Late bloomer

Super Rugby Trans-Tasman: Round 4

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

If you want to hear about the unconventional path into professional rugby taken by Liam Mitchell, you can watch a brief Sky Sport feature on the Hurricanes lock — who has one of the best sets of hands of any tight forward in New Zealand — here.

All in-game data per ESPNScrum unless otherwise stated.

Punching holes

With 20 games of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman now completed, we’ve got a decent chunk of evidence with which we can assess how New Zealand’s franchises stack up against their Australian counterparts.

The top line is that the Kiwis’ performances have significantly improved since they last played teams from across the ditch. In the 3-year period between 2018 and 2020 when Australia supplied 4 Super Rugby sides, the average trans-Tasman fixture saw a win for New Zealand by around 10 points; against 5 Australian teams in 2021, this average margin has almost doubled.

While there were only 7 matches between Aussie and Kiwi opponents in the abridged 2020 season, comparing the average outcome of these fixtures to those in this year’s competition is still revealing.

In 2021, the average number of points per game scored by Australian Super teams against sides from New Zealand (21.6) is consistent with the comparable figure for last year (21.0).

However, it’s been a bloodbath on the other side of the ball: the 5 Kiwi franchises are scoring 39.6 points per game in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman so far (up from 29.9) and dotting down 5.9 tries per game (up from 4.0).

(This doesn’t appear to be due to the de facto expansion from 4 to 5 Australian teams either: none of their 5 sides has conceded fewer than 4.3 tries per game, after a Super Rugby AU competition in which the Waratahs were the only team to concede more than 2.8.)

And things get even more interesting when you dig into how these tries have been scored by New Zealand’s teams this year.

Anecdotally, there’s been a fair amount of discussion about Australian teams coughing up cheap turnovers and gifting easy tries to their opponents in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, but the number of tries scored by Kiwi teams directly (i.e. on first phase) after a turnover or kick return has actually fallen year on year year.

This partially offsets the improved fortunes of the New Zealanders in phase play — but it is the step forward they have taken on first-phase attack from scrum and lineout that is most stark:

It’s worth stating these figures again for emphasis: after scoring a single first-phase scrum try and 3 first-phase lineout tries in 7 trans-Tasman Super Rugby fixtures last year, Kiwi teams have marked 10 scrum tries and 29 lineout tries in 20 games against Australian opposition so far in 2021.

It’s been a trend across the board too: no Kiwi team has scored fewer first-phase set-piece tries than the Blues (1.3 per game), and no Aussie team has conceded fewer than the Reds’ 1.5 per game.

A majority of these scores have been a direct consequence of set-piece dominance. 6 of those scrum tries have come either from pushovers or from a number 8 carrying directly from the base and scoring unassisted; 16 of those lineout tries have been dotted down by a player attached to or breaking from a maul.

But there’s been nice variety to their strike moves too: the Highlanders have continued to target space around the edges of the lineout with a number of intricately crafted plays, the Crusaders have used their attacking kicking game to good effect off the back of their maul and even the Chiefs — who struggled to generate returns from their set-piece attack early in the season — got in on the act last weekend with Quinn Tupaea restored to the 12 jersey.

Looking ahead, this gives All Blacks head coach Ian Foster plenty to be positive about heading into the 2021 international season.

In theory, building your attack around striking from set-piece platforms should be much more sustainable and repeatable for a top professional side than relying on opponents making mistakes and providing turnover ball — and it’s for this reason that Foster placed a clear and concerted emphasis on improving this part of their game in his first year in charge.

Based on the success the Kiwis have had in this area against Australian opposition, expect it to be a focus again when their test campaign kicks off in less than a month’s time.

Foreign fields

Last weekend, there were 51 Kiwis playing in top-level competition overseas:

Sale vs. Harlequins

- vs. Elia Elia (2)

Leicester vs. Bristol

- vs. John Afoa (3), Chris Vui (5), Steven Luatua (6), Nathan Hughes (8), Siale Piutau (12), Alapati Leiua (23)

Newcastle vs. Worcester

Rodney Ah You (18) vs. -

London Irish vs. Wasps

Blair Cowan (7), Terrence Hepetema (12), Motu Matu'u (16) vs. Brad Shields (6), Jeff Toomaga-Allen (18), Jimmy Gopperth (22)

Northampton vs. Exeter

Matt Proctor (13) vs. -

Connacht vs. Ospreys

Dominic Robertson-McCoy (3), Bundee Aki (13) vs. Ethan Roots (8), Ma'afu Fia (18)

Glasgow vs. Leinster

Aki Seiuli (1), Cole Forbes (11), Nick Grigg (13) vs. Michael Bent (3)

Edinburgh vs. Ulster

Simon Berghan (18) vs. Matt Faddes (14), Alby Mathewson (21)

Cardiff vs. Zebre

Willis Halaholo (13), Rey Lee-Lo (23) vs. -

Clermont Auvergne vs. La Rochelle

Fritz Lee (8), George Moala (13), Tim Nanai-Williams (21) vs. Uini Atonio (3), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (9)

Lyon vs. Agen

Charlie Ngatai (12), Toby Arnold (14) vs. Jordan Puletua (13)

Bayonne vs. Stade Français

Michael Ruru (9) vs. Telusa Veainu (11)

Pau vs. Montpellier

Siegfried Fisiihoi (1), Luke Whitelock (8), Jale Vatubua (12), Daniel Ramsay (19) vs. -

Bordeaux vs. Toulouse

Ben Tameifuna (23) vs. Pita Ahki (12), Jerome Kaino (18), Charlie Faumuina (23)

Racing 92 vs. Brive

Dominic Bird (5) vs. -

Castres vs. Toulon

Paula Ngauamo (16), Maama Vaipulu (20) vs. Isaia Toeava (13), Tane Takulua (22)

Quick hits