What a shame Covid-19 forced the cancellation of what would have been a fitting Super Rugby Aotearoa finale between the champion Crusaders and vastly-improved runner-up Blues on Sunday.
Still the Highlanders highlighted the excellence of the championship the previous night by playing with flair and sheer guts to break the Hurricanes’ five-match winning streak 38-21.
Losing the likes of Ben Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo in recent years has forced the Highlanders to build a new backline around the brilliance of Aaron Smith who had another cracker against the Hurricanes in his 150th game for them.
Yet young Josh Ioane has emerged as a class first-five, Patelesio Tomlinson a crash-tackling second-five and try-scoring wings Josh McKay and Jona Nareki possess speed and elusiveness.
With two outstanding hookers in Ash Dixon and Liam Coltman to call upon and No 6 Shannon Frizell, one of the most improved loosies about, the tireless Highlanders forwards don’t always get the credit they deserve.
Indeed, it was lock Jack Whetton, son of former All Black Gary, who won man of the match honours this time for a strong all-round performance.
The depth in some positions is incredible. Who, for example, is the best No 6 between Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs), Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson (Blues), and Frizell? Who among versatile Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), Hoskins Sotutu and Akira Ioane (Blues) would be your No 8?
Given his experience and searing pace, probably Savea. But the others also have their strong points and some fans would argue Savea should be No 7 ahead of gritty captain Sam Cane.
Last week I praised the fullback competition posed by Damian McKenzie and the Barrett brothers, Beauden and Jordie, momentarily disregarding the excellence of speedy Will Jordon who doesn’t have their goal-kicking prowess.
However if Richie Mo’unga does the goal-kicking, the speedy Jordon wouldn’t be required to be a kicker too. Furthermore, nobody does the draw and pass to set up tries as well as he does.
The point is all have the qualities required of an All Black. All that is lacking is international experience.
Meanwhile full marks to the Mainland Tactix for handing the champion Central Pulse their second netball defeat of the season with 39-32 win that earns them a crack against the same team in the Invercargill final.
Why Invercargill instead of before the home crowd of one of the finalists?
While the Tactix thoroughly deserved their win with goal defence captain Jane Watson once more outstanding, the Pulse badly missed the brilliance of goal attack Ameliaranne Ekenasio (illness) and sharp wing attack Maddy Gordon.
Sadly another final round 74 meltdown in the LPGA Scottish Open on Monday denied Lydia Ko a title after scoring a brilliant third round 67 to put her in contention.
Hopefully she won’t dwell on it or her equal second placing in the Marathon Classic in Ohio when she blew a five shot lead with six to play by recording two bogeys and a double bogey on the last to allow good friend Danielle Kang to pip her by one.
Disappointing though those results were, the good news is the delightful Ko is back to being a contender under her sixth coach who believes in her confirming her strengths rather than dwell too much on her weaknesses.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author