Super Rugby Final: Head-to-heads

Date published: July 3 2015

Ahead of the 2015 Super Rugby Final, Planet Rugby has decided to select the key head-to-head battles set to take place in Wellington on Saturday.

Six positions caught the eye as we study wing, outside centre, fly-half, scrum-half, number eight and hooker. The list though could have gone on.

Here we go then…be sure to check our final total and video example at the foot of the article. Give us your match prediction in the comments section.

Super Rugby Final: Head-to-heads

Julian Savea v Waisake Naholo

A battle between the best winger in the world and his likely All Black team-mate, who just happens to be the top try-scorer in Super Rugby. Very raw when he first burst onto the scene, Savea has worked on his game and is a much more complete player for it. Still a constant menace with ball in hand, Savea has improved his kicking game and positional play and forms a deadly wing combination with Nehe Milner-Skudder.

Naholo's rise has been much more recent, going from Blues reject to Super Rugby star in the space of a season. As an out-and-out finisher, Savea is one of only two or three players who come close to Naholo, who has searing pace (see 2.04 on the video) and remarkable balance, allowing him to shake off tackles with ease. The problem for the future All Black is that he has further to go in his development, and still has rather major flaws to work on. A lack of a kicking game isn't disastrous on its own, but his defensive awareness is a worry, particularly up against someone like Savea.

Verdict: It seems wrong to pick against Naholo, but Savea remains the premier winger in the game today. Despite being the same age, Savea also represents the example Naholo should look to follow: someone who went from being a gamebreaking talent to a world class all-round wing.

Conrad Smith v Malakai Fekitoa

New Zealand's past and present takes on its future in midfield on Saturday, when Fekitoa lines up against Smith. While they play the same position and both can be world beaters, the similarities end there, with two vastly-contrasting playing styles.

Smith, playing his final game for the Hurricanes before a move to France, is rightly regarded as one of the smartest centres in the world game. Not blessed with the physical gifts of some of his contemporaries, Smith makes up for it with near-perfect decision-making, and has the added advantage this season of teaming up with Ma'a Nonu in midfield. Given how well the pair know each other, it's little surprise that Nonu has rediscovered his best form at Super Rugby level in years, with Smith playing a major role.

Fekitoa has been on the scene for a much shorter period, but he's made a huge impact over the last two seasons. One of the hardest men in the world to put down, Fekitoa would walk into Test team in the world outside New Zealand, but has instead had to bide his time. It would be wrong to stereotype Fekitoa as purely a ball-carrier, after all the ease with which he stepped up at international level last season showed he can be more than simply a physical presence.

Verdict: Two very contrasting styles with Smith providing the glue that holds together the 'Canes midfield, while Fekitoa is relied upon for those key line-breaks. In a big game though, you simply have to go with Smith. He has bags of experience, including 85 Test caps and more than a decade of international experience. That could be the difference when it comes to the decisive moments.

Beauden Barrett v Lima Sopoaga

Two All Black contenders go head-to-head but while they are almost exactly the same age, there is a huge gap in terms of experience. Barrett already has 28 caps to his name and has been part of the All Black set up for three years, whereas Sopoaga was included in the squad for the first time last month.

It was fitting reward for Sopoaga, who has enjoyed a fantastic Super Rugby campaign, combining his underrated playmaking ability with some invaluable goal-kicking. Of course it helps having Aaron Smith as his half-back partner, and the likes of Naholo and Ben Smith outside, but Sopoaga has taken a big step up this season.

Barrett has had a tougher time of it, mainly due to a knee injury he picked up at the start of May. Arguably the front runner to start for New Zealand at the time of that injury, he's not quite found his best form since, while his goal-kicking has also been a little sketchy this season. He remains a huge threat with ball in hand, and has a great passing game, but his kicking game has suffered.

Verdict: At their best it would be hard to argue against Barrett, who oozes class and is a devastating runner. The problem is Barrett hasn't shown quite enough in recent weeks to convince us he will produce that best. Sopoaga has been incredibly consistent this season and we think that he might just have the edge in this one on current form.

TJ Perenara v Aaron Smith

Hands down the two best number nines in Super Rugby this season, if not globally. Both have been outstanding right through the 2015 competition.

Perenara is something special and his year can be summed up by the assist for Blade Thomson against the Crusaders (2.27 in video). His hunger to get himself involved in the support play sets him apart from many and it's no coincidence he's scored a jaw-dropping eleven tries. Test quality.

Smith, while not scoring as many as his All Black team-mate, earns praise for his service and speed around the ruck area. He is also a leader in this team as players follow him. Back to his service though, he puts players into the holes they want to bust, which is a skill few have mastered.

Verdict: Such a tough call and one All Black boss Hansen must lick his lips over every time he names mulls over his XV. But, like Hansen we will stick with his go-to man as Smith gets the nod. When the going gets tough, he has lifted a pack snubbed by New Zealand to the Super Rugby final.

Victor Vito v Nasi Manu

The battle at number eight cannot be underplayed as Vito, returning to some of his best form, takes on the hugely under-rated Manu in Wellington.

Vito looks fit and firing which is great news for franchise and country coming into the international season. His physical testing numbers have always impressed the All Black coaches and all he needs is regular games in the yellow jersey, which he is getting right now and looking great.

Manu meanwhile has returned from a shoulder injury at just the right time as the skipper leads from the front to form a powerful spine at eight, nine and ten alongside Smith and Sopoaga. His leadership and experience, having made his Super Rugby debut at 19, is a plus for the Highlanders.

Verdict: The pressure and nerves involved with such a game will require calm heads and knowing when to slow the game down, which is where Manu might just have the edge here. Of course Vito is a special talent at the line-out and around the field but for such a game, we're picking Manu.

Dane Coles v Liam Coltman

New Zealand's starting hooker goes up against a player who may feel hard done by not to make it as at least the fourth number two in the squad preparing for the Rugby Championship and World Cup. Instead Steve Hansen went for Codie Taylor backing up Coles, Keven Mealamu and Hika Elliot.

Coles, as usual, has been excellent with ball in hand but there is concern over their 80.1 percent line-out success this season, so he will need to be firing on all cylinders in that department. He has certainly gone on in other areas though in 2015 and will be a threat around the field.

Coltman meanwhile has enjoyed an excellent campaign at the Dunedin outfit, firmly establishing himself as first-choice ahead of Ash Dixon. Their line-out success is 88.7 percent, which is third in the competition, while Coltman has also contributed considerably in open play. A fine player.

Verdict: As mentioned, both are real workhorses and confident with ball in hand and usually Coles would get the nod. But in knockout rugby, the set-piece needs to be spot on and it's for that reason that Coltman comes back into the frame. We can't split them so it is a tied result here.

Head-to-head total count: Hurricanes 2-3 Highlanders