Super Rugby Aotearoa Round 4 review: Every chance vital against Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa Round 3 saw wins for the Crusaders and Hurricanes, both teams getting the four points away from home.

But they were vastly contrasting fixtures as the Crusaders and Highlanders thrilled under the roof in Dunedin, and the Chiefs and Highlanders failed to settle into any sort of a groove.

Read on as we bring you some of the big talking points from the weekend's action.


The stage is set for a huge Super Rugby Aotearoa clash in Christchurch next week, the kind of which fans haven't seen since the turn of the millennium.

The Blues, at long last, are a force again, and while they're unlikely to have Dan Carter - who made his playing return in club rugby on Saturday - in their 23, the Aucklanders will head south refreshed after the Round 4 bye.

But they got an indication of the level they will need to play at if they're to come away with the four points next Saturday after the Crusaders shifted up a gear in Dunedin over the weekend.

The Highlanders, meanwhile, learned why you need to take even the smallest opportunity that comes your way against the Crusaders ... and certainly nail those where a try requires only a final execution of the catch-and-pass skill.

Trailing 21-17 with 25 minutes to play, the Highlanders had a golden opportunity to take the lead heading into the final quarter. But instead of passing to two unmarked men outside him, Jona Nareki dummied and then tried to offload just as he was hit in a huge tackle from Richie Mo'unga, and the try went begging.

The hosts were forced to settle for a penalty goal as a result, and the Crusaders took hold of the game thereafter as replacement winger Sevu Reece scored in the corner just three minutes later. Instead of being up 24-21, the Highlanders were down 26-20 and would go on to lose 40-20.

The ruthlessness with which the Crusaders put teams away has been a feature of their incredible run over the past three years, and highlights the need for opposition teams to be near-perfect when they confront the 10-time Super Rugby champions.

You just can't afford to botch genuine try-scoring chances, because the Crusaders execute the opposite: They turn half chances into seven points more often than not. They are also blessed with incredible depth, leaving them with a situation where they can bring All Blacks winger Sevu Reece off the bench because this year's breakout star, Will Jordan, is simply playing too well to be dropped.

This final scoreline may have flattered the Crusaders a touch, and did little justice to what had been a gallant Highlanders effort, but it has given supporters the showdown they have craved for years and one that will surely fill Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch in Round 5.


Aaron Smith, by his own admissions, hadn't been playing up to the high standards he set himself over the past 18 months, particularly earlier in the year when the Highlanders were struggling.

But it should come as no surprise that, as the Highlanders are a renewed threat in Super Rugby Aotearoa, at the heart of their turnaround has been Smith. And that was clearly evident on Saturday evening in Dunedin.

Smith seems to have the zing back in his pass; the fast, flat delivery that has been the hallmark of his near 10 years as the game's best halfback, so too the willingness to take the line on himself and expose flat-footed forwards around the fringes.

The Highlanders No. 9 seems to have enjoyed the added leadership he has taken on as one of the team's co-captains this year, too, following the exit of the experienced Ben Smith and injury to back-rower James Lentjes earlier in the year.

But it was Smith's work in setting up Ngane Punivai's try that really stood out at Forsyth Barr Stadium, and will have delighted All Blacks coach Ian Foster.

In scooping up an overthrown lineout, Smith darted in behind the Crusaders and offloaded to centre Sio Tomkinson; the No. 9 then staying alive to throw a beautiful pass from the base of the ruck to ensure the play didn't break down, with Punivai icing the try in the corner a couple of passes later.

The Highlanders might be 1-2 as a result of Saturday's defeat, but they are a far better outfit than the one that was 1-5 in Super Rugby and will only get better if Smith continues to play like he did on Saturday.


A win over the Crusaders and a 4-2 start to Super Rugby had the Chiefs in good shape earlier this year.

But where the Highlanders seemed to have used the COVID-19 shutdown to overhaul their game for the better, it almost seems like the opposite has happened in Hamilton.

With Sunday's 25-18 loss to the Hurricanes, the Chiefs' season sits at 0-4 and is all but over. They haven't been far away in any of their four defeats, and have had to play two of those matches in poor conditions, but it is clear something just isn't clicking at the moment.

"It's frustrating. I think everyone realised how tough this competition was going to be, and you need a bit of momentum, a little bit of luck... a couple of bounces of the ball," Chiefs coach Warren Gatland said.

"We've just got to keep learning from these situations.

"For us, it's about earning a little bit of respect and some pride, and hurting some other people on the way, because we can't win this now, if we're realistic."

The Chiefs had the benefit of playing against 14 men for nearly half an hour on Sunday, yet saw opportunities break down through poor execution and decision-making.

Lock Scott Scraffton was first sin-binned on 51 minutes as a result of the Hurricanes' repeated infringements before he was then red-carded 12 minutes later after Damian McKenzie took a quick tap and charged at the tryline. Scrafton couldn't help himself and tackled McKenzie, giving away a penalty try and earning himself a second yellow and an early shower.

Ironically, the first red card of Super Rugby Aotearoa rendered the competition's law trial of a 20-minute replacement useless as Scrafton was sent from the field with only 17 minutes remaining on the clock.

Fortunately, the Hurricanes' defence held strong, as it had for much of the match, to close out the win, sparing Scrafton some embarrassment back in the sheds after fulltime.