Welcome to the second edition of The Tip-On!
If you want to see Crusaders fullback Will Jordan’s best Ben Smith impression, you can find it here.
No way out
One of the most fundamental changes Warren Gatland made to the Chiefs’ gameplan in the early part of 2020 was the adoption of a more kick-heavy approach inside their own half, with the team happily ceding possession to their opponents in exchange for field position.
However, this approach has not been sustained since the resumption of rugby in New Zealand: across their 2 Super Rugby Aotearoa fixtures to date, they have made 59.0% of all carries per ESPNScrum (compared to 45.4% in the suspended Super Rugby competition earlier this year) and kicked only once every 5.6 carries (compared to 5.1).
This discontinuity was particularly apparent in a sodden Hamilton on Saturday, when they hosted a Blues side which had also shown signs of trying to develop more tactical balance.
The Auckland franchise’s decision to partner Beauden Barrett and Otere Black in the starting lineup has given them a pair of excellent tactical kickers in their backline in both their games so far: Black manipulated the Hurricanes’ backfield masterfully with his boot in Round 1, while Barrett’s steady start to his Blues career continued on Saturday in a measured performance from fullback.
Along with Sam Nock, Black’s partner in the halves, Black and Barrett were content to return the ball early and often to the Chiefs - their team kicked in open play once every 2.8 carries, compared to the home side’s mark of 4.5 - and in difficult conditions this strategy was rewarded. As the chart below illustrates, Gatland’s team repeatedly gave the ball away in dangerous parts of the field while attempting to attack the Blues on the ground:
It is not that the Blues were more accurate or incisive in the way that they kicked - only 19.2% of their kicks in play found grass before being regathered by the other team, compared to 40.0% of the Chiefs’ - but they had a consistent strategy which they repeatedly executed. Ben Smith of RugbyPass noted this week that the Blues have been content “to drive long kicks downfield”, and his observation is supported by data from FOX Sports: so far in Super Rugby Aotearoa, their average kick distance of 31.8m (with a mark of 33.0m against the Chiefs) is comfortably the highest among the 5 franchises.
Playing good rugby is often an iterative process, and Barrett and Black did a better job than Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie of recognising that last weekend. As Gatland himself noted, “[i]t was one of those days in terms of just keeping a cool head and being comfortable playing a bit of territory and waiting for [your] opportunities”.
His development off the field was a point of emphasis for both All Blacks head coach Ian Foster and Blues CEO Andrew Hore in their comments on his new contract, and Tuipulotu’s apparent progress in this area since his nadir in 2017 - being dropped from the Blues for being late to a training session - has certainly been striking.
On the field, he has always been a high-impact player, but felt that a change he made to his preparation in the build-up to last year’s World Cup - in conjunction with All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen and nutritionist Kat Darry - allowed him to sustain his output for longer periods at test level. In Tuipulotu’s own words, “it all came to fruition” in New Zealand’s 36-0 win over Australia at Eden Park in August: he put in an excellent performance, with a couple of bits of strong defensive work to the fore.
He appears to have been able to carry this over into Super Rugby so far in 2020. His work on the ball remains strong - averaging 1.9m per carry (compared to 1.6m for the average Kiwi starting lock) and beating a defender once every 4.8 carries (average: 14.6) - and he has been able to combine this with powerful work in the tackle and at the attacking breakdown, despite playing more minutes than ever:
While he has turned the ball over at a high rate in attack in 2020 (once every 6.8 touches, compared to the average Kiwi lock’s rate of once every 14.6), his discipline has improved significantly relative to prior years: he has conceded a penalty once every 147.8 minutes this season, compared to once every 74.7 minutes in 2018 and 85.7 minutes in 2019.
As the Blues look to challenge the Crusaders at the top of Super Rugby Aotearoa, a revitalised Tuipulotu will likely remain a prominent figure in coming weeks.
The concept of ‘mega-franchises’ across professional sports codes in New Zealand was under discussion this week, after the contents of a number of Sport NZ consultation papers were publicised by Stuff. The idea was floated by the chief executive of Netball NZ, Jennie Wyllie, as a way of “getting scale and efficiency” through saving on back-office costs that are currently duplicated by different teams in the same small domestic markets.
While such discussions remain hypothetical, New Zealand Rugby faces a related dilemma - on a smaller scale - as it builds towards the 2021 women’s Rugby World Cup. One of the organisation’s official objectives for the 2020 calendar year was expressed in its Annual Report as follows:
While their prioritisation of the women’s game has been disrupted by COVID-19, Chief Executive Mark Robinson has since committed that the union will continue to invest in it in order to “build the competitions and the heroes that will attract real interest and backing”.
What form such a competition would take still appears to be open to question. An option - which may appeal to administrators as cost-efficient in a similar way to ‘mega-franchises’ - would be for each of the 5 existing Super Rugby franchises to launch a women’s team alongside their current men’s sides; this plan would also have the advantage of drawing on existing identities held and felt among followers of the men’s professional game. (This is the approach that has been taken in Australian cricket, with the men’s BBL and WBBL contested by the same 8 teams.)
But caution would be needed were this path to be chosen. While World Rugby’s ‘gender-neutral’ rebrand of the men’s and women’s World Cups was well-intentioned, Caroline Criado Perez’s research into the gender data gap and the concept of the ‘default male’ indicates that positive gendering of both men and women in such scenarios is the better option in order to establish a true sense of equity; concepts left ungendered are regularly simply assumed to be masculine. There is a consequent risk that there would not be the requisite distance between the top women’s and men’s teams in the eyes of fans for the women to establish their own distinct identities, with mentions of ‘Blues’, ‘Chiefs’ or ‘Hurricanes’ continuing to be interpreted solely as references to the men’s clubs.
The WBBL have attempted to circumvent this problem in recent years by playing their games in a standalone window, without any overlap with the men’s BBL. (Sadly, COVID-19 may put an end to this calendar structure in order to save on media production costs.) However, given the emotional connection which elite women’s teams have proven they can engender despite consistent marketing and coverage deficits, NZR could opt to be bold and avoid such issues by establishing professional domestic women’s clubs as new standalone entities.
As they build up to a defence of their world title on home soil next year, such an opportunity would be no less than the players themselves deserve.
The EXPAND magazine - published by the New Zealand Rugby Players Association, and available to download here - contains a number of interesting bits of advice to and information for New Zealanders intending to go overseas to play professionally.
Particularly revealing of the perceptions held by Kiwi players of other nations is the 'Tips for playing in other countries’ section. Emigrants are warned of the “frustrating” style of rugby played in France and the “long bus trips” endured by teams in the UK; in Ireland, it is noted that “[t]he collisions in the game are big” and that players should be wary of “putting on too much bulk” because “[t]here area lot more gym sessions” than Kiwis are used to.
In this context, it is interesting to reflect on some comments made by James Lowe about his arrival at Leinster in an interview with Liam Napier for the NZ Herald earlier this year:
“It felt like an army camp with how everything was so rigid. Coming from the Chiefs, which is also a very serious and competitive environment, everyone was so intense about their rugby which freaked me out a little bit.
"Their schoolboy rugby would definitely challenge New Zealand. Watching 16, 17, 18-year-olds playing the structure that I wouldn't have learnt until I played for Tasman… it's crazy the depth of detail they've created here."
Despite the steady flow of rugby IP from New Zealand to Europe, the experiences of players like Lowe and Joe Marchant - along with the NZRPA’s advice - serve as a reminder that there still appear to be significant differences between the day-to-day learning environments experienced by Kiwi professionals and those of their northern counterparts.
Pass of the week
Zarn Sullivan is a baller.
The fly-half followed his older brother Bailyn from Napier Boys’ High to King’s College in Auckland for his final years of schooling, and - having made the New Zealand Secondary Schools squad in 2018 - was due to be in a shootout with Chiefs prospect Rivez Reihana for the Baby Blacks’ 10 shirt this year until COVID-19 intervened.
Regardless of whether any international age-grade rugby gets played in 2020, the Hawke’s Bay native will have made considerable strides in his nascent professional career. Having remained in Auckland after leaving school, he was one of the promising players awarded an Interim Training Contract with the Blues for this season - a scheme on which Hoskins Sotutu, among others, took his first steps with the franchise - and made an appearance for Leon MacDonald’s team in preseason against his sibling.
For the time being he’ll be playing club rugby in the city for College Rifles, and in last week’s 59-6 win over East Tamaki his exceptional passing ability was on display. From a scrum platform on the right-hand side of the field inside his opponents’ 22m line, he took the ball at first receiver and ripped a double-miss flat across the face of 3 East Tamaki defenders to his fullback Joe Collins:
You can watch the play in full here.
Sullivan featured alongside Chief Tumua Manu and last year’s NZSS centre Meihana Grindlay in the Rifles midfield on Saturday, as a number of the country’s club competitions kicked off. Elsewhere in Auckland, Paul Roache - who had a couple of seasons with the Canberra Raiders in the NRL after making the NZ Schools team in 2016 - started in the centre for Ponsonby and contracted Black Fern Patricia Maliepo - who starred as a 16-year-old in the Auckland Storm backline during last year’s Farah Palmer Cup - was at 10 for Marist. A swathe of Black Ferns Sevens players have also been released to club rugby with an eye to featuring in a star-studded FPC later in the year; Northland fans should be particularly excited at the prospect of adding Tyla Nathan-Wong and Portia Woodman to a side that significantly outperformed expectations in 2019 under head coach Cheryl Smith.
Super Rugby coaches continue to strike largely pragmatic and positive notes as they discuss how the breakdown is being refereed in the media. While referees across the competition are still searching for consistency, Leon MacDonald was clear that the Blues “see the upside of the laws and what they're trying to achieve” and are willing to adapt in order to help the game get there:
“We've got things wrong, the ref probably got a couple wrong as well, and that's where we've got to be really open and honest around the review and look to get a product that we want to play and people want to watch. That's what we're all searching for."
His former Crusaders teammate - and current Highlanders assistant - Mark Hammett was similarly clear on the importance of the post-match review process:
Welshman Mark Jones, now at the Crusaders, also echoed MacDonald and Hammett in his comments:
In a week where All Blacks Patrick Tuipulotu and TJ Perenara respectively spoke in Samoan and Te reo Māori on live television at the conclusion of their teams’ fixtures, Rieko Ioane mentioned to RNZ the importance to players of Māori and Pasifika representation in professional coaching set-ups:
"A lot of the Island boys in the Blues would look to someone like Tana [Umaga], who has been around and is someone who understands them and they're culture and is someone who they're comfortable with."
Umaga - whose parents are Samoan - is joined in the Blues coaching team by Ben Afeaki and Daniel Halangahu, who both have Tongan family; head coach MacDonald has also played for the New Zealand Māori. He shares that honour with Chiefs assistants Roger Randle and David Hill, whose colleague Tabai Matson has caps for Fiji to his name. At the Highlanders, Tony Brown and Riki Flutey have both appeared for the Māori, while the Hurricanes have Carlos Spencer - who appeared against the British & Irish Lions for the team in 2005 - and Cory Jane on their staff.
If you have even a passing interest in sports analytics, you should be sure to read as much by former NBA front-office executive Ben Falk as you can. He published a list of books influential on his thinking this week, and has articles on a wide range of topics available here.
Finally, read Three Red Kings founder Tom Savage - who also wrote a laudably honest piece about lockdown, rugby and his own mental wellbeing this week - on the impact that World Rugby’s new approach to refereeing the breakdown could have on conventional phase-attack shapes.