Blue blood

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Round 3

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Tip-On!

If you want to watch some clips of the fathers of second-generation Blues Hoskins Sotutu and Caleb Clarke - who sadly lost his grandfather just hours before kick-off last Saturday - you can find them here and here. If you want to see some schoolboy highlights of another who may be joining them on the field soon - Niko Jones, son of former Blue and All Black Sir Michael - you can find them here.

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Tall and talented

While New Zealand having an enviable level of depth in the outside backs is not a recent phenomenon, the opening rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa have renewed attention on the wealth of options the All Blacks have in this area - and placed some new names firmly in contention for selection.

One of the many interesting things about the team’s selection process last year was that head coach Steve Hansen eventually settled on a relatively homogeneous backline. Outside Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith in the halves, 4 of the 5 starters for their knockout games at the World Cup in Japan stood between 185 and 187cm tall and weighed between 91 and 100kg.

This was a clear departure from the selectors’ strategy during their successful runs in the 2 previous tournaments:

All 5 starters are excellent players in isolation, but in combination their general physical similarity meant that the team’s backline could not offer a range of different attacking threats; if skill and speed were rendered less effective by opposition defences, they did not possess a power option in their starting lineup to which they could turn - nor a true aerial force. The All Blacks’ new selection panel - with Ian Foster and Grant Fox joined by assistant coach John Plumtree - will consequently need to focus on diversification at this end of their lineup if they want to field a more rounded and balanced side whenever international rugby resumes.

Competition for places is arguably strongest at fullback, with each of the contenders for the 15 shirt offering different technical strengths: the all-round ability of the incumbent Beauden Barrett will be pushed by his brother Jordie’s strength under the high ball and capability as a second playmaker, Damian McKenzie’s excellent footwork and mazy running and the offloading threat of David Havili, who pops up in dangerous channels all over the field.

All the while, the uncapped Will Jordan looms in Christchurch as a sure-fire future international: he is probably the best gap runner of the lot, with supreme awareness and top-end acceleration, and showed in the rain against the Chiefs last weekend that his 188cm frame can stand up to stern aerial examination in the backfield. Alternatively, Jordan could begin his international career on the wing, where he has featured on multiple occasions for the Crusaders in combination with Havili; in that position, he would offer ‘small-winger’ skills - speed, footwork and an eye for space - matching those of his competitors in a more robust physical package.

On the ‘big-wing’ side, the continued development of Caleb Clarke and Leicester Fainga’anuku - who weighs in at 109kg - gives Foster 2 more viable options with the required combination of skill and size to play at the top level. (Clarke’s ability moving forward in the air - which he has honed during his time with the All Blacks Sevens team - has been on clear display in Super Rugby Aotearoa.) Rieko Ioane’s excellent form both at centre and on the wing so far this year likely means that he is the current frontrunner for the 11 jersey, but his improving defensive capability at 13 means that he shouldn’t be ruled out as a first-choice option in that position.

Besides Ioane, there are plenty of other options from outside last year’s World Cup squad who could add something different to the team’s midfield. Few can match the outside break of Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue’s centre partner at the Crusaders, while his acceleration and top-end speed also allow him to excel as an edge defender. In terms of narrow carrying threats, Ngani Laumape and his developing all-round game will be pushed by the powerful, skilful Chief Quinn Tupaea, who has been bumping off tacklers for fun in Super Rugby Aotearoa. (He has beaten a defender once every 2.0 carries so far in 2020, compared to an average rate of once every 3.5 carries for all starting Kiwi midfielders.)

How best to harness such an array of diverse talent is the question which the selectors now face. Given the cohesion issues from which the team suffered last year as it attempted to hastily bed down a first-choice backline, relying on combinations already forged at domestic level as a basis and mixing in their other elite talents around them - while being mindful of variety and diversity - is probably the best place for Foster to start.

How about Crusaders Goodhue, Ennor and Jordan at 12, 13 and 14 - in combination with their club teammate Richie Mo’unga at first-five - with Ioane on the left flank and Beauden at fullback? McKenzie and Jordie in 22 and 23 to come off the bench late? Few test coaches wouldn’t wish for such a selection conundrum.

Double hits

After the Crusaders and Chiefs had battled in the Christchurch rain for 40 minutes on Sunday, the home team’s assistant coach Scott Hansen was particularly happy with one aspect of his side’s defensive approach.

In a half-time interview with Sky Sport, he noted that they had been “getting two in the collision, which is giving [them] the opportunity to get a bit of line speed and force [the Chiefs] back in”. As England’s swarming defence has repeatedly demonstrated at test level, getting multiple defenders into the tackle is an effective way of stopping attacking momentum dead and slowing ball.

It is therefore unsurprising that an organisation which has been committed to learning from teams all over the world under the leadership of Scott Robertson has taken this focus and adapted it as part of their own game: across the 52 games which have been played in Super Rugby and Super Rugby Aotearoa so far in 2020, their rate of 1.19 completed tackles for every carry made by an opponent (per ESPNScrum) is comfortably the highest among the competitions’ 15 teams.

Crossing the Ditch

2018 and 2019 New Zealand Secondary Schools representative Tiaan Tauakipulu became the latest promising front row forward to move across the Tasman early in his professional career when he signed terms with the Waratahs late last year.

Tauakipulu has family connections in Australia - his brother Keynan represented the 2019 Australian Schools and U18s - and after finishing his education late last year had the rather unusual honour of being named in the U20 development squads of both countries for 2020. Waratahs head coach Rob Penney has now granted the prop an opportunity to make his top-level debut off the bench when Super Rugby AU kicks off tomorrow.

In doing so he will follow in the footsteps of Sekope Kepu - who went to Wesley College in South Auckland, and played age-grade rugby for New Zealand, before moving to Australia - and Taniela Tupou, the Tongan who now represents the Reds after ending his school career on a scholarship at Sacred Heart College.

The relative proximity of the two nations - and their open borders to each other's citizens - means that migration between them is extremely common; unsurprisingly, given the economic disparity between the countries, many more Kiwis move across to live in Australia than vice versa. There were approximately 75,000 Australian nationals resident in New Zealand according to its 2018 census, while the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that at the same point in time there were around 570,000 people who were born in New Zealand living in the country.

This demographic trend was borne out in the Wallabies’ World Cup squad last year: Kepu and Tupou’s front-row colleague Jordan Uelese was born in Wellington, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Christian Leali’ifano were both born in Auckland, Matt To'omua’s mother is a Kiwi and James O’Connor - whose father was born in Rotorua - also spent part of his childhood in the country.

While the number of people moving in the opposite direction isn’t as significant, Australian-born players have been a near constant in the history of the All Blacks; the 1940s and 1950s are the only decades in which one hasn’t been given a debut.

Baby steps

Black Ferns back row Les Elder returned to training last week a month after giving birth to a baby daughter, and the Bay of Plenty player is planning to reassume her position as captain of the national side and lead them to their home World Cup next year.

However, in a Newsroom piece by Rikki Swannell, it was noted that Elder had to “[come] off contract” with New Zealand Rugby from January 2020 as a consequence of her pregnancy. While she has a full-time job as a Rugby Development Officer with her home union in addition to playing for the Ferns, this is one key contractual component NZR will need to focus on as they transition their top women’s players in the 15-a-side game from “part-time, fixed term employment” to a professionalised set-up.

Under the 2019 Memorandum of Understanding with the national union, a Black Fern who becomes pregnant is required to notify NZR no later than the end of their first trimester. They are then entitled to an immediate lump-sum payment equal to 2 months of their annual retainer at maximum - for context, such a retainer can be as low as NZ$12,500 p.a. - before being placed on “leave without pay” for the remainder of their contract term. (The ‘Pregnancy’ clause in the Black Ferns Sevens MoU - whose players are in “full-time” employment - appears to be in substance identical.)

While Elder is in a privileged position as captain and is likely to have her contract renewed, other players less integral to the team may not have been so fortunate. As the contracting environment for the women’s game develops, following the lead of Cricket Australia - which offers all players 12 months’ paid maternity leave and a guaranteed contract extension after pregnancy - should be a minimum requirement to ensure that individuals are not forced to choose between their livelihood and their family.

Pass of the week

Before his team’s Round 3 clash against the Blues at Eden Park, Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger commented on the fact that their upcoming opponents were “a big side across the grass” as he explained his desire to deploy Scott Gregory’s physical presence in the team’s starting lineup. While Gregory had a “tough night” by his own coach’s admission, Mauger’s side were able to use the their opponents’ size against them when they looked to attack with ball in hand.

When Sky Sport went to Highlanders outside back Michael Collins - running water for the team on Saturday - for comment during the second half of the tight clash, he was clear on where his team needed to focus: even in wet conditions, he said, it was important for the visitors to persist with their “wide-to-wide” attack. Movement of the ball from one side to the other in multiphase attack sequences is a particularly useful weapon against heavier defences, whose tight forwards are forced to shuttle across the pitch and expend valuable energy.

Mitchell Hunt’s try early in the second half - which narrowed the Blues’ lead to 7 points - was the best example of the team being rewarded for using this strategy.

After regathering a loose ball in the left-hand 15m channel, the Highlanders - faced with a defensive line resetting after a turnover - play all the way to the right 5m line on the second phase of the possession; they do so via a deft transfer from hooker Ash Dixon to his fly-half out the back, before the ball is moved on to Gregory and inside centre Sio Tomkinson. At the ensuing ruck, blindside flanker Shannon Frizell wastes no time in stepping into scrum-half to feed loosehead prop Ayden Johnstone, who finds Hunt trailing his outside shoulder.

The Highlanders 10 has Marino Mikaele-Tu’u outside him in midfield, and the loose forward uses his footwork and fend to break the line; from the ground, he finds lock Pari Pari Parkinson on his left with a pass, who gallops beyond the 22m line before tossing a one-handed offload of his own to Dillon Hunt.

Hunt goes to ground and sets up a breakdown around 20m from the left touchline. Meanwhile, the Highlanders have created the picture they wanted to see: after watching the ball move from left to right and back again in the space of 2 phases, the Blues have 2 locks and 2 props in midfield facing a wave of Highlanders forwards - with Mitch Hunt again hovering just off-stage.

Smith’s lateral movement from the ruck does enough to interest Blues loosehead Alex Hodgman in the run of Dixon and separate him from the defender on his outside (second row Gerard Cowley-Tuioti). The All Black then hits his half-back partner between the eyes with a laser of a pass which splits Dixon and his front-row colleague Johnstone:

Hunt spots the lane that’s opened up on Cowley-Tuioti’s inside shoulder and - abetted by Frizell’s presence after running a blocking line - gleefully takes the space.

Quick hits