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Highlanders player ratings vs Crusaders - Super Rugby Aotearoa

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Super Rugby Aotearoa is back for another year with the Highlanders falling to the Crusaders 13-26 in the opening match of the season.

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Across the first twenty minutes, the Highlanders played all the rugby but the Crusaders scored all the points.

Two tries in three minutes to Codie Taylor and Bryn Hall saw the reigning champions run out to an early 14-0 lead, before the hosts struck back 10 minutes later through Shannon Frizell. But even though the Highlanders got close, the Crusaders were just too good.

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The Highlanders can still take plenty of positives out of the match though, with wingers Connor Garden-Bachop and Jona Nareki particularly standing out. Here’s how the Highlanders rated against the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

15. SOLOMON ALAIMALO – 7/10

Playing his first Super Rugby match for the Highlanders, Alaimalo put in a solid shift. Every time the fullback got his hands on the ball, he looked a chance of creating something, but was instead pretty well contained by the Crusaders defence – held to just 19 metres run (all stats according to ESPN).

14. CONNOR GARDEN-BACHOP – 8

Garden-Bachop is an exciting young prospect, who took his chances when they were given to him. He crossed for the hosts’ second try of the night, and his first in Super Rugby. All he had to do was run in support of his teammate, and then back his pace. He had run  the most metres of any Highlanders player at half-time, and had the most carries of any player on the night.

13. NGATUNGANE PUNIVAI – 6

At half-time, Punivai had made 0 tackles from two attempts. He had also conceded a turnover. At the time he had also run just one metre from a single carry. Considering the possession that the hosts had in the first-half, it wasn’t a great showing from the 22-year-old. His second-half was a little better though, finishing with 10 metres run from four carries.

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12. PATELESIO TOMKINSON – 6.5

While he made more of an impact in the second-half, Tomkinson was also off on Friday night in my view. His work rate was great, but he couldn’t quite make anything happen.

11. JONA NAREKI – 8.5

For me, it’s not even a question – Nareki was the best Highlander on ground. He kicked well when called upon, and was powerful whenever he got his hands on the ball – constantly looking threatening. Nareki made the Highlander’s second try of the night, breaking through the Crusaders defence before sending Garden-Bachop over for a score.

10. MITCH HUNT – 7

Arguably a controversial selection to see Hunt picked ahead of Josh Ioane in the starting side, but his leadership and patience in attack (at times) mostly justified his selection. He did kick plenty of ball away, opting for cross-field kicks on a couple of occasions. It was excellent play from the pivot that led to Garden-Bachop’s try, with a perfectly timed short ball to Nareki.

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9. AARON SMITH – 7

Round one wasn’t Smith’s best showing in a Highlander’s jersey, but that’s not to say that he didn’t have his moments. Let’s start with the bad; at times during the first-half in particular, he lacked composure, making a few errors with his passing game. But on the flip side of that, a trademark pass from the scrumhalf got the Highlanders back into the contest. Down 14-0, a fast and accurate pass saw Frizell cross for a try – there was nothing the Crusaders could do about it, the try was practically all but scored as soon as the ball left Smith’s hands.

8. MARINO MIKAELE TU’U – 7.5

When he went off, the 23-year-old had had the most carries of any player with nine – his work rate was impressive. The number eight laid the platform for Frizell’s try with some work off the back of the scrum. He drew Crusaders players right with a run off the back, before Aaron Smith sent the ball the other way with a great pass. Generally he was threatening in attack. Still, one tackle made and another missed, as well as two turnovers conceded, didn’t make for a great night defensively.

7. BILLY HARMON – 7

The former Crusader was reliable for the Highlanders in the opening round of the new season, especially in defence where he made a team high 11 tackles. With the hosts down 5-14, and the Crusaders hot on attack five minutes before the break, Harmon won a pivotal penalty at the breakdown – a key moment at that stage.

6. SHANNON FRIZELL – 7

Frizell may have crossed for a try in the 26th minute, but he wasn’t near his best overall. He ran for just three meters from three carries, made six tackles and conceded two turnovers. But with that try, he still had some work to do to cross so that can’t go unrecognised.

5. JACK REGAN – 6.5

The Irishman struggled to make a significant impact on the contest. He ran for 0 metres from two carries, and made just four tackles.

4. JOSH DICKSON – 7.5

There’s a reason why Dickson was rated by five RugbyPass writers as being one of the top 10 locks in Super Rugby at the moment – he’s a pivotal cog to the Highlanders machine. The 26-year-old was the primary option for the hosts at the lineout, and really impressed with his work rate – constantly in and around the play, especially during the first-half.

3. SIATE TOKOLAHI – 6.5

While the Highlanders struggled at scrum time against the Crusaders, Tokolahi was still impressive. In defence he made his mark with six tackles, including a near try saver against Crusaders winger Sevu Reece. In the 48th minute, he was caught one on one with the proven try scorer only a couple of metres out from the line. It was a sensational effort from the prop that was millimetres away from stopping Reece.

2. ASH DIXON – 7.5

Playing in his 100th Super Rugby match, Dixon did his job to a very high standard against the Crusaders. The Highlanders co-captain was perfect throwing into the lineout, with the hosts winning 10 lineouts from 10 off his throws.

1. DANIEL LIENERT-BROWN – 6

With names like Moody, Taylor and Alaalatoa in the Crusaders set-piece, it was always going to be a tough test to overcome at scrum time for the Highlanders. For the most part they were outclassed, which can’t reflect well on the tight five. While Lienert-Brown did get his hands on the ball and do his job in defence, the set-piece is largely a reflection of his performance for me.

RESERVES

16. LIAM COLTMAN – 6.5

17. JOSH HOHNECK – 5.5

18. JEFF THWAITES – 5.5

19. BRYN EVANS – n/a

20. LIAM SQUIRE – 7

It’s great to see Liam Squire back in Highlanders colours, for the first time since 2019. He had a chance to score late but couldn’t’ quite reel in a cross-field kick. Ran for 25 metres off then bench, and made four tackles – considering he was subbed on with just over 15 to play, it’s not a bad effort from the flanker.

21. FOLAU FAKATAVA – 6.5

22. JOSH IOANE – 6.5

23. HUGH RENTON – 6.5

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Flankly 2 hours ago
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If rugby wants to remain interesting in the AI era then it will need to work on changing the rules. AI will reduce the tactical advantage of smart game plans, will neutralize primary attacking weapons, and will move rugby from a being a game of inches to a game of millimetres. It will be about sheer athleticism and technique,about avoiding mistakes, and about referees. Many fans will find that boring. The answer is to add creative degrees of freedom to the game. The 50-22 is an example. But we can have fun inventing others, like the right to add more players for X minutes per game, or the equivalent of the 2-point conversion in American football, the ability to call a 12-player scrum, etc. Not saying these are great ideas, but making the point that the more of these alternatives you allow, the less AI will be able to lock down high-probability strategies. This is not because AI does not have the compute power, but because it has more choices and has less data, or less-specific data. That will take time and debate, but big, positive and immediate impact could be in the area of ref/TMO assistance. The technology is easily good enough today to detect forward passes, not-straight lineouts, offside at breakdown/scrum/lineout, obstruction, early/late tackles, and a lot of other things. WR should be ultra aggressive in doing this, as it will really help in an area in which the game is really struggling. In the long run there needs to be substantial creativity applied to the rules. Without that AI (along with all of the pro innovations) will turn rugby into a bash fest.

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