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Super Rugby takes: Levi Aumua wasted by Crusaders, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens needs an encore

By Ben Smith
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens of the Highlanders and Levi Aumua of the Crusaders. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images and Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens stole the show in round one of Super Rugby Pacific with a breakout performance for the Highlanders.

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The former Blues back has been quickly anointed the successor to Ben Smith as the Highlanders’ next potential world-class No 15. That may be the case, but let’s see an encore.

The Canes bashed the Force, the Crusaders fell to the Chiefs without using their star signing, the Reds have the best flyhalf in Australia.

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Here’s six takes from round one of Super Rugby Pacific on what we saw from the New Zealand and Australian sides.

Encore required for Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens  

Whilst deserving of the praise for a standout performance against Moana Pasifika, sterner tests await for Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens starting this week with his old team the Blues. This week will be more about handling pressure in the backfield and cleaning up rather than ripping apart the defence with sleek running you would think.

The difference between Beauden Barrett and Will Jordan at fullback is Barrett’s work cleaning up the mess and clearing the lines well, despite the latter having more explosiveness in attack at this point in their respective careers.

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The Blues kicking game will be much harder to handle for Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens with Stephen Perofeta and Zarn Sullivan, who was also pretty handy, nailing a pinpoint 50-22 against the Fijian Drua.

The next generation of fullbacks around New Zealand teams was a real positive in round one adding some intrigue to the derbies. Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Ruben Love, Sullivan and Chay Fihaki all had memorable moments, but they are all still chasing Shooter. The Chiefs’ fullback put in an underrated performance and had two try assists. Wait til he plays the Force, Moana or the Rebels.

Horror-canes pack no more?

The Hurricanes are a side that does often bully Aussie sides, with the exception of the Brumbies, so it’s difficult to read whether they have turned the corner, but they completely dominated the Western Force.

Hooker Asafo Aumua went beast mode on defence, crushing ball carriers with dominant hits. With the ball he was putting them on their backsides. The Hurricanes front row crushed the Force’s scrum winning a penalty at nearly every push. The lineout functioned well with Caleb Delany and Isaia Walker-Leaware as jumpers.  Du’Plessis Kirifi looks like he has put on size and was causing problems for the home side all over the park. The turnovers came from everyone.

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It was a positive sign for the Hurricanes who will play the Reds this week. Under Brad Thorn the Queenslanders had a terrible record against New Zealand sides, so this will be a chance to start fresh under Les Kiss.

Time will tell for the Hurricanes pack whether they are flat track bullies or whether they can produce that kind of showing against the strong Kiwi sides.

Crusaders wasting Levi Aumua

The Crusaders went and signed the most destructive ball carrier in Super Rugby from Moana Pasifika in the off-season in Levi Aumua and gave him one total carry in his club debut, which didn’t come until the first minute of the second half.

He is a proven gainline machine who beats first-up tackles and produces metres after contact and didn’t get him the ball. Puzzling, bizarre and wasteful.

Dallas McLeod finished with 11 carries taking the load, along with No 8 Cullen Grace. Aumua was subbed after 60 minutes.

Now, it’s just one week but if Aumua continues to be under-utilised in the Crusaders attacking game plan you have to wonder why they went out and signed him.

Schmidt should have eyes for Reds’ Tom Lynagh

Joe Schmidt should be looking at the Reds flyhalf and his ability to get his side out of sticky exit situations.

With all the hype around Harry McLaughlin-Phillips, Lynagh looked composed and comfortable running the show. His distance kicking out-of-hands is monstrous, with a 60-metre leg helping the Reds to generous exits against the Waratahs. He might just be the best kicking No 10 in Australia which bodes well for the Wallabies to finally have a good option.

Kicking out-of-hand was the Achilles heel of last year’s Wallaby Carter Gordon, while Lynagh looked consistent and in far more control of his motion. Chewing off large exits is a simple but real valuable asset to bring to the next level.

His passing game is also accurate which gelled the Reds’ attacking shape and he looks like a natural ball player. His injection into the play created the break on Jordan Petaia’s eventual penalty try.

Still just 20-years-old, the son of the famous Wallaby has added some size to his frame for 2024 and looked good in the opening round.

Max Jorgensen needs to understand this isn’t schoolboy rugby

The freakish fullback looked dangerous with his touches but the Waratahs’ No 15 needs to learn some lessons at Super Rugby level quickly.

He isn’t playing schoolboy rugby anymore and you can’t just beat players with the right foot step when you are covered. The Waratahs had a couple of chances to feed the unmarked Mark Nawanitawase, the Wallabies best player last year, but the ball didn’t progress through the hands.

Jorgensen took the option to have a crack and was swallowed up. In the second half he went one-on-one with Jock Campbell, cutting back inside with two men outside and an overlap begging about 10 metres from the line. Campbell wrapped him up and he was turned at the breakdown, blowing an attacking possession inside the Reds’ 22.

If Marky Mark is in space around 10 metres from the try line, give him the ball and back up in support because he is an excellent offloader. It’s criminal not to use him in that situation. No wonder he is going to the Roosters.

Folau Fakatava laid a marker in the All Blacks race

His performance against an improved Moana Pasifika outfit was outstanding continuing his good pre-season form for the Highlanders. With Cam Roigard coming off the bench for the Hurricanes coming back from a tweaked bicep and Cortez Ratima also riding the pine, Fakatava stood out in round one as the best halfback in New Zealand.

His behind-the-back pass to continue Sean Withy’s long break was a highlight reel moment, but his service and delivery at the base laid the platform for a high tempo game under the roof in Dunedin. Fakatava finished with two try assists and had a hand in another highlighting his influence. He didn’t abandon the run game either, having seven snipes and adding a couple of defenders beaten.

Fakatava can be both a pure passer in an attacking set and a dangerous runner on occasion. If he continues to get the balance right and continue to be a standout support runner inside to capitalise on line breaks, he will be the All Blacks’ number one option.

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Poorfour 10 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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