Super Rugby Aotearoa produced two further thrilling encounters over the weekend as the Hurricanes and Highlanders took down the Blues and Chiefs, respectively.
Both matches were decided in the shadows of fulltime, albeit after contrasting storylines. The Hurricanes and Blues had engaged in an intriguing battle for 70 minutes before the thrilling final minutes, while the Highlanders were forced to produce what is probably the comeback of 2020 to take the victory in Hamilton.
Read on for some of the major talking points from the weekend’s action.
LAUMAPE DOES HIS TALKING ON THE FIELD
Ngani Laumape was one of the hard-luck stories of New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup squad. The powerhouse Hurricanes centre could have done little more in 2019 to prove his worth, but Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors instead opted for Sonny Bill Williams.
Given Williams’ limited output in Japan, it appeared to be the wrong decision.
But with the code-hopper having returned to rugby league once more Laumape is firmly back in the midfield frame, his performance against the Blues on Saturday almost demanding selection if a Test was to be played in the coming weeks.
While much has been made of Beauden Barrett’s own mini-battle with Laumape and what that says (or doesn’t say) about the superstar’s current form, the Hurricanes centre was meanwhile on a mission to silence some of what he believes are a chorus of critics.
After just four minutes, you could tell Laumape was a man on a mission.
Taking a pass out by the left touchline, Laumape stood up Barrett and then sprinted away from the Blues fullback before thundering over a helpless Otere Black on the tryline. Deception, speed and strength are a potent attacking mix for an inside centre, and Laumape’s run showed just how dangerous he really is.
Later in the first half, he again ensured he’ll be a feature of Barrett’s nightmares this week when he trampled the star Blues recruit on his way to setting up another Hurricanes try.
By the end of the match Laumape had the incredible attacking stats of 17 runs for 160 metres, with four clean breaks, five beaten defenders and two offloads to go with his opening five-pointer.
If Ian Foster needed a reminder of the Hurricanes centre’s ability before the match, he certainly doesn’t anymore.
It was then left to Laumape to make a verbal statement to go with his irresistible on-field proclamation.
“It’s just good to be out here and performing the way I did,” Laumape told Sky Sport. “I see a lot of people disrespecting my name, and there’s only one way I want to come out and show people the way that I play…let them people keep disrespecting my name because I am going to turn up every week.
“Too much people talking, I’m just going to be me.”
Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue might be the incumbent All Blacks centre pairing, but Laumape will certainly be banging on the door for selection if a Bledisloe Cup series or Rugby Championship is played later in the year.
JORDIE BARRETT IS A BEAUTIFUL STRIKER OF THE BALL
It was with a touch of irony that Jordie Barrett snatched the win for the Hurricanes on Saturday night.
After a gripping 76 minutes, where the lead had changed hands five times, Barrett was left with the chance to kick his side to victory from wide out by the touchline.
But such is the strength of Barrett’s boot, he is able to take the ball back a little further than most to open up the size of his angle. He has as fluent a goal-kicking action as anyone in the game right now, which had already brought about two huge penalty goals from inside his own half in both Super Rugby and Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2020.
So it was with confidence the expectant Wellington crowd held their collective breath as Barrett swung his long right leg through contact to sail the ball beautifully between the uprights following Asafo Aumua’s try.
During the week, Hurricanes coach Jason Holland had proclaimed Jordie Barrett the best fullback in New Zealand Rugby, and on the strength of his form this year it was hard to argue despite the custodian field featuring names like Damian McKenzie, Will Jordan, David Havili and his brother Beauden.
On Saturday night Jordie Barrett did his best to back up his coach’s assessment, and left his brother hoping for a return to the No. 10 jersey, a wish he might be granted after Otere Black suffered a neck injury.
CHIEFS CAN’T TAKE A TRICK AS SMITH DELIVERS ANOTHER SCRUM-HALF CLINIC
You have got to feel for the Chiefs.
Having been beaten by a Bryn Gatland late drop goal in Round 1 of Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Chiefs were once again sunk on the final siren by the Highlanders as the Southerners completed an astonishing second-half comeback to record a 33-31 victory in Hamilton.
Down 31-7 when Bradley Slater scored for the Chiefs after halftime, the Highlanders rattled off 26 unanswered points, concluding with Mitch Hunt’s match-winning conversion, to record just their second win over the competition.
At the heart of their second-half repost was scrum-half Aaron Smith. And just as it had been against TJ Perenara in Wellington last week, Smith enjoyed another high-quality duel with Chiefs No. 9 Brad Weber.
But the incumbent All Blacks No. 9 this time came out on top, following a brilliant second-half break in which he handled twice to score, before he then threw the final defence-splitting pass that put Sio Tomkinson over for the defining play of the match.
Smith’s passing, running and kicking games are all at their peak at the moment and there is no better No. 9 in the game when it comes to making split-second, potentially match-turning, decisions.
As for the Chiefs, well they could feel a little unlucky as they were undone by what was the right call, but one not within the laws of the game.
When fullback Damian McKenzie crossed in the 65th minute, the Chiefs looked to have built an insurmountable lead 38-19 lead. But instead referee Mike Fraser and TMO Brendon found a clear accidental offside earlier in the sequence, the only problem being that it was further back than the two-phase limit that exists for TMO reviews.
For his part, Chiefs coach Warren Gatland, who has now seen his side’s 2020 record go from 4-2 to 4-7, agreed the call was probably the right one but that consistency had to be applied in such situations.
“I’m not unhappy about that, but if he’s going to do that, then make the ruling [on two phases],” Gatland said. “Because you could be in a situation with another game where the referee turns and says ‘No, that’s too far back’.
“You could argue you could have just played on and said that’s a try. We just need to make sure we have some consistency.”