Phil Gifford: Will Jordan has the X-factor we haven’t seen since Christian Cullen

Five talking points from an exciting round of Super Rugby Aotearoa, which the competition badly needed, and why TJ Perenara would make it if he switched to league.

Not remotely a two horse race

Back in what feels like an eternity ago in February, in the first round, the Crusaders comfortably tipped over the Highlanders in Dunedin and the Blues thumped the Hurricanes in Wellington.

At that point a sensible person would have been booking tickets for a final on May 8 in Christchurch between the Crusaders and the Blues.

Oops. After being outplayed, 35-29, by the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday night the Blues are on the cusp of being sidelined for the final.

Even more remarkable, that final might be in Hamilton, after the Chiefs won the Thriller in the Tron, 26-25, against the Crusaders. Next weekend’s match in Christchurch against the Blues is a must-win for Razor Robertson’s team if they’re to guarantee defending their title at home.

It starts up front

Oddly, despite losing, the Crusaders played better than they had in their last two games.

The Chiefs won because they played with a passion that recalled the amateur days when Waikato fielded forward packs, usually a hard bitten mix of farmers and truck drivers, who made going to Rugby Park in Hamilton a nightmare that left visiting teams not only beaten but also often bruised and bloodied.

On Saturday there were the usual dynamic suspects for the Chiefs up front in Luke Jacobson, Lachlan Boshier, and Tupou Vaa’i, but the special hero was Naitoa Ah Kuoi.

Ah Kuoi is an interesting 21-year-old. He’s the son of lawyers, who moved from Samoa to Wellington, where he was born. Ah Kuoi, himself the father of twins, now works with Unicef New Zealand to address the issues of malnourishment in Pacific Island children.

He wears a tape on his headgear with “Mum” written on it is because he is, he freely concedes, a “mummy’s boy through and through.” But it’d be a bad mistake for anyone to confuse him loving his mother with weakness. Against the Crusaders he was a constant fierce, flint edged menace with the ball, or at breakdowns. It was entirely fitting it was his work at a turnover that won a last gasp defensive penalty to deny the Crusaders a potential match-winning penalty or dropped goal.

Another Jordan who can fly

From the stand in Hamilton All Black coach Ian Foster and selector Grant Fox saw Will Jordan continue the form that makes the fullback position in the All Blacks so hugely contestable.

Jordie Barrett has been on fire for the Hurricanes, but Jordan keeps showing an X-Factor that we haven’t seen in the 15 jersey since Christian Cullen graced the position.

Part of Jordan’s brilliance is his sheer speed, but there’s more. He sidles towards the defence looking harmless and almost easy to contain, and then flicks some inner switch which a step later leaves bemused tacklers grasping at air. After the stellar introduction to his test career last year, he’s promising to become the most exciting player in our game.

Aaron Smith is the gold standard

There was not much need for a reminder, but Aaron Smith’s game in Dunedin showed why he is without question the best All Black halfback of the last 50 years.

His passes look as if they’ve been fired from a slingshot, he runs at about the same pace as the passes, and best of all he’s so dynamic around the field his teams basically get two players for the price of one, a brilliant halfback, and a tireless loose forward.

The whole package is topped off by a tactical sense that saw him heavily involved in three of the five tries for the Highlanders. One, in injury time in the first half, was a thing of such beauty it deserves to be framed and hung in the Lourve.

Wayne Smith’s suggestion a couple of weeks ago that despite poor early season results, the most innovative rugby in the competition was being played by the Highlanders was perfectly illustrated.

Aaron Smith stood at the front of the lineout, 15 metres from the Blues’ line. As soon as the ball was taken by Bryan Evans, Smith and hooker Ash Dixon, who had thrown in, were in furious motion. Smith took the ball and darted eight vital steps to the advantage line, while Dixon outside him look set to take the pass. Instead Smith feinted to send the ball left to Dixon, and dropped a lovely inside ball to his right, into the hands of right wing Ngatungane Punivai, who raced in for the try.

It had everything, from intelligence, to speed, to perfect execution, and it was the perfect touch that Smith, the man who left his job at the Cut Loose hair salon in Feilding to seek rugby fame in Dunedin, was the pivotal figure in the try.

Monique wonders whether you’re a bit dumb

There was a lot that was good, but sadly plenty that was disappointing, about the Blues in their loss in Dunedin.

The most unsettling aspect in their play was the way there were signs of old school Blues’ ill discipline. Yelping at the referee was one thing. Being drawn into a weird face pushing exercise by a rookie prop, Ethan De Groot, was another. Worst of all, of course, was the clumsy, blatant, shoulder charge into De Groot’s face by Alex Hodgman that drew a red card. Rugby has never been, and probably never will be, tiddlywinks. But for a player as good as Hodgman is to not even attempt to use his arm in a clean out, was the sort of lax behaviour that makes coaches old before their time.

Rob Muldoon would have been wrong about TJ Perenara

When he was Prime Minister Rob Muldoon suggested that a Kiwi moving to Australia raised the average IQ on both sides of the Tasman.

If TJ Perenara does take up a league contract with the Roosters he’ll be an exception to Muldoon’s rule. Perenara would take impressive intelligence from New Zealand rugby with him.Having once had the pleasure in 2017 of sitting at a lunch at Eden Park beside Perenara I can report that he’s one of the most astute and articulate players you could ever have the pleasure of meeting. If he takes up league he’s one man who would absolutely have the brains to adjust well to a different code in a different country.

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