It’s inevitable some players will freeze on the biggest stage. By the end of the Super Rugby final between the Waikato Chiefs and the ACT Brumbies, we won’t be talking about 30 standout performers but a handful of individuals who shaped the game.
We’ve picked out three players who must step up in the final to give their side the best shot of glory and, unsurprisingly, two of them are kickers.
Aaron Cruden, Chiefs
Kicker No. 1 is Cruden, who was shoved into the position of responsibility when Gareth Anscombe broke his foot. Although Anscombe returned to the setup in the semi-final against the Crusaders, Cruden retained kicking duties and must be prepared to fulfill the role again on Saturday.
He cut a shaky figure in the Chiefs' final league match against the Blues where he missed all four conversions despite little pressure on him to make the kicks. There’s a lot more to Cruden’s game—he's enjoyed a fantastic season and is one the game's most creative players who could open any defence with his quick hands—but if he’s asked to kick, that’s what he’ll be ultimately judged on.
A much tighter contest against the Brumbies is expected and Cruden must handle the pressure from an expectant home crowd coveting back-to-back Super Rugby titles in the knowledge that the Brumbies boast one of the game’s best kickers.
Christian Lealiifano, Brumbies
That brings us nicely onto Cruden’s kicking adversary, Lealiifano. The Australian has eclipsed the 200-point mark in this year’s tournament and is one match away from writing himself into Brumbies folklore.
His consistency propelled the Brumbies to victory during the regular season and was rewarded with his debut in the first Test between Australian and the British and Irish Lions. Although it came to a premature end after a minute, he starred in the second Test by kicking the winning penalty late on and could cap a remarkable year by leading his side to Super Rugby glory.
And just to add an extra bit of spice to proceedings, Lealiifano enters the clash intent on stealing the trophy from a side he once played for.
Henry Speight, Brumbies
It’s all very well boasting a good kicker, but if you don’t present him with any opportunities to smash one between the posts, then they’re redundant. That’s where Speight comes in.
The Brumbies' top try scorer also returns to his former side and if the visitors are going to upset the odds, they’re going to need a big performance from the winger.
His eight tries helped carry his side into the knockout phase and he will be the first to capitalise on any early Chiefs nerves. The stage is set for Speight to stake a claim for a regular position in the Australian setup by creating a try out of nothing at the Waikato Stadium.