Win the big moments and you’ll win the big finals

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    After the four best sides won through to the Super Rugby semi-finals, it follows nicely that the teams that finished first and second overall will face off in the decider in Wellington on Saturday.

    When it came down to it, the Hurricanes and the Lions won through by dominating their respective semi-finals.

    Come to think of it, and even though there have been semi-final thumpings in recent seasons – both last year, for just one example – it’s hard to think of a more one-sided finals series; certainly not since the introduction of the conference format, anyway.

    In both cases, their domination was no fluke. Both the Canes and the Lions won through because they won the big moments in their games.

    Of course, the thing about big moments is that you don’t know their impact until well after the event.

    Ardie Savea, for instance, didn’t know what kind of impact his charging off downfield through the gap that suddenly appeared before him would have. As he faked his chip kick ahead, stepped right and very nearly burned Damien McKenzie on the outside, he wouldn’t have known the impact of his sudden opening up of the Chiefs, who for most of the 20 previous minutes had been testing the Hurricanes’ defence, deep in the territory, and drawing a team warning for the home side.

    The Hurricanes to that point were in danger of losing a defender for the next infringement, yet suddenly they pulled a turnover from nowhere. And then Savea saw space in front of him.

    The Canes didn’t score from Savea’s break, but did kick a penalty to push their lead out to 8-3. For all their pressuring the Hurricanes’ line, the Chiefs were left with nothing to show, and needed to start again. It must have been hard to take. Even if subconsciously, the lack of points had to have lifted the desperation levels as they restarted.

    And that might explain that on the next incursion into the Hurricanes’ half, Sam Cane didn’t see Beauden Barrett coming toward the Chiefs’ attackers at a rate of knots. Cane looked sideways and saw three teammates outside him, but somehow didn’t see among three white jerseys a gold and black one barely a metre away and closing. But the last time the Chiefs were down in this part of the ground and looked all but certain to post points, they coughed up the ball. They needed points before halftime. Desperation crept in.

    Cane threw the pass. Barrett swooped, and put it down under the posts 60 metres away. 15-3 scoreline, 36th minute. Huge moment.

    From there on, the Chiefs were never really in the contest. They narrowed the score to 15-6 before halftime, but the margin at that point was much more than nine points. When Victor Vito crashed over from a blindside scrum move, and after Chiefs scrumhalf Brad Weber took TJ Perenara’s bait by following him around the to the open side, even 22-6 didn’t really tell the full story of how dominant the home side had become.

    It was a similar story at Ellis Park later on Saturday, and even though the scoreboard showed a 12-point margin on fulltime, it really wasn’t anything like that close. 35-11, as the score read just before the Highlanders went on a 19-point spree in the last 14 minutes, was probably more indicative.

    And in blowing the 17-6 halftime score out like they did inside the 20 minutes after the break, the Lions won several big moments to properly put the game out of the Highlanders’ reach.

    Faced with the same situation he was in the 46th minute, I suspect Elton Jantjies would have gone through with the clearing kick in every game previous during 2016. But high on confidence from an outstanding first half, and knowing who was on his left in sensing the opportunity, Jantjies dummied the kick and took off down the left through space, releasing Courtnall Skosan to do the rest.

    The Highlanders were able to hit back virtually immediately, but at 25-6, this was the desperation kicking in rather than any sudden change of momentum.

    Then came Jaco Kriel. Whether it was him or Ruan Combrinck who called for the cross-kick from Jantjies doesn’t matter; the fact that they were able to turn the kick into another turning point in the game was what really matters. When Kriel caught the kick, he and Combrinck seemed well covered, by Elliot Dixon and Waisake Naholo, respectively.

    Kriel quickly got up to speed though, and completed a horror day for Dixon by shoving him out of the way like George Costanza evacuating a kids’ party. Suddenly Kriel had momentum to go with his speed, and despite Combrinck trailing on the inside, Naholo had no choice but to try and stop Kriel getting to the corner. But he was no chance, and with the Ellis Park scoreboard reading 35-11, neither were the Highlanders from there.

    Minutes later, Kriel confirmed this by making the desperate cover tackle on Matt Faddes, denying him a second try and confirming the 2015 Champions’ fate. Just another huge moment.

    And that’s how it will be won in Wellington this Saturday. The weekend’s games showed us that you don’t have to dominate the stats sheet to dominate the scoreboard, and likewise, that even the best defensive teams in the competition have bad days.

    It will all come down to who can create, and more importantly take the big moments as they present.

    The best teams at doing this in the finals series have won through to the decider, and it shapes as an even bigger game than the outstanding final last year did. And that’s not something I imagined saying at any point this season.

    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.