Statistical analysis: New Zealand’s selection decisions in the back row

With Kieran Read yet to recover from back surgery, New Zealand face the prospect of starting the 2018 season as they began and ended 2017: without their talismanic captain and number 8. Ardie Savea was his replacement in last June’s opening test against Samoa, while Luke Whitelock was given the start in the final match of the year at the Millenium Stadium; the Highlanders forward appears to be an early front-runner for the jersey in 2018 along with the uncapped Akira Ioane, who made clear strides as part of the All Blacks’ touring squad last November and has brought an improved level of performance in Super Rugby so far this season.

Whitelock and Ioane will face off directly in Friday’s clash between the Blues and Highlanders at Eden Park, and the contrast between their respective styles of play will be evident. Examining the role that Read has fulfilled for New Zealand in the current World Cup cycle – and how this role has changed over the course of his international career – provides an insight into what may expected of his replacement, and may give an indication as to which back row combination Steve Hansen and his selectors will opt for in June.

While Read has a real chance at retiring from international rugby as a World Cup-winning captain and triple world champion (along with teammates Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock and Sonny Bill Williams), the defining season of his career will likely always be 2013. He was voted IRB Player of the Year after scoring 6 tries and registering 3 try assists in 13 tests – the win over Japan in Tokyo was the only match during the All Blacks’ fourteen-game unbeaten season in which he did not feature – and the Rugby Championship decider against South Africa at Ellis Park encapsulated the attacking impact of Read at his peak. This classic of a test match was bookended by Read loose in the 15m channels on either side of the pitch. He set up Ben Smith’s opening score with a fend and break down the right wing and perfectly-timed backdoor offload, before streaking in support of Julian Savea on the left and collecting a pass to score and seal the championship for New Zealand:

Read SA assist.gif

Read SA try.gif

Now at 32 years old and over 100 tests into his career, Read is no longer asked to fulfil this attacking role for the All Blacks. As the team has transitioned from the era-defining back row trio of Kaino, McCaw and Read to the current first-choice combination of Squire, Cane and Read, Read has been asked to do almost of his attacking work in the centre of the pitch – and it is Kaino’s replacement on the blindside who has migrated to wider areas of the field in attack.

This change is clear both in the nature of Read’s involvements in New Zealand’s attack and in his scoring statistics. During the 2013 Rugby Championship, Read’s carries per 80 mins (6.1) accounted for 6.2% of New Zealand’s total carries, and each of these carries was for 6.1m on average. In matches against Tier 1 nations during 2016 and 2017, Read’s rate of carries increased in both gross and percentage terms (8.9 per 80 mins, equating to 7.3% of New Zealand’s total), and his average number of metres gained per carry decreased significantly to 2.8.

Crucially, his rate of clean breaks – carries in which the attacker breaks through the defensive line, thus resulting in a higher number of metres gained – is consistent at 5.6% of total carries in both sets of data. This supports the argument that Read’s higher rate of metres gained per carry in 2013 than 2016-17 was due to a change in context rather than a change in effectiveness, and is corroborated by the fact that his offload rate drops from 19.4% to 8.4% when comparing 2013 with 2016-17: the type of carries which he was asked to make during 2013 resulted in a higher average gain (without taking clean breaks into consideration) and more opportunities to offload, characteristics which are conventionally ascribed to carries in the 15m channels on either side of the pitch.

In addition, Read is contributing far less to New Zealand’s scoring plays in the current cycle. After recording 6 tries and 3 assists in 13 tests during 2013, he has scored 3 and assisted 3 tries in 25 tests across 2016-17; this is despite New Zealand’s average number of tries scored per game rising from 3.6 in 2013 to 5.3 in this period.

With Liam Squire (who averaged over 6m per carry against T1 opposition in 2016-17) now being regularly deployed as a runner in the tramlines, Read is used as one of New Zealand’s key narrow carriers and forward distributors:

Read tip on pass.gif

He has averaged a pass every 1.2 carries for the All Blacks over the past two seasons; in Super Rugby this season, neither Ioane nor Whitelock have passed on such a high proportion of their possessions:

Dashboard 1
x-axis – offload rate (total offloads/total carries); y-axis – carries per pass (total carries/total passes); data set includes all back row forwards for New Zealand franchises with > 180 mins played in 2018 (all data per ESPN)

However, in Whitelock’s case this is likely an effect of his team’s tactical approach: no Highlanders back row forward featured in the graphic above has passed more frequently than every 1.9 carries. Moreover, Whitelock has been effective when he has passed the ball – he has a return of 2 line-break assists and 1 try assist from only 25 combined passes and offloads so far this season (per Fox Sports Australia) – and has historically been an excellent distributor off 9 for Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup. He is particularly proficient at the sort of tip-on pass to a second forward which is now one of Read’s hallmarks:

L Whitelock catch-pass

Ioane also has a positive return of 3 line-break assists and 1 try assist from 39 combined passes and offloads, but he has not shown the same level of competence in completing these short passes close to the advantage line as Whitelock has. This season, he has also turned the ball over much more frequently (every 11.5 touches, one of the highest rates among this set of back row forwards) than Whitelock (every 38.5 touches), although it is worth noting given what is still a relatively small sample size that both players turned the ball over at the same rate (every 16.4 touches) in 2017.

In terms of pure ball-carrying ability, there is no contest between the two players. Ioane’s power and footwork allow him to beat defenders and make metres in a fashion that Whitelock is simply unable to match:

Dashboard 2.png
x-axis – average metres per carry (total metres gained/total carries); y-axis – carries per defenders beaten (total carries/total defenders beaten)

Ioane has still displayed a tendency to carry from a slow or standing start off 9 in this season of Super Rugby; his physical capabilities allow him to shrug off defenders with ease at this level, but things will likely be more difficult as he steps up to test rugby. He showed glimpses of marked improvement in his brief time on the field for the All Blacks last year – attacking the ball at pace off 9 – and his success as a narrow carrier at the next level will likely be contingent on sustaining this technical change. Whitelock is consistent  in his carrying work, but lacks the same power in contact as Ioane:

L Whitelock carry 1.gif

His carrying statistics in 2018 are relatively similar to last year’s: in Super Rugby 2017, he averaged 1.6m per carry and beat a defender every 13.3 carries. However – as noted above – it is his ability to add value on the ball in other ways that makes him an appealing option for Steve Hansen at number 8:

Whitelock tip on pass.gif

On the defensive side of the ball, New Zealand’s system is notable for the way it shows an even distribution of work across the forward pack: seven of the eight regular starters average between 11 and 13 tackle attempts per 80 mins, with Sam Cane – who averages around 17 attempts – the outlier in the group. This relative balance is in contrast to England, for example, who show a higher variance among first-choice forwards. As a result, Read is not asked to bear an unusually large load in defence; his play without the ball is again predominantly focused in the centre of the field, and he excels at completing powerful, dominant tackles at the height of the ball-carrier’s waist and below.

It is without the ball that Whitelock marks himself out most strongly as a candidate for Read’s shirt. He has familiarity with defence coach Scott McLeod from the latter’s time as a Highlanders assistant, and has shown a capacity for an extremely high workload while maintaining accuracy: he completed 13 tackles (missing 2) in just 45 minutes on the pitch against Wales last year, while in Super Rugby 2018 he has combined with openside Dillon Hunt to complete 23.1% of the Highlanders’ 151.2 total tackle attempts per 80 mins.

Moreover, the Highlanders forward’s defensive style is markedly similar to the All Blacks’ captain’s. His approach is to look to transfer power into low tackles, as he showed in his performance at the Millenium Stadium:

While he slipped off Owen Williams and Taulupe Faletau on a couple of occasions, in general he acquitted himself well physically in his first exposure to test rugby in four years. This experience – coupled with his excellent defensive performances to date in Super Rugby – will likely lead Hansen and McLeod to have sufficient confidence in slotting Whitelock into Read’s spot in the defence.

Akira Ioane – as has been analysed previously – is a defensive player with a completely different approach to Read and Whitelock; he uses his exceptional upper-body strength to hold ball-carriers up in the tackle and slow down the opposition’s ball. In contrast to Whitelock, he has been the least defensively active of the Blues’ back-rowers: he has made only 8.7% of the team’s tackle attempts in 2018, with Jerome Kaino (11.3%) and Murphy Taramai (12.5%) bearing more of the load when they have been on the field. Nevertheless, he is an intriguing option to add a different dynamic to the balance of Hansen’s back row, and his tendency to initiate contact higher may be more effective at neutralising a French offloading game which has had some success against New Zealand over the past two seasons.

The other area in which Read will be sorely missed is the lineout, where he is one of the foremost callers and jumpers in the international game. Whoever is chosen to replace him at number 8 will not be asked to take on calling duties, but the ability to function as a viable lineout option – in both defence and attack – would be a valuable asset. The Blues have used Akira Ioane as a defensive jumper somewhat regularly in 2018, and he has also averaged 1.3 lineouts won per 80 mins on his team’s own ball. This is in line with his career average: after being called on only 3 times in 504 minutes during his debut season in 2015, he averaged 1.4 wins per 80 mins in both 2016 and 2017.

In contrast, Whitelock is seldom used by the Highlanders as an attacking jumper: after averaging 1.9 wins per 80 mins in his first season at the franchise in 2016, he made only 0.5 per 80 in 2017 and has not been used so far in 2018. However, he was used much more regularly during his time at the Crusaders: he averaged 1.4 and 1.3 wins per 80 mins in 2013 and 2015 respectively, while in 2014 he was a prominent option with 3.0 per 80. In addition, during November’s tour match against a France XV in Lyon he called the lineout himself and had multiple wins on New Zealand’s own throw, in addition to contesting opposition ball.

Both players have clear ability in this facet of the game – even if it is not always called upon regularly at franchise level – and having spent more time in the All Black environment over the first part of the Super Rugby season it would not be surprising if each player has been developed further as an option in both attacking and defensive situations.

Although he is now a number of years removed from his prime, Kieran Read remains one of the top number 8s in international rugby and will be extremely hard to replace for New Zealand in June.

Moving Liam Squire from 6 to 8 and replacing him on the blindside with Vaea Fifita is an option that has been considered, but such a combination would likely leave the team short of the required ballast both with and without the ball in the middle of the park. Scott Barrett or the uncapped Jordan Taufua would potentially be more viable starters at 6 in this scenario, and it is interesting to consider whether the Hurricanes’ Brad Shields – who may now represent England against South Africa in June ahead of his move to Wasps at the end of the year – would have been in the frame if he had elected to stay in New Zealand. However, given the number of other questions raised by moving Squire from blindside to number 8 – and the benefits of allowing him to continue to develop as an international 6 – it appears most likely that New Zealand will opt for either Akira Ioane or Luke Whitelock at the base of the scrum against France.

Both players have performed well for their franchises in the Super Rugby season to date, and respectively represent different solutions to the selectors’ problem in the position. In Whitelock, Steve Hansen has someone who he can plug directly into Read’s role in attack, defence and at set-piece; in Ioane, he has a chance to blood an extremely dynamic player who does not fit Read’s mould, but could be a key part of the All Blacks’ forward pack beyond 2019.

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