7 Apr

Southern Man
by Rob Wallace
7 Apr 2003

The Highlanders burst the Blues bubble with a 22-11 win in Dunedin to retain the Gordon Hunter memorial trophy. They thoroughly deserved their win, defended well, held their composure and minimised mistakes while the Blues never really got their impetus going.

There wasn’t that much between the two teams. The biggest difference came at the tackle where OH were more effective, and also at driving through the ruck/maul and spoiling the Blues ball. It was a team thing and the Blues didn’t adapt. This pressured Devine and Rush, neither of whom had good games, and delivered poor ball to Spencer, at about the same time as he received Blackie and Harding. Spencer has often looked uncomfortable in similar situations and this was another one, and he didn’t kick well either.

The other differences were that the Blues made too many errors and had no luck go their way. The Blues have had a few fortunate decisions this year, and the better of the 50:50 calls in most of their games, but not this time – most of the 50:50 calls went to OH. Swings and roundabouts.

The Blues tactics looked wrong and there was no clear effort to change them as the game progressed. The Highlanders played very flat defence but the Blues never stood deep and ran at them, nor spread the ball wide quickly. It was a rather one-dimensional attacking strategy.

Whereas the Highlanders had their tactics perfectly sorted out. Two tearway flankers flew at Spencer, Randell ran the show, while the front five set a solid platform. Oliver continues to work back toward his best form, and had a mighty game, while Maling completed his demolition of Jack last week by outplaying Williams, helped by Hayman’s superb lifting. Despite this, the Blues pack were not dominated, but were pressured into too many errors. The loss will get them to rethink and look at a few things, which will be good. Historically, the top team at the end of the round robin has won the S12 only 3/7 – it’s being sharp for those last 3-4 run in games and the semis that count. At least they’re still well placed to make the semis.

In other games the Hurricanes continued their splendid form with a 26-23 win over the Reds at Ballymore, with Umaga playing outstandingly well, both in offence and defence. The great achievement here is the way Colin Cooper has turned an average lot of tight forwards into a well performing pack.

Which is not the Crusaders at the moment. Their backs have been poor this year and now the forwards are have caught the same disease, with a slack performance in losing 31-34 to the Warratahs. The Crusaders pack showed no impetus or drive and were outplayed by a NSW team the scored 96 points against last year. Unless they pick it up, some of these guys will struggle to make the All Blacks. Even Chris Jack, one of the outstanding players of 2002 is looking more like a donkey currently. I’m sure the sleeping giant will wake.

As for the Chiefs – their season is virtually over after losing 55-31 to the Brumbies – their aim should be to keep make sure the Reds finish last. The Chiefs have looked ordinary this season – some of their selections haven’t worked, they miss the players who have moved overseas and they seem to have none of that fighting spirit that makes Waikato teams so powerful.

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