Hurricanes versus Lions. Meteorological phenomena versus the kings of the jungle. Something that will mess up your hair versus something that will bite your hair clean off (and probably a bit more). Other head-to-head analogies that don’t really make sense.
In Super Rugby, it’s the best two teams of 2016 facing off to be crowned the ninth overall Champion in the competition’s twenty-year history. And it’s going to be a cracker…
The wall of wind versus the attack of the ultimate predator
Two hundred and twelve.
That’s how many minutes of play it’s been since the Hurricanes last conceded try, when Crusaders centre Ryan Crotty crossed in Christchurch back on July 16. More than two and half games ago. It’s a phenomenal defensive effort if it’s happening in April or May, never mind the last three games before the Final.
In those three games, the ‘Canes have missed 41 tackles in total, with more than half of them coming last week in the Semi against the Chiefs. Over the course of the 2016 season, the Hurricanes’ tackle success rate hovered between 84 per cent and 85 per cent. In these last three games, they’ve bumped that up to 88.9 per cent. It’s a pretty impressive platform to build a finals campaign around.
But in their last three games, the Lions have scored 13 tries. They finished the regular season rounds the clear leading try-scoring team, but in the playoffs, they’ve blown the gap out further, more than ten tries better than the Hurricanes have managed in the same number of games.
Of the ten leading try-scorers in 2016, four of them are Lions: Courtnall Skosan, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Lionel Mapoe, and Ruan Combrinck have a whopping 38 tries between then, but that’s still not half of the Lions’ tally for the season. Eight Lions have scored four or more tries for the season, and they’ve had 24 different players cross the stripe this year. That’s a pretty impressive platform as well.
And perhaps that’s why this match shapes up so well. The Hurricanes aren’t short of try-scoring options either, and like the Lions, they’ve shown they can also run them in from anywhere. Indeed, the ‘Canes have scored 14 tries in their last three outings.
It could be tight, it could be a nine-try thriller. And either way, it’s going to be a cracker. Maybe there’s still time to get to Wellington. And I do ‘know a guy’ over there. Come on Digger, roll out the sofa bed for me!
The pressure is on the Hurricanes. But that’s not a bad thing
Johan Ackermann raised a few hackles over the ditch last weekend, when after his side put the Crusaders away he suggested that his side could just cruise into the Final and that all the pressure would be on the Hurricanes, as the beaten finalist from last season.
Surprisingly, Spiro on Monday was moved to opine, “this sort of talk is nonsense and if his players believe it, it will be self-defeating nonsense.”
I couldn’t disagree more. The Lions can go in to the final and play with a freedom that the Hurricanes could only dream about. The ‘Canes are at home, they haven’t had to travel. Their adoring fans sold out the Cake Tin in the time it takes to get a coffee, or something. Plus, they haven’t conceded a try in 212 minutes of rugby.
At the time of writing, nearly 70 per cent of well over three hundred of you had picked the Hurricanes. That’s expectation. A South African bookie I looked up even had the Lions as 3.35 outsiders – in a two-horse race!
But the Hurricanes should embrace the pressure; feed off the expectation. And in all reality, their own expectations after suffering the heartbreak first hand last year would be higher than the public’s anyway. Pressure and expectation can actually be a good thing; the ‘Canes can and should use it to their own benefit.
Boyd versus Ackermann for Coach of the Year?
SANZAAR doesn’t hand out overall player or coach of the year awards, but if they did, it’s not too big a stretch to see the final also deciding the leading clipboard-carrier for the season.
Both Chris Boyd and Johan Ackermann came into the 2016 seasons with pretty handy squads, but both also had some question marks as to whether they could convert that evident talent-on-paper into performance on the field.
Since the ‘Canes beat the Lions at Ellis Park back in Round 10, both sides have only dropped one more game on their run to the Final. And there’s been some impressive wins over decent opposition among them; Blues, Highlanders, Bulls, Sharks, Waratahs, Crusaders and Chiefs among them.
The point there is that with each win on the way home, the better each team became. And the higher their stocks rose.
Boyd had to rebuild his team after last year’s final defeat. Ackermann’s side finished eighth overall in 2015, a full win behind the top six. The magnitude of the improvement in both sides, given their status at the end of last season can’t be overstated.
I initially thought the Hurricanes might battle to make the playoffs. I hoped, but wasn’t confident the Lions would. That both have made the final make both coaches worth of the gong.
And maybe that’s why SANZAAR don’t hand one out. Because this year’s winner would be a bloody tough call.
Could another unsung hero step up?
In picking Brad Shields for my Player of the final tip on Thursday, I cited the example of Elliot Dixon – wearer of the best damned head tape in world rugby – being the hero of the Highlanders’ title last season. The Smiths, and Malakai Fekitoa got all the press, but without Dixon’s performance, I’d have extreme doubts the Highlanders would have won last season.
And I think it will be a similarly unsung hero who delivers the title this time around, hence naming Shields.
Loni Uhila, or even former Melbourne Rebel Jason Woodward would also fit the mould, having given it some more thought while writing this.
For the Lions, I’m thinking Warwick Tecklenburg, or outstanding tighthead Julian Redelinghuys could be the kind of player to really step up. Young fullback Andries Coetzee has impressed me a lot over the last five or so weeks.
A different kind of start for 2017
Meanwhile, and while the timing was undoubtedly very deliberate, yesterday saw the launch of the ambitious but very promising Brisbane Global Tens event, which will kick off the 2017 season at Suncorp Stadium on the weekend of February 11 and 12.
“Three hundred of the world’s finest rugby players representing 14 clubs from six countries – and an army of fans – will descend upon Suncorp Stadium for two days of rugby heaven in February for the Brisbane Global Tens,” the launch release boldly declared.
Duco Events, the same company who created the NRL Auckland Nines with great fanfare and subsequent success three seasons ago, are behind the concept which has the backing of the Australian and New Zealand rugby unions. It will feature all ten trans-Tasman Super Rugby sides, plus the Bulls, the Samoan national team, French mega-importers of Australian rugby talent, Toulon, and Robbie Deans’ Panasonic Wild Knights.
“You could argue that this will be the biggest gathering of world class rugby players in one city in the history of the game. To gather all these teams together in one place is a remarkable achievement. I’m really looking forward to seeing how our boys stack up against the likes of Toulon. The timing is great as a lead-in to the 2017 season proper. Suncorp is the perfect venue for an event like this. Caxton Street will be buzzing,” Deans said in the event statement, among other things that faded into insignificance after his observation of the Brisbane hospitality scene.
And it just might be crazy enough to work. The clubs have jumped on board, because the event and the week-long carnival of rugby beforehand gives their pre-season preps a proper (and low cost) kick-start.
That immediately gives the concept credibility, and with the backing of the ARU and New Zealand Rugby Union, a real opportunity for the ten-a-side event to grow into something as significant as is hoped. It genuinely sounds like fun.
Tickets for Super Rugby club members go on pre-sale next Monday from 9.00am AEST, while general public sale kick off next Thursday 11 August. Head to www.brisbaneglobaltens.com for all the details.
And enjoy the final this weekend.