The talking points: Super Rugby semi-finals

Brett McKay Columnist

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    The best four teams in Super Rugby have made it through to the semi-final stage, and no matter what you might think of the competition format or the finals qualification process, you can’t ask for much more than that.

    Here’s the talking points for the semi-finals.

    Can Folau be overtaken as leading try-scorer?
    Going into the second-last weekend of the Super Rugby season, Waratahs centre Israel Folau remains one clear atop the 2016 try-scorers list, with eleven.

    Behind him, Chiefs fullback Damien McKenzie sits on ten, and eight other players sit below them on nine tries.

    Interestingly though, of those top ten try-scorers this season, six remain in action in the competition, and of them, most have found the line in recent weeks. Highlanders centre Matt Faddes, Chiefs centre Seta Tamanivalu, and the Lions trio of Courtnall Skosan, Lionel Mapoe, and Rohan Janse van Rensburg all remain in striking distance of the top, and you couldn’t rule out any of these six deposing Folau by next weekend.

    So who could overtake Folau? Well, this is harder to pin down.

    McKenzie had seven tries in the first six rounds, before getting stuck a nine-game try drought. But with three in the last three games, we’re seeing again that if the Chiefs get on a roll, McKenzie usually scores. He’ll be a big chance.

    Tamanivalu seems to be scoring the tries that Charlie Ngatai was scoring earlier in the season, and he looms as the focal point of the Chiefs’ attack. Likewise Faddes. He knows his way to the line, and was only a few metres away from adding a tenth ‘piece of meat’ last weekend in the Quarter. They’re both a decent chance.

    But I actually think it could be one of the Lions. Three players with nine tries each – and Ruan Combrinck sits only one behind them on eight – shows that the Lions don’t have to rely on one player in attack. Only Mapoe hasn’t crossed the stripe since the resumption after the June Tests, and the other three have eight tries between them in those four games.

    Janse van Rensburg, especially, is in exceptional form, and just seems to be busting tackles for fun. It’s not hard to see him exploiting the Lima Sopoaga-Malakai Fekitoa channel as the Brumbies tried with mixed results last weekend, and his finishing is a whole lot better.

    Regardless of who does it, I think someone will. I’ll be quite surprised if Folau remains atop the list after next weekend.

    Interesting to see where the four semi-finalists rank in terms of set piece success in 2016.

    Of the four teams left, the Lions won 89.4 per cent of their scrums, ranking them fourth overall. The Chiefs ranked sixth, winning 88.8 per cent, followed by the Highlanders (87.1%, 11th) and the Hurricanes (84%, 15th).

    Does it mean anything for the semis? Well no, probably not. All four teams were among the top seven sides on the try-scoring tally after the completion of 17 rounds, and SANZAAR’s official stats via Opta Sports for this weekend pointed out that more than half of the Hurricanes tries this season have come from first phase possession, the highest rate in the competition. So having a lesser scrum success rate hasn’t hurt them at all.

    The Lions enjoy first phase ball, too, and wherever on the field it happens to be, too. They might be good enough to exploit the Highlanders’ scrum issues from last week, but they play with enough confidence and strike power that they don’t need scrum penalties to mount points.

    The Lions hold a slight edge in the lineout, too, and the four sides rank very similarly overall with how their scrums operate. This might become an opportunity against the Highlanders at home, but then as we saw last week, the Highlanders – and especially Elliot Dixon – are pretty good and turning lineout pressure around.

    Defence always win the tight games
    The Hurricanes kept their line in tact last weekend, and the Highlanders similarly – though perhaps luckily – managed to hold tight too.

    But while they might have been lucky on the night, the Highlanders have averaged the most tackles (125) of any team in 2016 yet conceding the fewest points and tries. They also rank highest of the four sides in terms of tackle completion, so perhaps it’s not luck at all.

    Despite this, the aforementioned Messrs Sopoaga and Fekitoa have missed 47 tackles between them in 2016 according to the Vodacom Rugby app, and the Lions – the runaway leaders in defenders beaten in 2016 – will almost certainly be eyeing that channel off. Thought Elton Jantjies has missed 28 tackles himself this season.

    What was interesting among the defence numbers from last weekend was that the Highlanders (19), Lions (21), and Chiefs (25) all missed significantly more tackles than the Hurricanes’ seven. You would imagine whoever can keep their number the lowest this weekend wins through to the Final.

    Gardner versus Peyper for the final?
    Interesting to note that Angus Gardner and Jaco Peyper have won the semi-final officiating, in Wellington and Johannesburg respectively, and I do wonder if it’s essentially down to those two for the final the following weekend.

    With Craig Joubert in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Rugby Sevens, the field seems to have narrowed significantly.

    The wildcard could be Glenn Jackson, who will be on one flag for Gardner in Wellington, and who did a pretty decent job last weekend.

    It makes you wonder if neutrality might play a part in the appointment, which would seem to put Gardner in the box seat, pending no clangers on Saturday. An all-NZ Final would help Jackson’s case, too. Either way, you’d imagine those three refs will be involved in the Final one way or the other, it’s just a matter of who gets the whistle.

    Big news day in Christchurch
    It was all happening for the Crusaders media team yesterday, with news of Digby Ioane’s two-year deal being followed forty minutes later at an attempted embargo confirming Todd Blackadder’s move to Premiership club Bath. And I say ‘attempted’ because though the Crusaders wanted everyone to sit on the news until 6pm New Zealand time, at least one Australian and one New Zealand outlet decided that breaking the news first was much more important.

    Ioane’s move had been widely touted this week, and in the press release, he said “the opportunity to be part of a New Zealand Super Rugby team is too good to pass up.” Fair enough.

    Interestingly, Ioane was also moved to thanking “…Robbie Deans for [his] support in making this happen.” Make of that what you will.

    Though I wondered on Twitter whether the ARU or any of the Australian sides made an offer – or even just an enquiry – to Ioane about his Super Rugby return, I was a little surprised to see most sentiment suggesting that at 33 and with question marks over his knees, Ioane might not be missed that much at all.

    So in the tradition of Australian wingers returning to Super Rugby via the Crusaders after stints in France and Japan – yes, ‘one’ is a tradition – I expect Ioane to now kill it in 2017. Good luck to him.

    Enjoy the semis this weekend.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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