Just one game into the new Super Rugby Aotearoa season, there’s already plenty to like about the new campaign.
The Crusaders got the better of the Highlanders in Dunedin, winning 26-13 in an entertaining contest.
Moving onto the second match of the opening round, last year’s runners up the Blues have made the trip south to Sky Stadium, Wellington, to face a talented Hurricanes side.
Both teams were in the hunt for the title last year, but fell just short of stopping the Crusaders. The Hurricanes were the only team to beat the eventual champions last year, winning 34-32 in a historic upset in Christchurch.
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With both of these teams set to challenge for a spot in the grand final in May, there’s plenty on the line on Saturday night. Here are just three reasons on why the Hurricanes vs Blues is a must-watch.
Battle of the forward packs
There’s plenty to like about the line-ups that both the Hurricanes and Blues have named ahead of their season opener.
For both teams, the battle of two very good forward packs may just be the key to winning this one.
The Canes have named a reliable front-row of Fraser Armstrong, Asafo Aumua and Tyrel Lomax, which certainly packs a punch. While all have been strong and consistent performers for the Wellington-based side in the past, both Aumua and Lomax have donned the famous black jersey at test level.
They’ll be coming up against some tough opposition though, including All Black Nepo Laulala who is set to play his first match for the Blues.
Lock James Blackwell will no doubt work tirelessly for the hosts on Saturday night, but it won’t come easy for him as he’s lining up against Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu, who is coming off a career-best season. Five RugbyPass writers ranked the top 10 locks in Super Rugby at the moment, with the Blues enforcer coming in second best after averaging the lists.
Tuipulotu looked fit and fast last season, with England centre Joe Marchant, who was playing for the Blues at the time, revealing that the second-rower was reaching running speeds of 9.4 metres per second in training.
Expect the Blues to look to him at crunch time – as both a leader and around the set-piece.
But while there are certainly some great players in both forward packs, the back row is arguably the key to victory.
Vaea Fifita coming up against Akira Ioane in a battle of two elite blindside flankers which is certainly a matchup to watch, as Ioane looks to back up a great season last year.
Both players will be crucial in helping their teams get over the gain line in attack, as well as using their powerful frames to make an impact both in defence and at the breakdown.
Partnering Fifita in the back row is captain Ardie Savea and Devan Flanders, while All Blacks Dalton Papalii and Hoskins Sotutu will run out in the seven and eight jerseys for the Blues.
More on the Savea vs Papalii matchup can be found in our complete round preview.
Also off the bench, the Hurricanes have named the likes of Alex Fidow, Reed Prinsep and Du’Plessis Kirifi, while the Blues have named All Blacks duo Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tuungafasi.
If you run through each line-up, there’s one name above all else which would surely stand out to most keen rugby fans. I’m talking, of course, about the return of Julian Savea.
After a stint in France with European powerhouse Toulon, it was revealed last July that Savea would be reuniting with his old Super Rugby franchise for the remainder of the 2020 season after Ben Lam departed for France.
We didn’t get to see the former All Blacks winger take the field last year, but wait no more as Savea has been named on the left wing for the Hurricanes after playing with Wellington in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup.
It’s another exciting matchup to watch out for in this clash, with the man known as ‘The Bus’ set to come up against Blues flyer Mark Telea, who was one of the breakout stars of last year’s iteration of the tournament.
At 30-years-old, there’s still plenty of rugby left in Savea.
Any time he gets the ball at Sky Stadium on Saturday, it’ll be a sight behold – not something you’ll want to miss, especially if he gets a chance to come up against Caleb Clarke at some point, despite being named on opposite wings.
For both the Hurricanes and the Blues, their season hasn’t even started yet, but I’m already calling it: for either team to have a run at the title this year, they have to win on Saturday.
The Crusaders lost just one match on their way to another Super Rugby title last year, and after a confidence-building win over the Highlanders to open the 2021 season, it seems like they’ll be tough to beat once again.
Even though they have the home ground advantage, the Hurricanes are probably the underdogs heading into this one.
Having named a new-look halves combination of Jonathan Taumateine and Jackson Garden-Bachop, there’s plenty of questions that need to be answered about the Canes.
The Blues on the other hand have a familiar-looking side, missing, of course, Beauden Barrett who is playing in Japan’s Top League. The combination of Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta at 10 and 15 is exciting, and potentially could be a long-term option for the All Blacks – but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
While there is a final in Super Rugby Aotearoa this year, every win is going to count as teams look to make sure they have home ground advantage for the big dance in May.
Many expect the Crusaders to be in and around qualification for that match later this season, but don’t sleep on either the Blues or the Hurricanes – both have the potential to qualify, and even top the standings come the end of the regular season.
1-15: Fraser Armstrong, Asafo Aumua, Tyrel Lomax, James Blackwell, Scott Scrafton, Vaea Fifita, Ardie Savea (c), Devan Flanders, Jonathan Taumateine, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Julian Savea, Ngani Laumape, Billy Proctor, Wes Goosen, Jordie Barrett
Reserves: Ricky Riccitelli, Xavier Numia, Alex Fidow, Reed Prinsep, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Luke Campbell, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Salesi Rayasi
1-15: James Lay, Kurt Eklund, Nepo Laulala, Patrick Tuipulotu (c), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu, Sam Nock, Otere Black, Caleb Clarke, Harry Plummer, Rieko Ioane, Mark Telea, Stephen Perofeta
Reserves: Luteru Tolai, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Josh Goodhue, Tom Robinson, Adrian Choat, Jonathan Ruru, Tanielu Tele’a
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