Building partnerships

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Round 9

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

If you want to watch Hurricanes fly-half (and former New Zealand U19 cricketer) Ruben Love have a net against his girlfriend, White Ferns and Brisbane Heat all-rounder Amelia Kerr, you can watch some clips — as well as hear the pair discussing their experiences in elite sport so far — here.

All in-game data per ESPNScrum unless otherwise stated.

Lower the stakes

A competition in which each team plays only 8 regular-season games is fodder for audience overreaction.

A short sequence of matches decided by small margins on the scoreboard — or impacted by factors outside of a team’s control — can lead to the assumption of disparities much vaster than those that are likely to exist in reality.

The 2020 Chiefs, going winless despite being only 3 points worse per 80 minutes than the thrice-victorious Highlanders in Super Rugby Aotearoa are one good example of this; the 2021 Chiefs, winning 5 games on the bounce by a combined margin of 15 points while being outscored by 15 tries to 13, are another.

It’s the Hurricanes who have fallen the furthest in the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings from last year to this — going 1W-0D-6L so far, after a 5-0-3 record in 2020 — but the majority of 2021’s hysteria has been reserved for Leon MacDonald’s Blues.

The Auckland franchise have certainly had less impressive results than last season at the same point. They are 3-0-4 in 2021 with an average points difference per 80 minutes of -0.1, after going 5-0-2 (+3.9) in their 7 Super Rugby Aotearoa fixtures last year:

However, whether the degree to which their fortunes have changed really warrants the criticism that’s been aimed their way in the last few days is another matter.

Sportswriters across New Zealand have relished the opportunity to ease back into their familiar mode of doubting the character and mentality of the Blues players: it is clear, apparently, that they “couldn’t handle a bit of expectation and pressure” and are “practically as wretched as ever”, “clueless” and “frantic and panicky”. All in all, theirs “was a campaign defined by stupidity” — and “[f]ailure is now in their DNA”.

(According to another established writer, MacDonald also needs to solve “the riddle of the Ioane brothers” — 2 All Blacks who, to be clear, have been among the best in the competition in their respective positions all season.)

Bluntly, projecting mental deficiency onto individuals you watch doing their jobs from a hundred yards away is just not a good look. It shows little awareness of the limitations of hypothesising based on nothing more than distant observation of body language and inferences according to past prejudices, and little sympathy for the fact that those players are human beings whose worth is not dictated or limited by those jobs.

Sport is a technical and tactical problem-solving exercise that can be hugely fun to play and entertaining to watch, but we should never forget that it doesn’t actually matter — nor that players’ performances never tell us much about their personal qualities beyond the way they behave in artificially and arbitrarily structured environments.

It goes without saying that the Blues, their players and their coaches aren’t exempt from criticism. There are many interesting aspects of how they have been approaching the game on the field that are worthy of detailed examination and inquiry from journalists — and, obviously, off-field issues involving teams and players deserve scrutiny (in a reasonable and proportionate manner).

At minimum, however, there should be an acceptance by all involved in professional sport that they are engaging with something that is, if they are honest with ourselves, “shallow and frivolous”— and that players should be able to do their jobs without being subjected to this sort of unpleasant commentary because they drop a pass or miss a tackle.

Foreign fields

Last weekend, there were 101 Kiwis playing in top-level competition overseas:

Ireland vs. Italy

Sene Naoupu (12) vs. -

England vs. France

Amy Cokayne (16) vs. -

Bristol vs. Exeter

Chris Vui (5), Steven Luatua (6), Jake Heenan (8), Charles Piutau (15), John Afoa (18), Alapati Leiua (23) vs. -

London Irish vs. Harlequins

Blair Cowan (7) vs. -

Gloucester vs. Newcastle

Willi Heinz (21) vs. Rodney Ah You (18)

Leicester vs. Northampton

- vs. Matt Proctor (14), Ahsee Tuala (22)

Wasps vs. Bath

Brad Shields (8), Malakai Fekitoa (13), Jeff Toomaga-Allen (18) vs. -

Ulster vs. Connacht

Sean Reidy (7) vs. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (18), Abraham Papali'i (20)

Edinburgh vs. Zebre

- vs. Potu Leavasa (6)

Benetton vs. Glasgow

Toa Halafihi (8), Jayden Hayward (15) vs. Nick Grigg (13), Cole Forbes (15)

Ospreys vs. Cardiff

Ethan Roots (6), Jordan Lay (17) vs. -

Leinster vs. Munster

James Lowe (11), Michael Bent (18) vs. -

Dragons vs. Scarlets

- vs. Blade Thomson (6), Johnny McNicholl (15)

Lyon vs. Clermont Auvergne

Charlie Ngatai (12), Toby Arnold (15), Alex Tulou (19) vs. Fritz Lee (8), Tim Nanai-Williams (10), George Moala (13)

Stade Français vs. Pau

Telusa Veainu (11) vs. Siegfried Fisiihoi (1), Daniel Ramsay (19)

Toulouse vs. Racing 92

Charlie Faumuina (3), Iosefa Tekori (5) vs. -

Force vs. Reds

Jeremy Thrush (4), Toni Pulu (14), Richard Kahui (22) vs. Taniela Tupou (3), Hunter Paisami (13)

Waratahs vs. Rebels

Sam Caird (20), Charlie Gamble (21) vs. Stacey Ili (13)

Toshiba Brave Lupus vs. Ricoh Black Rams

Matt Todd (7), Jack Stratton (10), Johnny Fa'auli (12), Seta Tamanivalu (13) vs. Jacob Skeen (4), Michael Broadhurst (6), Elliot Dixon (8), Keagan Faria (11), Matt McGahan (15), Daymon Leasuasu (19), Ben Funnell (20)

Kubota Spears vs. Yamaha Jubilo

Sione Vatuvei (8), Ryan Crotty (23) vs. Uwe Helu (5)

Suntory Sungoliath vs. NEC Green Rockets

Beauden Barrett (10) vs. Maretino Nemani (22)

Mitsubishi Sagamihara DynaBoars vs. Kobe Kobelco Steelers

Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (7), Jackson Hemopo (8), James Wilson (10), Michael Little (12), Nicholas Ealey (21) vs. Brodie Retallick (5), Tom Franklin (6), Aaron Cruden (10), Richard Buckman (12), Tim Lafaele (13), Fraser Anderson (14), Brodi McCurran (19), Ben Smith (23)

NTT Communications Shining Arcs vs. Canon Eagles

Jimmy Tupou (4), Sekonaia Pole (16) vs. -

Honda Heat vs. NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes

Shaun Treeby (12), Matt Duffie (15) vs. TJ Perenara (9), Tom Marshall (15)

Kintetsu Liners vs. Panasonic Wild Knights

Sanaila Waqa (5), Jed Brown (7), Patrick Stehlin-Grevel (12), Semisi Masirewa (15), Ieremia Mataena (20) vs. Hadleigh Parkes (12), Craig Millar (17)

Toyota Verblitz vs. Hino Red Dolphins

Michael Allardice (5), Kieran Read (8), Jamie Henry (11), Male Sa'u (12), Charlie Lawrence (13), Rob Thompson (23) vs. Liaki Moli (4), Ash Parker (6), Nili Latu (7), Augustine Pulu (9)

Correction: last week’s edition of the newsletter initially omitted Sanaila Waqa — the Fijian-born Kintetsu Liners lock who finished his education at Hastings BHS, represented the Hurricanes U20s and played NPC rugby for Hawke’s Bay — from the ‘Foreign Fields’ section. An amended version can be found here.

Loose threads

In case you missed it on Twitter this week

  • A nice moment for Chiefs hooker Nathan Harris on his return from a long-term injury

  • Rieko Ioane demonstrating how his acceleration can add value off the ball in the midfield

Quick hits