Attack analysis: Highlanders vs. Blues, 23 Feb

The Highlanders established a distinctive tactical identity under former head coach Jamie Joseph: they ensured that games were played at pace, backed their defence to withstand a high volume of opposition possessions, and looked to strike quickly with efficient and inventive attacking play. Under Joseph’s former assistant Tony Brown during the 2017 season, the team did not alter this approach – Round 1 against the Chiefs aside. They averaged only 45.7% of the total carries made in their fixtures – 4% lower than any other New Zealand franchise – but  generated cleak breaks with the second-highest frequency (11.2%) of all teams in the competition; on the other side of the ball, they allowed opponents to make clean breaks with the third-lowest frequency (7.3%) teams.

After a win over the Blues last weekend, it appears that – despite a third head coach in three seasons – the team’s tactical approach will not be significantly different in 2018. They made 44.9% of the game’s total carries in Aaron Mauger’s first game in charge, and scored points with quick, efficient attacking strikes.

The short kicking game of halfbacks Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga has historically been a fundamental feature of the Highlanders’ set-piece attack. The accuracy of the two All Blacks in this area allows the team to manipulate the four defenders whose positioning dictates where the attacking team can find space: the full-back, two wingers and scrum-half.

In the first example below – from Round 2 of 2017 against the Crusaders – Seta Tamanivalu begins flat on the left wing to cover the running threat of Waisake Naholo, and full-back David Havili is in a shallow position directly behind the scrum. Smith’s dart from the base to escape the back row also has the effect of holding Tamanivalu and Havili in the front line, and the scrum-half threads a grubber kick perfectly into the open space beyond the two defenders:

A Smith grubber.gif

In the second example from this fixture, Sopoaga drops a short chip perfectly into space behind the Crusaders’ midfield, an area which scrum-half Bryn Hall is unable to cover as sweeper:

Sopoaga chip.gif

Crucially, Hall begins the sequence in the 5m channel – with hooker Codie Taylor at the tail of the lineout – and this defensive set-up likely costs the scrum-half the extra few metres necessary to get between the ball and Naholo, who is making an excellent tracking run on the inside from the blindside wing and collects Fekitoa’s offload after he is tackled by the full-back.

The franchise’s historic win over the British & Irish Lions showcased another aspect of their attacking kicking game, with centre Teihorangi Walden’s accurate short grubbers turning the opposition’s aggressive press on a number of occasions. In last Friday’s game, it was outside centre Rob Thompson – effectively the fourth kicking option in a backline featuring Smith, Sopoaga and Walden inside him – whose right foot was used to great effect for the Highlanders’ fifth and final try:

Highlanders chip + chase

Despite Thompson’s sub-optimal execution – the chip is slightly too long, and allows scrum-half Augustine Pulu the chance to cover – the Highlanders’ attacking alignment and awareness of the Blues’ defensive structure creates a situation where they are able to exploit a somewhat fortuitous bounce of the ball.

The Blues – short a number 8 at this scrum due to Antonio Kiri Kiri’s yellow card – set up with Rieko Ioane on the end of a flat front-line of four defenders. Full-back Michael Collins must therefore begin in a wider position than usual – in the image below, he is almost directly behind his team-mate on the left wing – while right wing Matt Duffie is held in the right 15m channel by the presence of Tevita Li:

Blues defensive structure - scrum

The open space behind the Blues’ midfield three is clear; Pulu retreats to cover it from the scrum-half position, but is unable to collect the bouncing ball on the run. The other defender who feasibly begins in a position to cover is Collins, but the movement of Sopoaga and Ben Smith in a second wave holds Ioane in position, brings the threat of Naholo (out of shot) into play on the right wing and stops the full-back from moving back towards the centre of the field:


In addition, the fact that it is Thompson at first receiver rather than one of the team’s more prominent kicking options likely lowers the probability of a chip in the eyes of the defence. All of these factors come together and mean that when Walden and Thompson flood through the midfield in pursuit of the ball – with Walden picking an excellent line outside the Blues’ 13 channel in order to avoid traffic – they outnumber the covering defence and are able to capitalise on Pulu’s misread of the bounce.

Use of short kicking as an effective attacking strategy is not about creating clean scoring chances on every play. It is an inherently higher-variance strategy, but – as Scotland have shown on numerous occasions, including Huw Jones’ opening try against England on Saturday – if it used in combination with an awareness of the opponent’s defensive structure and active support play, the balance of risk and reward can be tipped in the attacking team’s favour. The Highlanders have been one of its foremost exponents in world rugby over the last few years, and this trend looks set to continue under Aaron Mauger.

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