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Battle of young halfbacks heats up Dunedin


By Max Bania

Published: 8:51AM Monday May 14, 2012 Source: ONE Sport

What New Zealand rugby wouldn't give for a few more fit, in-form first fives and openside flankers - and on the other side of the ledger, perhaps a few less halfbacks.

The three positions will provide serious selection headaches come Test-time, though for very different reasons. So burgeoning are the number nine stocks that players deserving of higher honours will have to wait their turn - for now.

Into that category goes livewire Hurricanes rookie TJ Perenara, who at 20 is too wet behind the ears and today missed out on selection in the All Blacks 35-ma training squad.

His Highlanders counterpart Aaron Smith was a shoo-in, though there was enough evidence at Forsyth Barr stadium on Saturday night to suggest the pair will amass plenty of caps between them over the coming decade.

The most intriguing of the many subplots in this all-New Zealand derby - played in the frenzied atmosphere we've already come to inspect at the indoor stadium - was the battle between the young halfbacks.

Perhaps nerves got the better of Perenara early as he overcooked a clearing kick, but he was quickly into his work as the Canes backline showed the greater fluency in the opening stages.

Smith was quickly into his work, delivering the crisp, accurate passes that made him the form player of the competition's first month. Only in the flesh are his remarkable clearing skills fully appreciated - delivering quality ball from the base of the ruck with a deft sweep of the arms.

Not that Smith is any less impressive with ball in hand. Picking his moments superbly, he sent Adam Thomson in under the posts in the first half with an impressive sleight of hand that left the Canes defence standing still.

Ultimately, though, it's the promising young Wellingtonian who had the last laugh.

Perenara played the full 80 minutes and held his nerve to the end, even as the Highlanders desperately searched for the winning score. Smith was subbed with ten to go, and could only watch on as replacement Jimmy Cowan committed two crucial kicking errors in two minutes.

The first drifted out on the full from an attacking scrum; the second went straight down Cory Jane's throat when Cowan had acres of space to aim for, ultimately leading to Julian Savea's winning try.

The Highlanders' season is taking on a worringly-similar look to their 2011 campaign where they lost their last six games to tumble down the table.

After winning their first four this year, they've won just three of their past seven to sit seventh on the ladder, one point above the Canes - who more importantly are hitting form at the right time of the season.

The southerners have the squad depth and quality to avert a losing streak of last year's proportions, but it will have to happen against the raging Bulls this weekend.

Touchline transgressions

Scarcely a week goes by without a so-called "assistant referee" needlessly interfering with play by drawing the referee's attention to some miniscule off-the-ball infringement; often something that occurred in clear view of the referee anyway.

Usually it's to punish a late or illegal tackle that the attacking player has invariably milked, knowing all he has to do is go to ground for an overzealous touch judge to indignantly wave his flag.

So imagine the irony when Jason Eaton's feet touched the chalk in the lead-up to a crucial Hurricanes try and - incredibly - the linesman failed to see it.

Then a day later came the farcical scenario of Reds fullback Luke Morahan escaping a yellow-card he otherwise would have received for a marginal tip tackle on the Chiefs' Sonny Bill Williams, because the accusing linesman failed to pick up his jersey number.

In an era of constant and often unfair scrutiny on referees, how is it that touch judges' errors of judgement are almost always glossed over? And why wasn't the TMO used?

To borrow a phrase that's persisted since Roman times - who will assist the assistants?