re down and out’. On their way to meet the executioner, the Rebels cruelly had more salt rubbed in when the Drua’s opening try contained one each of the most obvious forward passes, then knock-ons, you’ll ever wish to see.

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It’s never easy for referees, who can’t always see everything on the run, but in cases like this it’s fair to ask why some assistant referees – Dan Waenga was less than two metres away from the action and not even looking at the play – bother strapping a boot on at all?

No doubt Kevin Foote will receive the obligatory apology this week from the referees, which, given what played out last Thursday before his side boarded the plane to Fiji, should be just what he needs to perk him up and make him feel better about life.

 (Photo by Pita Simpson/Getty Images)

The 40-19 win means that the Drua go into their quarter-final at Eden Park with positive momentum, although everyone knows their dreadful away record isn’t about to be improved; even if the Blues only play for 79 minutes.

The Reds go to Hamilton for their quarter-final also in winning form, albeit after barely squeezing home against the Waratahs in Sydney, 27-26. The Chiefs appeal as a good matchup for them and this should be a cracking contest.

In attack, all teams commonly employ wrap-around, ‘second man’ plays, but of the Australian sides, it is the Reds who are most adept at having their outside runners stay square, and hit the ball at pace.

The Waratahs meanwhile stayed true to form, losing at the death, despite finding their tempo in the second half and playing some good rugby. It’s been a rotten year, and the whole forward pack should hang their heads in shame for not reacting to Tate McDermott’s quick tap, but coach Darren Coleman handled his exit with grace and he departs with his honour intact.

By the time the caravan rolled into Perth on Saturday night there was nothing left to play for, although nobody told Tom Wright and Corey Toole. They swapped favours, each playing with supreme confidence, each spectacularly laying on tries for the other.

Too quick Too fast #FORvBRU #SuperRugbyPacific

— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) June 1, 2024

While the 24-19 scoreline didn’t matter to coach Steve Larkham, losing another prop – this time Blake Schoupp – certainly did. The Brumbies can expect to be targeted at the scrum over the next few weeks and clearly, can’t afford any more front-row mishaps.

The Force rolled out all the ‘brave in defeat’ cliches, scoring two late tries to narrow the scoreline, but in truth, tenth place feels like a fair whack for their season.

Looking ahead, it feels like the three sides at the front of the grid – the Hurricanes, Blues and Brumbies – will have ample horsepower to advance to the semi-finals, while the Chiefs versus the Reds should be quite the dogfight.

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When all of the arguments around the merits of having eight teams qualify for the post-season are done, that’s probably exactly how it should be.

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