AUCKLAND, NZ – Crunch time for the four remaining teams in Super Rugby, two huge semis will play out this weekend. The backstory of the teams is pretty varied, from the continually under-performing Hurricanes to the constantly under-gunned Highlanders. You’ve got the rich-boys from the Waratahs and, ironically, the unfashionable Brumbies who have easily the best championship pedigree out of any of them. It all adds up to some fascinating footy, but before we analyze them, let’s have a look at what’s been happening off the field.
Another tragedy hit NZ rugby this week, with former All Black, Crusaders and Northland winger Norm Berryman dying after suffering a heart attack in Perth. A much-loved figure in this part of the world, Big Norm was known for his try-scoring ability and care-free attitude. A well-known story is of how, after playing his only test for the All Blacks, he was simply left at Auckland airport after returning home from South Africa. He hitchhiked his way back home to Whangarei in his All Black gear, a four hour journey north, much to the surprise of passing motorists.
Speaking of the All Blacks, they’ve just named their first squad for the year and it could almost compete in the NFL at the rate it’s growing. An initial 41-man list has been boosted to 45 due to the distinct possibility of an all-NZ Super Rugby final. If that is the case then no Hurricanes or Highlanders players will be able to make the trip Apia to face Manu Samoa, which is on the Wednesday after the final.
This week also marked the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, which is remembered for it’s dramatic finish, symbolism of South Africa emerging from it’s dodgy past and the inspiration for the Invictus, which is most likely the least favourite sports movie of any New Zealander. Of course, around here you can’t mention the ’95 final without someone bringing up the conspiracy theory about the All Blacks being poisoned, most notably coach Laurie Mains. Interestingly, Mains repeatedly assures us that he’s ‘put it behind him’, despite the fact that it’s basically all he ever talks about these days.
Super Rugby Semi Final Fixtures:
At Westpac Stadium, Wellington: Hurricanes vs. Brumbies #HURvBRU
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Bench: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 Matt Proctor.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Lausii Taliauli, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Christian Lealiifano,9 Nic White, 8 Ita Vaea, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Blake Enever, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Scott Sio.
Bench: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Jordan Smiler, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Nigel Ah Wong, 23 Robbie Coleman.
Henry Speight was predictably banned for his moment of madness against the Stormers last weekend, he’s replaced by Lausii Taliauli on the Brumbies’ right wing. The Canes also have a reshuffle thanks to their regular right wing Cory Jane being ruled out with injury. Nehe Milner-Skudder takes his place, James Marshall moves to fullback and Beauden Barrett slots back into first five.
The Canes would’ve been on the lookout for the Brumbies maul coming into this game, but the visitors showed their hand last week by running in five tries. Milner-Skudder will have a busy night if Joe Tomane can get hands on the ball, while Matt Toomua’s inclusion means that there’ll most likely be plenty of kicking from the Brumbies.
The Canes will be honoring the recent passing of the legendary Jerry Collins with a giant number 6 jersey that will be paraded around the stands, the raw emotion of which will make this occasion extremely intimidating for the Brumbies. Westpac Stadium is sold out for the first time in years, the last time it hosted a home semi final was in 2006 with the Canes demolishing the Waratahs on the way to the infamous ‘Fog Final’.
Prediction: Canes by 15
At Allianz Stadium, Sydney: Waratahs vs. Highlanders #WARvHIG
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Matt Carraro, 11 Rob Horne 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 David Dennis (c), 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson
Bench (one to be omitted): 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Mitchell Chapman, 20 Stephen Hoiles, 21 Patrick McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Jono Lance, 24 Peter Betham
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Bench: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Shaun Treeby.
One big name missing from the home side is that of Kurtley Beale, who failed a fitness test. His spot is curiously filled by regular winger Matt Carraro, a player the Highlanders will most likely heavily target. Lima Sopoaga survived an ankle scare for the visitors and will start at first five.
Taqele Naiyaravoro and Waisake Naholo are the two men to watch in this one, both have had outstanding seasons and it would be highly surprising to not see both of them crossing the chalk in this game.
The impressive Dan Pryor has been scratched for this one, his place on the Highlanders’ open side taken by James Lenjes. He’ll have his hands full taking care of Michael Hooper, who’s been in great form all year.
Prediction: Tahs by 1
There it is, two huge games back to back on a Saturday night. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to head to the pub, have a few beers and enjoy the footy.
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