Another round of Super Rugby Aotearoa has blitzed by us, but the weekend’s results has provided a clear indication of which side is in the driver’s seat to take out the inaugural Kiwi title.
The Crusaders’ 26-15 victory over the Blues in Christchurch on Saturday proved the 10-time Super Rugby champions are still the team to beat as they won the battle of the competition’s two undefeated sides.
The results puts them six points clear of the Blues heading into their bye week, while the Aucklanders will need to regather themselves ahead of what’s set to be an intriguing clash against the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Leon MacDonald’s men can expect a much sterner contest than what they faced at the beginning of last month, as the Hurricanes continued to bounce back from a winless start to their campaign with a 17-11 win against the Highlanders on Sunday.
A number of Jason Holland’s key men stood up in that fixture, which helped propel them to third spot on the table as we head into the second half of the league.
So, with all that in mind, here are the top five players from round five of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)
Mo’unga brought plenty of heat to a match that was played in cold conditions, with his affluence with ball in hand reaping statistics that read a match-high 62 running metres, eight defenders beaten, one clean break, one offload and a try assist.
Add to that his perfect goal kicking record that added 16 points to his team’s tally, and it’s hard to deny that the 17-test All Black isn’t the best playmaker in the country right now.
For as long as he remains fit and healthy, the Crusaders are going to be one hell of a side to take down for the foreseeable future.
Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes)
It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen Ngani Laumape reach his blockbusting best.
The case could be made that he was hard done by to have missed out on World Cup selection last year, but his return to action for the Hurricanes in 2020 hadn’t been all that remarkable up until the weekend just gone by.
Laumape’s explosive ball carrying had been nullified somewhat, while his lack of distribution skills in comparison to Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown have scaled him down in the national pecking order.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 12, 2020
However, the 13-test All Black gave a strong reminder about what he is capable of against the Highlanders.
Starved of the ball for long passages throughout the match, the Highlanders were forced to make a plethora of tackles on the Hurricanes’ hitmen, which was no easy job with Laumape at the forefront of their bruising runs.
Playing to his own strengths rewarded the burly midfielder with round-high figures of 88 running metres, nine defenders beaten and four clean breaks to show few in New Zealand can do what the former NRL player can do when on song.
Aaron Smith (Highlanders)
Despite their 1-3 start to Super Rugby Aotearoa, there are definite signs of improvement at the Highlanders since their return from the COVID-19 lockdown.
An increased urgency up front has laid the platform for Mitch Hunt to steer his backline around much more easily, and the first-five has flourished as a result, but it’s his halves partner who has proved to be a key element in the southerners’ fightback.
Veteran halfback Aaron Smith’s status as New Zealand’s best halfback has only been bolstered this campaign as he’s shown time and time again how lethal his communication, awareness and world-class bullet pass can be.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 12, 2020
Denied a try early in the first half for a questionable obstruction call, the 31-year-old bagged one later in the second half from a lineout move that was richly deserved given the way in which he’d opened up the Hurricanes defence.
It was on defence where he surprisingly stood out, though, as he fronted up when the Highlanders needed him most, making 10 tackles and stealing three turnovers, the most of any player over the weekend.
Asafo Aumua (Hurricanes)
Not only did 23-year-old hooker do just that, but he did so in explosive fashion to keep himself in the conversation of an All Blacks re-call, three years after his last appearance for the national side.
Reminiscent of his breakthrough season in 2017 with Wellington and the New Zealand U20 side, Aumua was tough and damaging on attack, running for a grand total of 63 metres in the match – the most of any forward in the round.
Blasting his way through a trio of defenders, Aumua also managed to snag a clean break and completed all seven of his lineout throws to his own side.
While Coles and Codie Taylor remain the benchmark for any No. 2 in New Zealand, it seems Aumua might have hurled himself back into the national selection frame and will be a key cog in the Hurricanes set-up as they look to surge up the standings.
TJ Perenara (Hurricanes)
While it’s unanimously agreed that Aaron Smith is regarded as New Zealand’s premier halfback, TJ Perenara did his absolute best to show him up at Sky Stadium on Sunday, and did so with match-winning effect.
The chirpy scrumhalf was a regular threat while his side were in possession, as he carried the ball 14 times to run for 33 metres, making three clean breaks and beating two defenders at the same time.
His best piece of work came in the 28th minute where a head-up play close to the opposition tryline saw the 28-year-old dummy and step Smith to canter through a gaping hole by a ruck to put his team on the board for the first time in the game.
It showed not just his value as a ball-running No. 9, which is undoubtedly the best aspect of his game, but that he can also match it with New Zealand’s best.
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