You’d have to call Super Rugby Aotearoa a runaway success.
Sure, a few players voiced reservations about the intensity of the rugby, but it’s hard to see how those views are even remotely relevant.
Life’s different for a lot of us now. Work’s scarce and many people in fulltime employment are still only on a percentage of their pre-COVID-19 wages. Entire industries remain under threat and some people are back in lockdown.
New Zealand Rugby and Sky did a phenomenal job to get Super Rugby staged this year and – most importantly – keep the players on 100 percent pay. Rather than quibble about the relevant difficulty of the work, you’d think these blokes would be grateful to be paid at all.
Oh well, never mind. The rest of us are happy with the product.
Not to mention in continued-awe of the Crusaders and their ability to rise to the challenge almost every week. Whether you call it a fourth Super Rugby title in a row – or just a maiden Aotearoa one – there’s no doubting that they were 2020’s outstanding team.
Not surprisingly it’s them we’ll start with, in this assessment of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
It’s not easy being the benchmark. To be the team that – week-in, week-out – every opponent lifts for and trains and prepares better for. And yet, almost every time, the Crusaders absorb whatever’s thrown at them and then strike back on the counter.
Take the 32-22 win over the Highlanders, which clinched the Crusaders the title.
Like so many teams before them, the Highlanders came to Christchurch and performed very well. In actual fact they dominated much of the match.
Come fulltime, though, it had all been for nought, as the Crusaders kicked away to win by 10.
Overall, Sam Whitelock – who had every reason to be disinterested this season – was terrific again, while other forwards such as Tom Christie, Tom Sanders, Cullen Grace and Michael Alaalatoa enhanced their reputations.
It’s a shame injury hampered David Havili, but Will Jordan was excellent. Richie Mo’unga remains a joy to watch and everyone else more than does their job.
You can’t give coach Scott Robertson enough credit for the way he enthuses these players week after week, year after year. It really is a remarkable achievement.
Not every good team is a champion one. Some, like these Highlanders, aren’t even a winning one.
That’s because success isn’t always measured in results. Sometimes it’s about people simply playing to their potential and a coaching staff getting the most out of a group that they can.
The Highlanders, on paper at least, were by far the weakest New Zealand team. The end of the last Rugby World Cup cycle hit no-one harder than them, as a host of proven performers opted for contracts offshore.
The fact that halfback Aaron Smith wasn’t among them, proved a huge help. He truly is a modern-day great and the quality of his play, and sheer competitiveness, helped keep the Highlanders in plenty of contests.
Around him, forwards such as Pari Pari Parkinson and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u showed promise.
Josh Ioane’s case was a curious one, though. Coaches always know best, but it was hard to understand why the Highlanders’ brainstrust didn’t give Ioane sole use of the No.10 jumper.
Mitch Hunt is a fine player, but Ioane is special. Or at least could be.
Tempting to give them a slightly higher grade, but the truth is a 5-2 season is what the Blues should be churning out all the time. In fact, in terms of sheer ability, 7-0 shouldn’t have been out of the question.
They’ve threatened to be a good team for some years now, with a bit of direction and accuracy from first five-eighth all that was missing. At one point it appeared as if Beauden Barrett – or even Daniel Carter – might provide it, but in the end it came from Otere Black.
How sustainable Black’s form is remains to be seen. The Hurricanes happily gave up on him a couple of years back but, at 25, he suddenly looked the assured player he’d occasionally threatened to be.
The Blues have talent everywhere else so, if Black can keep being this good, they should be a serious threat for the title in 2021.
Still a team that seems to lack real identity and who rely on the deeds of certain individuals.
Star players such as Jordie Barrett, TJ Perenara, Ardie Savea, Ngani Laumape and Dane Coles lead a supporting cast that remains only promising.
Asafo Aumua, Tyrel Lomax, Xavier Numia, Alex Fidow, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Billy Proctor, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Vince Aso and Wes Goosen are all among a group of Hurricanes we can see have ability, but who never seem to get a whole lot better.
How would some of these blokes go at the Crusaders, for instance? Would they make the leap from useful to outstanding?
One player who doesn’t appear as if he’ll kick on anytime soon is Vaea Fifita. He might be supremely talented, but it seems the Hurricanes now favour more reliable types than the 12-test All Black.
Is that his fault or further evidence of an environment that doesn’t often improve players?
Either way, you feel the Hurricanes could’ve got more out of themselves this year.
You can mount whatever defence for the Chiefs that you like. Injuries, luck and referees didn’t appear to favour them, but 0-8 is unacceptable and that’s all there is to it.
The situation isn’t helped by Warren Gatland’s other coaching gig.
He’s due to take the British & Irish Lions to South Africa next year, with Clayton McMillan stepping in as interim coach. We still don’t know what Super Rugby will look like then either but, for argument’s sake at least, let’s assume the Chiefs go well under McMillan and the debate about Gatland’s suitability only intensifies.
The Chiefs weren’t miles off the pace this year, but this is a results business and they didn’t win a game. That they had the talent too, despite injuries in the tight five, suggests that coaching could’ve been an issue.
Ideally, 2021 would be an opportunity for Gatland to answer his critics. Instead it looms as an extended job interview for McMillan.
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