Finally, it’s time, and all the posturing is over. No more resting of key players, no more excuses for losing soft matches. Get it wrong and it’s simply no more. Get it right, and who knows? These two teams have played two finals matches in recent years, and each time, the winner went on to win the comp. Here we have the Tahs (notionally 3rd) against the Highlanders (notionally 6th), but with the teams level on points, so that trajectory is less likely than their previous encounters, but still possible.
Only nine weeks ago these teams met at the same venue, and we were treated to a cameo from Sensei Miyagi, cunningly disguised as a Highlanders winger. For his sins, Tevita Nabura was forced to watch the remake of Karate Kid every day for six weeks and such has been the toll, he’s not even on the bench this match, despite being eligible.
The Tahs won that match and broke the then much discussed Kiwi “hoodoo”, having come teasingly close in previous weeks. Would they have won without the red card? Most likely. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean much now. Since then, each team has had three wins and two losses, and in the process showed glimpses of their potential, in between causing their coaches heartburn. The Tahs have kept a reasonably stable line-up, subject to a couple of high profile dramas, whereas the Highlanders have been rotating players in and out, which, on balance can’t be helpful for cohesion and continuity.
That said, since their last encounter, changes have been made. New to the squad compared to that match, the Tahs have Hanigan and Newsome in the run-on team, with Ryan and Wilkin on the bench. Movement within the squad sees Holloway start, swapping with Staniforth, likewise Phipps for Gordon, with Cam Clark back to the bench. Dropping out of the squad is Ryan McCauley, Michael Hooper, Shambeckler Vui and Lalakai Foketi.
A not dissimilar story at the Landers. New to the squad are starters Liam Squire, James Lentjes and Teihorangi Walden, with Matt Faddes new to the bench. Rotations see Liam Coltman and Tevita Li start, with both Dixons, Ash and Elliot, moved to the bench. Dropping out of the squad is Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Dillon Hunt, Tevita Nabura and Patelesio Tomkinson
Both teams are running a 5:3 bench, which is instructive.
WHY SHOULD I BOTHER?
Did I mention it was finals time? ‘Nuf said.
Concentration and desire. Always important, but especially so for these teams, who can both run hot and cold, often within the same match. The closeness of the teams means mental acuity will be the difference.
In the air. Since the last meeting, the aerial game has been under intense scrutiny, yet here we have two of the best exponents of it in Folau and Ben Smith. The Brumbies successfully shut down Izzy in general play last week and I’m sure the Highlanders have similar plans. For the Tahs, one of the only positives to come out of last week’s loss was the re-starts, with both Izzy and Hanigan excelling. With the latter now a factor, it gives the Tahs options and makes it harder for the receivers.
The Yap. The two-Test incumbents. Both with a history of toileting problems. Both high energy and fierce competitors. Earplugs for the referee and chloroform on standby for everyone else. This will be a battle royale. Phipps is coming back into form, and even had a snipe last week, Smith has been hot and cold, but none of that matters, as these two will be going at each other. Worth the ticket price alone.
Ruck defence. Both teams have some seriously stacked backlines, but what happens in and around the breakdown will be key. If the Tahs leak too much here, they’ll eventually be run over by the Highlanders. Conversely, if the Tahs can tighten it up, the Highlanders may start to lose their shape. Hooper’s absence is considerable, but Miller has stepped up, so his work, along with that of the unsung Michael Wells, will be critical.
The Tahs have broken all sorts of records with their attack this season (tries scored, points scored), yet that belies one of their weaknesses, which we have seen in key matches, such as against the Lions, the weakness being to succumb to the temptation to go too wide too soon. If the tempo isn’t right, all it achieves is exhaustion, and lateral movement, rather than forward movement. It happened against the Brumbies too, so the Tahs need to earn the right to go wide by first going forward. It’s a little cliched, but it’s a lot true, and here the burden falls on Holloway and Simmons. I like the move of Jed to lock, notwithstanding his relative lack of height. He brings an edge to the tight five, and a little bit of that caring, understanding, Nineties type that every coach secretly desires. The Highlanders have plenty of it in Liam Squire alone, so how these two perform will be talismanic for their teams.
It goes beyond that. While the Tahs are, at times, good at scoring points, all too easily they lose their defensive pattern and let in soft tries. Again, the Brumbies match was a classic example, aided by three fortuitous bounces of the ball, and abetted by poor desire, execution and shape. Continue this and the Mad Monday plans will be underway by half-time.
The teams are level on points and not surprisingly, similarly aligned with their stats. The Tahs have the edge in the lineout, the Landers the edge in the scrum. Both teams concede a lot of turnover ball and miss a lot of tackles, so expect this to be a real spectacle. The weather forecast is good and the match official team is strong, so we can expect a rugby showcase.
The visitors start favourites and that’s understandable given recent form. For the Tahs to win this, they need to play like they did in that first half hour against the Richie Mo’unga led Crusaders in Christchurch. The form 10 of the competition is Mo’unga, and the Crusaders’ only losses have come about when he was injured, which only highlights just how good this Tahs team can be when they put it all together. The Highlanders will be enlivened by the return of their All Blacks and a quest for redemption after their last visit to Allianz. Only if the Tahs can concentrate for the duration will they win this, otherwise it will be the kilted ones heading to the semi-finals.
1 Tom Robertson 2 Damien Fitzpatrick 3 Sekope Kepu 4 Jed Holloway 5 Rob Simmons (VC) 6 Ned Hanigan 7 Will Miller 8 Michael Wells 9 Nick Phipps 10 Bernard Foley (C) 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro 12 Kurtley Beale 13 Curtis Rona 14 Alex Newsome 15 Israel Folau
BENCH: 16 Tolu Latu 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes 18 Paddy Ryan 19 Tom Staniforth 20 Brad Wilkin 21 Jake Gordon 22 Cam Clark 23 Bryce Hegarty
HEAD COACH: Daryl Gibson
1 Daniel Lienert-Brown 2 Liam Coltman 3 Tyrel Lomax 4 Jackson Hemopo 5 Tom Franklin 6 Liam Squire 7 James Lentjes 8 Luke Whitelock 9 Aaron Smith 10 Lima Sopoaga 11 Tevita Li 12 Teihorangi Walden 13 Rob Thompson 14 Waisake Naholo 15 Ben Smith (CC)
BENCH: 16 Ash Dixon (CC) 17 Aki Seiuli 18 Kalolo Tuiloma 19 Shannon Frizzell 20 Elliot Dixon 21 Kayne Hammington 22 Josh Ioane 23 Matt Faddes
HEAD COACH: Aaron Mauger
Date: Saturday 21st July 2018
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 20:05 local (AEDT)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Nic Berry (AR1) Will Houston (AR2)
TMO: George Ayoub