Off the mark
Super Rugby Trans-Tasman: Round 5
Welcome to this week’s edition of The Tip-On!
If you want to remind yourself of how things were at the start of Leon MacDonald’s tenure with the Blues, you can watch highlights of his first win as head coach — a match against the Sunwolves back in March 2019, in which Rieko Ioane scored 4 tries — here.
All in-game data per ESPNScrum unless otherwise stated.
This week’s newsletter is the 43rd edition of The Tip-On since it launched last June, following the opening round of Super Rugby Aotearoa 2020. It’s also going to be the last in its current format.
The level of interest that people have shown in this project has been heartening — there are now over 200 of you receiving an email in your inbox every Wednesday, including a not insignificant number of people working in professional rugby in some capacity — but unfortunately work commitments mean that continuing to cover Kiwi rugby in this much depth and breadth won’t be feasible for the foreseeable future.
The Tip-On won’t be disappearing, though.
After a few months away, it will return to your inboxes near the end of the season in New Zealand to launch a new series: Franchise in Focus.
The concept is pretty simple: take one of the Super Rugby franchises and follow them through an entire year of competition — from offseason signings through to a postseason debrief — breaking down on-field trends and off-field issues in detail in regular emails.
For the first season of this new series, I’m going to be focusing on the Blues.
There are a number of reasons for this choice. For starters, their men’s team’s on-field performances — after a long period in the doldrums — are clearly improving:
The way that they have gone about this improvement is also interesting: at their most effective over the last couple of years, they have built their game around a proactive kicking game, an overpoweringly physical defence and an attack that alternates between brutal efficiency and moments of breathtaking ambition and skill.
2022 will also see a women’s Super Rugby competition take place in New Zealand for the first time ever, and a number of the young starlets who turned out for the franchise in their inaugural fixture in May will be looking to use the tournament to vault themselves into contention for a spot in the Black Ferns’ World Cup squad.
Off the field, the consistently toxic way in which local media outlets continue to cover the Auckland franchise makes for plenty of interesting discussion too — while the arrival of Moana Pasifika in South Auckland will in all likelihood put more pressure on a talent-development pathway already stretched by the continued attention paid to 1A schoolboy rugby by NRL scouts.
Many of the most interesting questions surrounding elite rugby in New Zealand therefore converge in its largest city, and I’m looking forward to analysing them in depth through the prism of the Blues — starting with a breakdown of how the men’s team’s squad is shaping up for 2022 at the end of the NPC in a few months’ time.
- vs. Rodney Ah You (18)
Brad Shields (7), Malakai Fekitoa (13), Jeff Toomaga-Allen (18), Jimmy Gopperth (22) vs. -
Potu Leavasa (7) vs. -
Michael Bent (3), Jamison Gibson-Park (9) vs. -
Blade Thomson (6) vs. Angus Williams (3), Simon Berghan (18)
Dominic Bird (5) vs. -
Ben Lam (11), Ben Tameifuna (23) vs. Fritz Lee (8), George Moala (12), Tim Nanai-Williams (13)
Henry Speight (11), Francis Saili (12), Gavin Stark (14) vs. Joe Ravouvou (14), Mat Luamanu (19)
Sky announced this week that they will be broadcasting every game in the 2021 Farah Palmer Cup live. This will mark a positive change from previous years, when following the competition involved keeping track of which non-televised matches were being streamed on social media by provincial unions themselves. New Zealand Rugby’s Head of Women’s Rugby Cate Sexton is pleased by the news:
“With the increasing profile of both international and national competitions, we have seen tremendous growth in the fan-base, support and involvement from women in rugby at all levels. There is a real interest in playing, getting involved in and watching the game, it’s great to see. The resource for women’s rugby has also grown significantly over the years, having the support of SKY as a partner is fantastic.”
The Maori All Blacks — who will once more be coached by Clayton McMillan — have named a talent-packed squad for their 2-game series against Manu Samoa in July. Ollie Norris and Josh Dickson are the uncapped players named, with 2020 newcomers Tamaiti Williams, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Billy Proctor, Quinn Tupaea and Kaleb Trask also retained. However, this series could be it for the team this season: Stuff have reported that it’s “unlikely [they] will play any overseas games at the end of the year”.
Meanwhile, 2 of the All Blacks’ 2021 opponents have also named their first test squads of the season. Fiji will bring established internationals like Nemani Nadolo, Levani Botia, Leone Nakarawa and Peceli Yato to New Zealand for their July tests, alongside current Crusader Manasa Mataele and talented younger players like Luke Tagi, Timo Mayanavanua and Vilimoni Botitu. Australia announced their 38-player squad for their own series against France on Sunday, with a majority of players drawn from the Reds (9) and Brumbies (12). In discussions with the media after the announcement, Dave Rennie was also realistic about what Super Rugby Trans-Tasman had revealed about the depth of players available to the 2 competing nations:
A number of former New Zealand internationals are going through a process of switching their international eligibility, with Malakai Fekitoa and Tima Fainga'anuku set to turn out for Tonga in an upcoming Olympic Sevens qualifying tournament. Reporting by RNZ indicates that Charles Piutau — while not available for this tournament — remains keen on a switch, and that Augustine Pulu is also interested. The management of multiple competing identities by modern professional athletes is something that goes far beyond rugby too, with Miguel Delaney of The Independent writing an excellent piece last week about the number of “multinational” footballers competing at Euro 2020:
“How keenly any nationality is felt will obviously differ from family to family and individual to individual, while being dependent on all manner of factors. Some people feel grateful to adopted countries, some resent them. Some parents are very concerned with ensuring their children are aware of their national cultures, others are much more liberal about it.
“When players naturally struggle to make an emotional decision between two or more countries they feel deep allegiance to, they will naturally base their decision on logic. They will pick the country that gives them the best chance of playing in an international tournament.”
The British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa is undoubtedly the centrepiece of rugby’s July schedule, and Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster has provided an invaluable breakdown of how he would approach playing the Springboks to Off the Ball. (Ben Smith’s recent piece for The XV on how to attack against Jacques Nienaber’s set-piece defence is also a useful companion to this podcast.)
It’s coming up to that time of year when a number of established Super Rugby players announce that they are heading offshore, and rumours are already starting to swirl: Stuff has reported that Blues second five TJ Faiane — only 25 years old — is “likely to shift to the Top League in Japan”. The departure of lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti from the franchise has also been trailed for a number of weeks.
At the Chiefs, it’s scrum-half Brad Weber who is facing questions about his future. He spoke to Liam Napier about his contractual situation for the NZ Herald:
"I'm at a real crossroads in my career. Ideally, I'd love to stay in New Zealand. I love it here; I love the Chiefs. I would love to put myself in the mix for another World Cup, but I've also got to think about life after rugby and what that looks like. I've just turned 30. I still feel great; I feel I've got plenty of years left in me but I know one day it's all going to end. I'm trying to work with my agent and get the numbers right. Hopefully New Zealand Rugby see the value as well and we can come to an agreement to stick around but if a really good offer overseas comes along, I'll have to seriously consider it."
In a piece for ESPN, Napier also reported some of Weber’s detailed thoughts on the acceptance of difference within professional rugby, after the All Black was widely praised for comments he made in a recent post-match interview:
"We've still got a long way to go with acceptance. Having pride month is really cool - it's great to see everyone express themselves but it goes deeper than that [—] there needs to be a change in our language. Particularly when I was growing up gay derogatory terms were so common and I was just as bad. It's hard to get change but if you start with the language then stuff starts becoming a bit more accepted. If you're using those terms so broadly and easily it's the people that are struggling with their sexuality that it pushes further and further down rather than making them feel welcome to come out, especially in elite sport. I'd love for people to feel comfortable enough to be themselves in elite sport.”
Like Faiane, Crusaders flanker Tom Sanders appears set to move to Japan while still in the prime of his career according to reporting by Stuff. The addition of Pablo Matera will certainly compensate for that loss on the field — although the signing raises some off-field questions — while Liam Allen (who debuted against the Waratahs in Sydney a couple of weeks ago) could be next in line for a full contract in the back row.
Further south, the Highlanders may lose number 8 Teariki Ben-Nicholas to Europe: multiple French outlets have reported that he is being chased by Castres to replace new Wallaby Rob Leota, who has apparently pulled out of his deal with the Top 14 side after getting an international call-up from Dave Rennie.
Finally, Hurricanes head coach Jason Holland is hopeful that both of their unsigned stars — Ardie Savea and Jordie Barrett — will remain with the team in 2022 and beyond:
“I’m pretty optimistic. You might have read this week, Ards is one that definitely likes to leave things till [the end of the season], get the footy out of the way and then start those conversations, but she’s looking pretty positive with Jordie, we’ve had some positive chats and I’m pretty confident there.”