NZ Super Rugby teams need 'external opposition'
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 24: Samuel Whitelock of the Crusaders is tackled during the round nine Super Rugby match between the Brumbies and the Crusaders at GIO Stadium on April 24, 2016 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

This weekend, New Zealand super rugby teams will face ‘external opposition’ for what seems like the first time in 2018. This is a positive for NZ Super Rugby teams, as calls recently for the Local Derby matches to be reduced in frequency had gained strength.

As the Hurricanes get set to face the Sunwolves tonight in Wellington, the challenge offered by external teams is one that will hugely benefit both the local teams, and the All Blacks.

That is in as much as, the local teams can experience the challenges from opposition who they are less familiar with. The Brumbies, Jaguares, Sunwolves and the Bulls will all test the NZ Super Rugby teams in ways that a local derby does not. Inter-conference matches bring benefits to the wider game – provided there are no injuries sustained.

And being so close to the June Internationals, the New Zealand selectors can view possible test starters in match conditions; prior to the final ‘preparation camps’ which are scheduled in May.

NZ Super Rugby teams need ‘external opposition’

We look at all four matches – the Chiefs enjoy their final bye – in New Zealand, plus the Crusaders away to Canberra, and the Highlanders visiting Pretoria, South Africa.

Hurricanes v Sunwolves – 7:35pm (NZT) Westpac Stadium, Friday April 27

By rights, fans will look at this match and assume that last years scoreline of 17-83 might be repeated. In fact, they would be wrong. The Sunwolves have strengthened their coaching staffs – to the point that the side could now be seen as being 75% stronger.

Jamie Joseph has the experience to build into the Sunwolves some of the skills and mentality that makes NZ Super Rugby teams a great unit. While his ‘troops’ are a mix of local and imported talent, in 2018 they will also show the same resilience that was exhibited many times last season.

The home side though, are champions. They are fiercely competitive. The Hurricanes include many game breakers, and that begins with their number 10: Beauden Barrett. Fit again, he will take on more responsibility as TJ Perenara is still unavailable to start.

While much focus has been pointed on Brad Shields, and his dream of playing for England Rugby, the captain is still highly professional. That means he will command the ship, implement the plans of Chris Boyd and attempt to counter the raw enthusiasm of the Sunwolves.

It should be much closer that in 2017….however, if the ‘Canes get a few tries, you could watch the ship sailing. If Ben Lam or the returning Nehe Milner-Skudder can ‘turn on the afterburners’ then the Sunwolves could face a barrage, during the Anzac Day commemorations.

Blues v Jaguares – 7:35pm (NZT) Eden Park, Saturday April 28

The more interesting of the New Zealand scheduled matches. Interesting as; one team is on the up, and the other team is still treading water.

The Jaguares have accomplished back-to-back away victories for the first time. They can be pleased with that, but Mario Ledesmo wants to bring his men over the Tasman Sea, for more rewards. Not happy to sit back – he see’s a target on the Blues [and for good reason].

In Melbourne, his team upset the hosts. In Canberra, they bettered the Brumbies. So now, his prior expectations in pre-planning will now have changed. Ledesmo and captain Agustin Creevy may say to the group ‘let us take five points away from the Blues!’. And, for good reason.

Blues still the unpolished article

One side in the NZ Conference is lagging behind. They are lacking in confidence. A lacking that they have developed from beatings taken in those thunderous local derby matches.

Shattered by injury too, head coach Tana Umaga still holds belief that his side have the potential – welcoming back Augustine Pulu onto the bench – but they are an unpolished article.

Going into the match versus the Jaguares, Umaga has altered his line-up yet again. Rieko Ioane plays out of position at second-five eighth. And he is going to be bothered by the opposition centers he looks at on Saturday. However, if Ioane can work with his classy fullback Matt Duffy, and show some solid defence, it might just free-up their ability to attack.

One thing is clear though, the ‘D needs to come before the A’

The Blues have the second worst defence in the competition. 35 points is the average bled per match, and the thumping that the Sharks imposed is still lingering around the offices of the Blues. The players may once again give their all, but this is a real challenge [not seen before from the visitors]. In the past, the fast-flowing Blues could run away from the ‘Jags.

In 2018, they are not able to be as secure in that fact …a fact that might play right into the hands of the ‘more hungry’ Jaguares.

ACT Brumbies v Crusaders – 7:45pm (AUT) GIO Stadium, Sat April 28

This rivalry has all the hallmarks of a premium match. The Brumbies are realistically, on the verge of success and failure. Not at the position of the Australian Conference to assert their credentials. 2018 is not the same as 2001. They are in need of a good performance, so on the Anzac ‘Military Round’ it would be the ideal point to show the doubters wrong.

David Pocock will be missing due to a calf injury though. That is a bitter pill, but skipper Sam Carter will want to celebrate his 100th cap. Expect he and the experienced Henry Speight to ask their troops to ‘give a big one’ for the old diggers, and for the franchise too.

Going up against the Crusaders is never easy though. Some say they are the ‘elite’ of Super Rugby. And that is true, for the majority of the time. Scott Robertson has boosted his side, by returning his skipper Sam Whitelock to the mix. That is an extra 15-20% on last week (all due respect to Quinton Strange).

Still being driven around the park by the mature Mike Delany, his decision making and Bryn Hall’s support play should have a positive impact. On a chilly night in Canberra, the ‘Saders need field position, and add points regularly. With the Brumbies at times a poorly disciplined outfit, he might be rewarded close to the sticks. If they go into halftime leading, then Delany wouldn’t be insulted to be substituted after 50 minutes. Mitchell Hunt could then come on, and the Crusaders could show their wide range of skills.

But, knowing the precision of kicking-coach Ronan O’Gara, they will ask to execute the basics first. And only then ‘finish with a Razor Robertson flourish’ at the end.

Bulls v Highlanders – 5:15pm (SAT) Loftus Versfeld, Sat April 28

This one is tough to predict, other than a contest for the real battlers. The Highlanders have suffered from some derby losses, yet otherwise they have enjoyed wins at home. This two-week tour is a period to secure vital points, and show they are the real deal.

For the home side, they have enjoyed a couple of home wins too, and the fanbase is extremely happy with this trend. John Mitchell has given some players a new lease on their game plans. If Handre Pollard wants to secure his Springbok starting number 10 position, then he must keep on playing to a style that is attractive. No longer modelled on François Steyn. He can be his own man. Direct his team effectively, to show their strengths all across the park.

The visitors coaching group is also asking their team to play to plan that is showing new style. Switches at the scrum and lineout, inventive plans that take you by surprise. Defensively solid, the ‘Landers will ‘tackle the house down’. So fitness should not be the issue on the high veld.

It is the top two inches where the game will be won or lost.

Of note: Ben Smith and Aaron Smith will be with the group for only one match of the two – due to the All Blacks preparation camp. So this game needs to see a good points reward, before men like the Smith’s, Waisake Naholo, Luke Whitelock and a few others are stolen away.

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While no verdict can be offered, it will be an pleasant change for NZ Super Rugby teams. Wins may come for several of the teams, but the Blues and Highlanders cannot live on their laurels. The Auckland team especially need their fans to show the belief that their coach still holds strongly too.

For how much longer though, is both up to his players and the Blues management to decide.

 

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