The New Zealand franchises dominate the overall standings as the Super Rugby season approaches its June break, holding three of the four Australasian wildcard spots. There have been some outstanding intra-conference clashes in the competition so far, with the South Island Derby between the Highlanders and Crusaders in Round 12 a particular highlight for its intensity and quality on both sides of the ball. As we will see by examining some basic statistics, it is not only their success but their distinctive styles of play which make these two teams among the most interesting to watch in the competition.
The Crusaders’ attack: ball movement & width creating gaps
In the opening twenty minutes at Forsyth Barr Stadium two weeks ago, the Crusaders put on an attacking exhibition: their set-up stretched the defence and created holes to send their strong ball-carriers through. In particular, the slick passing and offloading interplay of Kieran Read, Jordan Taufua and Matt Todd in the back row resulted in early line breaks which put the Highlanders under immense pressure. Taufua’s try in the second half – which Murray Kinsella highlighted in his excellent analysis of the Canterbury 2-4-2 system – was another great example of their attacking strengths: setting up with width in attack stretches the spacing between defenders to breaking point, and provides a multitude of options to exploit it via passing or offloading. As we will see below, there is fairly strong correlation between a team’s ability to create line breaks and their average number of tries scored per 80 minutes, and the Crusaders have been the single most effective team in the tournament at creating them. With line breaks on 15.2% of all carries, they have been over 2% more prolific than their nearest competitor (the Chiefs, at 12.9%):
The second chart shows the degree to which ball movement is fundamental to their effectiveness on attack: so far this season they have averaged 1.71 passes & offloads per carry, again leading the competition by a distance. We can corroborate these numbers with knowledge of their intended attacking structure and visual evidence from their games, and be fairly certain that their exceptional ability to break the line in attack is closely linked to their ability to move and alter the point of attack via passing and offloading out of the tackle. At times over the past few seasons Todd Blackadder’s attacking system has come under scrutiny for being too lateral, but their attack this year has married the width their system demands with a high level of incisiveness – all the more impressive with rookie Richie Mo’unga in his first season at fly-half.
The Highlanders’ defence: intensity & opportunism
In their game against the Crusaders, despite a couple of early scares the home side were largely able to thwart the Cantabrians’ impressive attack. The back row trio of Elliot Dixon, Dan Pryor and Luke Whitelock all put in particularly strong efforts without the ball. Jamie Joseph tend to select big, powerful athletes in these positions – 103 kg co-captain Shane Christie (currently sidelined with injury) often lines out in the 7 jersey, beside Dixon at blindside and Whitelock or Liam Squire at number 8. This selection tendency of the head coach is a microcosm of their broader gameplan: the Highlanders spend long periods of the game without the ball, and rely on their line speed and physicality in the tackle area to reduce the effectiveness of the opposition attack. They turn over the lowest proportion of ball (TOs on 4.5% of tackle attempts) and make the most tackle attempts per 80 mins (150) in the competition, figures which reflect this philosophy – no true fetcher across the back row means that the role of the 6, 7 and 8 is to soak up pressure around the fringes and midfield. It has been an effective tactic for them so far, with only the Sharks and the Stormers conceding fewer tries per 80 mins:
After soaking up all this defensive pressure, they know that the skills of the Smiths, Naholo et al. will excel at locating and exploiting space in transition. They have a clear focus on keeping the ball in play for long periods, and through their kicking game actively encourage the opposition to wear themselves out by throwing phase after phase of attack at their defensive line. The second chart above is a rough proxy for the pace at which each team’s games are played – the number of attacking and defensive actions (Total possessions = total carries made + total tackle attempts) per 80 minutes – and the distance between the Highlanders and the second-placed Reds is greater than that between the Reds and the Sharks in eighth; the metric reflects the uniqueness of this tactical focus among Super Rugby sides. They trust their defensive abilities and bait the opposition into expending their energy in vain, before pouncing clinically at the first opportunity to attack. Friday’s rematch of the 2015 Grand Final is shaping up to be another mouthwatering encounter between two New Zealand franchises, and if the Highlanders are able to dispatch of the Hurricanes in the same manner as they have the Chiefs and Crusaders it will likely be due to their fitness levels, defensive intensity and opportunism.