Turning the page
Super Rugby Trans-Tasman: Round 1
Welcome to this week’s edition of The Tip-On!
If you want to remember what Kieran Read — who bowed out of professional rugby for good last weekend after Toyota Verblitz’s defeat in the Top League semi-finals — was like when he first came on scene, you can watch him pick up a try during his rookie year with the Crusaders here.
All in-game data per ESPNScrum unless otherwise stated.
Up for grabs
In a piece for The XV last week previewing Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, I highlighted a number of differences between the recent Kiwi and Aussie competitions at player and position level.
One of the other distinctions between Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa was the rate at which ruck ball was turned over — and this is something which appears to have carried over into the opening round of the new competition.
The more open contest for possession at the breakdown in New Zealand affected all of its teams to a significant degree.
If you take the 10 Trans-Tasman franchises and rank them based on their ruck retention rates in the domestic-only portion of the 2021 season, 3 Australian sides — in order, the Force, Reds and Brumbies — are at the top. The Hurricanes fare best of their Kiwi counterparts in 4th, followed by the Highlanders (6th), Chiefs (7th), Blues (9th) and Crusaders (10th).
However, after the first round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, it looks reasonable to assume that this was more a consequence of the quality of the poachers on show in Super Rugby Aotearoa than of poor cleanout work.
Across last weekend’s slate of 5 games, Australian teams lost rucks more frequently than they did in Super Rugby AU — conceding a turnover once every 21 — while the ball retention of the Kiwi sides improved. New Zealand’s 5 franchises kept hold of possession at 351 of their 361 rucks — equivalent to a retention rate of 97.2%, or a turnover every 36.1 rucks.
In particular, the Chiefs did an effective job on the Force — who were so good at holding onto the ball in Super Rugby AU — turning over 7 of the 101 rucks they had to defend in Perth. (According to SANZAAR data, the bulk of this work came from unlikely sources too: the team’s forwards contributed only 2 of their total of 7 turnovers won.)
And the Western Australian side will have an even tougher job this coming weekend. They welcome the Highlanders to HBF Park — a team that turned over more of their opponents’ ruck ball (7.9%, or a turnover every 14.1 rucks) in the first part of the season than any other in Australia or New Zealand.
Shannon Frizell — available for selection again after a police investigation into a recent incident in Dunedin — has been restored to the starting lineup by acting head coach Clarke Dermody, but the back row that started in his absence last weekend could be the Highlanders’ best bet if they want to focus on disrupting the flow of their opponents’ phase play over the remainder of the season.
Between them, Hugh Renton (2.6), Billy Harmon (1.1) and Kazuki Himeno (1.3) have contributed 5 turnovers won per 80 minutes played; Frizell, by comparison, has averaged only 0.4 himself.
At home — where their last 4 games have been decided by a combined margin of 8 points — the Force will fancy their chances of securing the first Australian win of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman on Friday.
If they and their compatriots are going to have meaningful success against their neighbours over the next month, however, they will all need to come up with a way of dealing with the Kiwis’ ability to steal and spoil at the breakdown.
Brad Shields (8), Malakai Fekitoa (12), Jeff Toomaga-Allen (18), Jimmy Gopperth (22) vs. -
Rodney Ah You (18) vs. Teimana Harrison (8), Matt Proctor (13)
Chris Vui (5), Steven Luatua (6), Nathan Hughes (8), Siale Piutau (12), Charles Piutau (15), John Afoa (18), Jake Heenan (20), Alapati Leiua (23) vs. Willi Heinz (9)
Rhys Marshall (2) vs. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (3), Abraham Papali'i (8)
Michael Bent (18) vs. Sean Reidy (7)
Johnny McNicholl (11) vs. Willis Halaholo (13)
Toa Halafihi (8), Jayden Hayward (15) vs. Potu Leavasa (20)
- vs. Nick Grigg (13)
- vs. Ethan Roots (6)
Luke Whitelock (8), Jale Vatubua (12) vs. Dominic Bird (19)
Ben Tameifuna (23) vs. Paula Ngauamo (16)
Iosefa Tekori (5) vs. Mat Luamanu (5), Michael Ruru (9)
Uini Atonio (3), Victor Vito (8), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (9), Ihaia West (10) vs. Sam Vaka (22)
Toby Arnold (15) vs. Brandon Nansen (4)
Telusa Veainu (14) vs. -
Fritz Lee (8), Tim Nanai-Williams (10), George Moala (13) vs. Isaia Toeava (15), Ma'a Nonu (20), Tane Takulua (22)
Kieran Read (8), Jamie Henry (11), Male Sa'u (12), Rob Thompson (13), Charlie Lawrence (23) vs. Hadleigh Parkes (12), Craig Millar (17)
Beauden Barrett (10), Joe Latta (19) vs. Sione Vatuvei (8), Ryan Crotty (12)
In case you missed it on Twitter this week
With New Zealand Rugby delaying the election of a new chair until a special general meeting at the end of this month, Women in Rugby Aotearoa — “a collective of current and former players, administrators, managers, coaches and volunteers involved in rugby” — have taken the opportunity to ask some questions of candidates Stewart Mitchell and Bailey Mackey:
While local rivals Australia have already confirmed a series against Samoa for later this year, the Black Ferns are yet to have any fixtures in their calendar — with head coach Glenn Moore able to say no more than that they are “working towards up to six Test matches in the later part of this year” in an interview on allblacks.com this week. Nonetheless, the team has been continuing with its monthly training camps, with Moore emphasising that integrating young players into the squad is a current focus:
“We are trying to ensure that by the time they become a selected Test player, they know what it takes. How our culture works, how our environment works and the expectation around ensuring they know the game knowledge and how reviews work…They will come into fruition in a few years. They have made excellent accounts of themselves and to hear them speak about what they learnt is rewarding.”
One of the youngsters involved in their most recent camp was 17-year-old midfielder Sylvia Brunt, who had some impressive moments in the recent Blues vs. Chiefs fixture at Eden Park. She will be hoping to continue developing effective combinations with fellow teenagers Luisa Togotogorua, Patricia Maliepo and Princess Elliot in the Auckland Storm backline when the Farah Palmer Cup kicks off on 16th July.
The All Blacks, however, have been able to ink in their mid-year schedule in full. To games against Fiji in Dunedin and Hamilton, NZR have added a test against Tonga on 3rd July — a match that will be the team’s first ever appearance at Mount Smart Stadium in South Auckland. The Maori All Blacks will play Manu Samoa at the same venue as a warm-up, meaning that all 3 major Pacific Island nations will be appearing in New Zealand in the space of a few weeks this July.
Relations between NZR and the NZRPA have continued to sour over the proposed Silver Lake investment deal, with the Players’ Association making public an alternative proposal that would see the union sell 5% of a company holding its commercial rights via an IPO (underwritten by investment firm Forsyth Barr) on NZX. Crucially, however, in NZR’s view such a listing would not deliver the additional revenue-growing “capability” that represents Silver Lake’s point of difference — even if public demand could lead to the union receiving higher proceeds from the sale on a per-share basis.
Gain Line Analytics published some interesting data on the squads selected for the opening round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, noting that the average Team Work Index (a figure that measures “the quantity and intensity of linkages within a team”) of the Kiwi sides was significantly higher than their Australian opponents. In their words, “[t]his doesn't rule out some AU wins BUT everything needs to go right”.
Zarn Sullivan got his second consecutive start at fullback for the Blues in Melbourne against the Rebels, and impressed once again. According to reporting by Liam Napier for the NZ Herald, he is likely to stay there for the foreseeable future; Stephen Perofeta — Leon MacDonald’s first choice at 15 for the team’s first 7 games of the year — will be given an opportunity “to challenge Otere Black and Harry Plummer for first-five duties” in coming weeks. In a piece about Sullivan’s future, Napier also spoke to backs coach Daniel Halangahu about the 20-year-old:
"The long-term picture is what we're looking at. If we get his development right, curb some of his youthful enthusiasm, he could do some great things for this club. We saw some of that enthusiasm when he threw a flick pass in behind the line on his own but, at the same time, he is certainly physically ready; he's fast, big and he kicks the ball as far as anyone. He's got a few X-factor things which are different for us – it's not running and bumping people off. It's his kicking game, it's ability in the air so it's now refining some of his decision-making things so he picks his moments."
A change of fortunes at the scrum was one of the reasons why the endgame of the Chiefs’ win against the Force was very different from the minutes that preceded it; after holding a comfortable 20-7 lead with a quarter of the game to go, they ended up squeaking home by only a single point. Things started well for Nick White’s unit, with Aidan Ross, Nathan Harris and Angus Ta'avao winning a scrum against the head immediately prior to Alex Nankivell scoring the first try of the game. However, replacement tighthead Joe Apikotoa was identified by referee Damon Murphy as the culprit for their second-half problems: in the 40 minutes that he played off the bench, he was whistled for 4 penalties according to ESPN. And it’s been on that side of the scrum that the Chiefs appear to have had more discipline issues throughout the season: their top tightheads Ta'avao and Sione Mafileo have conceded considerably more penalties between them (1.5 per 80 minutes played) than their first- and second choice looseheads Ross and Ollie Norris (1.1).
We looked in depth at ruck retention rates across Super Rugby Aotearoa above, and 2021 saw a significant drop-off for the Crusaders in this area: after turning over the ball once every 19.7 rucks in 2020, this year they gave the ball up once every 14.8. One contributing factor may have been the absence of first-choice openside Tom Christie for much of the season; the former New Zealand U20 captain excels in the contact area. The team held on to 94.0% of their own ruck ball in the 3 games he started earlier this season, but without him in Super Rugby Aotearoa that retention rate fell to 92.5%. Sione Havili Talitui and Tom Sanders —who have both started at 7 in his absence — are solid players, but different types of flanker to Christie; looking ahead to 2022, a trio of Pablo Matera, Christie and Cullen Grace will likely be the best-balanced back row that head coach Scott Robertson can field.
In Dunedin, there continues to be an interesting distinction in the way that the Highlanders use their props in attack. Looseheads Ayden Johnstone and Ethan de Groot are both abrasive in contact, and have been used primarily as carrying options: the pair have been asked to make 41 carries so far this year, but completed only 4 passes between them. In contrast, on the tighthead side Siate Tokolahi has been deployed much more frequently as a link player in their phase attack: he has appeared in all 9 of their games this season, completing 29 carries and 20 passes — a much higher passing frequency than his teammates on the other side of the scrum.
Things looked bad for Ruben Love when he was stretchered off the Sydney Cricket Ground barely a minute into the Hurricanes’ opening trans-Tasman game, but his injury appears not to be as bad as feared. According to head coach Jason Holland, the only significant damage was a concussion that will see him sit out this week’s home fixture against the Rebels. Despite his inexperience, the 20-year-old hasn't looked out of place at fly-half so far at Super Rugby level — but where he fits in for the franchise in the long term will likely depend on a number of other players. The signing of U20 prospect Aidan Morgan on a 3-year deal from 2022 gives them another option at 10, with assistant Tyler Bleyendaal indicating that he will likely get some gametime during Super Rugby Trans-Tasman too. If Hurricanes fans’ fears are realised and Jordie Barrett does depart at the end of this year, then that may open the door to a 10-15 combination of Morgan and Love (reprising their 2019 New Zealand Secondary Schools roles). However, if Barrett stays and Morgan develops as anticipated, the versatile Love may end up getting pushed to the wing — a position he covered for Wellington in the NPC last year.