Super Rugby 2017 preview: Highlanders

Tactical analysis: what rugby can learn from football

Technical and tactical analysis has come to flourish in rugby over the past few seasons, but is still far behind many leading team sports in terms of its detail and clarity. This is partly due to the tactical complexity of rugby relative to sports such as basketball and football: its multiple methods of scoring points bring with them numerous possible strategies to attempt to ‘optimise’ performance, and this adds layers of noise for an analyst trying to establish the signal.

Football’s single mode of scoring allows an analyst to establish a clear framework through which each player’s actions and decisions can be judged: an action’s worth can be determined by the extent to which it has increased its own team’s chances of creating a shot on goal in a high quality location, or decreased the opposition’s chances of doing so. The basis of football strategy is essentially shot creation and shot prevention, but rugby strategy cannot be condensed in the same fashion;  rugby’s multiple modes of scoring – and multiple methods of achieving the same scoring action – bring with them more strategic options. One coach may decide that the most efficient way of optimising his team’s performance is by gaining territorial advantage through their open-play kicking game, while another will opt to try and break through the opposition’s defensive line with passing skills and good spacing; a player’s actions and decisions must be judged with reference to this tactical framework to a greater degree than in other sports.

As a result of football’s relative simplicity in this regard, statistical and tactical analysis of the sport has flourished. A player’s passes can be judged based on the quality of shot that they result in, and a team’s attacking shape can be appraised based on the efficiency with which it allows progression of the ball into areas of the pitch where high-quality shots can be taken.

Statistical analysis in rugby is struggling to get past the stage of ‘Player X played well because he carried the ball Y times & made Z tackles’, but potential is there at a team-tactical level: Murray Kinsella’s detailed try analyses show this, as they attempt to take the key elements of a team’s attack and use data to assess them. At a tactical level, there are very few occasions on which we state definitively ‘Team A’s gameplan was to do X and Y in order to cause outcome Z’, using visual evidence to support the thesis, in the manner that sites such as Spielverlagerung can with football.

The 2016 Highlanders are a good example of a team which we can come to understand tactically through a combination of statistical analysis and visual evidence. The visual evidence in this case is a view of how the team’s structure fits together in defence and attack and aids the team’s tactical approach, in the same way that tactical analysts of football attempt to piece together a team’s overall alignment and the effect that this has on their outcomes.

Dashboard 1.png
x-axis – total defensive possessions (tackle attempts + kicks caught) per 80 mins; y-axis – tries conceded per 80 mins

We can see from the plot above that very few teams in Super Rugby defend as much as the Highlanders do and do it so successfully. In 2016, they played the second-highest number of defensive possessions per 80 minutes of any team in the past two seasons, and conceded the fourth-fewest tries per 80 mins in that period. Their opponents crossed the advantage line on only 52% of all carries (4% lower than the Stormers, the second-best team in this regard), and their success at executing this gameplan obviously relies on having strong individual defenders in the back row and midfield in particular. However, it is also aided by a conscious tactical decision that they make: they consistently prioritise retaining numbers in their defensive line by committing one or zero defenders to each breakdown, a decision which is reflected in their tournament-low turnover rate (turnovers forced/total tackle attempts).

The Highlanders therefore look to prevent the opposition from scoring by keeping players on their feet around the tackle area, and cycling defenders wider to shut down space for the attack. The beauty of this system is this that – in terms of the structure of their fifteen players on the pitch – it aligns perfectly with how they aim to score points in attack.

In addition to playing a large number of defensive possessions every game, the 2016 Highlanders also looked to play at speed: only the 2015 Hurricanes averaged more total possessions per game over the last two seasons. They attempt to blunt attacks with consistent numbers in the defensive line and strong tackling, rather than by slowing ruck speed or pushing the attacking line backwards by blitzing. When the ball is turned over, they strike quickly and efficiently, using their defensive structure – with multiple tacklers spread across the field – to their advantage by creating numerical superiority in wide channels:

Highlanders counter attack structure.gif

In 2016, they played through 7 or more phases the fewest times per 80 minutes – and had the lowest proportion of pick & drives – of any team in Super Rugby, while kicking the ball most frequently: there was clearly no intention of ‘building phases’ to score points. Instead, they excelled at transitioning from defence into attack, and their R3 win over the Lions was a good example of how their structure aided their effectiveness on the counterattack. They scored three zero-ruck tries in the first half: one from a quick lineout after forcing the opposition into touch, one from an interception return and one from a turnover forced in midfield. Having good numbers in wide channels increases the likelihood of interception opportunities as it is less risky to jump out of the line, and after turning the ball over an attacker has numerous passing options:

Osborne interception.gif

In the example above, Osborne does not have to gamble in order to intercept the ball; he is supported by defenders on both his inside and outside, and pushes up towards the attacking line as part of the Highlanders’ defensive press. Once he catches the ball, those two supporting defenders becoming supporting attackers: Jack Wilson trails his outside, and Dan Pryor his inside.

This wealth of options is also noticeable on kick return, and Joseph’s side were incredibly disciplined at holding the width that their defensive structure provided:

Highlanders counter 3.png

After receiving the ball from Ben Smith on kick return and arcing towards the right touchline, Patrick Osborne has four attackers outside him in the 15m channel facing a single defender. Dan Pryor and Aaron Smith are also trailing on the inside.

Highlanders counter 5.png

When Aaron Smith is tackled, they maintain their width: if the scrum-half goes to ground, Pryor can move the ball away to the breakdown for an unopposed run-in in the right corner due to the way in which they have aligned.

One of the key tenets of Pep Guardiola’s football is the creation of ‘overloads’ to progress the ball past defenders, and the Highlanders are consistently able to achieve numerical superiority in the 15m channels in order to advance up the pitch in a similar fashion. They are able to do this – as we have seen above – as a result of how they align with width and spacing in defence, as it allows them to transition quickly to attack when they turn over the ball.

2016 season

Dashboard 1-3.png
The chart above tracks the team’s cumulative points difference per 80 mins over the course of the 2016 season

It would be fascinating to see a detailed study of the effects of travel on Super Rugby teams’ performance, and interesting to see how the Highlanders’2016 schedule would compare to others: many of their poorest performances came at the end of periods of much travel, including their semi-final against the Lions. That came after returning from Buenos Aires to Dunedin after R16, then flying to Canberra for the quarter-final and subsequently moving on to Johannesburg. Earlier in the season – in their seventh consecutive week of play to start the campaign – they went in at half-time down 6-22 to the Reds in Brisbane, and could not recover to win after two disallowed tries in the second forty. This trip to Brisbane was split from an earlier two-game road trip in Australia by a home fixture against the Force (in which they also trailed 0-14 early), meaning that the Highlanders had to cross the Tasman in two consecutive gameweeks.

Their counter-attacking and defence were exceptional in 2016, but their half-back pairing also allowed them to be dangerous in set-piece and phase attack situations. Aaron Smith served as the primary playmaker, and his width of passing can be impossible to defend against close to the try line:

A Smith passing width.gif

After feeding Patrick Osborne on a 9-11 play off the back of an attacking scrum, Smith – despite slow ruck speed – takes four defenders out of the game on two consecutive passes: when Lima Sopoaga takes the ball flat on phase 3, his scrum-half’s pass has taken the inside cover out of the game and created a 1v1 five metres from the line. This ability to take players out of the game and isolate a defender from his cover was also evident against the Crusaders in R12, where Matt Faddes was able to exploit the distance between Richie Mo’unga and his inside man:

A Smith passing width 2.gif

While Smith offered the primary passing threat in set-piece attack and phase play, it was Sopoaga’s kicking game that stood out:

Sopoaga cross kick.gif

The Highlanders scored five tries from the fly-half’s attacking kicks over the course of the season, and none was better executed than this beauty scored by Waisake Naholo.

Dashboard - Highlanders.PNG

Depth chart


The signing of Tevita Li adds more firepower to the Highlanders’ counter-attack, and he will likely compete with Patrick Osborne for the left wing spot opposite Waisake Naholo. Dan Pryor’s injury and Shane Christie’s illness will mean that James Lentjes starts the season at openside, while Luke Whitelock – despite another outstanding season at 8 for Canterbury – could again be pushed into the second row when the back row is at full strength.

Top prospects


The Highlanders have traditionally combined locally-produced talent with players moving south for tertiary education or professional opportunities, and the age-grade prospects currently in their system reflect this.

McDowall, Buchan and Hogan are products of Otago BHS, Thomas and Talamahina were part of the Southland BHS side that reached the National Top Four in 2016, and Josh Timu came through John McGlashan College in Dunedin. Thomas has been training – and impressing – in preseason with Tony Brown’s first team squad as part of the Highlanders’ apprentice programme; the other members of this programme for 2017 – Koroi, Dawai and Umaga-Jensen – are recruits from the Hurricanes region. The centre has moved from Wellington to study at the University of Otago, while the two back three players were brought in from Feilding HS (along with Jona Nareki, who is studying in Dunedin and contracted to Otago). As the South Island does not produce close to the same quantity of talent as the Blues and Hurricanes regions, the Highlanders are required to be proactive in their recruitment in this way in order to remain competitive. The signing of Koroi – who has already played for the All Blacks 7s side – is a particular coup for the franchise.

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