Super Rugby 2018: New Zealand Conference preview

The Super Rugby season kicks off for the New Zealand Conference tomorrow, as the Blues travel to Dunedin to take on the Highlanders. What are some of the questions that each franchise – and the All Blacks selectors – will be considering heading into their 2018 campaigns?

Blues

Can Akira Ioane continue to show improvement in important areas?

It may appear odd to pick out ball-carrying as a weak point in the game of Akira Ioane, a player with so many highlight-reel moments in the early stages of his career. However, in phase play he has a tendency to carry from a standing start close to the ruck, relying on his footwork and upper-body strength to beat defenders. As he has moved up from age-grade to senior rugby, this has proved to be less and less effective.

He is already, however, a massively impactful defensive player, as his performance in this game for the Maori against the touring Lions showed. His strength and ability to hold carriers up in the tackle – as he does to Maro Itoje in this example – is incredibly valuable to a defence for the ways in which it can slow down opposition ball and force turnovers with the assistance of teammates. It is this side of his game that has vaulted him into contention for an All Blacks place; he has shown himself to be a plus defensive player against international-calibre opposition already in his career, especially in areas tight to the breakdown.

In addition, during his time with the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship and on their end-of-year tour he appeared to develop those weaker points of his game. The following examples are taken from the All Blacks’ midweek tour game against a France XV in Lyon, where Ioane made his debut off the bench. In the first he carries off 9 strongly, taking the ball at pace into contact:

A Ioane carry off 9.gif

The contrast with the carry for the Blues against the Lions is clear. His breakdown work in this fixture was also promising; in this second example, he makes an effective clear-out by rolling the defender off the ball, before bouncing back to his feet and ensuring clean presentation at the next ruck with a strong drive over the ball:

A Ioane double clear-out.gif

Plays like these have been observed too rarely in Ioane’s still-nascent professional career, and sustained improvement in these areas in 2018 is a prerequisite if he is to offer himself as a viable long-term option in the All Blacks’ back row.


Is Stephen Perofeta the next 10-15 hybrid to take Super Rugby by storm?

The current crop of fly-halves being developed by the All Blacks is unique in world rugby for their physical capabilities: 10s such as Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga all possess excellent acceleration and top-end speed, and represent the way in which New Zealand are following a different tactical path at the position to all other nations in the world.

Stephen Perofeta – who has played a lot of Mitre 10 Cup rugby for Taranaki at fullback – may be the next player in this mould to break through, and the Blues found an interesting way of leveraging his skills in their preseason fixture against the Chiefs. In the clip below, they run a play which calls for a tip-on pass between two forwards off 9, before a pass is slipped back to Perofeta on a diagonal run:

Perofeta backdoor option.gif

The play is similar to one run by Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, where the pass is pulled back by a second forward to Jonny Sexton on his trademark loop line. The difference, however, is the fact that Perofeta is flat when he takes the ball; as a result, he is able to get to an edge and spring Melani Nanai in the 15m channel.

The Blues are unlikely to run this with Bryn Gatland at fly-half, but it is something to look out for when Perofeta returns from injury in around a month’s time.


Chiefs

Will the return of Brad Weber spark the Chiefs’ attack?

After a 2016 season in which they were one of the most lethal teams with ball in hand in Super Rugby, the Chiefs’ attack returned to earth last year: their per-game averages of 27.2 points and 3.3 tries ranked 7th and 8th in the competition respectively. They head into the 2018 season having lost key playmakers Aaron Cruden and James Lowe from their backline, along with head coach Dave Rennie. Damian McKenzie will also move from fullback to the fly-half spot vacated by Cruden, and whether he will have the same attacking impact from this position is a limited question.

The final piece of the franchise’s 2017 line-up lost to European club rugby is scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow. In his place, however, they will be able to call upon Hawke’s Bay’s Brad Weber, who missed the entire campaign due to a broken leg after being Rennie’s preferred option in the 9 shirt the previous year: he played 889 minutes to Kerr-Barlow’s 414 during 2016. Weber’s interior support play was a massive part of the Chiefs’ attacking success, as he averaged 0.4 tries and 0.5 try assists per 80 mins (compared to Kerr-Barlow’s 0.2 and 0.4 respectively):

Weber support line

Weber appears to have picked up where he left off in preseason, recording a hat trick of tries against the Brumbies on the Sunshine coast; if the likes of Solomon Alaimalo – who has displayed an ability to extend through contact with the ball and offload – and Charlie Ngatai (often favoured by Cooper in the back three) are able to provide similar service to Lowe and McKenzie, the scrum-half could become a pivotal figure in the Chiefs’ attack once more – and elevate himself into contention for the All Blacks’ third halfback spot.


Will Atu Moli get regular playing time at loosehead prop?

Weber’s return was not the only interesting aspect of the Chiefs’ preseason clash fixture against the Brumbies; All Blacks squad member Atunaisa Moli – who has come through the system as a tighthead prop – was given the start at loosehead, alongside international tighthead Nepo Laulala. Moli got an opportunity at loosehead prop off the bench against the French XV in Lyon, and the All Blacks coaches are keen to see him develop on that side of the scrum over the long-term. Cooper is able to call on international-calibre starters in both positions – as well as Laulala, he also has Kane Hames at his disposal – but it may in the franchise’s interest to invest in Moli (22) and Laulala (26) as their long-term first-choice pairing if the transition goes well.


Crusaders

Are Scott Robertson’s young outside backs good enough to break into the Crusaders’ starting line-up?

After tearing up the Oceania U20 Championshiin May and the U20 World Championship in June, Canterbury’s Braydon Ennor and Tasman’s Will Jordan (U20-eligible again in 2018) proceeded to have two of the most impressive NPC seasons by Baby Blacks players in recent memory.

Ennor – who is most comfortable in the midfield – played the majority of his Mitre 10 Cup rugby on the wing, where he was able to make use of his excellent top-end speed; he averaged 13.6m per carry (the only outside back to average double figures in this metric) and clean breaks on a scarcely credible 50% of his carries in 714 total minutes played. Jordan was at fullback for the Mako in 2017, recording 7.7m per carry on the second-highest number of carries per 80 mins by an outside back – 13.9, second to George Bridge’s 14.4 – and clean breaks on 24% of carries (behind only Ennor, Jona Nareki and Matt Duffie by this measure).

Ennor and Jordan both show up exceptionally well on two metrics by which New Zealand’s elite outside backs differentiate themselves: offload rate and turnover rate. The only three All Blacks in this position who completed successful offloads on more than 10% of their carries and turned the ball over every 10 touches or fewer across 2016 and 2017 were Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith – who could well make up Steve Hansen’s first choice back three in June. Jordan and Ennor were two of only three outside backs to achieve both marks in 2017 NPC play – along with North Harbour’s Shaun Stevenson – and their performance holds up favourably against other NPC rookies and Super-Rugby-contracted players:

Dashboard 1-5.png

Both players have announced themselves as hugely exciting prospects, and it will be interesting to track whether or not these indicators are predictive of success at the next level over the course of the season.


Can Bryn Hall move into contention for the All Blacks’ third scrum-half spot?

One of the Crusaders’ great strengths in their title-winning campaign of 2017 was their scrum-half rotation. Both Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond were excellent throughout the season, and, while it was Drummond who was rewarded with an All Blacks call up in November, Hall – who could make a case for being the second-best passing 9 in New Zealand, and is still only 26 years old – will be firmly in the reckoning as Tawera Kerr-Barlow’s long-term replacement.


Highlanders

Who will be New Zealand’s next international lock?

The All Blacks have awarded fifteen new players test caps in the 2019 Rugby World Cup cycle, but only one of those has been to a second row: Scott Barrett, who made his debut in the infamous Chicago test where the side’s lack of depth in the position was in full view. Even as they looked to grow their wider squad on the 2017 end-of-year tour, no uncapped locks were brought on board in the manner of Moli, Aumua, Ioane, Hunt, Drummond, Mo’unga and Duffie; rather, the Chiefs’ Dominic Bird – first capped in 2013 – was recalled to the squad after playing for the Barbarians at Twickenham.

The only uncapped player at the position to receive exposure to the All Blacks’ training environment was Tom Franklin, called in at the start of the 2017 Rugby Championship after being used as injury cover in the 2016 season. Franklin starts in the second row for the Highlanders in their season opener alongside another player who boosted his stock in 2017, Manawatu’s Jackson Hemopo. Each player is notable among locks in the 2017 NPC for his ability to function as both a primary carrier and a primary lineout option:

Dashboard 1-3

The carrying ability of both players is an important consideration at the position, as second rows employed by New Zealand franchises in Super Rugby tend to be significantly lighter than the required standard for international rugby. This appeared to be borne out by the 2017 Lions tour, where players selected in the position for tour matches other than tests averaged only 0.9m per carry against Andy Farrell’s defence; by way of comparison, New Zealand’s second rows in the test series averaged 2.3m per carry.

In addition to their carrying ability, the aerial work of Hemopo and Franklin sets them apart from other contenders such as Sam Lousi (seldom used in the lineout by Wellington in NPC play) and Isaia Walker-Leawere, whose defensive restart work for New Zealand U20 in 2017 was poor. With Bird rumoured to be heading overseas at the end of the season, there is a potential opening for another second row in the All Blacks set-up, and the mix of skills offered by the two Highlanders puts them both in an excellent position to capitalise.


Is Josh Ioane a long-term replacement for Lima Sopoaga?

Not long after Lima Sopoaga’s departure at the end of the 2018 season was announced, the question of who would replace him as Highlanders fly-half raised its head. Christchurch BHS product Fletcher Smith – a Super Rugby squad member in 2017 – would appear to have a head start, but the performances of Josh Ioane in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup saw him edge Smith for Otago’s 10 jersey and earn a Super Rugby contract. While Smith has been named as Sopoaga’s back-up for Round 1, Ioane’s fundamental attacking skills could make him a better long-term option; the former can be wayward with his passing close to the advantage line, while the latter keeps his shape more compact and is more accurate as a result.


Hurricanes

Can Alex Fidow’s ball-carrying – and improved set-piece work – translate to Super Rugby from NPC level?

Asafo Aumua got the headlines – with good reason – in Chris Gibbes’ Wellington front row last season, but Alex Fidow’s ball-carrying work should not be overlooked:

Dashboard 1-2

Fidow’s carrying and ball-playing ability have been clear since his schoolboy career, but his scrummaging technique has held him back; this past June, he was not even Craig Philpott’s first-choice tighthead for the U20s. In the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup, however, he showed clear improvement in this area; while there were occasions where his body position was exploited by more powerful looseheads, in general his competence in holding the Wellington scrum firm was remarkable.

An area of the game which does not often garner the attention it deserves is lineout lifting – especially given that it is effectively one of a front-row forward’s core roles – and this may be where Fidow requires the most development. He was used no more than a handful of times as a lifter in the Wellington lineout across 669 minutes of playing time; on the rare occasions he was deployed, his body position was extremely poor:

Fidow LO body position

In the image above, he is effectively trying to lift his man without establishing a low base, and with a grip around the player’s hips. As this is a wholly individual action with no pressure from the opposition, this is arguably an easier fix than his scrummaging issues; in any case, his progress to date at set piece has been encouraging, and with further exposure to a professional environment – and increased chances of playing time given a preseason injury to Jeff Toomaga-Allen – he should continue to develop to a level of competence that backs up his obvious attacking talent.


Is there any hope for Julian Savea as an international winger?

The same metrics which mark out Braydon Ennor and Will Jordan as interesting prospects in the back three provide insight into the struggles of Julian Savea: he turned the ball over more frequently and offloaded less frequently than any other All Blacks outside back across 2016 and 2017. These figures did not improve markedly during the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup, as we can see from the graph above.

It is tempting to put these figures down to a deterioration of basic skills, but – as he showed in New Zealand’s season opening win against Samoa – his passing ability and alignment are still elite for an international winger. Evidence from NPC play and the 2018 Brisbane Tens tournament – where he appeared susceptible to knocking on when leading with the ball into contact – suggests that it may be a result of a decline from his power into the tackle, a defining feature of his game early in his career.


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