Upward Trajectories

Upward Trajectories

After a highly impressive victory over Toulouse in the semifinal, many were expecting Leinster to once again win the Champions Cup final last weekend. However, La Rochelle had different ideas, and Arthur Retière’s late try helped secure a 24-21 victory for the Top 14 outfit.

And while many people will be celebrated for the victory, one notable name is really adding to their legacy: Ronan O’Gara. The Munster and Ireland fly half had a legendary playing career which has seen him inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, but his coaching career is taking him to even higher levels. After retiring from playing in 2013, O’Gara joined Racing 92 as a defence coach, who won the Top 14 once during his 4-year spell. From there, he moved to New Zealand to join Scott Robertson’s Crusaders team as a backs coach, and during his spell there, the Crusaders won back-to-back Super Rugby titles. After this success, O’Gara jumped up to the top spot as head coach of La Rochelle. Having been promoted to the Top 14 in 2014, the team had been developing some consistency in making the playoffs, and O’Gara built on that, with the team losing in the finals of both the Top 14 and the Champions Cup (both to Toulouse), before taking the step forward to win the ultimate European prize this season. And while results have generally gone well, it is also the performances and O’Gara’s way of thinking that has drawn praise from players, pundits and fans alike. It’s hard to imagine anyone else being the frontrunner for the Irish job if Andy Farrell were to step away right now, and in fact probably the bigger question is whether he comes back to lead a province beforehand, especially with Munster going through somewhat of a rebuild this summer and also seeing Graham Rowntree come in as head coach.

With O’Gara’s growth and development surely making an international appointment just a matter of “when” rather than “if”, it got me thinking of some other coaches whose success surely has them deserving of—or well on their way to—an international head coaching gig.

Scott Robertson

If I’d been in charge of selecting Steve Hansen’s successor, Robertson would already be the head coach of the All Blacks. While the All Blacks have faltered, the Crusaders have continued their success, and Robertson has been key to it. After the dark days of the end of Todd Blackadder’s reign, which saw the team finish as low as 7ᵗʰ in the 2015 and 2016 Super Rugby seasons, the team won 3 Super Rugby tournaments in a row and were running 3ʳᵈ when the 2020 Super Rugby season was halted by COVID. However, they then won back-to-back Super Rugby Aotearoa titles, while a 3ʳᵈ-place finish in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman saw them miss out on a spot in the final by just 6 points (which must have hit them hard as they conceded a try at the death in 2 wins, one of which even denied them a bonus point). However, they once again finished in the top 2 of the table in the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season and (at time of writing, ahead of the quarterfinals) will be looking to earn that title over the coming weeks.

Robertson is (in my opinion) one of the top coaches out there, and I’ll be shocked if he is not appointed the All Blacks head coach following the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

 Steve Borthwick

Another player whose quick turnaround of a struggling team to return them to greatness, Steve Borthwick already has experience in an international coaching setup as England forwards coach, before moving to Leicester. Tigers had just finished 11ᵗʰ in back-to-back seasons, but Borthwick immediately turned things around and got the team back into the top half of the table in the 2020/21 season, before topping the table in the 2021/22 season to secure a home semi-final.

Though he has limited experience as a head coach, he has showed that he can get a team united in one vision and turn around a team with high expectations in a tough league, while his experience at Test level both as a player and forwards coach would set him up as a great option for many international teams, perhaps he will even be Eddie Jones’ replacement after RWC2023.

Stuart Lancaster

The former England head coach has the ignominy of leading England to their pool-stage exit at RWC2015, but it is clear that other parties were interfering with that run—highlighted by the Sam Burgess saga. However his move to Leinster, where he is a senior coach, has seen him earn praise across the board, while Leinster have won 4 consecutive Pro14s, a Champions Cup and at time of writing are probably the favourites to win the inaugural URC having topped the combined table.

Such has been his success, it’s time that he gets another shot at Test level, perhaps with a nation that has slightly lower expectations than England (how much would an Italy/Georgia/USA benefit from a coach of his calibre) while teams like Wales and Scotland may also want someone reliable to steady the ship following the disappointing (so far) reigns of Wayne Pivac and Gregor Townsend.

Shaun Edwards

The best defensive coach in World Rugby. The former Wigan rugby league star has become known for his time as defence coach of Wales, the 2009 British & Irish Lions and now France, where he has solidified himself as one of the best coaches in the game. But he also has plenty of head coaching experience, having led Wasps (then London Wasps) from 2005-2011, having started there as a defence/backs coach in 2001. Edwards’ trophy cabinet speaks for itself:

  • Wasps assistant coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 3 Premierships
  • Wasps head coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 1 European Challenge Cup, 1 Premiership
  • Wales assistant coach: 3 Six Nations
  • France assistant coach: 1 Six Nations

Edwards sets a culture within the team, which helps lead to success. If the RFU aren’t looking at him as Eddie Jones’ replacement following the World Cup, it will be a crime!

Who else would you add to this list?

Super Rugby Pacific 2022: Signings to Watch

Super Rugby Pacific 2022: Signings to Watch

While most rugby fans in the Northern Hemisphere are getting ready for the return of the Six Nations, the Southern Hemisphere is getting ready for the beginning of the next phase of Super Rugby. Starting on February 18ᵗʰ, Super Rugby Pacific will be the biggest tournament since the pandemic caused the early cancellation of the 2020 competition. The South Africans are now gone and a part of the United Rugby Championship, and we have also lost Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves, leaving us with 5 Australian teams (the 4 from the 2020 season, and the Western Force, who were axed but returned in Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman), 5 New Zealand teams and 2 new teams in Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua.

Now I love watching Super Rugby—though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to this year as there is still no news on a UK broadcaster for the competition— as we get some wonderful attacking rugby, so as I like to do for most of the leagues that I can follow with some degree of regularity, I’ve picked 1 new signing per team who I think fans should be keeping an eye on this year. In some cases (most notably the Reds, who have only brought in a couple of new players) this was very hard, whereas for our 2 new teams, I was lucky enough to have the entire roster to pick from.

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Blues

Starting with the Blues, and the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman Champions may have one of the most exciting signings of the year in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. The 28-year-old has been a superstar in rugby league and now makes his move over to show what he can do in the 15-man code. Expected to play centre, he adds a real playmaking ability into the midfield—as if they needed more attacking quality! With the World Cup fast approaching and questions over the best All Blacks centre pairing, don’t be shocked to see him getting capped in the June Tests.

Brumbies

For the Brumbies, we look at a familiar face for fans in fullback Jesse Mogg. The 3-cap Wallaby returns to Canberra after 6 years in France with Montpellier and Pau. A dynamic runner with the ball, Mogg’s presence will force Tom Banks to play at the top of his game to keep the 15 shirt, while he can also appear on the wing to help alleviate the loss of Solomone Kata.

Chiefs

An easy pick here for the Chiefs, in Josh Ioane. Aaron Cruden was clearly never a long-term option when he returned to Hamilton, and with him gone, neither Kaleb Trask nor Bryn Gatland looked like the player who could lead the Chiefs to the very top. However in young Josh Ioane, they have a player who is entering his prime and will be keen to push for a spot in the All Black’s World Cup squad, or put himself at the forefront of the discussion for the next cycle. Could he be the guy to bring the Chiefs back to the top?

Crusaders

How do you improve one of the strongest teams in rugby? Well by adding Pablo Matera. The former Pumas captain is one of the best blindside flankers in the world, a monster on defence and a great carrier, who also isn’t afraid to put boot to ball with surprisingly good effect. If you want to create a strong pack who can also get around the park to keep up with the backs, this is the kind of signing you want to make!

Fijian Drua

Probably a surprise pick here as I go for prop Manasa Saulo. You wouldn’t expect me to look at a squad of Fijians and pick a prop as one to watch, but if you can’t hold your own at the scrum, it won’t matter how exciting the attacking talent in your team is. Well Saulo comes to Super Rugby with top flight rugby experience from his time at Toulon and London Irish, as well as 43 caps. With a relatively young and inexperienced batch of props on the roster, Saulo will be a great teacher to help take the new generation of Fijian players to the next level.

Highlanders

Another player returning to known pastures, my pick for the Highlanders is Marty Banks. With Ioane, Caleb Makene and Tim O’Malley all gone, it’s just Banks and Mitch Hunt left to cover fly half. The good news is that, now on his third spell at the club, it should be easy for Banks to slip straight in. But will he be there to provide cover for Hunt, or will he be a regular at 10, allowing Hunt to shine at 15?

Hurricanes

While the return of TJ Perenara is huge, I’ve instead gone for Owen Franks. The ‘Canes roster is very young at prop, and so the arrival of a player of Franks’ experience (150 Crusaders appearances and 108 New Zealand caps from 2009-2019) will not just help shore up the scrum when he is on the pitch, but also greatly help the development of the new generation coming through.

Melbourne Rebels

Another returning player to make the list, Matt Philip comes back to Melbourne following a brief spell with Pau. While the Wallabies have been up and down over the last few years, Philip has been one of the more consistently good players. Reliable at the set piece and a strong carrier, Philip will play a key role in trying to put the Rebels pack on the front foot as the team tries to cope with the loss of Isi Naisarani.

Moana Pasifika

There were so many ways that I could go with this pick, but I eventually landed on fly half Christian Leali’ifano. The Australian fly half is of Samoan heritage, and will help provide shape and stability to the team as they find their footing against much more experienced opposition, while helping William Havili and Lincoln McClutchie grow into players of Super Rugby quality.

NSW Waratahs

While Michael Hooper’s return is the obvious pick here, I chose to look beyond the obvious and instead pick Jamie Roberts. Aged 35 and 5 years on from his last Wales cap, Roberts is still more than capable of excelling at the top of his game. His experience at centre will be vital in shoring up the defence, while his reliability and his picking of a line will be a real attacking boon for Will Harrison and co.

Queensland Reds

Without a doubt one of the hardest to pick, the Reds only have 4 incoming faces this season: 3 from Queensland Premier Rugby which is well beyond my scope of knowledge, and one from Harlequins’ academy. It is that academy player, Tom Lynagh, who gets the nod though. At 17 and with no top-flight rugby under his belt, he will surely be third choice at fly half, but if he possesses half the quality of dad Michael or brother Louis (who has been called in the England Six Nations squad), we may only be an injury or two away from seeing him come in at 15 to get some experience.

Western Force

And last but not least, we reach the Force and their new signing, Izack Rodda. Rodda brings an impressive degree of experience and international quality to partner Jeremy Thrush in the second row, while proving a solid yet dynamic carrier in the loose. The Force have been steadily improving since their return in Super Rugby AU, and Rodda is just the kind of signing they need to step up against the quality of the New Zealand franchises.

Do you think I missed someone? Let me know who your picks would have been.

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5 to watch from Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021

5 to watch from Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it brought a premature end to the biggest club rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby. With conditions improving in Australia and New Zealand, they returned with more domestic versions of the competition, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa respectively.

The second season of Super Rugby AU kicked off on Friday – 10 weeks of rugby that will see each of the 5 Australian teams face each other home and away, with the teams finishing 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ facing off in a Qualifying Final and the winner facing the 1ˢᵗ-placed finisher in the final a week later. This Friday will see the beginning of a slightly shorter Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament (which is just a 10-week round-robin tournament, without the playoffs), which is running concurrently with Super Rugby AU before all 10 teams face off in a new tournament: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like those of us who live in the UK will get the chance to watch after no company picked up broadcasting rights, but for those of you who can watch, who should you be looking out for in these tournaments? I’ve looked at each of the New Zealand teams and picked one player per team to keep an eye on this year. If you missed my Australian picks, you can find them here.

Blues

If you read my thoughts on last year’s tournament, it’s probably no surprise that I’m picking Finlay Christie for the Blues. Having signed from the Hurricanes, the Scotland-born halfback put in some great performances to earn the starting spot in the latter half f the campaign, bringing quick ball to the attack and repeatedly getting himself in the right position to exploit a teammate’s break, while in defence he was a complete nuisance for opposition scrum halves. If he can put together another similar campaign, the All Blacks should come calling.

Chiefs

While Super Rugby Aotearoa may be best known for its stunning attacking play, you only get that due to the hard work f the tight 5. While Tupou Vaa’i was the one to earn an All Blacks call-up last season, it was his lock partner Naitoa Ah Kuoi who stood out for me. Ah Kuoi was a solid enforcer in defence and did a great job of carrying to help put the Chiefs on the front foot. He missed the middle of last year’s competition through injury, but if he can stay fit this season, he will add some much-needed clout to the Chiefs pack.

Crusaders

My initial pick here was Will Jordan, who got more minutes than expected due to David Havili’s injury issues, but after such a great season that also included his All Blacks debut, that seemed too obvious. Instead, I have gone for Tom Christie, who at just 22 already looks like he will be close to an All Blacks cap and potentially becoming the long-term option at 7 in the coming years. The flanker is already a top quality jackal and does a great job of making the important metres in attack. Have the Crusaders found their new Richie McCaw in Tom Christie?

Highlanders

The Highlanders had a disappointing 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, but things certainly got better for them with the return of Josh Ioane from injury. Capable to play across most of the back line, Ioane is at his best at fly half and will be looking to take advantage of Beauden Barrett’s sabbatical to Japan to push his cause for an All Blacks call-up. A young and highly skilful player, he Highlanders should be building their team around him in the coming years.

Hurricanes

While Peter Umaga-Jensen certainly deserves a mention here, TJ Perenara’s Japanese sabbatical has opened up the door for Jamie Booth to show his quality. The 26-year-old has made his way around the Super Rugby franchises, being contracted for the Blues (where he never made an appearance) and playing for the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Sunwolves. It was with the Sunwolves that I first noticed his quality, which he continued to show off the bench last year for the ‘Canes. Now, with Perenara gone, he will likely get much more of a chance to show his ability to generate quick ball, while his quick footwork makes him a real danger if given any space around the fringes of the ruck or following up a break.


During the competitions, I will be running predictions pools on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. The pools are entirely for fun, so everyone is welcome to join and there is no buy-in!

Super Rugby AU: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: lidsbops

Super Rugby Aotearoa: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: harmgirt

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Highlanders

Despite the Hurricanes keeping themselves in the title hunt yesterday, the Crusaders still had the chance to secure the title this weekend as they hosted the Highlanders to end Round 9. The Crusaders knew that a win would make it mathematically impossible for the Blues or ‘Canes to catch them, but found themselves behind almost immediately as Shannon Frizell crossed after just over a minute. Though the Crusaders were rattledand found themselves getting turned over with some regularity, a Sevu Reece break set Richie Mo’unga up for a 7-pointer to level the scores. Josh Ioane kicked a penalty to put the Highlanders back ahead, before Jona Nareki successfully gambled on going for the intercept against an overlap and just held off Reece in a footrace to extend the lead, with Ioane kicking the conversion and Mo’unga 2 penalties to take the teams in to halftime with the Higlanders leading 13-17.

After a tense start to the second half, the Crusaders looked set to take the lead through Bryn Hall, only for Josh McKay to force a knock-on on the line. Buoyed up by this, the Highlanders extended their advantage as Michael Collins crossed the line before the first points of the half. and then in a 5-minute spell on the hour mark, the game changed. An offload from replacement lock Luke Romano on the edge of his 22 sparked a break that ended in George Bridge crossing for a try – converted by Mo’unga – while the Crusader very next possession from the restart saw them go the length again and put Bridge over out wide, while the Highlanders were further hit by a yellow card for centre Sio Tomkinson for a shoulder charge off the ball in the build-up to the try. Though the Highlanders continued to fight, the Crusaders exploited the 1-man advantage as it expired for Braydon Ennor to score their 4ᵗʰ try, with MVP Richie Mo’unga converting to secure the 32-22 victory and the Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a game to spare.

 

Championship pedigree

The Crusaders sealed their 4ᵗʰ consecutive Super Rugby title with a week to spare but had it far from their own way in this match, and in doing so they highlighted their championship pedigree.

With so many handling errors, penalties and turnovers going against them in the first hour, so many teams would have been excused for going to a plan B and trying to get into the game with a tighter, more territory-focused gameplan. However, they kept playing the ball around as normal, going for the offload when they thought it was on and setting up the ruck when the offload wasn’t there. It didn’t always work out, such as for Nareki’s try, but the Crusaders had a 3-man overlap in that moment so he had to gamble!

In this game, the star players came to the fore in Mo’unga, Reece and captain Codie Taylor, who kept driving the team on and leading from the front, while Tom Christie also made some crucial turnovers. With the game going as it was, and the combination of Hall’s knock on and Collins’ try just after half time, so many teams would have thought that the game was getting beyond them and started looking ahead to next week’s match against the Blues as the title decider. Not the Crusaders though, and as always seems to be the case, the clock ticked pas the hour mark and they seemed to go up another couple of gears. The passes started sticking in the hands, the breakdowns were secured and in the space of less than 5 minutes the game changed completely.

With performances like this, you can see why the Crusaders have such an incredible level of success, and wonder why Scott Robertson is not the new All Blacks head coach.

Highland balance

It’s a shame that the competition is coming to an end, because the Highlanders have finally hit on the right balance for their team. A few weeks ago, I suggested the back line that they should go with, and it worked very well against the strongest team in the competition. Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt have controlled and varied the attack so well fromt heir 10/15 axis, Michael Collins has provided improved distribution in the midfield to complement Tomkinson’s physicality, Nareki has shown himself to be their best attacking option out wide and and McKay’s pace has been key in both attack and defence, and Aaron Smith has been Aaron Smith!

Meanwhile in the pack, both Shannon Frizell and Dillon Hunt have grown into the competition, creating a great back row with Marino Mikaele-Tu’u that exhibits a great balance between physicality, technical ability, carrying and defensive ability. Ash Dixon and Liam Coltman provide an experienced 1-2 punch at hooker while players like Pari Pari Parkinson work great as physical enforcers who also play a key role in the set piece.

In a trans-Tasman tournament, I’d be confident in this Highlanders team finishing in the top half. But in a 5-team Aotearoa tournament, it’s going to be a hard fight.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Crusaders

We’re entering the business end of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season with the beginning of Round 8, and it began with a trip to Waikato for the table-topping Crusaders to take on the winless Chiefs. The first half went according to the script for Chiefs matches in this tournament, with Tom Sanders and Will Jordan both crossing for tries in the opening 15 minutes. The Chiefs worked their way into the game and after a strong run by Pita Gus Sowakula, Lachlan Boshier crossed for a try, Damian McKenzie kicking the conversion and a penalty soon after to cut the deficit to 2. However with a minute left in the half, a deliberate knock-on from Shaun Stevenson saw him sent to the bin and allowed the Crusaders to kick to the corner, from which a catch and drive put captain Codie Taylor over to make it 10-17 at the break.

While the 3ʳᵈ quarter was one for the kickers – McKenzie kicking 3 penalties and Mo’unga 1 to keep a narrow lead – but the final quarter started in controversial fashion as Sevu Reece was awarded a try despite many thinking that Quinten Strange had knocked on in the build-up. The Chiefs continued to fight, but the Crusaders scored a 5ᵗʰ try through Leicester Fainga’anuku, before holding on to secure the double over Warren Gatland’s side with a 19-32 victory.

Wrong mentality

Warren Gatland is a hugely experienced coach, but right now I think that he is the wrong man to be leading the Chiefs. The former Wales head coach has spent the last 12 years coaching in the Northern Hemisphere and will be coaching the Lions on their tour of South Africa next year, and I can’t help but think that all this time away from New Zealand is proving costly now.

It was almost as if there were 2 different Chiefs teams taking part in this game. At times they ran the ball like you would expect from a New Zealand side and they looked dangerous. But then the Chiefs of every other week would return and they would start kicking possession away, usually with aimless kicks downfield that the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Will Jordan and George Bridge were only too happy to run back with interest. With a back line that includes Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, that’s a waste of their talent.

Watching this team, it feels like Gatland is trying to stick to the same gameplan he used with Wales of kicking downfield (but keeping the ball in play) and relying on his team’s superior fitness and dogged defence to get the win. Unfortunately, that is just inviting too much pressure from exceptionally skilled athletes and they just aren’t able to deal with it. It may be too late for this tournament, but I think that Gatland needs to look at changing up his tactics if he wants the Chiefs to have any success during his tenure.

Fijian force

One of the players to benefit most from the moments when the Chiefs played running rugby today was Pita Gus Sowakula. The Chiefs number 8 did not have the best of days in their opener against the Highlanders, but has quietly gone about his business since then. In this game, with the Chiefs playing a more open game at times, the Fijian came alive. Though he only managed 35 metres with the ball in hand, his 16 carries were extremely positive and played a huge role in putting his team on the front foot (such as for Boshier’s try) or getting the team out of jail (such as a defensive scrum 5m out, where he carried to the edge of the 22 to take the pressure off his kickers.

On this performance, I can certainly see why Fijian head coach Vern Cotter is interested in bringing Sowakula into the squad as in a team like that which looks to play running rugby, he will do a great job of giving them a strong a secure base to build off. Hopefully even if Warren Gatland doesn’t make big changes to his gameplan for their final game, he will look to use Sowakula as a carrier much more.

A grey area

Controversy reigned in this match regarding the awarding of Sevu Reece’s try to help the Crusaders pull away on the hour. And to be honest, I’m still not sure if I agree with the ruling or not.

Will Jordan broke through the Chiefs defence just inside the Chiefs 22 and offloaded to replacement lock Quinten Strange as he was snagged from behind. Strange juggled the ball, which went to ground and bounced up perfectly for the onrushing Sevu Reece, who took it beneath the posts. Referee Ben O’Keeffe went to the TMO and the two of them, along with the 2 assistant referees came to an agreement that there was no knock-on by Strange and that the try should stand.

Now, let’s try to break down what happened to the ball during this and the arguments for and against this being a try.

  • First things first, the ball ends up behind Strange but that is due to his momentum carrying him on. Relative to the field, the ball goes forwards – therefore, a knock-on.
  • However, the last touch from Strange is clearly a backwards swat at the ball, so though the ball itself has gone forwards, it has come backwards out of the hand – therefore not a knock-on. This is what the officials based their decision on, though the commentators chose to ignore this while they moaned about the decision.

This all comes down to a matter of physics, which led to a change in the interpretation of the laws. When a player passes the ball when standing still, it will go in the direction they pass. However, when they are running at speed, their momentum will also still be on the ball, which leads to the ball continuing to some degree in the direction the player was running as well as the direction they passed. For this reason, a player can legitimately pass backwards, but the ball still go forwards relative to the pitch.

This led to a change in the interpretation of forward passes that if the ball went forward it was still a legal pass as long as it came out of the hands backwards. By making his last touch a backwards swat, Strange effectively made it a pass that went to ground, so I can fully understand why the officials made the decision they did and would probably say they made the right call.

However, I think we all know that if a fumble like this happened in the middle of the pitch and not immediately preceding a try, this is getting called a knock-on 99% of the time, along with a number of other fumbles that seem to come backwards out of the hand. It is a grey area and I don’t know how to get around it without judging forward passes and knock-ons by the movement of the ball relative to the pitch without any account for momentum, which would force everyone to pass much deeper , making it much harder to hit the gap and take an offload to break through the defence.

What do you think? Would you have given the try?

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Hurricanes

Round 7 of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off in spectacular fashion as the Hurricanes came to Christchurch to take on the unbeaten Crusaders. After Jordie Barrett and Richie Mo’unga traded early penalties, a clever lineout move sent Mo’unga over for the opening try, but some poor control at a breakdown soon gave the Hurricanes a chance to hit back through Wes Goosen. George Bridge put the home team back ahead with one of the most fortunate tries you will ever see, but the ‘Canes quickly struck back again through Goosen, while 2 more penalties from Barrett gave the Hurricanes a 17-21 lead at the break.

Barrett and Mo’unga traded penalties again in the third quarter, before Peter Umaga-Jensen scored in the corner, only for replacement lock Quinten Strange to cross soon after for the Crusaders. Barrett extended the lead with another penalty 5 minutes from the end, but an incisive break from Mo’unga put Sevu Reece in the corner immediately after. Mo’unga missed the conversion, but the Crusaders had 1 more chance to win the game, holding onto the ball from the restart and finally working a break down the right wing. It looked like Will Jordan was about to speed away and break Hurricane hearts, but replacement scrum half Jamie Booth managed to snag him and Jordie Barrett was in over the ball quick to earn a penalty and confirm the 32-34 win, the Crusaders’ first loss at home in 4 years.

The perfect storm

The Hurricanes team that we have seen the last few weeks is almost unrecognisable from the team we saw in the opening weeks of the tournament! Jordie Barrett’s return from injury helped to unlock the team and now all the star players have got back to top form, creating a lethal attacking threat.

In players like Ngani Laumape, Ardie Savea, Asafo Aumua, the team has the ball carriers to keep them on the front foot, and while they are also dangerous in space, they also create it for other skilful players like Du’Plessis Kirifi, TJ Perenara, Barrett, Ben Lam, Vince Aso, Dane Coles and Chase Tiatia to exploit. With that much quality, it allows Jackson Garden-Bachop an armchair ride at first five-eighth.

Not only that, but the team is so versatile, especially in the back line, with Perenara’s ability to slot in at 10 as a game manager giving a chance for a scrum half and 2 other backs on the bench, while even many of the starters can shift to another position when substitutions are made – as shown today with Laumape and Umaga-Jense both having to be replaced due to injury. It just makes it less likely that they will get caught out by an enforced change, while also means that the attack can continue phase after phase despite one or 2 players being caught in a breakdown. And with so many weapons, even a solid defence like the Crusaders will struggle to deal with them!

If the Blues and Crusaders can carry on with this season’s form and the ‘Canes stay at this level, New Zealand Super Rugby will cement itself as the best rugby to watch… if it hasn’t already.

Masterful Mo’unga

The greatest travesty of this match is that Mo’unga’s missed conversion from out wide following Sevu Reece’s try ended up being what lost the Crusaders the game. The All Blacks fly half was in fantastic form once again and played a starring role all day. That his only miss from the tee proved key to the result should not count against him.

My closest friends in the rugby community have not spent much time watching Southern Hemisphere rugby, and when they have it’s usually just the big internationals, so when I spent the last couple of years telling them that I would pick Mo’unga at 10 over Beauden Barrett, they thought I was crazy. With one of them now getting his rugby fix by watching Super Rugby Aotearoa, he is beginning to understand my opinion, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree.

Under Steve Hansen, Mo’unga’s chances with the All Blacks were limited, and when he did play, it always felt like he was being limited to a game manager role while Aaron Smith and whoever was at fullback (Damian McKenzie or one of the Barretts) controlled the back line. At the Crusaders however, he is the general of the team, the game manager and the playmaker. He will sit back and put the team in the right areas of the pitch to come away with points, but he will also play a key role in so many of the tries, such as with his try today or his break to set up Sevu Reece. Against the Blues a few weeks back he lifted the team to a new level and he showed flashes of lifting the team late on when he collected a high ball, cut through the defence and kicked ahead, chasing it down and forcing the Hurricanes to take the ball over their line and dot it down.

If I’m building a squad and can pick any current players that I want, I’m building my team around Richie Mo’unga.

The race for number 2

Last week I wrote about how Asafo Aumua was in prime position to be the 3ʳᵈ hooker in the All Blacks squad. One week on and having discussed with my friend Phil, I now find myself considering if he should start.

First off, it feels like with Dane Coles’ getting older and having frequent issues with injuries, it is time to move on from him as the starter (both for the ‘Canes and All Blacks) and instead utilise his pace and experience off the bench with 20 minutes left. Further to that argument, Coles has had some issues with his throwing at the lineout, where Aumua has looked a little more secure, while Aumua also brings more physicality to the starting team to soften up the opponents, with little loss of pace.

So if we assume that he’s above Coles for the reasons above, how about Codie Taylor? Taylor has been the go-to backup for Coles for years and in recent years become legit competition for the starting spot. Like Coles, he is dangerous in space, while a high proportion of the All Blacks tight 5 has regularly been made up of his Crusaders teammates. At 29, he also has 1 more World Cup cycle in him. However, by the time the next World Cup arrives he will be past his prime, whereas Aumua would just be coming into his, while Taylor has again struggled recently at the lineout, with 2 throws today stolen (though Sam Whitelock did well to steal it right back as they played it off the top) and another 2 pinged as not straight.

At 23, with a new head coach in charge of the All Blacks and with the Rugby World Cup just over 3 years away, I think that this would be a great opportunity to establish Aumua as the starter for the national team, with the experience of Coles and Taylor backing him up. By the time the Rugby World Cup comes around, he could be near-unplayable.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Blues

We’ve reached Round 5 of Super Rugby Aotearoa and with the table starting to take clear shape, the round began with arguably the biggest match so far as 3-0 the Blues made the trip to Christchurch to take on the table-topping Crusaders. Coming off a bye week, the Blues looked slightly fresher in the early stages and took the lead on 10 minutes as Mark Telea crossed in the corner. Otere Black kicked the conversion, but 2 penalties from Richie Mo’unga kept the home team in touch as they went into the break down 6-7.

After Black and Mo’unga traded penalties early in the first half, a quick-tap penalty from Akira Ioane took the Blues up to the Crusaders try line and as the ball came wide, younger brother Reiko powered over to extend the lead, but Black’s conversion was blocked by Braydon Ennor. The game had already been played at a great level, but it went up a couple of notches from the restart as Richie Mo’unga caught the Blues out with a quick kick-off to himself, and the Crusaders began to take control. Great timing by Mo’unga set George Bridge free down the left wing and he played the ball back inside for replacement scrum half Mitchell Drummond to put his team back ahead. Mo’unga scored another penalty and then replacement Will Jordan crossed with 5 minutes left to secure a 26-15 win and their 36ᵗʰ consecutive unbeaten game at home.

Game of the tournament?

The Blues may have come away with no points from this game, but everyone who watched it was a winner. It’s hard to imagine that we will see a better game in this season’s tournament, and if we do then we are so incredibly lucky!

Sometimes you will see a game reach halftime with a scoreline around double figures and wonder why you wasted the last 40 minutes of your life, but this was a much better affair than the 6-7 scoreline suggested. Neither team wanted to give an inch as they knew their opponent would try to take a mile and it led to a full-blooded contest as both teams went all out for the win, while not overflowing into handbags or any nasty situations. And then following Ioane’s try the game reached an even higher level, leaving me unable to take my eyes off the game! The skill of the New Zealand franchises has led to some wonderful matches that Super Rugby AU teams have been unable to replicate – though admittedly they are earlier in their run so are still working out any rustiness – and I am currently finding myself uninterested in the return of Northern Hemisphere rugby as I can’t see it reaching the same level.

From a rugby perspective, Super Rugby Aotearoa has been one of the best stories to come out of the pandemic, giving us 2 great games of rugby every week But even more than that, this was the perfect advert for the game of rugby.

Routine change

“To beat them, you need to start big to get the momentum, defend to the death and ensure that you come away with points every time you get a chance… and then hope they don’t have a moment of magic!” – Highlanders v Crusaders

Well, the Blues almost managed the above, but unfortunately for them Braydon Ennor’s charge down of Otere Black’s conversion attempt following Reiko Ioane’s try proved to be a huge momentum changer, from which the Crusaders took control and scored 17 unanswered points. Black’s conversion was from a position relatively close to the posts, but as his kicking routine sees him take a step backwards to begin his advance towards the ball, giving Ennor the time to get out and make the block.

The laws state that players cannot begin to advance beyond their try line “until the kicker begins the approach to kick”, but so many kickers these days have developed a routine for their kicks that involves some kind of step backwards or other movement that is generally counted as the beginning of their kicking motion. I always remember a young James O’Connor having Peter Stringer steal the ball off of his tee due to a tell that was counted as the start of his kicking movement, while Rob Cook had an interesting and a few other players have had some interesting stances and start their movement by going to a more traditional stance. All of these situations are just giving the defence that extra little chance to get out and stop the kick, or at least put pressure on the kicker.

Going forwards, kickers need to look at this incident and consider the impact their kicking routine has on their success. Kickers are creatures of habit, which is why you often see them still take the time to go through their full process for the easy kicks right in front of the posts. As I see it, those with the riskier kicking routines should be considering one of the following:

  • Having a much shorter routine for the kicks closer to the posts (unlikely in my opinion as switching between 2 routines could upset their kicking rhythm)
  • Working with a kicking coach to develop a new routine where they feel comfortable and are able to have success without having any step back or movement that could slow down/be considered as the start of their move forward
  • Moving the more central kicks further from the try line to give them more time by forcing the defenders to cover more ground

Taking your chance

James Parsons has started the campaign so well, it would often be considered a big hit to lose him less than 30 minutes into the game following a head injury in a friendly fire incident with Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Not in this match, though, as replacement hooker Kurt Eklund played an absolute blinder.

As well as having a good day at the set piece on the whole, Eklund’s 30 metres made from 6 carries was 2ⁿᵈ highest in the Blues team in this game, behind only Mark Telea. He continually helped to put the Blues on the front foot and if anything, I felt that his use made the team even more dangerous than Parsons.

Hopefully Parsons will recover quickly following his failed HIA, but even if he is fit, don’t be shocked if Eklund is given the starting spot next weekend.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Crusaders

Today, we should have been enjoying watching the All Blacks face off against Wales, but the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to that. Thankfully though, New Zealand’s impressive efforts to combat the pandemic meant that they wee the first country to bring back professional rugby, allowing us to still get a great match today in the form of a South Island derby: the Highlanders hosting the Crusaders in the 4ᵗʰ round of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

After a tight start, the Crusaders took the lead through yet another try for Will Jordan – playing at wing this week – but they looked a little off the pace of their previous matches and tries from Shannon Frizell and Ngane Punivai saw the Highlanders go into the break ahead 17-14. The home team continued to be the stronger team after the break, but butchered what looked a certain try and were made to rue their mistake as Crusaders flanker Tom Christie – on his first start of the tournament – crossed to give his team the lead. This sparked a change in momentum as the Crusaders began to hit their stride and , though Mitch Hunt hit back with a penalty, Sevu Reece crossed in the corner to open up a 6 point lead. As the clock ticked down, Christie scored again to secure the victory, while in the final play of the game Will Jordan (who else?!) managed to collect his own chip by the narrowest of margins, allowing him a clear run to the line from halfway to seal a 20-40 victory and put them top of the table ahead of their home match against fellow 3-0 franchise the Blues next week.

Finishing strong

A 20-point margin of victory really doesn’t tell the story of the match, but it highlighted something important: how clinical the Crusaders are. Over the first 48-odd minutes, they looked rather ordinary, and looked very beatable despite having the push on at the scrum. Will Jordan’s opener should have been an easy finish – if the ball even needed to get that wide – but David Havili entered the back line too flat, which saw him have to get out of contact rather than power through a gap like he did for his try last week, then everyone after him continued to move sideways before passing, allowing the defence to drift across and take all of Jordan’s space.

Then came the moment of the match. Jona Nareki got the ball in the Crusaders 22 with 2 men outside him and just Richie Mo’unga in any position to possibly influence the outcome. Nareki drew Mo’unga, but then it looks like he became selfish as he dummied the pass a couple of times as if trying to make Mo’unga drift to the men outside, but Mo’unga read the dummies, planted himself and put in a thundering hit on Nareki that brought an end to the chance. A couple of minutes later, Tom Christie scored at the other end of the pitch.

Momentum is an important thing in sport, and the Crusaders are so successful because they get the momentum early and hold onto it by taking and finishing their chances, and it’s exactly the same with the All Blacks. To beat them, you need to start big to get the momentum, defend to the death and ensure that you come away with points every time you get a chance… and then hope they don’t have a moment of magic!

The little general

Aaron Smith is widely regarded as one of the best halfbacks in the modern game. In this match, he showed why.

The Highlanders scrum half controlled the game for his team, making sure that they were playing the rugby where they wanted to be and communicating with referee Mitch Fraser throughout,without pushing things too far. But his big moment came after 24 minutes, when a Highlanders lineout was overthrown. Last week, I wrote about the need to stay switched on, and that is exactly what Smith did here, not just going where he expected the ball to be, but reacting to the overthrow faster than anyone to snap up the loose ball and break deep into Crusaders territory. In doing so, he put the team on the front foot behind the Crusaders defence, which the Highlanders were able to take advantage of to score the go-ahead try.

At 31, he still has a couple more good years in him. It will be interesting to see if he can hold onto the All Blacks 9 shirt through the entire World Cup cycle despite the quality of competition.

The prodigal son?

Just a few weeks ago, the Highlanders were beating the Chiefs at the death with a late drop goal from Bryn Gatland against his father’s team. While Gatland was not in the initial 23 for that match, he has remained in the matchday squad since, but has had limited time on the pitch. With the title already looking somewhat out of sight, I think that now is the time to look at giving him a starting role.

Mitch Hunt has been doing a good job of keeping the Highlanders in the game and controlled the team well, but despite some great attacking talent they just haven’t looked dangerous enough. Meanwhile, the team has had 3 different starters at fullback over 3 games… why not make it 4 from 4 by creating a 10/15 axis of Hunt and Gatland.

With the way the breakdown is leading to penalties against both sides, the territory game is becoming even more important, and having another playmaker to help with that can only benefit a team. Likewise, it will also allow Hunt to take the ball to the line even more as Gatland can fill in at first receiver if he is unavailable for the next phase. It will also probably benefit players with hopes of playing for the All Blacks as it will see them playing in a dual playmaker system similarly to what they may be playing internationally, while that extra playmaker also may be able to help the exciting wingers get more chances.

Will Aaron Mauger give this a try? Only time will tell.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Chiefs

It’s hard to believe but we’re already 3 weeks through Super Rugby Aotearoa and the teams are already starting to really separate themselves from each other in the standings. Warren Gatland’s Chiefs went to Christchurch in search of a crucial win but will find themselves returning home with just a losing bonus point, having not led at any point in the match.

In wet conditions, Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie each slotted a first half penalty but it looked like the match would be devoid of much excitement, until Sevu Reece beat McKenzie to a high cross-kick from Mo’unga and broke down the right wing, before feeding the ball inside to Will Jordan for the go-ahead try. The same 2 players combined again shortly after half time, with a quick lineout from Reece catching out the Chiefs and allowing Jordan to run in uncontested. The Chiefs began to fight back after this and Sean Wainui crossed to narrow the deficit, but the Crusaders managed to hold on and remain one of only 2 teams still unbeaten in the tournament – the other being the Blues (3-0), who have a bye next week before their trip to Christchurch.

New kid on the block

If there’s one person currently that will be making All Blacks Head Coach Ian Foster reconsider a 10/15 playmaker axis, it’s Crusaders fullback Will Jordan. The 22-year-old has started the tournament in fine form and is currently keeping David Havili on the bench with his great performances.

In bad conditions today, Jordan looked assured under the high ball and made some incisive runs, finishing with a match-high 98 metres. Not only that, but he is clearly developing a good link with Sevu Reece, being in the right place to support for the opening try and seeing the opportunity with Reece to take a quick lineout for the second try. If he carries on like this, international recognition can’t be far away.

The only thing going against him right now, though, is that he is much more of a prototypical fullback, as opposed to the second playmaker that I think the All Blacks will be going for, especially given the great performances Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett are putting in at the position. It may be that for the near future at least, Jordan has to prove that he can also have a great impact on the game from the wing, much like Ben Smith and Israel Dagg did at times to keep themselves in All Blacks contention.

Play every second

The Chiefs certainly weren’t happy with the awarding of Will Jordan’s second try, but they had only themselves to blame. The laws state that a quick lineout can be taken provided it is on/behind the mark, nobody else has touched the ball and the lineout had already formed, which was exactly the circumstance when Reece fed Jordan for the crucial score.

It seemed like many of the team saw Aaron Cruden go over to speak to referee James Doleman and assumed that time was off. However, Cruden was not the captain so had no right to speak to the referee and was rightfully brushed away.

I always remember being told to play to the whistle, but in situations like this, it is a little more complicated than that. Usually the moment the ball goes into touch you can have a quick rest as you prepare for the set piece, but the one thing you can’t do is switch off mentally, as the moment you start doing things by rote rather than reacting to what’s going on around you is the moment your opponent will make you regret it.

Hopefully with Warren Gatland at the helm, the players will have learned from this mistake. But in the meantime, with just 2 points from 3 games, that is a costly and completely unnecessary mistake.

Set piece success

When you’re playing in wet conditions like in this match, there a 2 things you need more than anything else: a playmaker who can control the game and put you in the right areas of the pitch, and a pack that can gain the upper hand at the set piece. While both teams certainly had the former in Cruden, McKenzie and Mo’unga, it was the Crusaders pack that gained the advantage that probably proved crucial.

Of course the set piece is always important, but in bad conditions it becomes even more so as the territory game leads to more lineouts, while the greasy ball will likely lead to more handling errors and therefore more scrums.

In this match, the Crusaders pack managed to stop a 5m catch and drive from the lineout midway through the first half, despite the Chiefs throwing in a couple of backs to increase their numbers. They caused the lineout problems all game, especially after Chiefs’ replacement hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho entered the fray. Overall, the Chiefs ended up losing 4/20 (20%) of their own lineouts, while they also lost 1/5 of their scrums (20%) and found themselves being pushed back and giving away penalties on multiple occasions.

The old adage is that the forwards win the match and the backs decide by how much. The Crusaders once again showed that to be true.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Crusaders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Crusaders

We are now through the first 2 weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa and every franchise has now played a game following the Crusaders’ trip to the Hurricanes. The Christchurch-based franchise has a bye in the opening round due to there only being 5 teams in the tournament, but quickly made up for lost time as Sevu Reece crossed for the opening try after less than a minute. They crossed twice more in the first half, but the boot of Jackson Garden-Bachop kept the ‘Canes in touch, with a 15-19 halftime score.

The Crusaders weathered 10 minutes with Jack Goodhue in the sin bin and added 6 more points through the boot of Richie Mo’unga, but the Hurricanes kept chipping away and a try from substitute hooker Asafo Aumua levelled the score at 25-25 with 15 minutes remaining. However, that was as close as the ‘Canes came to taking the lead as a Billy Proctor offload to avoid being pushed into touch 5m from his own line was intercepted by Mitchell Drummond, who fed Mo’unga for the go-ahead score, while David Havili secured the win 5 minutes from time with a beautiful line onto a flat Drummond pass from the breakdown to cut clean through a gap in the defence for their 5ᵗʰ try of the game., the game ending 25-39.

Too quiet

When you’re taking on the franchise that has won the last 3 Super Rugby titles (and was leading the New Zealand Conference before the tournament was ended), you know that you’re going to need big performances from everyone, but especially your star players. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, too many of their stars were far too quiet.

Ngani Laumape was barely used last week and this week was limited to just 23 metres, though this wasn’t helped by a couple of knock-ons in and around the Crusaders 22. Ardie Savea finished with just 6 carries for 8 metres in his first start since the Rugby World Cup. Dane Coles was lacking the dynamism of last week, while he also had some issues at the lineout, overthrowing his jumper a couple of times. Perenara was probably the closest to form, but even he appeared limited by the performance of the team around him, though he did contribute a great break down the left wing and a key collection of a grubber kick that looked certain to end in a try for the Crusaders.

With so many players having quiet games, it made it so hard for players like Ben Lam, Vince Aso and Wes Goosen to positively impact the game with any regularity. Oddly enough, probably one of their better performers was fullback Chase Tiatia, but he was replaced after less than an hour, having also been removed just after the hour mark last week. Perhaps the Hurricanes are finding it a little tougher than others to get back to match fitness following the imposed break in rugby action…

Key deficiency

… Or perhaps part of the issue is also a lack of experience at a key position: fly half. Go back a couple of seasons and the Hurricanes were chock-full of talent at first five-eighth, however Ihaia West’s move to France in 2018 and Beauden Barrett’s move to the Blues a the end of last season has heavily limited their options, while Jordie Barrett has also been unavailable due to a shoulder injury. This has left the ‘Canes with Jackson Garden-Bachop as the only specialist fly half in the 23 for both of the opening rounds, while TJ Perenara has moved to 10 once Garden-Bachop was removed in both weeks.

Now with a replacement halfback of Jamie Booth’s quality, the ‘Canes can afford to move Perenara to stand-off, but he is not going to bring the same quality to the position as someone who is playing and training at the position full-time. To make things worse, with Jordie Barrett unavailable there is not really a second playmaker in the back line to help take the pressure off the fly half, as we have been seeing with the Blues and Chiefs. The ‘Canes will be hoping Barrett’s back soon to help utilise the back line to its fullest.

Adapt & evolve

With the Crusaders not involved in a match last week, I wondered how they would do this week with regards to the new referee’s interpretation of the breakdown. It certainly felt like they had done their homework, as in the early stages they looked to stand further behind the offside than usual, to ensure they were not penalised. However as the game went on, it looked like muscle memory took over as they began to find themselves offside and also penalised for a range of breakdown offences.

Players are so used to playing a certain way, it will take time to adapt to the changes, while it is also difficult to fully adapt in a match where both teams are going all-out compared to in training, when players will be going at a fraction of their top performance.

The Crusaders are a well-coached team, however, so it will be interesting to see just how quickly they can adapt to the new focus compared to the other teams.

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