The key players who delivered semi-final berths

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    Ultimately, the four best teams in 2016 have won through to the Super Rugby semis, after a weekend of quarters that delivered surprising result after surprising result.

    Even in the wet weather, the general consensus was the Highlanders would have too much for the Brumbies, yet the home side were in a position to make the winning play for most of the final ten minutes. The Lions were widely favoured to topple the Crusaders, but I can’t imagine too many saw the 17-point margin coming.

    And similarly, the only plausible explanation for anyone suggesting they had the Hurricanes and Chiefs winning by 40 is that they’ve either mastered time-travel, or they’re lying.

    Regardless, the four semi-finalists have all won through to the penultimate weekend of the competition by virtue of a magnificent team performance when it mattered the most, but it goes a little beyond that. Within the four wins were some outstanding games from individual players, which all had the effect of lifting their teammates around them.

    Amid all the confusion and pressure of the last passages of play on Friday night, and after the Highlanders’ scrum had been soundly beaten for the preceding 70 minutes, they somehow managed to hold steady under increased intensity on their own line. And twice it was the outstanding vision and the speed with which Elliot Dixon broke off the blindside of the scrum to pressure Tomás Cubelli that snuffled out Brumbies’ attacking opportunities.

    Earlier, the now All Blacks flanker took it upon himself to save his side’s lineout. The first few Highlanders lineouts saw a throw pulled up for not being straight – a rarity up there with rocking horse manure, it seems currently – and targets missed, but Dixon from midway through the first half turned that quickly-building weakness into a strength.

    Smartly, the Highlanders threw to Dixon at two almost exclusively from thereon – he won nine of the eleven successful Highlanders lineout throws – but when defending the lineout, Dixon starting contesting every Brumbies throw and applying his own pressure. Some he won himself, others he was able to disrupt throws and jumpers, and it was notable that the Brumbies late in the game where choosing attacking scrums rather than backing their lineout drive.

    Dixon was a major reason for that. At one point in the second half, Dixon missed the jump at the front, allowing Brumbies replacement flanker Michael Wells to take the catch cleanly, only for Dixon to somehow claim the ball on the way to the ground and effect the steal. He carried strongly all night, was strong at the breakdown and immense in defence.

    Considering how good he was in last year’s final series, and many a judge thought he was unlucky not to win a Test debut in 2015, his form has gone to another level in 2016, once again peaking at the precise time for the Highlanders. If they go back-to-back from here, Dixon will have been a major contributor.

    The Hurricanes standout was an easy one to pick. TJ Perenara had a hand in the first four of the ‘Canes six tries, and scored the fifth one himself in 59th minute, after which coach Chris Boyd gave him the early mark, with the home semi-final well and truly sorted.

    His was exactly the sort of running and supporting game that Perenara has long been capable of, but hasn’t always shown, which in recent times has seen the likes of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Brad Weber leapfrog him in the All Blacks pecking order. Perenara’s game on Saturday will have given the New Zealand selectors a very timely reminder, and the best kind of headache.

    With Dane Coles suffering a nasty rib cartilage injury that will surely have him in doubt for the semi against the Chiefs, the Hurricanes needed their senior players to step up. Perenara stepped as high as he possibly could have, turning on the running game and spying openings that seemingly weren’t there with his superb vision and special awareness.

    If there was a chance to counter-attack he did. A possible three-on-two inside the tramlines? No problem at all. Pinpoint passing to put a send a prop crashing over? Easy. It was easily his best game of 2016, and it might have covered most of his excellent work last year, too.

    It would be very easy to rave about Lions centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg, and not just about his causing havoc with the Crusaders midfield, but about his season in general. He reminds me of Damien de Allende, but without the extreme inconsistency and the curious defensive decision making, and if he hasn’t played Test rugby by the end of the year, then we’ll know Alistair Coetzee obviously doesn’t share my view.

    But it’s Elton Jantjies that draws the praise proper, after delivering exactly the kind of perfectly managed game that he’s always been capable of, but hasn’t always delivered. Even as recently as the end of May, I was pondering that Jantjies’ injury-forced layoff might actually be a good thing, because the poise of Marnitz Boshoff might actually serve the Lions better as the season went on.

    Come the Ellis Park showdown with the Crusaders, though, Jantjies played exactly the sort of game you’d want from your flyhalf under pressure. He kicked superbly from both hand and tee, didn’t overplay his hand in attack, and combined superbly well with Faf de Klerk to unleash the attacking spark from van Rensburg and Lionel Mapoe in the centres, and the flyers in the back three.

    And his decision making was great. Not long after halftime, the Crusaders narrowed the margin slightly, but soon after that the Lions found themselves deep in attack again. Jantjies found himself holding the ball just has penalty advantage was awarded, and before the Crusaders – and a few Lions, to be fair – could work out what was going on, Jantjies was running back toward halfway having just potted a drop goal.

    I so want the Highlanders to go back-to-back, but gee it’s going to be hard to tip against the Lions this weekend – if I can tip against them at all. If Jantjies plays like he did for another 160 minutes (or maybe less, he was subbed after 75 minutes in this game), the Lions will be lifting the brand new Super Rugby trophy.

    And I didn’t really know which Chief I’d pick when I started writing this – that’s how many quality performers they had in Cape Town, but in end it was James Lowe that stood out.

    Lowe’s numbers only confirmed the impact I saw on the field. In all he had 12 carries for more than seven metres each time, three defenders beaten and two clean breaks, plus nine passes, an offload, and two try-assists, and a try for good measure. He also kicked seven times, finding good distance each time and tacking pressure off both Damien McKenzie and Aaron Cruden.

    The roaming commission he plays with gives the Chiefs a nice unpredictability about their attack, and it means the defending teams can’t just be scanning the line to see where McKenzie pops up.

    How the Chiefs fare heading to Wellington after returning from the Republic will be interesting, but if they manage to stun the home crowd for the second straight year in a knockout game, then I can see Lowe playing a major part.

    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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    The Crowd Says (61)

    • Roar Guru

      July 26th 2016 @ 5:47am
      moaman said | July 26th 2016 @ 5:47am | ! Report

      Excellent wrap Brett and found myself nodding vigorously with your choices.

      Curious to know why you are so invested in the highlanders?

      • Roar Guru

        July 26th 2016 @ 6:10am
        taylorman said | July 26th 2016 @ 6:10am | ! Report

        With a name like McKay? ?
        Good old Scottish highlander clan name… at least thats my thinking.

        Good write up Brett. Must admit I didnt focus on Elliot but did notice him big time at liineout time as the game went on.

        Just shows how much work these guys put into their planning, the lineout drive the obvious key target.

        But not only did they attack it, they rendered it unusable within half an hour.

        Just another example of the sheer depth of options the NZ teams have.

        And while the try no try event is the most discussed item from the match by far the reql bigger picture gets lost.

        Thought Peremara was great but cannot understand Le Rouxs total lack of confidence in using his skills. Barrett for me stood out most in the match, in those conditions.

        If le roux were in a NZ side wed be tearing our hair out watching kick after kick.

        Jantes and Van resburg were great too and Cormbridge is going to be a handful if hes picked for SA

        • Roar Guru

          July 26th 2016 @ 6:49am
          Corne Van Vuuren said | July 26th 2016 @ 6:49am | ! Report

          Combrinck Tman 😉

          • July 26th 2016 @ 7:06am
            taylorman said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:06am | ! Report

            yep on the iphone and didnt even notice. Is the thinking in SA that the Lions will form the major % of the squad of the five sides yet? Has Coetzee been seen at the Lions games specifically?

            • July 26th 2016 @ 7:30am
              BBA said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:30am | ! Report

              The problem that SA has is that if they select a lot of Lions players than they need to play the Lions style of game, which will dictate mobility and handling skills will be important.

              If they dont go with a Lions style philosophy then picking some of the Lions players wont work.

              It is unclear what AC is going to do, he does have the players to play another style of game but does he have a mandate to. I mean who would want his job, his team probably has to win 70%+ games for him to keep his job, must be more representative of Black players and do it on an ever shrinking talent pool which for economic and selection policy reasons are moving overseas in greater numbers then their competitors.

              However, if there has ever been a year to highlight that change is needed in Springbok rugby it has been this year in Superugby.

              • Roar Guru

                July 26th 2016 @ 7:32am
                Corne Van Vuuren said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:32am | ! Report

                Yeah, little chance for a lot of Lion selections, Coetzee has a conservative nature, won’t play Lions style rugby and won’t select a team on merit.

                Those are the facts

              • July 26th 2016 @ 3:47pm
                CUW said | July 26th 2016 @ 3:47pm | ! Report

                @ biltongbek

                are the super teams bound to follow the government directives re. colored players , as requiered for the national team ?

                if not it will be a silly thing since not enuf colored players of quality will be available for selection. (as it is the whole thing is silly but even silly things can be planned 🙂 )

              • Roar Guru

                July 26th 2016 @ 5:34pm
                Corne Van Vuuren said | July 26th 2016 @ 5:34pm | ! Report

                Yes they are, they stand to gain heavy penalties for not complying.

            • July 26th 2016 @ 2:49pm
              Baylion said | July 26th 2016 @ 2:49pm | ! Report

              Coetzee has shown that he is quite prepared to select Lions players. He selected 8 Lions players in his match 23 for the last test against Ireland, every Lions player in his squad.

              He’ll have a bit more time with the players before the RC, his squad announcement is expected early August, so I expect him to have more Lions in his squad and use them to form the backbone of the Bok team even if it’s only in the second half.

              His problem is that the Lions players have very little test experience and he might go for a bit more experience at the start of the RC at least and use them from the bench.

              I expect him to have Malcolm Marx (0), Julian Redelinghuys (5), Franco Mostert (3), Jaco Kriel (1), Warren Whiteley (6), Faf de Klerk (3), Elton Jantjies (5), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (0), Howard Mnisi (0), Lionel Mapoe (3), Courtnall Skosan (0), Ruan Combrinck (2) and Jaco van der Walt (0) in his squad this time around.

              He has some serious problem areas that need to be addressed.
              Back-up hooker – Bongi Mbonambi is not up to scratch, Marx should come in
              Back-up scrummie – Rudy Paige is only okay and he might pull Francois Hougaardt in
              Centres – Damian de Allende is off-form, van Rensburg is like for like while Mnisi can play 12 and 13, not good on defence though
              Wings – Lwazi Mvovo has played himself out of the Bok team I think, Bryan Habana could be back
              Fullback – Willie le Roux, eish. Jesse Kriel and Jaco van der Walt or even Johan Goosen might come in there

              Some of his favourites – Juan de Jongh, Cheslin Kolbe and Seabelo Senatla – are at the Olympics until just before the RC starts but might come in during the comeptition

              • Roar Guru

                July 26th 2016 @ 5:40pm
                Corne Van Vuuren said | July 26th 2016 @ 5:40pm | ! Report

                We will have to see baylion, ons match doesn’t yet reveal enough.

              • Roar Guru

                July 26th 2016 @ 7:54pm
                Harry Jones said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:54pm | ! Report

                I’d like to see those guys get a gallop (except Mnisi). But “playing well on a bad team” is often a great qualification for test rugby, so we have to be careful about going only with lucky beneficiaries of a great team and system.

              • July 27th 2016 @ 2:40am
                Baylion said | July 27th 2016 @ 2:40am | ! Report

                Harry, I like Mnisi. He’s a very good attacking 12 although his defence is perceived to be suspect. Interesting though, he has a better tackle rate and tackle success rate than van Rensburg but he sometimes seems to be unwilling to attempt a tackle at crucial times

        • July 26th 2016 @ 3:44pm
          CUW said | July 26th 2016 @ 3:44pm | ! Report

          @ taylorman

          Whyte and Mackay is a famos scotch 🙂

      • Columnist

        July 26th 2016 @ 9:08am
        Brett McKay said | July 26th 2016 @ 9:08am | ! Report

        Yeah, fair question Moa, and there’s no real logical reason I’m afraid. I’ve enjoyed watching this Highlanders side build for several years now, I just love the way they play.

        But I’ve lived watching the Lions and the ‘Canes just as much this year, hence some tough picks coming up..

        • July 26th 2016 @ 9:34am
          Highlander said | July 26th 2016 @ 9:34am | ! Report

          Happy to have you on board with the Clan again Brett, although getting past the Lions and the Canes will be a huge task. I just watched a replay of the Lions effort in the weekend, they are a complete side, good set pieces, good loosies, quick service from 9 and a great attitude to running the ball. They could do worse than base the Bok game around these guys.

          Would mention Ben Smiths effort in the conditions in the weekend as a major contributor, flawless at fullback in that weather was pretty impressive, again.

          • July 26th 2016 @ 10:58am
            taylorman said | July 26th 2016 @ 10:58am | ! Report

            Ben fom Accounts is always flawless though. Thats why he never gets a date. (or something like that 🙂 )

            Have to agree re the Lions Highlander.

            Whats your take on the last 20 at Canberra, and for thelast 20 by the Saders at Ellis, and the impact of the Highlanders travel over the last month?

            Think theres anything in it in terms of this weekend? (Last 20 I mean)…

            • July 26th 2016 @ 11:47am
              Highlander said | July 26th 2016 @ 11:47am | ! Report

              G’day Tman

              Can’t help thinking that the travel has to catch up with us eventually, energy against
              the Chiefs was off at the start after coming back from Argentina/SA but they quickly adjusted to the pace the Chiefs played at.
              Energy was still up in last 20 in Canberra and thought we defended ok. Was a quite visible fade by the Crusaders in J’berg last week- and the Lions really stretch you with the way they play so hard to see us not suffering the same fatigue.

              But Joesph seems to find a way to counter the opposition threats, playing Whitelock,Dixon and Squire was inspired last week and completely nullified Pocock/Fardy. Will be harder to keep Kriel, Whitely and Tecklenburg off the gain line though.

              For the first time in a long time the Highlanders will probably need to find ways to slow the game down.
              We have more front row injuries so a little weaker there too.
              C’mon the Mainlanders

              • July 26th 2016 @ 2:08pm
                taylorman said | July 26th 2016 @ 2:08pm | ! Report

                Yeah good call on slowing the game down. If they can do that for large parts of the first half then they can play the rest through at pace. The alternative is to start so quick and pile the points on, but either way doesnt look like the Lions are going to tire easily.

                Theres still something about the Lions having just played there, waiting for the Highlanders to come all that way…to the Lions den so to speak.

                Experience is key, Lions will be under huuuuge pressure to perform now with all eyes on them.

                Fascinating prospect this one.

        • Roar Guru

          July 26th 2016 @ 3:56pm
          WEST said | July 26th 2016 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

          Just a pity the Highlanders have clocked up so many Km’s over the past few rounds. From – Port Elizabeth, Buenos Aires, Dunedin, Canberra and Johannesburg. Then if things go well back to Dunedin or Wellington. Tough ask, not impossible but very demanding. Highlanders Travel all up = 73,344km, So far in the playoffs = 14,520km

          Lions have a massive advantage this week. The Hurricanes have the same, The Chiefs have travel all up = 76,919km, if the Chiefs beat the Canes then they’ll have to go from Newlands vs Stormers to Wellington then play in Jo’burg to meet the Lions.

          • Roar Guru

            July 26th 2016 @ 4:07pm
            taylorman said | July 26th 2016 @ 4:07pm | ! Report

            Exactly, it may end up being an absolute Masterclass decision from Ackerman in the end especially if the Chiefs and his sides win. He’ll have had the effect of sending all three teams all over the southern ocean by the time the finals over while he and his side stay at home picking them off one by one as they get off the plane. ?

    • July 26th 2016 @ 6:06am
      mania said | July 26th 2016 @ 6:06am | ! Report

      if anyone can take the lions its the highlanders, but d4m they got their work cut out for them. lions are playing the best rugby out of the republic and theyre at home. whatever the case I imagine it will be an epic battle.

      canes and chiefs, not sure about this one. my heart is with the canes always, but either winner of this game will be worthy to go onto the finals.

      hope all teams play well and don’t suffer any major injuries. hope the game is played at the highest level of sportsmanship and honour and all teams come off the field feeling they’ve given it their all and can stand with heads held high. I just wanna see an awesome weekend of rugby regardless of who wins….but GO THE CANES!!!

      • July 26th 2016 @ 6:29am
        soapit said | July 26th 2016 @ 6:29am | ! Report

        id go the chiefs solely because of the quality of the opposition they beat. you can only play whats in front but i reckon there were very few canes tries which didnt owe something to pretty poor play or soft defence.

        • July 26th 2016 @ 6:44am
          Jerry said | July 26th 2016 @ 6:44am | ! Report

          Not really sure quality of opposition is a factor, the Stormers won only 1 more game than the Sharks with a much easier schedule, after all.

          • July 26th 2016 @ 7:12am
            soapit said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:12am | ! Report

            quality of the opposition on the day jerry. a lot of the canes tries wouldnt have been scored (at least so easily) against a batter team compared to those the chiefs scored. (at least for my recollection, which doesnt have the best track record lately)

            not a clear defining factor but as an armchair coach im always happier beating a team when it didnt involve easy missed tackles etc if youre thinking about where ur at for next week

            • July 26th 2016 @ 7:35am
              Jerry said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:35am | ! Report

              I dunno, both the Sharks & Stormers fell off a lot of tackles from what I saw (when a team gives up 60 points, it’s generally not the strongest defensive unit). There were a couple of ludicrous defensive moments in both matches – eg Perenara’s unopposed pick and go or the Stormers fullback just not bothering to even try and get back when Lowe chipped & chased.

            • July 26th 2016 @ 7:36am
              BBA said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:36am | ! Report

              I also think you have to take into consideration that the chiefs were playing the Stormers at their home ground in front of their own crowd in their conditions. Although saying that there were plenty of soft Chiefs tries too. So its hard to get into a debate of who played worse between Stormers and Sharks.

              Playing the Hurricanes in their “hurricane” conditions would have been extremely difficult for any team.So from a performance perspective Chiefs was greater.

              But saying that Chiefs have to play the Hurricanes at their home ground after travelling from South Africa, so have to be favourites

              • July 26th 2016 @ 7:51am
                Jerry said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:51am | ! Report

                The Hurricanes may be based in Wgtn but they’d prefer a hard track and a dry day. Those conditions, awful though they may have been, would generally favour the Sharks style of play.

              • July 26th 2016 @ 8:13am
                taylorman said | July 26th 2016 @ 8:13am | ! Report

                Yes I thought so too Jerry but their execution was sooooo poor and when combined with almost flawlwss performances from Perenara and Barrett doesnt matter what they did.

                Its a problem when the SA sides hit the playoffs. they are nothing like their pool play even if in the Stormers case that wasnt great anyway.

                Same thing happened last year when the Brumbies went to SA and just won way too easily.

                Thats also why I support Ackermans decision to put preparation before anything else. He got an extra week to prepare for the knockouts regardless of who they play by keeping his team home and right now he has as much chance of winning this as any of the four still alive.

                He has understood that sides need to step up ‘big time’ if you want to beat NZ to the title. By not eating his cake and having it too I think he’s shown a maturity that suggests he has the team to beat.

              • July 26th 2016 @ 9:52am
                BBA said | July 26th 2016 @ 9:52am | ! Report

                Jerry not saying that the Hurricanes would not have preferred dry and calm conditions. But I do believe the Hurricanes, based upon where they live, are more experienced and better at playing in gale like conditions than the Sharks (or just about any other team, and especially from those outside of NZ) would have been.

                So I disagree and I considered the conditions favoured the Hurricanes.

                (I would also note that the Sharks did beat the hurricanes in hard dry conditions earlier in the year, and that NZ teams have a history of performing well in wet and windy conditions)

        • July 26th 2016 @ 7:46am
          mania said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:46am | ! Report

          canes had a much better and harder build up leading into the quarters

      • Columnist

        July 26th 2016 @ 9:15am
        Brett McKay said | July 26th 2016 @ 9:15am | ! Report

        So four-way joint champions then Mania?

        • July 26th 2016 @ 9:19am
          mania said | July 26th 2016 @ 9:19am | ! Report

          Brett – in the immortal words of Connor McLeod from the clan McLeod “there can be only one”

    • Roar Guru

      July 26th 2016 @ 6:16am
      Diggercane said | July 26th 2016 @ 6:16am | ! Report

      GO CANES!!

    • Roar Guru

      July 26th 2016 @ 6:40am
      Harry Jones said | July 26th 2016 @ 6:40am | ! Report

      Thanks for the nice article, Brett.

      I thought Liam Squire was particularly good, as was Vaea Fifita, Malcolm Marx, and Damian McKenzie.

      • Columnist

        July 26th 2016 @ 9:16am
        Brett McKay said | July 26th 2016 @ 9:16am | ! Report

        Yeah, I couldn’t argue with any of them Harry. Squire, particularly, was great on Friday night..

      • July 26th 2016 @ 9:19am
        Lostintokyo said | July 26th 2016 @ 9:19am | ! Report

        It is a shame that someone with the talent of McKenzie is unlikely to find a spot in the national side. The Boks and Wallabies would love to have him. Kiwis have an embarrassment of riches.

        • July 26th 2016 @ 11:50am
          mania said | July 26th 2016 @ 11:50am | ! Report

          he will be a great AB one day, but theres no rush, he’s young .

        • July 26th 2016 @ 12:24pm
          A.O.Tear Rower said | July 26th 2016 @ 12:24pm | ! Report


          The ABs coach himself said ” its not a matter of if but when” after he picked McKenzie at 21 for the ABs.

        • July 26th 2016 @ 12:44pm
          woodart said | July 26th 2016 @ 12:44pm | ! Report

          we are not embarrassed about it.

    • Roar Guru

      July 26th 2016 @ 7:28am
      Nobrain said | July 26th 2016 @ 7:28am | ! Report

      Thanks Brett, imo Mostert and Kriel had great game aginst the saders. Some players were not on the field also , Read and Ellis? They were missing in action.

    • Roar Guru

      July 26th 2016 @ 8:07am
      Machooka said | July 26th 2016 @ 8:07am | ! Report

      Thanks Brett… and totally agree that the four that are there, deserve to be there. And also that this w’end’s games are going to be difficult to pick with (some) hearts wanting to rule heads eh?

      For mine I’d like all four teams to win as they’ve play some excellent Rugby this season. But as a neutral observer I’m thinking if the Lions can keep it going they could do the Zoolanders… sorry Muzzo ;(

      Likewise, the Chefs are the masters of whipping up something outta nothing eh… sorry Digger ;(

      Loved the line…’and if (Rohan Janse vans Rensburg) hasn’t played Test rugby by the end of the year, then we’ll know that Alistair Coetzee obviously doesn’t share my view.’

      • Columnist

        July 26th 2016 @ 9:18am
        Brett McKay said | July 26th 2016 @ 9:18am | ! Report

        I mean, we make all these suggestions for Test coaches Chookman, and for what?!?

        • Roar Guru

          July 26th 2016 @ 9:29am
          Machooka said | July 26th 2016 @ 9:29am | ! Report

          I forgot to say that I actually agree with your advice to the coach… as Rohan reminds me of BOD in his prime.

          Although, for me, it’s a BOD on steroids, or one that has possibly swallowed one of his previous opposition centres?? 🙂

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