Lions watch: Super Rugby Round-up

With just a matter of days now before the British and Irish Lions set off for New Zealand, the spotlight has shone brighter than ever on the New Zealand teams in this year’s Super Rugby competition. Whilst the main focus for supporters will be on the three-match test series against the reigning world champions, the five Super Rugby franchises will be keen to ensure that the Lions do not go into those three tests with a spring in their step by ruffling some feathers in the warm-up games. So here are the latest headlines from down South.

Barrett brothers lead the charge for the ‘Canes

For those fans who travelled down South for the ill-fated tour of 2005, the sight of Hurricanes fly-half Beauden Barrett expertly pulling the strings may well leave them getting a sense of deja-vu. Dan Carter, the magic-man of 2005 may have gone but his heir to the All Blacks throne is producing performances that will unnerve Lions supporters ahead of the tour. Having marshalled the Hurricanes’ attack to the Super Rugby title last season, Barrett has continued from where he left off with some superlative performances that have seen the reigning champions record nine victories from their eleven matches so far this season. The Wellington franchise lead the way in terms of tries scored with an incredible 72, and Barrett’s influence has been integral to that with him contributing four tries and thirteen assists. Any other year the performances of the Hurricanes fly-half would be gaining all the headlines but this season the fly-half has been outshone by none other than his kid brother. Standing 6ft 3in tall and weighing in at 15 stone there is not much little about 20-year-old Jordie Barrett. Since making his Super Rugby debut in the no.15 jersey against the Sunwolves in February, the younger Barrett brother has made the jersey his own playing in all eleven matches this season scoring four tries including a brace in the 41-22 victory over the Stormers. With Damian McKenzie hot on the heels of Ben Smith for the All Blacks full-back jersey the chances of Jordie breaking into the national squad in time for the test series look slim, making it all the more likely the Lions will have to find a way of stopping him when they travel to play the Super Rugby champions on June 27th. Joining the Barretts in the band of brothers club in Wellington are the Savea’s. Winger Julian has been storming his way through opposition defenders for some time now both for the ‘Canes and the All Blacks whilst younger brother Ardie joined him in becoming an international last season, and has maintained the form that saw him force his way into Steve Hansen’s squad in the Hurricanes back-row this season. Having run in a hatful of tries this season already you would be forgiven for thinking Julian Savea would be leading the charge, yet it is the midfield where the Hurricanes’ top-scorers can be found. With 24 tries between them, centre partners Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso sit first and second respectively in the Super Rugby charts with Aso (13) just edging out team-mate Laumape (11). For a side so adventurous in attack you might expect there to be a defensive flaw to this Hurricanes side yet they have the joint-best defensive record with 22 tries conceded. Whilst having the best defensive record in the competition is impressive, a record of 22 tries conceded in eleven games will have Lions attack coach Rob Howley confident that his backs can find a way through.

New generation of Crusaders on course to bring back old glory days

Nine years since their last Super Rugby title, the Crusaders’ class of 2017 are well on course to join former greats Richie McCaw and Dan Carter in becoming Super Rugby champions. Under the guidance of former All Black Scott Robertson, the Christchurch franchise have enjoyed a perfect start to the season with 12 victories in 12 matches, and show no signs of losing momentum with the match against the Lions approaching fast. For a side containing a number of All Blacks such as Kieran Read, Israel Dagg and Sam Whitelock it may come as little surprise to British and Irish fans to see the Crusaders leading the Super Rugby charts. However whilst captain Sam Whitelock has been an ever-present in the boiler-house this season, injuries to Read and Dagg have restricted their influence in this campaign. In the absence of Read, 25-year-old Jordan Taufua has impressed with a number of strong displays at the back of the scrum. A powerful ball carrier with a good turn of speed, Taufua has emerged this season as one of the Crusaders stand-out players and could be knocking on the door for international selection soon. Alongside Taufua in the back-row, Matt Todd’s experience has been invaluable in Taufua’s progress. A highly-skilled athlete both in defence and at the breakdown, Todd has done a sterling job in filling McCaw’s boots in the number seven jersey and with eight international caps to his name could well be packing down for the All Blacks in the test series. Amongst the backs David Havili and George Bridge have provided the entertainment with 15 tries between them in the back three and Seta Tamanivalu has adapted well since his move from the Chiefs. However the star of the show for most of the season has been fly-half Richie Mo’unga, who at just 23 years of age has marshalled this Crusaders backline expertly. Having enjoyed an impressive breakthrough season last year Mo’unga has gone up a level this year adding greater control and discipline to his exciting attacking game. With two tries and seven assists he has been integral to the Crusaders attack, however it is his accuracy from the kicking tee which has stood out in the last few weeks. In tight victories over both the Hurricanes and the Chiefs, Mo’unga held his nerve to nail important penalties and conversions in both matches and in the process edge out fly-half rivals Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes) and Aaron Cruden (Chiefs). Hurricanes fly-half Barrett looks nailed on to start at No.10 in this summer’s test series, but Mo’unga may fancy his chances of getting the reserve fly-half slot and the match on the 10th June in Christchurch will serve as an important audition for the 23-year-old.

Chiefs in the running to end Rennie reign on winning note

Back-to-back Super Rugby winners in 2012 and 2013, the Chiefs are unsurprisingly in the title shake-up once again this year, in what is coach Dave Rennie’s last season at the helm. With their title-winning coach off to Glasgow in the autumn the likes of Sam Cane and Aaron Cruden are desperate to add one more title before sending Rennie on his way and with nine wins from 12 matches this year, they are more than in the running for this year’s crown. A dominant force in Super Rugby over the last few years, the Chiefs have started from where they left off last season and with a number of experienced internationals will be a tough proposition for Gatland’s side when they meet in Hamilton on the 20th June. A solid start to the season yielded five wins from five including victories over three of their New Zealand rivals. Their only defeats this season have come to the Stormers and most recently the Crusaders. Less spectacular in performance compared to both the Crusaders and Hurricanes, Rennie’s side are a well-polished side with great experience. All Blacks internationals Brodie Retallick and Dominic Bird have been solid as ever in the second-row whilst Liam Messam, Sam Cane and Michael Leitch have impressed behind them with Leitch in particular proving effective, missing just one out of 57 tackles this season. Out amongst the backs Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow have a great understanding as a half-back partnership and Damian McKenzie continues to thrill supporters with his elusive running game from full-back. Out wide James Lowe has shone in what will be his last season before leaving for Irish side Leinster. With seven tries to his name he is the Chiefs’ top try-scorer and will be one to watch for the Lions defence. Charlie Ngatai’s return from injury after a long spell on the sidelines is good news for both the Chiefs and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, although having just returned from injury he is in a race against time to impress All Blacks selectors. Someone who is likely to be in the All Blacks midfield this summer is Anton Lienert-Brown who has enjoyed another solid campaign following his eye-catching arrival on the international scene last year. A side known for their devastating running game the Lions should be wary of gifting the Chiefs’ backline easy ball and will need to be smart with their kicking game. Meeting just a few days before the first test the Chiefs will likely be without their internationals, although the Lions themselves will also be fielding a second-string side so with that in mind the match in Hamilton could well be one of the toughest on tour.

Highlanders back in title picture following stuttering start

Super Rugby champions in 2015 and semi-finalists last year, the Highlanders started this campaign unsurprisingly as one of the title favourites. However Tony Brown’s side got off to the worst possible start this season with three defeats from their opening four matches. With their fist four games of the season all against their fellow New Zealand franchises, the Dunedin-based side suffered narrow defeats to both the Chiefs (15-24) and the Crusaders (27-30) before finally getting off the mark in 2017, sneaking victory over the Blues (16-12). A week later they faced the daunting task of travelling to play defending champions the Hurricanes, with Barrett and co. running out convincing victors winning 41-15. Despite that poor start, the Highlanders have been in imperious form since, winning eight consecutive matches to shoot right back up the table where they are hot on the heels of some of their New Zealand rivals. Whilst there have been a number of outstanding performances in this run including hard-fought narrow victories away to the Brumbies and the Bulls, their victory over the Cheetahs in round 11 surely has to top the lot. 41-24 down going into the final five minutes in Bloemfontein, there looked no way back for the former champs but tries from Tevita Li and Matt Faddes brought them back to within one score of their hosts, before winger Waisake Naholo touched down his second try of the match in the final play of the game to complete a miraculous comeback and clinch a 45-41 victory. A side who always know how to entertain, the Highlanders attack has been on song once again this year with All Blacks winger Naholo in sublime form in particular with six tries in just seven games this season as he eyes up a test place. Having lost his place in the All Blacks midfield last season, Malakai Fekitoa looks ready to reclaim his international jersey having been a prolific try-scorer this season with six to his name already, whilst his defensive game has also been strong with a tackle success rate of nearly 85%. Fly-half Marty Banks has done a good job filling in for the injured Lima Sopoaga with a number of assured displays both with ball in hand and from the kicking tee, and at full-back Matt Faddes has helped the team’s cause with a healthy return of six tries playing in the absence of Ben Smith who has also been struggling with injury this term. However despite their vast array of attacking options it has been in defence where the Highlanders have stood out of late. Having conceded 14 tries in their opening four matches, the Highlanders defence has improved much since then conceding just 16 tries in the last eight games. A big part of that defensive work has come from flanker Dillon Hunt who tops the tackles charts in super rugby with 119 tackles in ten games, whilst lock forward Thomas Franklin sits not far behind on 112. Their pack also contains a number of players with All Blacks caps to their name in hooker Liam Coltman and flankers Elliot Dixon, Liam Squire and Luke Whitelock, with all four being prominent performers again this season. Particularly strong in the set-piece where they have a 97% success rate in scrums this season, the Lions may be wary of turning the match into a scrum-fest and should expect a bruising encounter against a side who pride themselves on their defence. With the Lions playing down in Dunedin just over a week before the first test, recent Lions tours suggests that the side Gatland puts out on the 13th June will be pretty close to his starting test side as the Lions look to build partnerships and increase match sharpness ahead of the test series. With that in mind it could be expected that Tony Brown will field his strongest side including a number of internationals such as Elliot Dixon, Waisake Naholo and Malakai Fekiota who may have a point to prove to Steve Hansen.

Blues starting to find their feet under former All Blacks’ skipper’s guidance

Mention the name Tana Umaga to a Lions fan and they will probably shudder with memories of the man who cut short Brian O’Driscoll’s tour in 2005. Back then as All Blacks skipper Umaga became public enemy number one amongst British & Irish rugby supporters for THAT tackle in the first test on the Lions captain, and 12 years on Umaga will renew acquaintances with the Lions as Blues coach on 7th June in Auckland. The three-times Super Rugby champions have endured some difficult years recently, finishing 10th or lower in the past five seasons. However under Umaga’s guidance there are signs that the Blues may improve upon that wretched record this season. Sitting in mid-table with six wins and six losses from their 12 matches this season, the level of performance by the Blues has been much improved this campaign. With Crusaders leading the way this term and the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders all having recent title wins under their belt, the Blues have lived in the shadow of their New Zealand neighbours and have found it tough once again with five of their six defeats coming at the hands of New Zealand franchises. However with four of those five defeats being by less than ten points, the gap seems to be closing to the rest with Umaga as coach. With the decline in fortunes of the Australian and South African sides this year the Blues have won six of their seven games against opposition from those countries, but impressive victories away to the Brumbies and Waratahs stand out in particular. The shining light in this current Blues side is young winger Rieko Ioane. With eight tries, 800 metres made and 20 defenders beaten this season, the 20-year-old has been one of the stand-out performers in the whole of Super Rugby and having already been capped by the All Blacks may well be in the test team when the test series comes around. Alongside him brother Akira has also been an integral performer for the Blues with four tries in 12 games. A back-row forward who has played for both the Maori All Blacks as well as New Zealand’s Sevens team, the Number 8 has a decent turn of speed and impressive handling skills and his performances this season have had him knocking on the door for All Blacks selection. Packing down alongside Akira Ioane in the back-row, All Blacks international Steven Luatua has filled in effectively for injured skipper Jerome Kaino, whilst tight-head prop Charlie Faumuina has been solid in the scrum as well as showing nice handling and offloading skills as he looks to dislodge Owen Franks from the All Blacks No.3 jersey. Out amongst the backs scrum-half Augustine Pulu has been an effective acquisition from the Chiefs as he has struck up a good partnership with fly-half Piers Francis. Sonny Bill Williams has brought a touch of international class and experience to go alongside another All Black, George Moala, in midfield and at full-back Melani Nanai is one of the most dangerous open-field runners about. Not surprising for a side that has struggled in recent years, the Blues get through quite a lot of work in defence and with the best tackle success-rate in the competition at 86% they can be a tough nut to crack. More surprising perhaps is that the Blues have made the most carries of any side this season and also register highly for metres made and defenders beaten. As a former centre it is clear from these statistics that Umaga is encouraging his players to express themselves and improve their handling skills, with Patrick Tuipulotu’s try against the Cheetahs recently evidence of that with a number of forwards getting involved out wide before sending the big lock forward in for the score. Being the weakest of the New Zealand franchises Lions boss Gatland might not view the match in Auckland as the toughest match of the tour but the game will be just the second on tour for the Lions so they may be undercooked, and with the Blues being given the honour of being the first Super Rugby side to take on the Lions this summer as well as a number of Blues’ players eyeing up test places, they will not be lacking in motivation when Gatland and his men come to town.

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