Super Rugby Trans-Tasman: Round 3
Welcome to this week’s edition of The Tip-On!
If you want to see Otago BHS first five Finn Hurley — last featured in this newsletter impressing for the Highlanders’ U18 team last year — scoring a delightful individual try in the Dunedin rain at the weekend, you can watch him chip over the King’s HS defence (off his weaker left foot) and regather to dot down here.
If you want to read my latest piece of analysis for The XV, you can find it — an examination of the 5 young players who have been identified by the Kiwi Super Rugby franchises as their potential long-term number 8s — here.
All in-game data per ESPNScrum unless otherwise stated.
One of the features of the third round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman was the ability of teams with a numerical advantage as a consequence of a yellow or red card to exploit those favourable circumstances.
In Townsville, the Reds held on to claim the first Australian win of the competition after making hay while Bailyn Sullivan and Damian McKenzie were off the field: they won those 28 minutes by a scoreline of 26-3, while the Chiefs had the better of the 52 minutes of the game played at even strength (14-31).
In Sunday’s rearranged fixture in Sydney, the Highlanders then exploited Jordan Uelese’s time in the sin bin incredibly effectively. During that 10-minute period, they scored 21 unanswered points; in the corresponding period that Billy Harmon spent on the sidelines, the Rebels managed only a single converted try themselves.
Both performances were in line with existing trends this season. Coming into this round of action, the Chiefs’ net margin during periods of the game when they were at a numerical disadvantage was the worst of any Kiwi side (-18 points in 30 minutes); conversely, the Highlanders — with a margin of +22 points in 56 minutes — had the best overall record up a player.
(Remarkably, the Highlanders have converted their advantage into a try every time their opponent has seen a player leave the field this year; the Chiefs’ struggles against the Reds, meanwhile, come a couple of weeks after they suffered a 3-14 deficit in the 24 minutes they played at a numerical disadvantage against the Force.)
Across the board this season, the risks associated with granting an opponent such an advantage — and the potential rewards of obtaining one yourselves — have been clear:
While the Highlanders and Chiefs do stick out for the reasons explained above, the chart also indicates that the Hurricanes have had an interesting season in this regard.
First of all, in 2021 they have played the fewest minutes with a numerical advantage of any Kiwi team — and the most with a disadvantage. For every 80 minutes they have spent on the field, 6.4 have been down a player and only 0.9 have been in numbers-up situations.
For the most part, however, they have adeptly managed those periods after a yellow card to one of their own players. Leaving aside the 10 minutes they spent without Ardie Savea in Round 2 of Super Rugby Aotearoa in Christchurch — a spell in which they conceded 21 unanswered points — they have outscored their opponents when they’ve been at a numerical deficit, with Jordie Barrett’s ability to kick penalties from distance off the tee coming in handy as a means of soaking up time on the clock and staying within touching distance on the scoreboard.
Additionally, it’s not clear from historical Super Rugby data that forcing opponents into conceding yellow cards is a repeatable skill that teams possess — and so they could be due a bit of luck in this area.
Jason Holland’s side still have their two most difficult Australian fixtures to come, but if they are able to continue hanging tough when things turn against them — and cross their fingers that the Reds and Brumbies misbehave — then their chances of making a trans-Tasman final should increase.
Whichever teams make it all the way to the competition decider, those moments following the referee going to his pocket will be crucial.
Willi Heinz (9) vs. Motu Matu'u (16), Terrence Hepetema (23)
- vs. Chris Vui (5), Nathan Hughes (8), Charles Piutau (15), Jake Heenan (20), Siale Piutau (23)
Matt Proctor (13) vs. Brad Shields (6), Jeff Toomaga-Allen (18), Jimmy Gopperth (22)
- vs. Rodney Ah You (3), John Hardie (7)
- vs. Amy Cokayne (2)
- vs. Willis Halaholo (13)
Toa Halafihi (8), Jayden Hayward (15) vs. Bundee Aki (13), Dominic Robertson-McCoy (18), Abraham Papali'i (20)
- vs. Aki Seiuli (1), Cole Forbes (11), Nick Grigg (13)
Telusa Veainu (11) vs. Toby Arnold (14), Charlie Ngatai (15)
Ma'a Nonu (12), Tane Takulua (22) vs. Ben Tameifuna (3), Ben Lam (11), Ben Botica (21)
- vs. Mat Luamanu (5), Michael Ruru (9)
Uini Atonio (3), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (9) vs. Siegfried Fisiihoi (1), Luke Whitelock (8), Jale Vatubua (12), Daniel Ramsay (19)
- vs. Paula Ngauamo (16), Maama Vaipulu (20)
Sam Vaka (13) vs. Dominic Bird (18)
Charlie Faumuina (3), Pita Ahki (12), Jerome Kaino (18) vs. Fritz Lee (8), Tim Nanai-Williams (10)
In case you missed it on Twitter this week
A sequence exemplifying the range of skills that Hoskins Sotutu brings to the 8 shirt for the Blues
The New Zealand Rugby board has a new chair after Stewart Mitchell’s election at a special general meeting, with Farah Palmer also appointed as deputy chair (a new position) to assist him. While Bailey Mackey (widely viewed as the more progressive candidate in the race) missed out this time around, there will be a vote to reappoint Mitchell next April — and, with his 9-year term on the board ending in 2023, the newcomer will only be able to fill the position for a maximum of 2 years. According to Liam Napier’s reporting for the NZ Herald, Palmer’s own term on the board is due to finish in 2024, meaning that she is unlikely to be Mitchell’s long-term successor; in contrast, Mackey — also an ‘Elected’ member rather than an ‘Appointed’ one — only began his stint at the 2020 NZR AGM.
There has been little in the way of firm news on Moana Pasifika’s recruitment plans for Super Rugby next year, but according to recent reports in the NZ Herald they could have a Wallaby centurion in their ranks. Sekope Kepu — who grew up in Auckland and represented New Zealand up to U21 level — has returned to the city of his childhood after a stint in Europe, and is expected to play for Counties Manukau in this year’s National Provincial Championship; then, “[d]epending how the provincial season goes, he could be back playing Super Rugby next year in Moana Pasifika's debut season”.
Cole Forbes is a Kiwi who has recently moved in the opposite direction to Kepu, and the former New Zealand U20 player’s form since joining Glasgow at the start of the year has earned him a call-up into the Scotland men’s national team for their summer campaign. (His eligibility is a result of his grandfather’s birth in Aberdeen.) The outside back’s selection continues a slight bias towards skill positions among the group of New Zealanders playing international rugby in Europe; of the 8 Kiwis to appear in the men’s Six Nations in 2021, 5 play their rugby in the backline.
James Marshall gets some excellent guests on his podcast (What a Lad), and All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree is the latest to speak to the former Hurricanes fullback. In a wide-ranging conversation, Plumtree provides an interesting overview of his experiences playing and coaching across the world, but also some insight into what he’s made of players who are in the mix for the test squad later this year. As well as namechecking Ethan Blackadder, the selector was positive about the development of Tupou Vaa'i in his second year of Super Rugby, impressed by the Chiefs’ stable of props and sure that 2019 All Black Luke Jacobson is “coming back into the frame” as a result of his excellent form in the 8 shirt.
Jacobson will be in competition with a number of other in-form players for a slot in New Zealand’s back row in July — including the man who finished 2020 as Ian Foster’s first-choice blindside. Akira Ioane had an interesting conversation with Liam Napier this week about the differences between the role he played at test level last year and how he is used by the Blues:
"When I'm with the Blues we have our own game plan which is different to the All Blacks. I'm not going to jeopardise myself in here to impress the All Blacks coaches. I'll do what's best for the team I'm playing for and that's the Blues at the moment so if it is stay wide then I'll stay wide and do my part but there's things I need to work on; I need to get off that wing a little bit more. I'm trying to find that balance. Some games I'm doing both; some games I'm doing more of one than the other. There's little things I can bring that the All Blacks coaches told me to work on when they need me to play that tight game, but if we're trying to play expansive rugby the Blues would rather have me out on the edge. I can't really argue with the coaches here because then I get dropped and don't play at all so it's about doing my part. It does suck that you can't impress both parties at the same time."
Ioane will start at 8 for the Blues this Friday at Suncorp, with Hoskins Sotutu set to come off the bench in Super Rugby for the first time since his debut in May 2019; head coach Leon MacDonald said today that Ioane “got the nod just because of his defensive physicality”. MacDonald also spoke recently about the importance of cohesion from a selection perspective:
"You normally see teams starting to dip after four matches so it's about making enough changes to keep us energised but not too many that we lose cohesion. At the moment we're playing with some good cohesion – the backs and forwards are complementing each other well so they're the big decisions we'll have to make. There's going to be some forced changes, and there might be a couple of others to make sure we bring some good energy."
Even with Ioane, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Mark Telea coming back into the side this weekend, the franchise have been more consistent in their line-ups over the last few weeks: they have averaged only 3.5 week-to-week changes to their starting 15 in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, after making 4.6 on average during Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021.
With Damian McKenzie banned for the rest of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, the Chiefs have an interesting selection decision facing them at fly-half. Moving Kaleb Trask into the front line and starting either Chase Tiatia or Shaun Stevenson at fullback would likely be the more positive choice from an attacking perspective; Trask and Bryn Gatland — the other player to have started a game at 10 in 2021 — have made the same number of carries so far this year (31), but Trask has made more clean breaks (5 to Gatland’s 3) and beaten considerably more defenders (11) than his rival (6). Trask also showed off his excellent passing range in the Chiefs’ second-half comeback in Townsville, touching the ball during the scoring phase for 3 of the team’s 5 tries.
ESPN’s Sam Bruce spoke to Bryn Hall for a recent feature on the Crusaders under Scott Robertson, with the scrum-half emphasising the simplicity of his role in the team’s attack inside an in-form Richie Mo'unga:
"The thing with Rich is that he does it consistently week in, week out, in big moments, and he's done it time and time again in our big finals games. He's a big-game player and he's massive for us. And I guess for me as a halfback it's really important that if I can get him that lightning quick ball and put him in great positions to be able to go and rove and run, like he did on the weekend and he has in the past, then my job is done. So it comes back to us and our forward pack to be able to get good go-forward ball for him and then his ability to play off our forward runners off pivot plays and block plays, it's world class.”
This is something that’s evident in the statistics too: the team’s starting 9s have passed the ball 25 times for every carry they’ve made in 2021, with considerable distance between them and the second-ranked Hurricanes (whose scrum-half makes a carry once every 17.8 passes).
Highlanders midfielder Scott Gregory is another player who is reaping the benefits of consistency of selection, with the Northland native having started the team’s last 6 games at 12. He has looked more comfortable at that position than in the outside backs, where he started 4 games in the 2020 edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa; he spoke with admirable honesty this week about dealing with a lot of public criticism following his debut against the Blues at Eden Park last year:
With Ruben Love returning to fitness after injury, the Hurricanes will soon face a similar dilemma to the Chiefs at first five. Orbyn Leger has been solid in the 10 shirt when called upon this season, but offered little in the way of a running threat himself: on 40 carries, he has made no clean breaks and beaten only 4 defenders. In contrast, Love has shown the electric footwork and acceleration that make him a long-term option in the outside backs, with a return of 8 defenders beaten and 2 clean breaks from only 18 carries.