A lot is made of head-to-head battles in the build up to big sporting events. Some of it is relevant, but quite often the key players don’t actually mark each other, or even have the same players around them. The obvious case in point being Bale v Ronaldo in the Euro semis.
But all the hype leading up to the Super Rugby semi-final was how the All Black trials would go for the numbers 7, 9, and 10.
It was a strange match really. The Chiefs clearly owned the set pieces, in particular the scrums, Retallick and Bird showed their class, but seemed reluctant to try their hand in the way they had done so successfully for the past four months. Damien McKenzie once again turned in an attacking master-class but seemed to be a little under-utilised.
At least he got some counter-attacking opportunities; it seemed strange Seta Tamanivalu, current All Black was ignored like that.
That 10 minutes of concerted pressure on the Hurricanes line during the first half was impressive, but why turn down all those chances of points when you are not prepared to try anything?
The fact they could not score during that period, followed by the Ardie Savea breakout was the key part of the match. Which brings us to looking at those key match-ups, in numerical order.
This site has questioned what the hype around Sam Cane has been about before. Last night the gulf between his performance and that of Apprentice Savea could not have been more glaring.
This was best summed up during those pivotal few minutes following the extended Chiefs pressure mentioned above. Savea burst out from the tight on his own line to break up field. The feigned chip and chase when confronted by McKenzie showed he’s got the smarts too. The Hurricanes got a penalty completely against the run of play following that movement.
Three minutes later Cane floated a pass straight into the path of Beauden Barrett and suddenly, somehow, the home side had a 15-3 lead.
In the second half we saw Cane also has cynical off-the-ball cheap shots as part of his game. That’s not really Leadership Group material.
As things stand, Tawera Kerr-Barlow is the number two ranked halfback in the country. Last night he showed he is the number two halfback in the Chiefs region. Weber had started most games over the second part of the season, and for good reason.
Kerr-Barlow’s selection, presumably to put him against Perenara, was a strange one. During the first half siege he seemed to feel it was all up to him while ignoring those outside him. It was noticeable that the Chiefs offered so much more once Weber came on.
It wasn’t as if he was playing behind a losing pack
We are running out of words to describe Barrett over the last few months. The vision, execution and pace showed in setting up the opening try for Halaholo (from a Kerr-Barlow turn-over incidentally) was as good as you will ever see. He showed all the skills in controlling the match from what ball he did get.
In contrast, Cruden was very quiet. McKenzie ended up playing in the First Five slot.
Next week we see the two best number 10s in the world go head-to-head, so that will be one to watch.
It is hard to be critical of Steve Hansen’s selections given his record since 2012. But those performances, in such a crunch game, can not be ignored.
There is loyalty, and then there is bloody-mindedness.