For the first time in the brief history of the NZ Form Team of the Week, one game has provided all fifteen players as the Highlanders and Crusaders combine to shut out the Hurricanes and Blues of Radio Sport Rugby Editor Nigel Yalden selections for week 12:
1. Josh Hohneck (Highlanders) had to switch from tighthead prop to loosehead just prior to the start of the game, then back to tighthead later in the game and did not miss a beat at scrum time. His battle with Owen Franks at set piece was one of the best battles-within-the-battle.
2. Ash Dixon (Highlanders) produced another solid all round outing. He was excellent at set piece, busy around the field and provided good leadership of the forwards in the absence of regular co-captain Shane Christie. In my view, Dixon is the leading contender for the third hooking spot for the All Blacks squad behind Coles and Taylor.
3. Owen Franks (Crusaders) chugged his way around Forsyth Barr Stadium in typically industrious fashion. His scrummaging battle with Josh Hohneck was a feature of the game as was his "front-rowers sidestep" when he was put into space early in the first half. Franks doesn't get the accolades of others, but he's produced a season to this point that's worth of player of the year consideration.
4. Of all of the unsung heroes of the Highlanders tight five, Alex Ainley (Highlanders) is arguably the most unsungiest (that's a word isn't it Mr Editor?) of them all. His effort on Friday night, like many this season, speaks volumes of his experience, nous and work ethic that he has garnered over his career, while his role in the second row of the Highlanders scrum cannot be overlooked either.
5. Luke Romano (Crusaders) battled away manfully in and around the tight exchanges and was unlucky not to be rewarded with a try in the 18th minute. Like Ainley, Romano just worked and worked and worked throughout his 80 minutes on the field on Friday night and it was unsurprising that Coach Todd Blackadder choose to substitute Sam Whitelock rather than Romaro.
6. Elliot Dixon (Highlanders) produced yet another workaholic effort in a big game to further enhance his already airtight case for All Black inclusion. He was very involved on defence (16 tackles) with his cover defence the most impressive feature, was the Highlanders main lineout target (9 takes), snared two turnovers and invariably seemed to be the first or second Highlanders at the breakdown - my Forward of the Week
7. Matt Todd (Crusaders) gets the nod for a typically busy night in Dunedin, though none of the kiwi opensides fully imposed themselves onto their respective games during the round.
8. It was pretty obvious from the start that Luke Whitelock (Highlanders) was primed for a big game against his former team. He carried the ball and tackled with ferocity, with the timing of some of those tackles to help cut off potential attacks out wide particularly impressive, all as part of a second successive standout performance in the starting pack.
9. Aaron Smith (Highlanders) did what Aaron Smith does. That said, some of the passes, in particular to one to Matt Faddes as part of his first try, just left me shaking my heading in awe as to the timing, placement, speed of delivery and consistency of Smith's passing game.
10. Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders) produced the best game of his young Super Rugby career. As the season has progressed, we've watched him grow from a game manager to game controller as he steered the Crusaders attack when they had the ball, particularly early on in the game, as his statistics from the game help illustrate - 11 carries, 3 line breaks, 7 defenders beaten (most for the round) 61 metres made mixed with 8 kicks in general play & six-from-six off the kicking tee in a very loud and intimidating venue.
11. Play just never really flowed towards the left wing in the games involving the New Zealand teams but Patrick Osborne (Highlanders) did do his job diligently as part of the best team performance of the weekend.
12. Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders) was easily the best of an underwhelming group of second five performances this weekend. He was very solid in defence as always and carried the ball strongly.
13. Matt Faddes (Highlanders) is deserving of every plaudit that has been rightly heaped on him since Friday night, including talk of him being an All Black squad contender, and I can't add anything more to what has already been writing, said and highlighted, hence I'll just give you some of his key stats from Friday night - 2 tries, 4 line breaks, 4 defenders beaten, 6 carries, 115 metres made - my Back of the Week
14. Waisake Naholo (Highlanders) followed up his outstanding return to action in Hamilton with more of the same in Dunedin. It's not like he's doing all things freakishly (the fielding of the Sopoaga cross kick for the first try the exception to that statement) but he's doing the basics of the game and his position to a very high level, as are the majority of his team-mates.
15. Israel Dagg (Crusaders) might have been on the losing side but it wasn't for a lack of personal input. His 19 carries is reflective of the kicking game that the Highlanders employ, but to turn those carries into 144 metre gained is all about his game. Dagg was excellent under the high ball and kicked well on the five occasions he chose to. Any young fullback wanting to learn the nuance of playing the position should get a copy of this game as Dagg and Ben Smith (Highlanders) put on a clinic between them.
** Statistics via NZ Heralds Rugby Stats Centre
NIGEL YALDEN IS THE RUGBY EDITOR FOR RADIO SPORT & NEWSTALK ZB