WELLINGTON – Hurricanes playmaker Beauden Barrett is under pressure to outshine his All Black rival Richie Mo'unga in Saturday's Super Rugby semi-final against the Crusaders and reverse his team's woeful form against the defending champions.
The Hurricanes are considered rank outsiders in Christchurch against the Crusaders, who boast a squad bristling with All Blacks as they chase a third straight title and 10th overall.
It's a frustrating situation for the Hurricanes - a side that won more matches than any other this season and features a two-time world player of the year in Barrett.
Yet such has been the South Islanders' dominance over the Hurricanes in recent years that the men from New Zealand's capital find themselves practically written off by bookies and pundits before a ball has been kicked in anger.
The teams have met five times previously in finals matches and the Crusaders have won all of them, including a semi-final last year and the title decider in 2006.
The Crusaders have also convincingly won their four most recent matches against the Hurricanes, including a 32-8 thrashing when they last met in March.
That's without even taking into account the Crusaders' daunting home record in Christchurch, where they have not lost a playoff in Super Rugby's 23-year history and are currently on a 28-game unbeaten run.
Win the collisions
Crusaders assistant coach Ronan O'Gara said he was relishing the match-up between Barrett and Mo'unga, who is challenging the Hurricanes maestro for an All Black starting spot.
O'Gara said that while Barrett had the advantage of incumbency in the fly-half's number 10 jersey, Mo'unga did not lack motivation with a World Cup in Japan looming.
"(Mo'unga's) been on top of his game for a long time," said the Irishman, who earned 128 Test caps at fly-half. "He's looking to dethrone Beaudy, but Beaudy has the advantage of being a superstar at Test level. I think Richie can get to that space, so it makes for an exciting game."
Mo'unga has nine Test caps, with only two starts, compared to 73 caps and 40 starts for Barrett.
But Mo'unga's Crusaders are 4-1 over Barrett's Hurricanes in the last five matches when both have started, fuelling calls for him to be given a greater role at Barrett's expense.
O'Gara freely admits that the Crusaders' recent success against the Hurricanes stems from shutting down the halves pairing of Barrett and TJ Perenara, who last week played their 100th Super Rugby match together.
It's no coincidence that the last team to beat the Crusaders at home, way back in 2016, was a Hurricanes outfit that had Barrett and Perenara firing on all cylinders.
O'Gara said the hosts' forward pack - which at full strength consists entirely of established All Blacks - was the key to denying Barrett time on the ball.
"For that to happen you need to win up front, it's as simple as that," he said. "If you win the collisions and if you win the gain line, no matter how good you are as a number 10 your time is diminished significantly. Our boys have done a good job in that regard in previous campaigns.
"But when the ball is in Beauden Barrett's hands it's not a good sign for any opposition."
The winner of Saturday's all-New Zealand clash will face either the ACT Brumbies or Argentina's Jaguares in the final.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)