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.
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.
- vs. Elia Elia (2)
- vs. John Afoa (3), Chris Vui (5), Steven Luatua (6), Nathan Hughes (8), Siale Piutau (12), Alapati Leiua (23)
Rodney Ah You (18) vs. -
Blair Cowan (7), Terrence Hepetema (12), Motu Matu'u (16) vs. Brad Shields (6), Jeff Toomaga-Allen (18), Jimmy Gopperth (22)
Matt Proctor (13) vs. -
Dominic Robertson-McCoy (3), Bundee Aki (13) vs. Ethan Roots (8), Ma'afu Fia (18)
Aki Seiuli (1), Cole Forbes (11), Nick Grigg (13) vs. Michael Bent (3)
Simon Berghan (18) vs. Matt Faddes (14), Alby Mathewson (21)
Willis Halaholo (13), Rey Lee-Lo (23) vs. -
Fritz Lee (8), George Moala (13), Tim Nanai-Williams (21) vs. Uini Atonio (3), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (9)
Charlie Ngatai (12), Toby Arnold (14) vs. Jordan Puletua (13)
Michael Ruru (9) vs. Telusa Veainu (11)
Siegfried Fisiihoi (1), Luke Whitelock (8), Jale Vatubua (12), Daniel Ramsay (19) vs. -
Ben Tameifuna (23) vs. Pita Ahki (12), Jerome Kaino (18), Charlie Faumuina (23)
Dominic Bird (5) vs. -
Paula Ngauamo (16), Maama Vaipulu (20) vs. Isaia Toeava (13), Tane Takulua (22)
The availability of accurate performance data is an issue that affects basically every women’s sport — and rugby is no different. It’s therefore great news that Scrum Queens have taken their repository of results from the last few decades of women’s test rugby and created an interactive, searchable dashboard on top of it. As the site’s founder Ali Donnelly said:
“The absence of data and facts about test games and results has made telling the story of women’s rugby a huge challenge over the years, and the launch of our dashboard will shed much needed light on so much of our game’s incredible history…Women’s rugby has a proud history, and this is one more step in getting that known.”
You can find out more about their new tool here.
The Fijian Drua franchise — granted a conditional licence for next year’s Super Rugby competition — are yet to officially announce any signings for 2022, but Fiji Rugby general manager Simon Raiwalui made clear in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last week that they will have a domestic-first focus in their recruitment:
“We’re definitely going to have a strong local influence. That’s part of our project. We want to keep our best talent on the islands. We have players in our Academy, the Sevens squad, that will be targeted within Fiji and will try to integrate certain players from overseas, but we will definitely have a big influence from local players as well. What the Drua are going to give us is that opportunity to say, ‘OK we have this option’. It will be an opportunity to live on the islands, stay with family and play professional rugby. It’s a huge step forward for Fijian rugby if we can get that unconditional licence.”
The Drua demonstrated their viability for a Super Rugby licence partly through their performances over a number of seasons in Australia’s National Rugby Championship. That competition was intended to serve as a third tier of men’s professional rugby below international and Super levels, akin to the National Provincial Championship — but it has now been abolished. Ben Darwin and Gain Line Analytics have been highlighting the boost to team cohesion that the NPC provides New Zealand with at those higher tiers all throughout Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, and former Tasman CEO Tony Lewis — now leading the Western Force in Perth — certainly agrees:
“All the New Zealand teams have the benefit that everyone has come through the NPC. In Australia, for most players, coaches, and staff, their first experience of professional rugby is Super Rugby. The NPC is a massive boost for New Zealand rugby, you would be crazy to tinker with it – it's a staggering breeding ground of success.”
The level below the NPC attracted significant media attention in New Zealand this week, with Heartland province Ngati Porou East Coast celebrating their centenary. All Black Nehe Milner-Skudder has roots in the region, and was released by the Highlanders to play in a fixture against Poverty Bay that clearly meant a lot to him and his family. The NPEC side was also coached by former test player Hosea Gear; you can watch a Sky Sport feature on the centenary celebrations — and the match, in which Milner-Shudder scored a tidy try — here.
A major international tournament in another code starts later this week, with Euro 2020 finally kicking off — 12 months late — on Friday. Soccer is obviously a much higher variance sport than rugby, but the advice of excellent writer Ryan O’Hanlon ahead of this competition is still worth bearing in mind the next time test rugby returns to our screens:
“[I[nternational soccer, in particular, adds in a number of other confounding factors. Whoever wins the Euros this summer will only play seven games, four of which will be single-elimination. All it takes is one bad day -- of play or luck or both -- for a top team to be eliminated…There’s just way less information about each team’s level of performance, and then there’s a question of how useful that information actually is. National teams are playing uneven schedules, their rosters of players are changing for every set of matches, and they’re not always trying to optimize their chances of winning each match.”
In a piece touting David Havili and Anton Lienert-Brown as the All Blacks’ likely starters in the midfield next month, Liam Napier of the NZ Herald had this to say about Blues centre Rieko Ioane:
“This season for the Blues he's made plenty of metres but his decision-making and instinctive ability to create and feed his outsides hasn't dramatically improved, leaving the same conundrum of where he should feature for the All Blacks.”
Is this assertion supported by data? Looking at his try-involvement numbers, it’s true that not much has changed since last year. Across all Super Rugby in 2020, in 889 minutes played he provided 5 scoring passes to teammates and 1 penultimate pass in a scoring sequence for a rate of 0.5 primary and secondary try assists per 80 minutes; in 928 minutes in 2021, he has contributed 5 and 2 respectively for a rate of 0.6 per 80. It’s true that this is only a slight uptick in performance, but it’s worth emphasising that he still blows his competitors for the black 13 jersey out of the water by this metric overall: his average of 0.6 primary and secondary assists per 80 across the last 2 seasons is much higher than Lienert-Brown’s (0.2) and Braydon Ennor’s (0.3). The discussion around Rieko’s rugby continues to be one with more of a basis in perception than reality.
Napier also namechecks the Chiefs’ Quinn Tupaea in that piece, with the Hamilton BHS product in the frame more as a consequence of his powerful ball-running that of his distribution. He was typically dangerous on the carry against the Rebels in his first start in a couple of months — beating 6 defenders and making 2 clean breaks on 16 carries — but Clayton McMillan will have been pleased to see him take on more passing responsibility at second five. Having never completed more than 7 passes in a Super Rugby game, he made 12 at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday — including an assist for his midfield partner Lienert-Brown’s first try with a slick take and give.
Crusaders loosehead Tamaiti Williams is another young player whose raw strength and power in the collisions is seriously impressive. This has been noticeable in both his own carrying (he has made 35 metres on his 11 carries this season) and his work supporting others — for example, his latch onto Sione Havili Talitui last Friday to send the flanker over the try line for a 5-pointer. While he has already played for the Maori All Blacks — who will likely have their own end-of-year schedule — the high-potential 20-year-old is the sort of player who would likely benefit from inclusion in the All Blacks XV squad for their inaugural tour of the Northern Hemisphere at the end of the season.
You can put Ethan de Groot of the Highlanders in that category too. The prop burrowed over from close range for his first 2 Super Rugby tries against the Waratahs — with the angle he picked for his second particularly Moody-esque — and contributed a dominant clean-out on low-slung openside Carlo Tizzano in the build-up to another. His discipline continues to be problematic, however: at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday, he conceded another 3 penalties by himself in only 59 minutes played.
The Hurricanes aren’t short of tight forwards to do attacking work around the fringes of the ruck, but they have certainly missed the physical presence of TJ Perenara at scrum-half. Where Perenara carried once for every 8.7 passes he completed at Super Rugby level in 2020, between them Luke Campbell and Jonathan Taumateine have done so on average only once every 20.9 passes in 2021. However, in 6 lively and impressive periods off the bench this season, Cam Roigard has provided a welcome tonic in this area: the 6-foot-tall halfback has completed 84 passes and 17 carries in his rookie campaign (equivalent to a carry every 4.9 passes), providing 4 offloads, beating 3 defenders and making 2 clean breaks in the process. And Jason Holland has taken notice: he’s been rewarded with his first start at 9 against the Reds this Friday.