The two teams with engines that don’t stop face each other in the Super Rugby final this week.
That is the main lesson I took away from the semi-final matches on the weekend.
The Hurricanes’ team energy is enough to blanket almost any opposition. The Lions’ collective will to repeatedly run faster and batter the opposition is enough to wear down any team.
Last week, I said I wanted to see a replay of last year’s grand final, based on the high level of relentless play in that match. But the Lions showed they are the best-placed side to do that by dispatching the Highlanders before they could qualify for a rematch.
The Lions were truly relentless.
Their defensive line is the only one that rivals the Canes for speed of the line. They aren’t afraid to miss the occasional tackle because they swarm at the second level like a team possessed to cover. The pay-off is suffocation that wears down the body and minds of their opposition.
By the last 15 minutes on Saturday night, the Highlanders looked tired. You’ve not been able to wear the Highlanders down like that all year. The Lions were already up by a large margin by that point too – it wasn’t a late flood of points that made it a large scoreline – indicating that the South Africans’ unyielding speed was taxing their opponents all match. That factor, and the fact the Kiwis kept coming to score, shows the altitude wasn’t the killer, the Lions were.
Patrick Osborne’s early injury threw the Highlanders out of rhythm – after he went off, their backline was out of alignment. For long periods of the match, they were reduced to Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo (the Highlanders two best players) taking on the Lions in tandem down the right blindside.
These issues reduced the effectiveness of Ben Smith, beyond running from deep, and Malakai Fekitoa was muted. Moves to the wing Matt Faddes was stationed on were mostly wasted.
But mostly it was to the Lions’ credit. The likes of Jaco Kriel – who is outright one of the best all-round openside flankers going around – and the rest of the forward pack were off the ground first, rushing off the line faster and playing the kind of modern rugby the Highlanders displayed last year, better than they could this year.
Their opponents this Saturday, the Hurricanes, advanced against the Chiefs in a very different match. The Canes were brilliant at times, but the key was their ability to drape themselves like a warm blanket over the match.
They absorbed pressure, absorbed pressure and then pounced. Not out of desperation, but displaying the kind of control a team that knew exactly how they could win would.
The Chiefs didn’t play poorly, but lacked a cutting edge and for that reason they couldn’t capitalise on greater possession and long stretches in attacking areas.
A combination of spurning chances at goal, while simultaneously relying on penalties to double up scoring opportunities will leave Dave Rennie disappointed with his side’s performance. Ignoring shots at goal was bad tactics and not scoring tries was poor execution – not traits associated with the Chiefs for many years.
Besides Brodie Rettalick, who was his usual self and appeared all over the park to throw people around on defence, Hurricanes players out-played of their counterparts.
It was shocking to see Ardie Savea have a much better game than Sam Cane – even before the apparent concussion. Cane had more tackles, but Savea’s extra turnovers and run metres were huge.
Damian McKenzie had one of the quietest games of the year by his standards, with few run metres and clean breaks. And, notably, he passed as many times as Aaron Cruden and almost three times more than Beauden Barrett.
Speaking of whom – it’s going to be extremely hard not to pick Barrett in the All Blacks number 10 spot this year. He has been the best player on the park in two straight knockout matches, and in the second one completely outplayed his opposite.
Barrett’s tactical kicking has improved out of sight and his ability with ball in hand is getting ridiculous. He had the most run. Knocking off Cruden is tough, but Barrett might be 1A in that battle now.
The third in line for the All Blacks 10 jersey, Sopoaga, came in second to Elton Jantjies in the first semi. But it is worth considering whether the four semi-final teams did indeed have the four best fly halves in Super Rugby. They probably did this year, and the two who controlled proceedings progressed.
Ultimately, as good as Jantjies was in that superb Lions win, the fact that Barrett plays for the Hurricanes in this final is a huge factor.
There isn’t anyone in the world better at launching an attack than Barrett right now, and while Jantjies has won the tactical kicking battle over the last fortnight, he will find that task much tougher this week.
May 1 was the last time these two sides met, when the Hurricanes flogged the Lions 50-17 in Johannesburg.
There won’t be as big a gap between the two sides on the weekend, but at home, and with the better number 10, the Hurricanes should win their maiden Super Rugby title.