Super Rugby Aotearoa starts tonight

Super rugby resumes this weekend after a suspension of the full competition due to the Covid-19 lockdown, but in a revamped local only competition as Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Tonight the Highlanders play the Chiefs in Dunedin. It is cold but dry here outside as well as under the roof. – I decided to go to the stadium to watch, a large crowd is expected.

It is the first rugby game in the world to be played in front of a crowd and broadcast since the Covid lockdown, and one of the few sports events taking place.

Tomorrow the Blues play the Hurricanes. The Crusaders have a bye first up.

Each team will play all other teams twice. It will be a tough competition, especially for the Highlanders who struggled at the start of the season before it was stopped.

They will be operating under some experimental rules.

Any drawn games will go to golden point extra time. Draws tend to be flat finishes.

Anyone red carded can’t come back on to the field during the game but can be replaced after 20 minutes. This is to try too reduce the unevenness of playing for a lot of the game with a player short.

And the change that interests me the most is an attempt to clean up the breakdown and make them more fair and even contests.

Breakdown interpretation expected to speed game up

Announced earlier this week among other innovations like golden point time and the ability to replace a red-carded player after 20 minutes, the existing breakdown laws will be applied stricter to create faster attacking ball and a fairer contest said New Zealand Rugby National Referee Manager Bryce Lawrence.

“Fans enjoy Investec Super Rugby because it’s a fantastic spectacle and our referees like to allow the game to flow. We’re confident we’ll see a contest that is faster, fairer, safer and easier to understand. We’re not changing the laws of the game, we’re being stricter about how we referee them,” Lawrence said.

“It’s just about learning to roll away east to west, rather than north to south,” Gareth Evans responded when asked about how he is dealing with the stricter application of the breakdown laws for the competition kicking off on Saturday June 13.

“A lot of turnovers these days aren’t actually from the person making the tackle it is from the next arriving player,” Evans said. “The tackler now pretty much just has to roll out and go side to side and can’t slow the ball down. If you are the jackler you only have one crack at the ball now.”

“It sort of slowed the game down a bit previously so it’s going to be different but I guess you’re going to have to be more precise on when you pick and choose. The referee is not focusing on who is holding onto the ball now, they are focusing on who is rolling away or who is not rolling away so they can award the penalty or not,” Evans said.

I think this is an overdue change. What has been happening is that the tackled player has been positioning themselves in front of the ball to protect it, often crabbing forward, and often keeping their hand on the ball which was illegal – the law has long said a tackled player must play the ball immediately and then can’t play it again.

I hope the referees are strict on this. The next players arriving at the tackle will be critical in securing the ball.

referees say they will also police the offside line much more strictly. Also overdue, it had become too easy to shut down attacking rugby.

Game details, news and teams:

It will be broadcast and streamed around the world: https://www.superrugby.co.nz/news/where-in-the-world-can-you-watch-investec-super-rugby-aotearoa/

Highlanders beat Lions

I went to watch the Highlanders play the British and Irish Lions last night. It was bitterly cold and intermittently wet (there had been light sleet and snow earlier in the day) outside but as usual perfect conditions under the roof.

It was a very good game to watch, quite open at times. The Lions scored three tries to the Highlanders two but failed to convert a couple of late penalties and lost 22-23.

That’s the second midweek loss to the Lions. They will be hoping their weekend team manages to overcome the NZ Maori team this Saturday.

The Highlanders played very well for most of the game but made some costly mistakes. One botched kick set the Lions up on attack after which they scored a good backline try. The Highlanders replied with a try to leave the score at 10-10 at half time.

In the second half the Lions scored from an awful long pass from the Highlanders to put them in front, but the Highlanders made most of the play and scored again. They also nailed important penalties to nudge ahead 23-22.

The Lions missed two penalties, one relatively easy, the other very long range, and that cost them the game.

I had expected the Lions to put pressure on up front and try to out-tough the Highlanders in the forwards but that never really happened.

A nearly full stadium with a temporary stand in the usually empty east end created a great atmosphere, the best in New Zealand under cover.

Super semi finals

Tonight the Hurricanes play the Chiefs in the first Super Rugby semi final. I’m not going to pick this either way, I’ll just enjoy the game.

Except that If the Chiefs win tonight  and the Highlanders manage to beat the Lions  in Johannesburg in the middle of the night (that will be tough) that would mean a Dunedin final which would be great.

Hurricanes won 25 – 9, just too good, especially Beauden Barrett who was instrumental in giving them a 15-6 lead at half time lead, and the Chiefs just weren’t up to it.

Lions just too good for the Highlanders, they are very good at scoring tries and got too many of them for the Highlanders to get close. The final score was 42-30 but late catch up points made it look a bit better than the walloping that it was.

So the final will be Hurricanes versus Lions in Wellington next week. Both teams have earned their final spots.

 

Highlanders win right up there

Being an Otago and Highlanders supporter I’ve experienced quite a bit of hanging in there and more than a few major disappointnents.

So that makes good wins even better.

And the Highlanders winning the Super 15 final on Saturday is one of the best wins I’ve experienced, if not the best. This takes into account many All Black wins.

The All Black win in the World Cup final in 2011 was more relief than elation. The win in the nineties clinching the first series win in South Africa was pretty good. And there have been some other great wins at National level too.

But the closer to home team is special. Especially when they have no often been a dominant team. Big wins are to be savoured. And Saturday’s win was a very big win.

The Otago team through the nineties was exciting and had some very good wins, especially those I watched live at Carisbrook.

Winning the Ranfurly Shield in 2013 was special, but I don’t remember if i even watched that game. But it was a one off win and the loss soon afterwards made the Shield experience short lived.

However this Highlanders’ win means more. It is an international competition with the best players and teams of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa involved. The Super 15 competition is regarded by some as the toughest in the world.

The win on Saturday night was fantastic in itself, but more so because it followed two excellent games against the previous two champions, the Chiefs and the Waratahs, and it was the peak of a successful season.

The start of the season didn’t give any indication of what might play out. The Highlanders began in February with a bye, and then they lost at home to the Crusaders.

They then beat the Queensland Reds, followed by the first sign of real promise, a win against the 2013 champions the highly rated Chiefs.

Even then hopes weren’t highly raised. Aspects of the Highlanders’ play looked same old ominous, especially a struggling scrum.

But as the season ground on hopes were cautiously raised. They were at least competitive, most of the time. They were often playing well, and at times looked exciting.

Into the last third of the season there was reasonable hope the Highlanders might at least make the play offs, which would have made the season a success.

But towards the end of the rounds the smart heads and the big hearts of the players and coaches became more apparent. This team wasn’t just sort of competitive, it could foot it with the best.

Getting the second most points on the table was a significant achievement.

Otago and Highlander supporters had had many major disappointments so expectations are usually lower than hopes in big games. Some degree of trepidation is never absent.

Then the play off game against the Chiefs. A very satisfying win on merit.

The following week was better when the Highlanders comprehensively out thought and out fought last year’s champion the Waratahs, on their home turf in Sydney.

The pinnacle now looked possible with the final starting at 0-0, although the Hurricanes were clear and deserved favourites.

A plus was the Highlanders had little to lose apart from a game, as coming second would have been a great achievement. A close loss after a brave attempt would have been fairly happily accepted in the south.

But this Highlanders team was not playing for second. They were determined to prove to them selves, to their supporters and to the rugby world that they the tricks and the ticker to top the Super fifteen competition.

And so they did. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t over until the final whistle – with the way the Hurricanes play the hard fought and desperately retained lead always looked at risk.

The Highlanders looked wobbly mid way through the second half. It looked like season fatigue could be catching up on them.

But they had the heart and the reserves of energy to put in one last massive effort, and the finished the stronger of the two teams.

So they were very well deserved winners.

And for me this is right up there, it’s one of the most satisfying wins I have experienced.

Thanks to all of those involved in the Highlanders. Thanks very much. This is a season and a finals win to remember.

Highlanders!

The Hurricanes had a great Super 15 season, but they weren’t quite great enough when it really mattered, in the final, and that matters.

The Highlanders had a very good season and played a great final finishing off the best, beating the two most recent champions through the play offs and beating the best overall team in the final.  so they are worthy champions.

HighlandersChampions

Congratulations to a job well done. A warm glow of pride spread over the south last night, and it will remain in place today when the team returns to Dunedin.

The Hurricanes tried repeating their usual and it didn’t quite work for them in a few ways. They missed their first three kicks at goal, they didn’t succeed with the devastating breaks they are renowned and feared for, and they couldn’t quite finish off a frenetic game.

The Highlanders weren’t perfect either, especially during a wobbly period mid second half when the Hurricanes closed the gap to four points.

But they dug in and held on, finishing strongly enough to deny the Hurricanes.

There was an air of ‘we deserve this’ about the Hurricanes – they deserved to win because they had been clearly the top team so far, they deserved to win because of Jerry Collins, they deserved to win because it was the final match for stalwarts like Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu.

But thinking you might deserve something is not always enough.

The Highlanders, a team of mostly unknowns, played like a team, a team determined to do whatever they could to win.

They had built up some very good skills and a wide range of tactics through the season.

And when it mattered they had the guts, the fitness, the nous and the determination to get over the final line first.

So they are deserving winners.

HighlandersCelebrate

And here in the south we will celebrate probably the best and most satisfying southern team win I’ve experienced for quite some time. We’ve got a year to feel like champions.

Planet Rugby has the details: Highlanders stun ‘Canes in thriller

A report with some video: Highlanders upset Hurricanes to claim first Super Rugby title in Wellington
(I’m sure some Hurricanes players and supporters are upset but the result was hardly a shock if you had seen what the Highlanders had proven capable of).

The Highlanders had knocked off the Chiefs in Dunedin, then bamboozled the Waratahs in Sydney before jetting into Wellington, but few thought they could beat the regular season champions on their home patch. However, within the Highlanders’ camp there was no doubt according to co-captain Ben Smith.

“We knew from the start we had something special and along the way other people started to believe too. We talk about brotherhood and being good mates and you’ve seen that over the past few weeks,” he said.

And they showed that in the final last night.

Hurricanes or Highlanders?

Most of the talk and speculation is over. Tonight the Super 15 will be decided on the field at the Cake Tin.

The Hurricanes are logical favourites.

The Highlanders will probably be sentimental favourites outside of the Wellington region.

Of course I’m hoping for a Highlanders win but don’t have any expectations other than for an intriguing contest.

The score will start at 0-0 at 7.35 pm. Then it’s up to the two teams on the night.

Hurricanes and Highlanders

The Hurricanes were clear leaders on the Super 15 table, and they were clear winners in their semi-final against the Brumbies last night winning 29-9. Their forwards are playing very well and their backs often look dangerous. Despite missing out through mistakes a number of times they scored often enough to shut the Brumbies out.

So the Hurricanes will deservedly host the final in Wellington next week.

The Highlanders were second on points on the table, just one bonus point ahead of the Waratahs. They went to Sydney to play an away semifinal against the defending champions due to the country ranking system.

Most of the statistics were against the Highlanders. They have rarely won in Sydney and haven’t made the final since 1999 (when they lost to the Crusaders).

But last night the Highlanders out fought and out thought the Waratahs, winning 35-17.

As a Highlander fan it would have been sort of ok for the Hurricanes to have lost so we would host the final in Dunedin but the Hurricanes earned the home game.

So next week it will be the Hurricanes versus the Highlanders in Wellington, and all New Zealand final. They can both be high tempo exciting attacking teams but finals can be different.

It will be interesting to see how it goes. May the best team win, and hopefully it will be the Highlanders!

Highlander’s alcohol ban shows dedication and example

The Highlanders show they are dedicated to doing whatever they can to succeed in the Super rugby competition.

Highlanders pledge – no alcohol for a month

The Highlanders are on a month-long drinking ban as they try to qualify for the Super Rugby play-offs for the first time since 2003.

…skipper Jamie Mackintosh said the players and management had made a joint call following their bye week to go without alcohol until after their round 12 game against the Hurricanes in Dunedin.

“We just decided as a team during the bye week that the next four weeks were going to be pretty big for us, with the Blues at home, the Cheetahs and Sharks and then the Hurricanes,” Mackintosh said.

“Last year we came back from the bye and dropped games and we didn’t want to have any excuses there. The team and management got together and decided.”

Mackintosh said the booze ban was a big call from the team, especially in South Africa.

“You don’t go out and have a big night but you do enjoy a beer with tea. It’s a great place to socialise and have a beer after a hard days’ training. The management and team have bought into it. It’s not so much about the alcohol, it’s about the team buying into something, sacrificing something together so that we are really focussed for the next four weeks,” he said.

“When I’m lying in my bed in nine or 10 weeks time, whether we made the play-offs or not, we know that we gave it our all. It’s got its challenges, but hopefully the cherry at the end is worth more than a couple of beers with tea.”

This demonstrates team dedication to do what they can to achieve their goals. Most top athletes don’t drink much alcohol anyway these days so as not to detract from their performance, but this is a good way to build the team ethos.

I’m sure they will be able to do this without any outside pressure but it does show a changing attitude towards alcohol.

In my young playing days it was very different. I moved to Auckland in the mid seventies, and a break from social habits allowed me to reassess my lifestyle. I realised had been drinking more than was good for me, and I was determined to do whatever I could to improve my rugby.

I started going to the gym through the offseason, long before the gym became a common place for rugby players. This was easy as it was in my own time.

And at times I put myself on alcohol bans. That was a lot harder. I didn’t find it hard to stay off alcohol, but it was hard explaining when people (frequently ) tried to push and coerce me to drink and didn’t understand why I wouldn’t.

Anyway, go the Highlanders! And good on you. Staunch team making, and a great example. We can enjoy alcohol, but we can do well without it when we choose.