While Super Rugby Aotearoa has thrilled fans globally, there’s no doubt that there’s less diversity in the competition since contracting from 15 teams from across South America, Africa and Australasia to just five Kiwi sides.
That’s because the New Zealand teams tend more towards a run-first mentality – as opposed to the forward play and heavy kicking that dominated the South African sides’ game plans.
Speaking ahead of the Highlanders’ clash with the Blues at Eden Park, however, Highlanders assistant coach and former All Black Clarke Dermody has suggested that there might be a little bit of a South African influence to the way the Auckland-based side are currently playing the game.
“It’s like preparing for a South African team without the South Africans in the competition,” he said.
“They’re a massive pack, [they do] a lot of kicking. Our challenge is to match them up-front and not get drawn into that game. They want to be walking from set-piece to set-piece, so we’ll try to speed the game up,”
The Blues recruited All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala from the Chiefs in the off-season to add to their already considerable depth in the front row.
Fellow All Black Ofa Tuungafasi is now in his ninth season of Super Rugby while Alex Hodgman made the step up to the national side last year. Karl Tu’inukuafe, meanwhile, was brought north from the Chiefs following a breakout season in 2018, giving the Blues four All Blacks props.
Add Samoan international James Lay to the mix, and it’s easy to see why Dermody – himself a former All Blacks prop – might see the Blues’ front row as a threat.
With the likes of Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta and Harry Plummer all capable of stepping into the first receiver role, the Blues also have ample kicking options throughout any given match. Against the Hurricanes in the opening round of this year’s competition, all three started across the backline.
While the Highlanders’ Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt can mix it with the best playmakers in the country, the southern side certainly don’t have quite the same depth at prop as their Auckland counterparts.
Daniel Lienert-Brown, who suffered a broken arm against the Chiefs, won’t be back anytime soon while Australian import Jermaine Ainsley is out for the season. That leaves the Highlanders with few experienced options heading into Sunday’s match – but it’s a challenge the side will relish.
While both sides are undefeated ahead of the round three clash, the Highlanders are conscious that letting their opposition run out to a big lead on Sunday might not yield as positive an end result as it did last weekend when they recovered from a 20-6 deficit to best the Chiefs 39-23.
“It’s not an ideal situation,” Dermody said. “We showed awesome character to come back from that [against the Chiefs], but we don’t want to be there against the Blues.”
Sunday’s match kicks off at 3:35pm NZT from Eden Park. The match will be available to stream via RugbyPass with a Super Rugby Aotearoa subscription.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now