I’m not one of these people that buys into the ‘that should have been the final’ rhetoric and Saturday’s match between the Crusaders and the Hurricanes is exactly the reason why.
If that was the final then we would not have been treated to some of the play that we were privileged to watch as finals, generally, tend to be cagey affairs that leave us feeling slightly let down and annoyed with ourselves that we believed the hype.
After the match finished, I tried to explain the story of it to someone and I just said that it was like 30+ All Blacks had been told to grab a different coloured bib each and have an 80-minute trial like their lives depended on.
The spectacle of the match was just accentuated by the fact that not one player took a backwards step and as soon as one individual looked to be getting the upper hand on their opposite number, that opposite number came back stronger in a muscular show of defiance.
Codie Taylor had that upper hand on Dane Coles for a large portion of the first half but Coles was having none of it. A few big hits later and it was the Wellington man that became more prominent and influential around the field.
The battle in the midfield was more intriguing though. Ryan Crotty was playing like a Prince as he glided around the Canterbury turf with consummate ease, thanks to the platform that Richie Mo’unga and his forwards were building for him. The inside centre’s cross field kick for Sevu Reece’s gravity defying pick up and score was not just a single act of brilliance to create a special try. Crotty was involved in carrying the ball up and moving it wide to create the attacking position in the first place.
Ngani Laumape couldn’t get any where near him for the first 35 minutes and it looked as though the Hurricanes All Black auditionee was fluffing his lines badly and suffering from stage fright.
Crotty’s injury early in the second half will have helped Laumape’s cause but the attack minded number 12 showed everyone why he is the second highest try scorer in this year’s competition. The sheer audacity of the man to chest a bouncing ball forwards to evade a tackler or a potential 50/50 scrap for the ball was nothing short of rugby genius. Ingenuity and thinking on your feet at its absolute best. I’ve watched a million rugby matches and I can’t ever remember seeing something like that before.
The match up at fly-half is what really lit the touch paper on this firecracker of a semi-final though. The current incumbent of the All Black jersey from Wellington against the man that many want to see in that very shirt from Christchurch.
Beauden Barrett didn’t start well. The Hurricanes’ conservative approach doesn’t suit them as a team nor does it suit the usually free-flowing stand-off. His kicking was aimless and cost them territory and possession far too regularly. Slow ball from the minimal amount that they actually had, meant that they could well have been out of this at half time. No platform meant the twice World Player of the Year couldn’t find the rudder that was needed to steer the sinking ship.
Mo’unga on the other hand was having an armchair ride, bringing his big runners onto the gain line to suck in defenders before mixing his game so subtly out wide with a combination of clever kicks and screen passes to bring his speedier runners into the game.
Wisely, The Canes ditched this unfamiliar approach at half-time and Barrett took control. Chip kicks being gathered with one hand in a way that would be lauded at the current Cricket World Cup and attacking the gain line bravely saw his soldiers march onto the front foot.
Barrett has been criticised unfairly in the past for not doing the dirty work but on Saturday he fronted up and took more than his fair share of big hits to earn the right to exploit space in later phases.
Mo’unga just kept coming back though and the two of them would walk into any other international side in the world. Both will, however, play a major part for the All Blacks at this year’s Rugby World Cup.
As I am a greedy so and so, it’s just a shame that Aaron Smith wasn’t playing opposite TJ Perenara because the feisty Perenara was untouchable for the full 80 minutes. The diminutive scrum half was like a hungry terrier at the base of the ruck but defensively his positioning and sweeping in behind should be turned into a training video. Great players get the best out of their opposite numbers and this would have been the perfect setting to see who has edged themselves in front to nab that number 9 shirt in September.
The scary thing for the rest of the watching rugby world is that this match highlighted how New Zealand will take the strongest squad of all nations to this year’s showpiece event.
The strength in depth is frightening. Taylor and Coles, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane, Smith and Perenara, Barrett and Mo’unga, Crotty and Laumape are just a few examples of the people that will battling it out to get a starting shirt.
The hunger and desire is also there for all to touch and feel after Saturday’s knockout match and with just one domestic match left before the shortened version of The Rugby Championship, Steve Hansen will want to see all of his super stars come through unscathed so that he can start prepping his formidable squad for a tilt at three in a row.