Few punters would have backed the Reds to be equal first or the Hurricanes to be 13th, here at the halfway point of the 2011 Super Rugby tournament. When the sides meet in Wellington tomorrow evening the Canes will be desperate to salvage something from this season, and the Reds will be keen to maintain their 11-point lead in the Australian conference.
It’s been a huge week for both teams. The Reds have stuck the pins in their Waratah-shaped voodoo doll and removed the huge monkey off their collective back, while the Hurricanes have had the very long flight home to reflect on a season that has gone horribly wrong. With two wins from nine starts and sitting thirteenth on the ladder, they’ve got a lot of people wondering what happened to the team they expected to challenge for the New Zealand conference leadership.
Both teams have suffered injuries to key players. The Hurricanes have five All Blacks on the injury list. Conrad Smith, Rodney So’oialo, Ma’a Nonu, Cory Jane and Piri Weepu are players any team would love to have running out; when they’re all unavailable for the 22 it’s a devastating blow. Add Serge Lilo and Karl Lowe to the list and you can see the Canes have lost an entire back row and two-thirds of an All Black backline in nine weeks. One bright spot for the Wellington boys is the return of Aaron Cruden at five-eighth, after three weeks out with an Achilles strain.
The Reds have lost both starting props in the last two games but have been able to call on ex-Wallaby bookends to cover. Greg Holmes has started off the bench all season, but Guy Shepherdson had hardly played five minutes of Super Rugby this year before last Saturday and he really seemed to struggle with the pace. He will be better for the run and we should expect an improvement in his play this week. Digby Ioane’s facial laceration has turned into a facial fracture, forcing him out of the side and allowing Dom Shipperley to make his Super Rugby run-on debut. Ioane has been in impressive form lately and his energy and go-forward will be missed. Rod Davies’s knee problem has blown out to a six-week recovery after surgery, but the return of Ben Lucas at fullback has allowed Luke Morahan to slip onto his wing.
Ewen McKenzie has brought lock Van Humphries straight back into the run-on side and given Rob Simmons his first rest for the year. The young lock must have played nearly every minute of every game this year and has clearly earned a break. James Hanson’s rise through the ranks continues with his second start at hooker for the year, at Saia Faingaa’s expense, and Adam Wallace-Harrison replaces Radike Samo at blindside flanker. (Full team lists are in the Round 11 Ultimate Preview — see link below.)
McKenzie’s experience in the ridiculously long French Top 14 season seems to be holding the Reds in good stead, as his player management has been outstanding. Once again he has managed to put what seems to be his best team on the park, introduced new blood, rested key players, included returning players and maintained an formidable bench. However, Will Genia and Quade Cooper have played a lot of rugby this year and you have to wonder if or how they might get a rest before the finals.
Having put my hand up to preview this match while a certain Mr Timms was wrapped up in watching the royal wedding, I’ve found it more difficult than usual. It’s hard to predict how the Canes will play without their All Blacks, not knowing what kind of form Cruden is in or how much the occasion of skipper Andrew Hore’s 100th game will lift them. Nor for that matter is it clear what type of game plan the Reds will take into the match, or if they can keep up their form against a Kiwi side, or if Quade Cooper’s torpedo kicks will fly straight this week.
Maybe it boils down to this: the Reds are ambitious for their eighth win in a row; the Hurricanes just want to win. With so many variables in play I have to go with my gut. Everyone knows I bleed red! Well, so does everyone I guess, but I bleed Queensland Red so I’m predicting a bonus point win for the Reds.
Green and Gold Rugby sends its congratulations to Andrew Hore for 100 games for the Hurricanes, and to Will Genia and Van Humphries for 50 games for the Reds.
- Round 11 Ultimate Preview (greenandgoldrugby.com)