No one benefits from an in-form Julian Savea like Kieran Read, writes Jim Kayes.
He scored one and had a big hand in two. Julian Savea’s contribution to the Hurricanes’ 11 tries in their 71-6 thrashing of the Rebels will have pleased Kieran Read. What, you say, does his form have to do with the Crusaders No 8? Well, nothing, but it could have a huge impact on Read in the All Blacks. Read and Savea were both well below their best last year and I firmly believe that’s linked. How often at the All Blacks have they combined to score tries? They are, or at least were, an almost unstoppable combination.
From 2012 (when Savea debuted for the All Blacks) to the end of 2015, Read scored 13 tries while the big wing crossed for 38 in his 41 tests. That’s a combined average of almost 13 tries a year, and so often it was Read or Savea giving the final pass to the other, underlining how important each is to the other. Down that left hand side from the scrum with Read ranging wide, they were simply superb. But it wasn’t the case last year as the two together contributed just eight tries to the All Blacks test tally – the one-two punch from 2012-2015 largely missing.
So I reckon Savea’s early return to form bodes well that the knockout combination for the All Blacks could return this year – just in time for the tour by the British and Irish Lions in June.
Read’s also sure to be smiling that Nehe Milner-Skudder’s straight back to his irrepressible best for the Hurricanes after missing last year through injury. His three tries were great but just as important after a shoulder injury was his confidence with the ball, and on defence. Milner-Skudder scored eight tries in his debut test season as he helped the All Blacks win the 2015 World Cup, and he was missed last year. His return adds to an impressive back-three pool of players that also includes the Highlanders’ Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo, Crusaders veteran Israel Dagg, and potentially the promise of Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie.
The first two rounds of Super Rugby have reinforced the high standard of the New Zealand conference and poses the question of just how much more physical and competitive it can be. Saturday night’s match between the Crusaders and Highlanders was as good as it gets. It had everything – physicality, attacking flair, hard-hitting defence and drama with the yellow card to Malakai Fekitoa. The card had an impact and some are suggesting it’s why the Crusaders won, 30-27 with a try in the dying minutes, but it can also be argued that the Crusaders were on a roll by then anyway.
It was a lot more lopsided, but the Hurricanes’ demolition of the Rebels was just as enthralling. Yes, the Rebels are a very average team, but put that aside for a moment. The Hurricanes’ support play was outstanding and it was that continuity of play that was too much for the Rebels. For sure they were falling off tackles, but some of that was because the Hurricanes were just too good with their numbers around the ball with the likes of Ardie Savea to the fore.
It will be interesting this week to see if they have retained that fluidity against a Chiefs team that will be much better on defence – and attack – as they showed in their 41-26 win against the Blues. Much like the Highlanders, the Blues will be pointing to the red card for Steven Luatua as the turning point of the match. It’s certainly hard to beat the Chiefs with just 14 players. But coach Tana Umaga made a huge mistake by leaving so many of his best players on the bench at kick off. That won’t be the case this week against the Highlanders – or at least, it can’t be.
Chris Boyd told me before the competition began that he expected this year’s New Zealand conference to be even tighter than last year when just three points separated first and fourth. If that’s the case, these local derbies are even more important. With that in mind, the Chiefs have had the best start with wins against the Highlanders and Blues. The Crusaders are probably next best with their win against the Highlanders coming after victory against the Brumbies, who are normally one of the better Australian teams.
The Highlanders are yet to win and life doesn’t get much easier for them with the Blues this week then the Hurricanes. Both of those games are away from Dunedin and, say what you will about the Blues, they are normally pretty good at home. It’s very early in the season but already there’s a lot on the line in the New Zealand conference.