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Crunch time for Crusaders in stellar Super Rugby season

May 11, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Table-topping Canterbury Crusaders defend their unbeaten run against the Beauden Barrett-influenced Wellington Hurricanes on Saturday to start a season-defining fortnight of Super Rugby.

Crusaders

In the fiercely-contested New Zealand conference, the Hurricanes and Waikato Chiefs, who the Crusaders play the following week, have only lost one game and are within striking distance of the top spot and its reward of home-ground advantage in the play-offs.

Keeping a close eye on the torrid New Zealand derbies are South African front-runners Golden Lions, who have also lost only one game and as long as they don’t falter are poised to take the overall lead should the New Zealand trio cancel each other out.

Under the wieldy Super Rugby set-up — due to be changed next year — the Lions do not play any New Zealand sides during the normal season.

“I suppose the next two weeks, the local derbies against the Chiefs and the Hurricanes, is the real test,” Crusaders assistant coach and former All Blacks fullback Leon MacDonald said.

“Once we get through the next two weeks we will know really where we are at, and things will be a little bit more real.”

The Crusaders have won 10 out of 10 in the best winning streak by any team in a season since MacDonald was playing when they went through 2002 undefeated.

But to preserve that record, they will have to pay particular attention to the skills of Barrett who has consistently boosted the Hurricanes this year with his deft kicking skills.

“The fact he has got a short one, and a long one, it makes it difficult to cover. He is a special player and we all know that. It is just one of the challenges of playing the Hurricanes,” MacDonald said.

“The real strength, especially, of Beaudie’s play is his ability to read the play on the go. It doesn’t need to be pre-called. He will see space and attack it.”

While the Chiefs have a bye this weekend, and a chance to freshen up before they play the Crusaders in Suva next week, the Lions are in Canberra to face top Australian side ACT Brumbies.

After racking up bonus-point wins over the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels, the Lions know they are in for a much tougher battle against the Brumbies in the final match of their swing through Australia.

“They’ll test us physically, that’s for sure. I like to think of them as a Bulls-like team, big and strong, and always looking to disrupt their opponents’ rhythm,” coach Johan Ackermann said.

Although the form book backs the Lions, Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham has warned his side should not be underestimated as they look to turn around what has been a sorry year for Australian rugby.

Australian teams have won just three of 27 games against international sides so far this season, have not beaten any New Zealand teams, and the Brumbies lead their conference with only three wins from nine games.

“Three wins is not good enough for us. We’ve lost our last three but we’ve had good focus this week. We just want to win the game in front of us and not worry about the ladder,” Larkham said.

Should the Lions lose they will still be the premier South African side with their nearest rivals, the Coastal Sharks, 10 points behind.

The Sharks this week play the struggling Southern Kings.

Barrett off the hook over red card

April 11, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett has escaped further punishment after receiving a red card in the Wellington Hurricanes’ Super Rugby win over NSW Waratahs last week.

Barrett

The current World Rugby player of the year was sent off late in the match after receiving two yellow cards for deliberately knocking down the ball during Waratahs’ attacks.

The SANZAAR judiciary said it took Barrett’s exemplary disciplinary record into account before clearing him to play against the Auckland Blues this weekend.

“The player is therefore free to play and will serve no suspension,” it said in a ruling issued late Monday.

Barrett argued after the match that he was trying to intercept the ball but poor technique meant he knocked it down, rather than taking possession.

Waratahs prop Sekope Kepu was banned for one week after earning a yellow card in the same match for a dangerous tackle.

The judiciary said he received the suspension because it was his third yellow this season for similar offences.

Big names shine as Hurricanes humiliate Rebels

March 5, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Defending Super Rugby champions the Wellington Hurricanes trounced the Melbourne Rebels 71-6 Saturday, with returning All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Nehe Milner-Skudder playing starring roles.

Rebels

Milner-Skudder scored three of the Hurricanes’ 11 unanswered tries, while Barrett set up three and kicked six conversions.

It was the Hurricanes second highest score ever, bettered only by the 83 they scored against the Sunwolves last week in Tokyo, when they notched 13 tries.

“When we were quite direct and kept things simple, we opened them up,” said captain Dane Coles, who sat out the Sunwolves game, along with Barrett and Milner-Skudder.

“It’s very pleasing, the attack’s going good and we’re going to enjoy the win.”

It was the Rebels, who received a tongue-lashing from coach Tony McGahan after a 56-18 loss to the Auckland Blues last week, who made the early running.

They were rewarded with two penalties to Reece Hodge before Barrett and Milner-Skudder sparked the Hurricanes to life in the 17th minute.

Barrett drew in three tacklers then sent a short pass to Milner-Skudder, who showed no sign of rust after 12 months out with a shoulder injury, launching into a trademark sidestep before crossing the line.

Barrett’s chip kick set up winger Vince Aso for the Hurricanes’ second a few minutes later.

Ngani Laumape made it three on the back of a dominant Hurricanes scrum then Aso broke down the wing with TJ Perenara to add a fourth.

It was Aso’s second brace in as many matches but the Hurricanes were not done, with Barrett setting up another try before half-time, this time for Matt Proctor.

Ardie Savea piled on more misery for the Rebels two minutes after the restart when his older brother Julian set him up for a five-pointer.

Hurricanes players were lining up to score by this stage, with Reed Prinsep and Julian Savea dotting down tries before Milner-Skudder completed his hat-trick.

He outpaced the defence to dive into the corner for his second and his third came after a surging run from Jordie Barrett.

Laumape then intercepted a loose pass and dashed two-thirds the length of the field for his second to complete a horror night for the Rebels.

Fiji fume at world awards snub

November 16, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Fuming Fiji Tuesday said they were gutted that none of their nominees won at the World Rugby awards this week and planned to make their feelings known to the sport’s governing body.

Fiji

New Zealand won a hat-trick of titles at the awards bash on Sunday in London, including team of the year, player of the year (Beauden Barrett) and coach of the year (Steve Hansen).

Fiji’s Sevens team, who won the country’s first ever Olympic gold medal at Rio, were nominated for team of the year with their English coach Ben Ryan in the running for the top coach accolade, but were overlooked for both.

The Fiji Rugby Union felt hard done by and in a statement widely carried by the nation’s media said it was “in the process of expressing its concerns and disappointment to World Rugby”.

“While we respect the achievement of the All Blacks during the year, we strongly believe that the impact of the Fiji Sevens team winning back to back World 7s Series titles and more importantly winning the gold medal at the Rio Olympic Games had a far greater impact to the game of rugby globally,” it said.

“We believe that our Sevens team with the meagre resources available to them has outperformed any other rugby team in 2016.

“The rugby world expects the All Blacks to do well every time because they have all resources available to them.”

It was also upset that South Africa’s Seabelo Senatla won the Sevens player of the year gong, instead of Osea Kolinisau.

“The impact Osea Kolinisau had on the game of Sevens in the last two seasons by far outclasses any performance by Seabelo Senatla and we are disappointed he was not awarded the Sevens best player of the year,” it said.

Sevens rugby is Fiji’s national sport and part of its culture. The gold medal success in Rio galvanised the country with thousands of fans lining the flag-bedecked streets of Nadi to catch a glimpse of their idols on their return.

All Blacks crush Australia for record 18th straight win

October 23, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Julian Savea’s stunning late try double ended Australian resistance as the All Blacks claimed a world-record 18th consecutive victory with a crushing 37-10 win in Auckland on Saturday.

Savea

It was hardly vintage All Blacks and the tense game at Eden Park wasn’t settled until Savea’s game-breaking effort in the second half, scoring two tries and setting up a third.

But the ultimately convincing win rewrites the record books for Steve Hansen’s side, who surpass the top-tier record winning streak of 17 set by the All Blacks of 1965-1969 and matched twice since.

The All Blacks hit the front in the fifth minute when Israel Dagg scored and they never surrendered the lead, but for long periods Australia dictated terms and only stout defence earned the All Blacks their place in history.

They were only ahead 15-10 — after Australia had had a try disallowed by the TV match official — and defending constantly with 25 minutes to play when Savea burst into life.

There were questions ahead of the game whether the Wallabies would prove giantkillers, having stymied the All Blacks three times in recent years when the record was on the cards.

But Bernard Foley missed two close-range penalties and a Henry Speight try was disallowed when the TV official judged that Dane Haylett-Petty blocked Savea as he chased Speight.

For all their attacking flaws, sloppy discipline and rushed decision-making, the All Blacks scored six tries with Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, TJ Perenara, Savea (twice) and Dane Coles all crossing the line.

Aaron Cruden, brought off the bench early in the second half after Beauden Barrett missed the first three conversions, added seven points with the boot.

Rory Arnold scored Australia’s only try with Foley adding a conversion and penalty.

The Test record caps a remarkable 12 months in which the All Blacks became the first team to successfully defend the World Cup, retained the trans-Tasman Bledisloe Cup for a 14th consecutive year and won the Rugby Championship for the fourth time in five years.

Since Hansen took over as head coach after the All Blacks won the 2011 World Cup, the side has lost only three of 64 matches.

The Wallabies had the first opportunity to score only for Foley to hook a 33-metre penalty and the All Blacks responded immediately, exposing the Wallaby centres with two smart tries.

Ben Smith ran around Reece Hodge to put Dagg over wide out for the first touchdown and four minutes later Lienert-Brown, taking a short pass from Ryan Crotty, zipped past Samu Kerevi for the second.

For 15 minutes through the middle of the first half the Wallabies enjoyed a measure of control and they eventually broke the All Blacks defence when Arnold used all of his 2.08 metres (6ft 9in) to stretch out and score in the 28th minute.

They had a chance to turn it into a 10-point try, as Kieran Read was penalised in a confrontation on the line, but Hodge was astray with his long-range attempt at the restart.

The All Blacks struck back immediately with scrum-half Perenara charging down a Hodge clearing kick, regathering the ball and running in the All Blacks’ third try.

Foley landed a penalty early in the second half and Australia continued to keep pressure on the All Blacks until Smith broke out from his own 22 and set up Savea’s first try.

The big wing smashed through Speight and Nick Frisby for his second and then sent Coles over to settle the outcome.

Super Barrett gives Hurricanes maiden crown

August 7, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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The Wellington Hurricanes ended a 20-year nightmare Saturday when Beauden Barrett in scintillating form engineered a 20-3 victory over the Golden Lions on Saturday for their maiden Super Rugby title.

Hurricanes

On a miserable, wet night in Wellington, man-of-the-match Barrett was everywhere for the Hurricanes and settled the outcome of the final with an audacious try 12 minutes from time.

There were tumultuous scenes in the packed stadium as the Hurricanes, a team which often promised plenty but never delivered, became the fifth New Zealand side to be crowned Super champions.

“There’s been a lot of sorrow for this club and tonight we can finally say we’re champions for a Hurricanes team that’s been trying for a lot of years,” captain Dane Coles said.

“This goes out to all the Hurricanes players who have played for the jersey. We finally did it.”

Lions skipper Warren Whiteley accepted the Hurricanes deserved to win, but said his side only back in the competition three years since being dumped, would continue their meteoric rise next year.

“We feel the best is yet to come. This is only the start for us. We’ll have the same squad next year and we’ll learn from this,” Whiteley said.

The atrocious conditions dictated the outcome would rest on which of rival fly-halves Barrett and Elton Jantjies could best direct play.

It was a kicking duel Barrett won as he kept returning the Hurricanes to point-scoring positions despite the Lions dominating territory.

Cory Jane also scored for the Hurricanes with Barrett adding two conversions and two penalties while the Lions points came from a sole Elton Jantjies penalty.

It has been a long road to the top for the Hurricanes who lost the 2006 and 2015 finals as well as being beaten five times in the semi-finals.

But 2016 was not going to elude them, particularly with their local knowledge of Wellington’s wintry conditions while the arduous travel from South Africa eventually told on the Lions as the game wore on.

When the Lions used their big men to ram a pathway forward in the first half they were stopped in their tracks time and again as Brad Shields and Victor Vito, in his 100th game, led a bruising defence.

If the Lions went wide they were rattled by the Hurricanes line speed which directly led to the opening try.

Lionel Mapoe was forced to rush a clearing kick which went straight into the arms of Jane a few metres away and the former All Black wing had an easy run to the line.

The Hurricanes thought they had first points on the board six minutes into the game when Jane fielded a Barrett cross kick and crossed the line wide out only to be brought back for an earlier knock on.

But Jane was not to be denied the second time and with Barrett and Jantjies exchanging penalties the Hurricanes led 10-3 at the turn.

The Lions believed they had a try scoring chance late in the first half when they turned down a close-range penalty in favour of a scrum only to be pushed off the ball by a ‘Canes pack that was otherwise beaten in every other scrum.

A further Barrett penalty early in the second half extended the lead to 13-3 and as the Lions desperately tried to close the gap Barrett settled the outcome 12 minutes from the end.

The Lions won a defensive lineout only to fumble the ball which allowed the ever-alert Barrett to race through to score under their noses.

All Blacks crush Wales 36-22 in second Test

June 19, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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New Zealand produced a ruthless second-half display to defeat Wales 36-22 in the second Test in Wellington on Saturday and maintain one of world rugby’s longest winning streaks.

All blacks

The world champions ran in five tries to three to claim the three-Test series with a match to spare and clinch their 28th straight win over Wales, dating back to 1953.

Valiant Wales kept pace with New Zealand for 51 minutes but had no answers when the All Blacks went up a notch, orchestrated by Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith.

Wales coach Warren Gatland said his side was competitive but a three-try burst early in the second half effectively sealed the result for the New Zealanders.

“I’d like to think they’ll know they were in a tough Test match tonight,” he said.

“It was really physical, we took it to them but they’ve had a 10-minute period when they’ve been absolutely clinical and ruthless and that’s proved the difference.”

Wales repeatedly worked themselves into threatening positions, only for attacks to falter through basic mistakes.

Injuries to key players Aaron Cruden and Malakai Fekitoa meant the All Blacks never reached their slick best in the first half, with scores tied 10-10 at the break.

Skipper Kieran Read paid tribute to Wales, saying the All Blacks were unable to find their rhythm until after the break.

“They came out flying at us and we had to dig deep. They’re an exceptionably good side, they pushed us and we had to work really hard,” he said.

“We got a bit of extra ball in the second half and made it count.”

New Zealand suffered a setback in the first two minutes when Fekitoa was forced into the blood bin after a head clash with Jamie Roberts.

Wales ran at his inexperienced replacement Seta Tamanivalu but failed to capitalise and Fekitoa helped set up Israel Dagg’s 20th-minute try when he returned.

Dagg, playing his 50th Test after 10 months in the international wilderness, wrong-footed the Welsh defence with a dummy pass before touching down.

Fly-half Cruden was stretchered off eight minutes before the break with a possible neck injury, with Barrett coming off the bench.

Wales lifted their intensity before half time and were rewarded with a 39th-minute try when Jonathan Davies’ looping pass found Alun Wyn Jones unmarked on the wing.

Fekitoa did not come back out for the second half, which started as an arm-wrestle with scores locked 10-10.

Ben Smith broke the deadlock when he slipped through two defenders after Barrett set him up in the 51st minute.

Smith returned the favour for Barrett three minutes later, with the fly-half stretching out to dot the ball between the posts and make it 24-10 with the conversion. From there it turned into a romp as Smith set up Waisake Naholo five minutes later to put the result beyond doubt.

The relentless All Blacks were still not done and Ardie Savea burst from deep within his own half for another five-pointer to send the sell-out crowd of 36,000 into a frenzy.

Liam William and Jonathan Davies both scored consolation tries in the last 10 minutes but by then it was too late.

The third Test is in Dunedin next Saturday.

Carter responds to the pressure, ready to shine at World Cup

August 31, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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It would have been inconceivable to many four years ago that twice World Player of the Year Dan Carter would have to prove himself ahead of a World Cup but All Blacks coach Steve Hansen insists rugby's leading points scorer has had to earn his place.

Carter

The 33-year-old had been under immense pressure from younger rivals to perform at test level after an underwhelming two years.

That pressure was never more evident in July when Lima Sopoaga delivered a strong performance on debut against South Africa in the All Blacks' late 27-20 win at Ellis Park.

Carter then looked pedestrian against Australia in New Zealand's 27-19 loss in Sydney earlier this month and pundits began to question whether time and a series of leg injuries had caught up with him.

"The guy that was probably under the most pressure at that point was Daniel (Carter)," Hansen said in reference to Sopoaga's emergence this season as a genuine contender, along with Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade, for the number 10 jersey.

Carter responded from the disappointment of Sydney with a big game the following week at Eden Park, with signs that his running game was returning.

"He came out … and played his best test match in a number of years against Australia and was telling us he's back in form," Hansen added.

"His running of the game was great and we had established that Dan was the man we wanted to take, with the uniqueness of the rules of the tournament."

It is appropriate Hansen mentioned the rules of the tournament given what happened to Carter at the last World Cup.

An automatic choice in the All Blacks starting lineup, Carter tore his groin while practicing goal kicking ahead of their final pool game.

According to World Cup regulations, if a team opts to call in a replacement to the squad then the injured player must sit out the remainder of the tournament.

Questions were raised as to whether New Zealand could win the title without Carter but fourth-choice flyhalf Stephen Donald came into the side after more injuries and slotted the penalty that gave them an 8-7 win over France in the final.

Hansen has therefore opted for the versatility of Barrett and Slade to accompany Carter to England. Both are specialist flyhalves but can also cover fullback and, at a pinch, wing as well.

While Sopoaga did not make the squad for the Sept. 18-Oct. 31 World Cup, Hansen believed he would be more than ready to handle the pressure if the occasion called.

"The good thing is that if we do have to call him up, we now know that … he's not going to be having his first game for the All Blacks," Hansen added.

"He's coming in confident that he's been in an environment – Ellis Park is as good as it gets, against the Boks – and we are comfortable he can cope with it; his team are comfortable he can cope with it and he'll be comfortable he can cope with it."

Barrett or Carter? All Blacks flyhalf debate ramps up

June 4, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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Beauden Barrett’s return to Super Rugby on Friday should serve to ease a concern or two for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen about his World Cup selection plans.

Beauden Barrett of the Hurricanes attempts to bust the Highlanders defence. (Getty Images)

It will also no doubt trigger another round of one of the most popular debates in rugby-mad New Zealand — who should start at flyhalf at the World Cup in England later this year?

Barrett, who will return from a knee injury this weekend, was the early favourite ahead of veteran Dan Carter, Colin Slade and the now injured Aaron Cruden, who is almost certainly out of the World Cup after knee surgery.

The 24-year-old Barrett’s blistering pace, booming kicks, willingness to attack and ability to unleash a potent backline helped propel the Wellington Hurricanes to the top of the Super Rugby standings.

Such was his form, an internet poll run by the New Zealand Herald newspaper earlier this week had Barrett garnering 45 percent of the more than 4100 votes as the preferred choice to pilot the world champions in their title defence.

Carter was second-favourite on 37 percent, with his injured Canterbury Crusaders team mate Slade, who has leapt into World Cup contention in no small part because of his versatility, a long way back on 10 percent.

It was little surprise that Carter, who is leaving New Zealand rugby for French side Racing Metro at the conclusion of the World Cup, had dropped behind his former understudy.

The 33-year-old has barely played in his preferred position this season and appeared mostly at inside centre, where he was unable to provide the penetration needed to make the Crusaders’ attack less staid and predictable.

Carter’s performances caused concerns for pundits, fans and even the All Blacks selection panel, although they felt his form was a symptom of a wider malaise at the Crusaders.

“Dan has had a tough couple of years, struggling with his body … (and) has been in a struggling team which hasn’t helped,” All Blacks selector Grant Fox told TV3 last week.

Carter made just his third start in the number 10 jersey against the Hurricanes last week.

While no-one would suggest he was back to the level that saw him twice named World Player of the Year, there were aspects of his performance that showcased the skillset and temperament needed to win test matches.

Carter kept the Hurricanes pinned inside their own territory with smart kicking and game management and was willing to run the ball more often than when he was cramped in the midfield.

Few would disagree the zip that characterised Carter’s early career, allowing him to accelerate and wrong foot the defence before finding support players, has diminished.

By challenging the line, however, he creates doubt in defences, something that was evident in Nelson against a Hurricanes side who also had to commit players to the large frames of Robbie Fruean and Nemani Nadolo outside Carter.

He also kicked six of seven goals against the Hurricanes and has a far superior goal-kicking record to Barrett, which could be crucial during the knockout phases of the World Cup.

It is likely that will play a part in swaying the selection decision in his favour, with Hansen widely known to prefer the cooler head of Carter in tight situations.

Until last season when Barrett finally started his first test at flyhalf against Argentina in Napier, Hansen had considered him more of a ‘super-sub’ because of his ability to exploit tiring defences off the bench.

Barrett’s big concern, however, was that in his last start at flyhalf, against Wales in Cardiff last November, he did not stamp himself on the match until the second half and made a greater impact when he shifted to fullback as the All Blacks ran away with the game in the final 15 minutes.

Carter, meanwhile, has proven time and again that he can seize control from the opening whistle, something Hansen knows only too well.

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