As we inch towards the halfway stage of Super Rugby Aotearoa, two teams are shaping as genuine challengers for the inaugural Kiwi title.
The Crusaders’ emphatic 40-20 come-from-behind win over the Highlanders in Dunedin has set-up a mouth-watering clash against the Blues in Christchurch next week in the battle of the two unbeaten sides.
The class exuded by Scott Robertson’s men was clear to see at Forsyth Barr Stadium, and it’s no wonder they’re to taste defeat as opposed to the Hurricanes, who notched up their first victory of the campaign against the winless Chiefs on Sunday.
It was Jordie Barrett’s extreme goal-kicking that stole the show in the 25-18 success in Hamilton, although the visitors were lucky to escape with the win after Scott Scrafton’s second half red card.
With all that in mind, who were the top five performers in round four of Super Rugby Aotearoa?
Will Jordan (Crusaders)
Any doubts about Will Jordan’s potential as a future All Black must surely be dispelled at this point of his Super Rugby career after yet another immaculate display for the Crusaders.
The 22-year-old golden boy is making a spectacular case for Super Rugby Aotearoa player of the season after just three rounds of action, with the Highlanders the most recent side made to pay for his exquisite attacking exploits.
His two tries – including an outrageous 70 metre last-minute effort – were accompanied by 127 running metres, 10 defenders beaten, four clean breaks and two offloads to make for a sensational stat sheet.
It are figures like those that has propelled Jordan into the national reckoning, and it would come as no surprise to see the uncapped star continue his mercurial form right through to the Bledisloe Cup series against the Wallabies come the end of the year.
Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes)
It’s no coincidence that the Hurricanes’ maiden win of the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign coincided with Jordie Barrett’s return from a troublesome shoulder injury.
The 23-year-old utility back slotted right back into his side’s starting XV and played a pivotal role, from a ball-playing and goal-kicking perspective, in securing the first-up victory.
That was reflected in his 37 running metres, four defenders beaten, two clean breaks and two try assists, while he nailed four kicks from five attempts, including a whopping effort from well inside his own half.
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Showcasing his world-class ability in various aspects of the game could well place Barrett as New Zealand’s best fullback, even more so considering he outshone fellow All Blacks No. 15 Damian McKenzie on Sunday.
Whether it’s assisting tries or landing goals from anywhere on the park, Barrett’s return might just be what the Hurricanes need to revive their previously dwindling season.
Shannon Frizell (Highlanders)
If Shannon Frizell’s efforts against the Blues acted as a reminder to Ian Foster that he isn’t ready to surrender his place in the national squad to some of New Zealand’s up-and-coming youngsters, his performance against the Crusaders was a statement of intent to claim a spot in the All Blacks’ starting line-up.
Backing up his mammoth showing at Eden Park, the 26-year-old was likened by fans and pundits to an old-school Jerome Kaino with a physically-imposing display on Saturday.
It didn’t matter what side of the ball he was on, Frizell was a handful for the visitors all night long, registering a try after having made a clean break and beating a trio of defenders to barge his way to the line in the first half.
The nine-test loose forward didn’t shy away from his defensive duties either, making a match-high 22 tackles and stealing one turnover, while also securing four of his team’s seven lineouts.
It may be Hoskins Sotutu, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and Cullen Grace who have been stealing the headlines in recent weeks, but any one of those three have a tussle on their hands if they want to leapfrog the red-hot Frizell in the national pecking order.
Ardie Savea (Hurricanes)
It’s taken a while for Ardie Savea to hit his straps in Super Rugby Aotearoa following a lengthy injury lay-off, but the 2019 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee is beginning to re-discover his rhythm, as evidenced against the Chiefs.
A menace with ball in hand, the 26-year-old No. 8 wreaked havoc on attack, beating four defenders and breaking the line twice to run for 63 metres, all while playing a key role in Kobus van Wyk’s second try with a damaging carry off the back of a scrum.
Like Frizell, Savea’s defensive efficiency didn’t go unnoticed either, as he recorded eight tackles from eight attempts and won a turnover for good measure.
His return to form will be warmly-welcomed by not only All Blacks boss Ian Foster, but also Hurricanes head coach Jason Holland, who will rely heavily on the services of both Savea and Barrett in the second half of the season.
Du’Plessis Kirifi (Hurricanes)
Similarly to Savea, it’s taken some time for Du’Plessis Kirifi to live up the expectation that has surrounded him as one of the most promising young flankers in the country.
It’s a label that befits the 23-year-old following some impressive campaigns in both Super Rugby and the Mitre 10 Cup in years gone by, but a lacklustre start to Super Rugby Aotearoa by the Hurricanes has made it difficult for Kirifi to get back into form.
That changed on Sunday, as the hard-working pilferer’s renowned work rate and ability over the ball was exemplified at FMG Stadium Waikato, where he made 14 from 15 tackles and won a round-high three turnovers.
Kirifi capped off the match with a well-earned try on the back of some strong ball-running by the Hurricanes in the first half, laying the foundations for an improved second half of the season from next week onwards.
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