Tevita Kuridrani is frequently strong but occasionally vulnerable in his defensive work. He will need to be the former for the Brumbies against the Highlanders in Canberra on Friday evening.
The Highlanders have any number of ball carriers and threats but they do love to attack outside the No.13 channel because of the skill sets of their No.9 and No.10, Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga.
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In fact, this area has been so fruitful for them this year it has probably influenced one of the two important selection decisions they have made against the Brumbies.
The headline decision made by coach Jamie Joseph is naming hard-tackling No.8 Luke Whitelock in the second row. They probably feel confident enough in the lineout abilities of No.6 Elliot Dixon to make that call, although it will be interesting to see if the call weakens their scrum.
The other notable call is the continuation of All Black centre Malakai Fekitoa at No.12, when he is probably better known in Australia as a No.13. There are no doubt a few reasons for this, but the principle one is the form of No.13 Matt Faddes, and specifically the pace of the Otago man. He is quick – really quick – and loves to run that outside angle away from his opposite number.
In this era of 100kg-plus centres, you don’t see it that often, but then again most teams don’t have a Smith who can fire those long, flat passes that can put a pacy No.13 away on the outside.
We didn’t have to wait long in last week’s excellent Highlanders v Chiefs game for an example. In fact, it was the first thing the Highlanders did, inside the first 60 seconds.
They were gifted a scrum by a Chiefs knock-on close to the left-hand touchline on the 22m line. From clean ball Smith took it from the back of the scrum and held it just long enough to hold the inside defence before firing a left-to-right bullet to Faddes. The pass was so precise that it took Chiefs No.12 Anton Lienert-Brown out of the game – Matt Toomua will have to communicate well with Kuridrani – and gave Faddes a chance to attack the outside shoulder of Chiefs No.13 Seta Tamanivalu. It was an area the Highlanders probed again and again.
In the 27th minute Fekitoa fired a flat pass to Highlanders No.7 James Lentjes, who ran into a hole created when Tamanivalu rushed up on Faddes. And in the 37th minute, again from a set-piece move on the left-hand side, Sopoaga fired it to Faddes who got just wide enough of Tamanivalu to pop a lovely short ball to Ben Smith, who went charging past Tamanivalu’s outside.
Earlier in the season, in round 12, Faddes scored two tries against the Crusaders down essentially the same channel. Kuridrani is going to have to make some excellent decisions, and then get his tackle technique right when he does.
In round 10 in Invercargill in April, the Brumbies pushed the Highlanders right to the limit with a possession-based game, but a missed Kuridrani tackle – again as the Highlanders attacked that area outside No.13 with a flat Aaron Smith pass – proved crucial as Fekitoa raced away and set up a Ben Smith try.
This is a crucial period for Kuridrani. As with the openside berth, the Wallabies have no shortage of potential outside-centres and the most interesting challenge for Wallabies coach Michael Cheika is where he finds spots for Kuridrani, Israel Folau, Dane Haylett-Petty and Samu Kerevi in his 23.
Kuridrani has nothing to prove in terms of being a pure ball carrier – the Brumbies will likely see the smaller Faddes as something of a target from first phase – but where Kuridrani can really prove his worth is defensively. If he can get his timing and reads right against Smith, Faddes and the multiple threats that the Highlanders will offer, he’ll deserve that Wallabies No.13 jersey for Bledisloe I on August 20.