Party at Bryn Gatland's

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Round 1

Welcome to the first edition of The Tip-On!

If you missed out on last week’s previews of each of the 5 Kiwi sides competing in Super Rugby Aotearoa, you can find them here.

If you want to peruse Highlanders fly-half Bryn Gatland’s back catalogue of clutch, game-winning drop goals, you can find videos here and here.

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As the first games of professional rugby played after World Rugby’s release of new breakdown law implementation guidelines, last weekend’s opening round of Super Rugby Aotearoa saw a lot of attention paid to activity at the ruck area - by referees and observers alike.

With a total of 58 penalties whistled by Paul Williams and Mike Fraser across 160 minutes of action - 29 per game, compared to an average of 18.4 in Kiwi Super Rugby derbies since 2012 (per ESPNScrum) - there is no denying that the officials took on a more prominent role than usual in the narratives of both matches:

A number of these infringements were accompanied by a new point of emphasis which was clearly communicated by the referees (Williams in particular): the concept of a “clear lift” by a defender on his feet over the ball, reinforcing World Rugby’s insistence that the jackalling player is “[l]ikely to be rewarded more quickly” if he has entered legally and attempts to remove the ball from the breakdown to continue play. (Dalton Papalii commented this week on the positive impact this subtle change in emphasis should have on players: rather than trying to “milk…penalties” over the ball, poachers are now incentivised to “[try] and steal it for counterattack”.)

The potential for a long-term shift in the balance of power between attack and defence at the ruck was seen most plainly at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday, where the Chiefs and Highlanders combined for 20 ruck turnovers in total; this ruck turnover rate of 13.5% is more than double the average rate observed in Kiwi Super Rugby derbies over the last 8 years.

Warren Gatland was quick to note that this new approach may have unintended consequences: there is a risk, in his estimation, that attacking sides will respond to the increased probability of having ball turned over by kicking away more possession in their own half.

However, it is important to note that - per Charlie Morgan’s excellent piece for The Telegraph - Mike Fraser’s approach in Auckland on Sunday led to a decidedly different outcome: 13 of 21 tackle-area penalties were awarded to the team with the ball, compared to only 3 of 19 by Williams at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

This disparity exemplifies the way in which the coming months will be a learning process for referees as well as players, as World Rugby and its constituent governing bodies assess and refine the specifics on which their officials will place emphasis. As Ross Tucker - a science and research consultant for World Rugby - explained with an apt analogy over the weekend, the implementation period for such remedial action is always going to be messy:

Nonetheless, the clear internal focus of the players who featured in the new domestic competition’s inaugural match will certainly give hope to those who envisage a cleaner, more fluid game as a consequence of teams internalising these new standards with time.

Body first, ball last

Paul Williams’ refereeing of Saturday’s game also brought to viewers’ attention one of World Rugby’s other focus areas at the breakdown.

The allowance of only “one dynamic movement” to the ball-carrier after being tackled was clear on a couple of occasions:

Joe Schmidt popularised the concept of ‘Body/Ball’ during his time coaching in Ireland - players being coached to “contort, rotate, swivel” after the tackle is completed, but before they place the ball - and Steve Hansen’s All Blacks placed a lot of emphasis on this part of the game early in the last World Cup cycle.

These sort of exaggerated movements seem likely to become a thing of the past - although there will still be a place for the release-and-go-again carries at which Leinster’s Kiwi winger James Lowe excels.

Colour theory

The Chiefs took on the Highlanders in their limited edition ‘Women in Rugby’ jersey, and the shirts of the 23 squad members will be signed and auctioned off to raise money for the rugby teams of 23 girls’ schools in the region.

While the material benefit that many young girls across the franchise’s constituent provinces will receive from the initiative is ultimately laudable - and it’s a nice bit of stash - the project could certainly have been better executed.

In particular, the selection of colours - a combination of pink and black - has drawn some criticism. Subject-matter experts Rugby Shirt Watch called it a “tediously obvious” choice, and it certainly exemplifies the “contradictory messaging, which sets out with the aim of overcoming gender stereotypes before falling for them hook, line and sinker,” which often accompanies such inclusivity projects.

The stereotypes reinforced by the decision to “[commemorate] wahine [sic] of all levels who play and support rugby” with those particular colours could have been addressed head-on, for instance, rather than that design choice being mentioned briefly alongside a tenuous connection to the Chiefs’ current training jerseys.

Moreover, one of those wāhine currently representing New Zealand at an international level (there are 11 players from the Chiefs region in the Black Ferns squad for 2020) could have been used - rather than former international and current Chiefs physio Teresa Te Tamaki - as a more recognisable front for the campaign; at the very least, Te Tamaki (or any other woman) should have been quoted about the initiative in their press release.

All things considered, the way the franchise put this initiative into practice reinforces the need for fundamental examination of and challenge to long-standing patriarchal systems and standards - in addition to an actor’s good intentions - in order to truly progress in redressing structural gender iniquities. (It is worth noting that the chair of the Chiefs board is Tonia Cawood, although she is the only woman among its 6 members.)

The Chiefs have certainly had their own baggage to deal with in this area in the recent past, and the experience of current Waikato first five-eighth Renee Holmes in New Zealand’s grassroots football scene provides further evidence of how deeply ingrained the problem remains in the country’s wider sporting culture.

Teams in glass houses

If all goes to plan, in 2024 the Crusaders will be moving into a new 25,000-seat covered stadium in the centre of Christchurch. With the country opening up again after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reduced the country’s COVID-19 alert level to Level 1, the city council last week publicised plans to encourage local businesses to tender for the project.

While the building of Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin - with which the Christchurch project’s concept plans share similarities, as the NZ Herald noted - was met with significant local opposition, it has had a generally positive impact on the standard and watchability of top-level rugby played in the city since it replaced Carisbrook as the Highlanders’ home.

Could this project have a similar impact on how the sport is played in Christchurch?

Pass of the week

Sunday’s Blues-Hurricanes game started at pace, with the ball in play for a number of long sequences, but it was Caleb Clarke’s score in the 12th minute which lit the fuse on a captivating 10-minute period in which a further two tries were dotted down.

After the Hurricanes exit from a lineout on the edge of their own 22 with a high kick from Jackson Garden-Bachop - too long to be truly contestable - the Blues snap into shape and sense an opportunity. From a ruck on the right-hand 15m line, scrum-half Sam Nock has a pod of 3 forwards holding the interior defence and his twin playmakers Otere Black and Beauden Barrett aligned behind them with depth - but it is what has happened outside Barrett which is crucial.

Rieko Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu, Caleb Clarke and Blake Gibson have all worked back behind their own 10m line - approximately 15m behind the ruck - while TJ Faiane is also holding width slightly ahead of Barrett (and calling for the ball) on the left touchline. Sensing that they are at a numerical disadvantage on their right edge, Hurricanes outside centre Vince Aso rushes up to pressure Barrett as the presumed second receiver; this leaves the 5 Blues players outside the All Black faced only with right wing Wes Goosen in the front line.

As Barrett keeps his run narrow to interest Aso, Black reads his former teammates’ intentions perfectly. His pump-fake ensures that Aso is beyond the ball and out of the game and forces Goosen - desperately trying to link with his backline partner and shut the door on the movement - to commit to a line towards Ioane’s starting position at pace. With Goosen now unable to adjust, he floats a beautifully weighted ball over Aso’s head into the gap between the two defenders and trusts Ioane to move forward and take that space:

Ioane obliges, fends and accelerates, before releasing Clarke who does the rest.

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