Johannesburg - A pulsating and high quality Vodacom Super Rugby final brought a shock result and some important pointers to the southern hemisphere squads as they head into the build-up week to the first international matches of this World Cup year.
According to supersport.com website, the Highlanders win over the Hurricanes to put an unexpected seal on the Sanzar regional season should also have provided hope to those franchises who have struggled in 2015. Lest it be forgotten, just two years ago they finished near the bottom of the table and lost to the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, and even last year they had to really scrap to be competitive in their play-off loss to the Cell C Sharks.
Yet here we are not long later with a team that was acknowledged to have just three stars – there are actually more than that now – and made up mostly of “misfits” from the other New Zealand franchises, being the toast of their south island home city, Dunedin.
The Highlanders were the first team to become champions by doing it the hard way, in other words by winning the final after advancing from the first play-off round. They were behind the Hurricanes in the league phase of the season, but there was no denying their small margin of superiority in a Wellington final that comes close to ranking as the best the competition has ever seen.
The fact that the Highlanders turned the tables on the pace-setters after playing bridesmaid through the regular season is the first point that might be absorbed, and possibly considered a bit disconcerting, by an All Black side that goes into the international season strongly favoured to retain the World Cup title it won at home four years ago.
Just like the All Blacks have for this entire World Cup cycle, the Hurricanes dominated the season, only to come up short at the final hurdle. That can happen to the New Zealand national team, and they won’t need reminding that it has happened before.
You’d be hard pressed to argue that there was an element of choke about the Hurricanes defeat, as both teams played outstanding rugby and they left nothing on the table in their all-out attempt to get the advantage. However, by preventing a possession orientated team from gaining their usual momentum with linespeed on defence that was quite stupendous at times, the Highlanders did do to the Hurricanes what other teams have done to New Zealand in some previous World Cups.
And when they were put under that pressure, the Hurricanes didn’t quite look the team they were before the decider. That’s also a movie we’ve seen before – think 1995, 2003 and 2007 World Cup knock-out fixtures.
Many are labelling the Hurricanes naïve for the rugby they played, and the kicking statistics reflect what their coach Chris Boyd was thinking when at halftime he said “We must play for territory more.” But the rugby they played in the final was the rugby that got them there.
The Highlanders kicked the ball a whopping 31 times against 17 from the Hurricanes, they ran 438 metres against 711, they trailed in the carries count and made significantly more tackles, though not quite as many more by the final whistle as was the case in the first half.
In several World Cups the All Blacks have lacked authority when forced to chase the game in high pressure knock-out fixtures, and the Hurricanes too made those errors under pressure that make it hard to win a final. Apart from the missed kicks and the Savea knock-on, there was also a lineout drive in a strong attacking position with nine minutes to go that went horribly wrong for them.
Of course, you can’t just add up kicks to explain why a team won. Those kicks have to be accurate and intelligent, which is what distinguishes the Highlanders from South African sides who have an idea of what they want to do but sometimes execute it too poorly for it to have the aesthetic appeal that the Highlanders game has.
And here we arrive at what the last few weeks of the competition confirmed – scrumhalf Aaron Smith is the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of New Zealand opponents at the World Cup. Fourie du Preez was the real pivot around which the South African success in 2007 was based and Smith’s wizardry as a tactical kicker, as to the fore in the final as it was in the semifinal in Sydney the previous week, gives him the potential to do the same for the Kiwis eight years later.
With two possession orientated teams falling to the Highlanders in the last two weeks of the season, the message has surely been absorbed now as much by Wallaby coach Michael Cheika, who was in charge of the vanquished team in the Sydney play-off game, as it has been by Springbok mentor Heyneke Meyer.
Not that the latter should have required much reminding. What it would have done for Meyer is confirm what he needs above all else, and that's a fit Du Preez.
Although a return to old sharpness for the veteran outside back brigade of Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers and JP Pietersen (there was nothing wrong with his form at the end of Super Rugby, we just need to see him on the wing again) could change that, the answer to the question on why South African teams don’t play the expansive game many perceive the Kiwis to be playing is that the country doesn’t have the nearly same depth or quality of personnel out wide.
The Polynesian impact on New Zealand rugby should not be underestimated. Whereas in this country a young player who has physical presence is automatically pigeon-holed as a forward, it appears that on the islands the opposite psyche applies. If a guy is big, strong and athletic, he is tried on the wing first, and only switches to flank if he doesn’t make it. At least that appears to be the attitude.
What the Boks do have though is a player in Du Preez who can have the same impact on a big game that Smith has. It’s just a question of whether Du Preez can get fit in time, and if he does, whether he can join those other above mentioned veterans in rolling back the clock by producing the form of 2007.
That Meyer needs to continue improving the fitness of his team is another lesson from the final, which was played at hectic intensity and pace, that he would have already considered a given beforehand.