Best seat in the house
Super Rugby Trans-Tasman: Round 2
Welcome to this week’s edition of The Tip-On!
If you want to listen to Lauren Jenner — who made her officiating debut at Super Rugby level in Auckland last Saturday, and will be running touch again at Eden Park this coming weekend — talk about how she got into refereeing, you can catch an interview she gave in 2018 here.
All in-game data per ESPNScrum unless otherwise stated.
Jumping to conclusions
With its teams suffering 10 losses by an average margin of 20.2 points over the opening 2 rounds of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, Australian men’s rugby has quickly lost some of its sheen.
However, journalists on both sides of the ditch have been quick to assert that — despite the way things have gone for Australia in their first exposure to the Kiwis in 2021 — these results do not necessarily spell doom for the Wallabies in the Bledisloe Cup later this year.
Christy Doran of Fox Sports wrote that — given some of the impressive Aussie talent on display — “the 0-10 record doesn’t paint the entire picture”. In New Zealand, Ben Smith of RugbyPass also noted the “genuine quality available to the Wallabies”, and that “little should be read into the grim scoreline between the two clubs when projecting how things will play out later this year”.
And, based on analysis of games between the nations’ Super Rugby representatives and men’s test matches, it looks as if the assumptions of Doran and Smith are more or less borne out by the data:
Over the last 9 years, Kiwi teams winning by more points at Super level hasn’t necessarily been followed by the All Blacks dominating the Wallabies; there have been seasons in which the gulf at franchise level has been wide, but margins at test level much narrower (e.g. 2017), and vice versa (e.g. 2013).
Nonetheless, there is one obvious caveat looking ahead to the Rugby Championship later this year: over this period, the Wallabies have never outscored the All Blacks across the entire Bledisloe Cup series. (In fact, the best average margin they have posted is the -7.0 points per game Michael Cheika’s team managed in 2017.)
The outcome of an individual test match can be affected considerably by unpredictable events: think of the Perth test in 2019, when a tight 13-12 contest at 39 minutes became a 47-26 blowout after Scott Barrett’s red card. These annual series of between 2 and 4 games are still small samples, but over longer periods of play this noise begins to get eliminated and we can more accurately assess the relative strengths of teams when they are on an equal footing.
On the one hand, it’s certainly true that Kiwi dominance at this stage of the season is no guarantee of Bledisloe success —
Uini Atonio (3), Victor Vito (8), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (9), Ihaia West (10) vs. Charlie Faumuina (3), Jerome Kaino (8), Pita Ahki (12), Iosefa Tekori (19)
Amy Cokayne (2) vs. Sammy Wong (9)
Sam Vaka (21) vs. Ben Tameifuna (3), Ben Botica (21)
Ben Botica (21) vs. -
Beauden Barrett (10), Joe Latta (19) vs. Hadleigh Parkes (12), Craig Millar (17)
Taking a lead from Chelsea Alley’s admirable honesty on social media after the inaugural Women’s Super Rugby match in New Zealand earlier this month, Zoë George of Stuff has produced some excellent reporting on the issue of fatigue among elite athletes. This is something that affects athletes in both men’s and women’s sports, but as George highlights there are a number of factors that affect women more acutely; for instance, according to Dr Sarah Beable, “[f]emale athletes very frequently underestimate their energy requirements to meet the demands of their increasingly active lives”. This is something that Alley herself has learned the hard way:
“It wasn't until later that I got more confident in myself and learnt about fuelling myself properly that I could combat it. But it saddens me to see girls not enjoying their food or having the smallest plate...because they want to be in the best position to be selected. They think that is getting their skin folds down, or getting weight down to a position where someone else is. In fact, actually fuelling yourself to be able to put the best performance out on the field is the most important thing.”
After the announcement of the 2021 Rugby Championship schedule last week, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster spoke to the media at length and provided some updates on the status of a number of established test players who are currently out with injury. He noted that Ardie Savea was set to return to action imminently, and sure enough the loose forward will come off the bench for the Hurricanes on Friday; his back-row partner Sam Cane is still expected to be out until “early to mid-September” according to Foster. Jack Goodhue and Joe Moody are both currently rehabbing in Christchurch, with the loosehead prop on a similar schedule to Cane; Goodhue, however, likely won’t be sighted on the field until the start of 2022 at the earliest.
With New Zealand Rugby appearing to handle much of the early administration relating to Moana Pasifika’s slated entry into Super Rugby in 2022, there have been concerns that the franchise would end up acting as a vehicle for the careers of Kiwi players with Samoan and Tongan heritage — rather than providing opportunities to natives of those islands themselves. Bearing that in mind, Paul Cully’s reporting for Stuff this week was welcome news:
“Stuff also understands that connections have now been formed between Moana Pasifika and the respective coaches of Tonga and Samoa – Toutai Kefu and Seilala Mapusua – so there is alignment on player recruitment. These discussions are designed to make sure there is an agreed pathway for players from the franchise to the test arena, which is a key requirement for World Rugby, which is offering funding to both Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua.”
Cully also reported today that the Japanese Top League — which will transition to a fully professional competition in 2022 — is keen to arrange a crossover tournament against the Antipodean Super Rugby franchises in the near future, with chairman Osamu Ota stating through an interpreter that “for sure the discussions are under way” between the JRFU, NZR and Rugby Australia. However, RA’s own chair Hamish McLennan later said that these talks are “not advanced” — so such a competition likely remains a significant way off for the time being.
On the Silver Lake front, NZR and the NZRPA are resuming talks over the proposed investment deal in Wellington tomorrow, according to reporting for the NZ Herald by Liam Napier; Napier notes that “the Players' Association plans to present further details of the Forsyth Barr proposal” to list on NZX at the meeting. In addition, another group with an alternative proposal has also come forward in the last couple of days per RNZ: led by former NZR chief executive David Moffett, they have set out “a co-operative ownership model” that would allow the union to retain more control — but there is no indication that this is being seriously considered by current chief Mark Robinson as yet.
As we might have expected, the Kiwi teams’ dominance of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman so far has been based in large part around their control of the running game: teams from New Zealand have made an average of 539.8m with ball in hand across the first 2 rounds, compared to the Australian teams’ average of 387.2m. The Blues have been especially dominant by this metric, making 649.5m per game on average against the Rebels and Waratahs and conceding only 345.0m. Interestingly, while a number of the sides from New Zealand have played with more width in this tournament than in Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Auckland franchise have gone the other way: after making 1.31 passes per carry in their domestic competition, they have averaged only 1.25 in international action.
The Chiefs’ control of the running game has been less complete, making 53.7% of all metres gained with ball in hand themselves against the Force and the Brumbies. However, they have still been able to unstick their attack somewhat; after averaging only 2.1 tries per game in Super Rugby Aotearoa, they have managed 9 in total through their first 2 games in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman. One of the major drivers of this may be their improved offloading rate: they are up to 9.4% against Australian opposition, after posting a mark of 7.7% against their Kiwi rivals.
One team that has clearly focused on moving the ball quickly away from breakdowns to exploit space across the field is the Crusaders. After completing 1.39 passes for every carry in Super Rugby Aotearoa, they have averaged 1.67 passes per carry in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman — the highest figure in the competition so far.
The Highlanders are the only Kiwi franchise to have made fewer running metres than their Australian opponents so far in the current competition, averaging 375.0m made in attack and conceding 385.5m in defence. But this sort of ball progression arguably matters less to them than any other team: of the 10 tries they have scored against the Reds and Force, 5 have come on first phase directly from a set piece — with another 2 coming on the second phase after a scrum or lineout.
They might have finished Super Rugby Aotearoa propping up the ladder, but the Hurricanes have been fun and interesting to watch all year. In trans-Tasman play, they have had no qualms about throwing the ball around: they have kicked the least frequently (once every 7.0 carries) of any Kiwi team, and made clean breaks more than anyone — on 18.0% of their carries, or once every 5.5 times they run the ball.