And then there were four. This weekend sees the semi-finals of the Air New Zealand Cup with Wellington taking on Southland at the Caketin, and Canterbury hosting Hawkes Bay in AMI Stadium in Christchurch. So what are the chances for the four contenders?
WELLINGTON v SOUTHLAND (1st v 5th), Friday 7.35pm
Wellington were made to work hard last week by an enterprising Taranaki side who really took the game to the competition favourites. Historically recognised for their good forward packs, the Naki unleashed a slick-running backline with 2nd 5 Jayden Haywood cutting some merry capers through the Lions’ defence at times. It took until the 70th minute of the game for Wellington to finally surge ahead on the board, and the final scoreline of 50-30 didn’t really tell the full story of the game.
Meanwhile, Southland had travelled north to take on Bay of Plenty and surprised many with the attacking game they brought with them. Despite Bay of Plenty scoring the first try, they were never really in the game after that and Southland gave them a stern lesson about getting numbers to the breakdown and have reliable set pieces. The final score of 45-11 in this match was a true reflection of what had happened on the field.
This semi-final match promises to be a true contrast of styles. Wellington have been in their own league as far as scoring points goes this season, yet defensively they have conceded nearly 200 points in 11 games. Contrast this with Southland, who have been very sound with a defensive record (163 points) second only to Canterbury and seem to be finally hitting their attacking straps at the business end of the season. On a dry ground at home, you’d back Wellington. But the weather is threatening rain and if Southland can play the percentages and maintain their strong defence, Wellington may well have a battle on their hands.
Key players: Wellington have the services of their All Blacks Nonu, Weepu, So’oialo, Schwalger and Tialata, with Conrad Smith on the bench. In a move obviously designed to shore-up their midfield defence, coach Jamie Joseph has shifted Nonu to the wing and brought Tane Tuipulotu back into the 2nd 5 slot. Southland have the in-form Jimmy Cowan, flying winger Pehi Te Whare who picked up a brace of tries last week, and a very solid front row.
Key areas: as always, the battle of the breakdown will be important and it will be interesting to see how the Wellington trio of Masoe, So’oialo and Waldrom match up in speed against Dion Bates, Tim Boys and David Hall. Southland will look to put the heat on at scrum time, and expect to see plenty of contesting from both sides at the lineouts. The edge in speed out wide probably goes to the Wellington back trio of Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu and Hosea Gear, but Southland fullback Robbie Robinson is an elusive runner and Te Whare is all power. At the end of the day this game will probably go to the team who has the better defence and can shut the opposition’s game down.
Likely result: hard to call if it rains, but you’d probably have to go with Wellington on their home track. Southland have a longer track record than Wellington for choking in the big games, but they have the form and game to upset the favourites if they can bring it.
Wellington: Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Tamati Ellison, Tane Tu’ipulotu, Hosea Gear, Piri Weepu (c), Alby Mathewson, Thomas Waldrom, Rodney So’oialo, Chris Masoe, Jeremy Thrush, Ross Filipo, John Schwalger, Dane Coles, Neemia Tialata. Reserves: Ged Robinson, Jacob Ellison, Tim Fairbrother, Api Naikatini, Serge Lilo, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Conrad Smith.
Southland: Robbie Robinson, Mark Wells, Kendrick Lynn, Matt Saunders, Pehi Te Whare, Blair Stewart, Jimmy Cowan, David Hall, Tim Boys, Dion Bates, Hoani Macdonald, Josh Bekhuis, Chris King, Jason Rutledge, Jamie Mackintosh (c). Reserves: Matt Holloway, Fai Mika, Daniel Ramsay, John Hardie, Scott Cowan,Tane Puke, Willie Rickards.
CANTERBURY v HAWKES BAY (2nd v 3rd), Saturday, 7.35pm
Canterbury dealt swiftly and sharply to Tasman last weekend winning 45-10, and have now won 10 games on the trot to keep their momentum growing. Easily the best defensive side in the competition conceding a miserly average of 10 points per game, they are also the second best attacking side after Wellington and therefore would appear to be odds on favourites to win this semi final.
Hawkes Bay played some great attacking rugby in the first half of their quarter final against Waikato last week, clocking up a 28-0 lead at halftime. However, they nearly let the game slip in the second half conceding nearly as many points as they had scored, and just scraped to victory on the back of the lone penalty Matt Berquist kicked to win 31-28. Despite conceding twice as many points this season as Canterbury has, Hawkes Bay can boast a pretty healthy attacking game and without doubt have the best functioning lineout in the competition having lost only two on their own throw this season.
This semi-final sees a meeting of two teams who play a very similar style of game. Last time they met (a mere 3 weeks ago), Canterbury won 31-7. Since then, Canterbury’s game has grown and whereas earlier in the season they squandered a few scoring opportunites, in recent times they have been nailing most of them and in Crusader-like style. Hawkes Bay have performed well all season, interestingly having only lost to the three other semi-finalists. They will be hoping for a dry ground, as their game relies on the pace of their backline and keeping the ball moving.
Key players: Canterbury have the luxury of starting All Black captain Richie McCaw this week, and also have 2008 All Blacks Greg Somerville and Andy Ellis in their lineup. Add to that seasoned campaigners Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Casey Laulala and Scott Hamilton, All Black-in-waiting Keiran Reid, plus the youthful talent of Tim Bateman and James Paterson, and this is a side that will be hard to beat at home. Hawkes Bay have their hard-running, accurate-throwing hooker Hikawera Elliot, the up and coming George Naoupu at No 8, and a good deal of talent in their backline with the likes of Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford, Jason Shoemark, Matt Berquist and seasoned campaigner Danny Lee.
Key areas: both teams are aggressive at the breakdown, so watch for a battle royale there. Can the Canterbury side upset Hawkes Bay at the lineout, or will Elliot’s excellent throwing continue? Hawkes Bay have a pretty good scrum, but Canterbury have given most sides a testing time in that area. Keep your fingers crossed for a dry track, because there should be some wonderful running rugby on display from both sides. Question is, will Hawkes Bay be able to combat Canterbury’s great defence?
Likely result: potentially this game could be the master teaching the student a lesson or two. While both sides play a very similar style, Canterbury simply have more experience and the better bench. Expect a Canterbury win, but for the Bay to keep themselves in the game until midway through the second half when the Cantabs start to bring on fresh legs.
Canterbury: Scott Hamilton, Paul Williams, Casey Laulala, Tim Bateman, James Paterson, Colin Slade, Andrew Ellis, Kieran Read (c), Richie McCaw, Hayden Hopgood, Isaac Ross, Michael Paterson, Greg Somerville, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Steve Fulau, Owen Franks, Nasi Manu, George Whitelock, Tyson Keats, Hamish Gard, Adam Whitelock.
Hawkes Bay: Israel Dagg, Jason Kupa, Jason Shoemark, Sam Giddens, Zac Guildford, Matthew Berquist, Danny Lee, George Naoupu, Karl Lowe, Michael Johnson, Bryn Evans, Johan Snyman, Anthony Perenise, Hikawera Elliot, Sona Taumalolo. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Josh Keys, Matt Egan, Pama Petia, Chris Eaton, Aayden Clarke, Mark Jackman.