Front-running Crusaders against the defending champion Hurricanes at prime time on Saturday night: what more could you wish for?
It’s one of those local derbies that, in the big picture, will give the British & Irish Lions an idea of how some of the top All Blacks are performing. It will also give Steve Hansen and his selectors a handle on where some of his players are at.
Looking a little further ahead, it could be the same sides who will ultimately contest the Super Rugby final.
There’s so much riding on it; it’s an All Blacks trial for a lot of players. When you consider that from a fan’s perspective, well it’s just a great game to sit down and look forward to. It is inevitable in a competition like Super Rugby that there will be some meaningless games and mismatches. But when you get local derbies like this it is exactly what we all want to see.
Both sides will be without key players. The Crusaders will probably play Jordan Taufua in the boot at No.8. He’s a very capable player anywhere in the back-row and he gets go-forward. He has put his hand up for a while now. Kieran Read is a massive loss, but he hasn’t been there for much of the season and they’ve shown they have got a high-quality squad.
Having Sam Whitelock unavailable due to suspension, in hand with Read’s absence, is a huge loss however. But at the same time you replace an All Blacks second-rower with another Test player in Luke Romano. It’s not a bad luxury to have if you’re Scott Robertson.
Take nothing away from what Sam Whitelock has done for the Crusaders this year though, he was having an outstanding season as skipper.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are without hooker Dane Coles and that is the stage the competition is at – the attrition stage. They say after six games is about when players are likely to suffer some sort of injury if they don’t have a rest. But there are still a number of key players out there.
The Crusaders will have an All Blacks front-row and two All Blacks locks, so they should have the edge in the tight five. Their scrum has been going really well, too.
In the loose, it is a great opportunity for Ardie Savea to put his hand up and show his class for the Hurricanes against Matt Todd, Taufua and the likes.
In the backs, Beauden Barrett will be a key performer. There is just so much talent in the way he is putting the ball on the spot with his cross-field kicks, or pinning his ears back and taking the gap. He just creates so much. I would say he is head and shoulders above most 10s in the competition but then you look at someone like Richie Mo’unga, who is actually a bit of a class act himself.
Mo’unga has really matured and developed as a player. You wouldn’t have to look too far around for the best 10s in the competition. There is no doubt Barrett would definitely be No.1 but this will still be a great clash.
I’ve been going on about it for a long time, but TJ Perenara is in the best form of his life. He’s really playing the house down and the pressure he is applying on Aaron Smith is a good problem for Steve Hansen to have.
Looking further across the backline, there are some really classy players up against each other. Ngani Laumape has shown again just how good he is. He’s not a big guy but he looks full of confidence at the moment and really appears to be enjoying himself. When your backs are like that, they are hugely dangerous — anything can happen.
Jordie Barrett is roaming around there as well and I wonder just how far away he is from the All Blacks? Week in, week out at Super Rugby level he is proving his quality. Jordie Barrett is a bit like Damian McKenzie last year when the Chiefs youngster was performing so well against players he would face if he was in the All Blacks.
Sure, the intensity of Test rugby is bigger. But if you can stand out at Super Rugby level you’re really not that far away from being a starting All Blacks player. Even if Ben Smith and Israel Dagg get back ok, I think it is important that Jordie Barrett gets close to that environment for his own development and New Zealand rugby.
He hasn’t been included in the NZ Under 20s side and you would turn that down if you wanted to make the All Blacks. When you are trying to develop a player, if you take him down a notch to try and develop him it just doesn’t make sense. You want to make him thrive and the best place for him is in the All Blacks environment.
Then on the other side you’ve got the likes of David Havili and George Bridge, who we talked about last week, as well as Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue. There’s no doubt the quality of the conveyor belt is very strong.
Another interesting development that has come through this year is the way concussion is being dealt with. This testing regime would be interesting to know something more about, especially in Dane Coles’ case where you hear the symptoms emerged much later in the recovery process.
Twenty or ever 10 years ago, we would never have heard about concussions in the way we are now. When you think that Coles, Liam Squire, Sonny Bill Williams and others have concussion issues the list is starting to grow.
It is quite interesting how it is happening and it would be interesting to get a medical perspective on just what they are doing to assess the players. It’s great that they’re monitoring them, but it would be even better to get a bit of insight on how they find out about these symptoms.
Just as worrying is what is happening in Australia. The Blues’ game against the Waratahs highlighted it. I couldn’t believe that the Waratahs in the first half looked so out of the picture. It was dire. The Blues did look good though; the Ioane brothers again showing their quality. Rieko is another huge talent for the future.
But what do you do if you’re Australia? I know Sonny Bill Williams said they just need to hang in there. But just as Steve Hansen always says, you can’t afford to stand still because you’ll get left behind.
Why would the tide turn for Australia? At the end of the day they haven’t got the schoolboys, and as ex-coach Alan Jones said: if you haven’t got the foundations right how can you make things better? If the tide is going to turn around, you have got to get your foundation right.
If you compare that situation with New Zealand where you’ve got schoolboy rugby, then the conveyor belt through the academies producing a talent pool that feeds Super Rugby; we are not seeing similar things in Australia.
You have to ask what out and out talent for Australian rugby has been thrown out there in 2017? We can make a list of about 20-odd names in New Zealand. When you can compare it like that, there are worrying times ahead for Australia.
Where’s the competition for someone like Bernard Foley? They’ve produced so many talented players over the years; the NSW-Queensland game used to be like a State of Origin match, it was great to watch. But they are both performing so poorly now. It has to come down to administration; that has to be the answer.
You need clarity and direction, but having two teams in limbo is doing no-one any good.