A weekend of contrasting performances by the New Zealand franchises.
The Chiefs and Crusaders weren't at their best but still won; the Blues showed positive signs though ultimately in a loss, the Highlanders showed up forty minutes too late in Brisbane while the bye seemed to work well for the Hurricanes. Yet again Radio Sport Rugby Editor Nigel Yalden has mixed pontification with procrastination to eventually deliver us his NZ Team of the Week for round 7 of Super Rugby:
1. Mitchell Graham (Chiefs) - matched up very well with an experience scrummager in Charlie Faumuina, busy around the field highlighted by good support play leading to his first try in Super Rugby, forced a timely turnover at the breakdown and was very strong and combative in the tight exchanges.
2. Dane Coles (Hurricanes) - did play a little looser than an old fart like me likes to see from a hooker, but when you do your core roles to the high standard that Coles does, you can't quibble over him ranging wide on occasion, especially when he can run, step and off load like that - my NZ Forward of the Week PS.
Completed gutted that we didn't get to see Coles and Agustin Creevy on the same field Saturday night
3. Owen Franks (Crusaders) - would love a statistical category for "sitting people on their backside at the breakdown" as Franks would be top 5 most weeks. Best scrummaging tighthead in Super Rugby, as proven again in Perth, and far more skilful than most observers give him credit for.
4. Brodie Retallick (Chiefs) - hasn't played since round 2; comes back & produces 80 quality minutes of high impact, high work-rate and highly intelligent rugby. Retallick could be the best decision maker of any player in any position in New Zealand rugby (coin flip between Retallick and Ben Smith for mine)
5. Michael Fatialofa (Hurricanes) - like Retallick, Fatialofa was prominent throughout his time on Westpac Stadium. Fast becoming the "money man" for the Hurricanes at lineout time, Fatialofa carried solidly (12 times) into some very solid bodies; got rid of some of those same solid bodies with excellent cleanout work at the breakdown and made equally big hits defensively
6. Brad Shields (Hurricanes) - reckon most of the Jaguares forward pack would have been sporting a bruise or three Sunday morning, courtesy of Shields' robust, "get-that-into-ya" effort. He just loves the physical contests hence why he was a pig in mud against the Argentine franchise.
7. Sam Cane (Chiefs) - folks, we are dead set stacked with openside flankers in the New Zealand right now. Incredibly tough to differentiate between Cane, Blake Gibson (Blues), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes) and Shane Christie (Highlanders) this round but I've gone with Cane as I believe he had a marginally (and that margin is minimal) better all-round game than the latter trio.
8. Michael Leitch (Chiefs) -when was the last time you saw Michael Leitch play a really bad game of rugby for either the Chiefs or Japan? I can't remember either. He is in such a rich vein of form and that was evident with yet another first class effort against the Blues on Friday night.
9. TJ Perenara (Hurricanes) - everything he did wrong against the Kings a fortnight ago, Perenara got right in his best performance of the season to date against a quality opposite in Martin Landajo. The biggest improvement was his decision making, where he was reading and reacting with intelligence and accuracy.
10. Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders) - almost orchestrated a great comeback in Brisbane. While he was excellent in both halves unlike a fair few of his team-mates, Sopoaga second half performance was simply tremendous. We've seen already this season his great passing game and accurate tactical kicking, but it was so refreshing to see him run ball often (13 carries) and with good effect - my NZ Back of the Week
11. Patrick Osborne (Highlanders) - yeah, yeah ... I saw Julian Savea (Hurricanes) score a hat trick against the Jaguares and play near the high standard he's set with his own play in recent years. But Osborne was huge for the Highlanders, playing himself to a standstill and the stats back up the old fashioned eye exam. He carried 18 times for 81 hard fought metres, beating 4 defenders and offloading 5 times along the way. He wasn't flawless, but neither was Savea and Osborne was way more involved in his game.
12. Ryan Crotty (Crusaders) - is it a coincidence that since Crotty returned from injury, there is a far more directness to the Crusaders attack? That question is rhetorical - a typically solid and industrious effort from Crotty.
13. Rene Ranger (Blues) - an outstanding performance considering nothing was being created by players on his inside NB getting the ball to Ranger behind the gain line forcing him to run laterally is not the best way to utilise this man; he has to get the ball running direct as he's hits the advantage line. When he did on Friday night, he gave the Chiefs kittens; judicious use of the off load and 2 excellent turnovers at midfield breakdowns.
14. Johnny McNicholl (Crusaders) - this is the seventh time I've changed between McNicholl and Rieko Ioane (Blues) and I still don't know if I've got it right but here's explanation anyway. Yes Ioane was incredibly potent on attack and scored a ripping try, but McNicholl had more carries (14) more metres (100) , was outstanding under the ball (again) wasn't found out of position defensively and I'm going to stop writing now before I change my mind again ... both were just really, really good for their respective teams.
15. Malani Nanai (Blues) - called in as a late replacement, Nanai just got his hands on the ball and did work. 13 carries for an impressive 143 metres (2nd most for the round) including a superb individual try, turning James Lowe inside out before stepping and blitzing his way to the try line. Nanai showed good positional play and a bar one momentary hesitation, was solid defensively.
** Statistics via NZ Heralds Rugby Stats Centre
NIGEL YALDEN IS THE RUGBY EDITOR FOR RADIO SPORT & NEWSTALK ZB