The sun rises in spite of everything. After weeks of deprivation and uncertainty, hope has appeared on the horizon – or, at least, to those European rugby fans willing to set their alarms early on coming weekend mornings.
Whether you’re a Super Rugby regular who has risen ritualistically for years to watch the likes of Larkham, Carter and du Preez or a casual fan of the sport, the advent of Super Rugby Aotearoa is a heady prospect. The ten-week double-round-robin competition featuring the five New Zealand franchises – the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes – kicks off next Saturday at 6:05am (UK time), with a number of interesting rule variations.
And it is these Kiwi sides that have dominated the wider Super Rugby competition over the last two World Cup cycles, providing 7 of the 8 outright winners between 2012 and 2019. In international play – that is, competition fixtures against franchises from other nations – they have won 68.7% of their games since 2012, at an average margin of +9.1 points per game. (Australian franchises have won 36.9% of their international fixtures in this period, with an average margin of -4.1 points; South Africa’s win rate sits at 47.7%, with an average margin of -1.0.)
This strength is not concentrated in a couple of elite teams either: the Blues are the only one of the franchises not to win the competition during this period, and all five have winning records (and positive average points margins) against opposition from the other outposts of SANZAAR (and Japan).
This pattern has largely held in 2020 to date: Kiwi sides are 13-0-5, with an average margin of +9.4 points per game, in their international fixtures. The Highlanders are the sole team among the five with a losing record (1-0-3) and a negative points margin on average (-13.0).
As with the All Blacks in test matches, New Zealand’s dominance against overseas opposition over this period has been built on the effectiveness of their running game – and their ability to counter the running game of opponents without the ball.
Kiwi teams have been the most effective at generating clean breaks in attack since 2012 – on 10.0% of all carries in international play – and most efficient at progressing the ball upfield, with an average gain of 4.2m per carry. For comparison, franchises from Australia have made an average gain of 3.6m and made clean breaks on 7.5% of carries; for South Africa’s teams, the figures are 3.9m and 8.2% respectively.
They do this while playing with more width – averaging 1.30 passes for every completed carry, compared to the Australians’ 1.24 and the South Africans’ 1.21 – and offloading the ball much more frequently than teams from other nations (on 10.1% of completed carries, against 8.1% and 8.3% by Australian and South African teams respectively).
In defence, they have prevented international opponents from progressing upfield with ball in hand by allowing the lowest rate of clean breaks and offloads (7.2% and 7.8% respectively), and the shortest average gain (3.5m per carry).
This superiority in interconference play has meant that Kiwi derbies have been a mouthwatering prospect for years from a purely competitive perspective, legitimately pitting the best of Super Rugby against the best.
Moreover, the way that the teams have achieved this superiority means that these clashes effectively pit the best ball-in-hand attacks against one another; from a stylistic perspective, they have represented the modern pinnacle for fans of running rugby.
A selection of sequences from the last five years underlines the quality and variety of attacking play that is regularly observed in these games. The first is an example of the 2016 Highlanders’ superlative play on counter-attack, with turnover ball against the Chiefs passing through seven sets of hands in the space of ten seconds before Dan Pryor dots down in the corner:
The second comes as the Chiefs attack with the ball in phase play against the Blues in 2017. Second row Dominic Bird serves as a midfield playmaker in this case, using support runner Kane Hames – a loosehead prop – to draw Rieko Ioane out of the line and put Tim Nanai-Williams through on the defender’s inside. Nanai-Williams links superbly with the supporting Aaron Cruden, before the fly-half gives the electric Damian McKenzie a chance to finish:
Ioane has the ball in his own hands in this next example, scorching around the outside of fellow All Blacks Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett in 2018 after a neat pull-back from prop Ofa Tuungafasi allows playmaker Stephen Perofeta to challenge the Hurricanes’ edge:
The Hurricanes are well capable of striking through their own supreme attacking talent, however, as scrum-half TJ Perenara showed with this razor-sharp blindside snipe and offload in last year’s semi-final:
Jack Goodhue – beaten by Perenara’s backdoor flip in the example above – then threw an offload to rival it earlier this year at Eden Park as the Crusaders finished off a multi-phase lineout attack:
The handling skills and intent to push the ball exemplified by the scores above have been relished by a considerable swathe of the Northern Hemisphere rugby-watching public since the Super 12 began as a professional competition back in 1996.
Indeed, with a February kick-off date a permanent feature since its inaugural season, for European viewers the competition is often juxtaposed with the Six Nations; the latter is a tournament which does not want for emotional intensity and intrigue, but is cut from a very different stylistic cloth.
By examining ESPNScrum match data for the 2012-20 period, we can identify the ways in which Kiwi derbies in particular have historically differed from traditional Northern Hemisphere fare – and, in doing so, set out the aspects of gameplay which viewers can expect to see taking on more prominence in Super Rugby Aotearoa over the next couple of months of action.
One of the primary structural differences between Super Rugby as it is played in Australasia and the Men’s Six Nations has been the importance of the kicking game in teams’ strategies for advancing the ball upfield. In the Southern Hemipshere’s domestic competition, the ball tends to be kept in hand for longer by teams from Australia and New Zealand before kicking:
The graph above also shows the degree to which attacking play has historically been structured around the breakdown in the Six Nations: for every 100 rucks that take place, there have been 129 carries completed by the attacking team on average – compared to 142 in Kiwi derbies in Super Rugby.
A substantial proportion of these extra carries outside of ruck situations likely arise in transition: where possession changes hands in open play after a turnover or kick, and the counter-attacking team elects to keep the recovered ball in hand to play with.
Contributing to this is the fact that the ruck area has been more regularly contested by the defensive side in Super Rugby over this period, with breakdown turnovers being recorded more regularly than in the Six Nations. There are also more frequent changes of possession via open-play turnovers:
This higher rate of turnovers in open play – often via knock-ons and forward passes – has had an impact on the relative frequency with which scrums and lineouts take place in New Zealand derbies: scrums have made up 38.8% of all set pieces over the last 9 seasons, compared to 34.1% in the Men’s Six Nations.
Contrary to traditional stereotypes, set pieces on the whole have also been observed more frequently in Super Rugby than in European test rugby during this period. However, as the chart below indicates, they are more typically used as a means of restarting open play than as tools themselves:
Nevertheless, the higher-risk approaches which lead to higher rates of open-play turnovers in Super Rugby also lead to more effective attacking play with ball in hand. The rates of offloading observed in the competition are significantly higher than in the Six Nations, and teams generate clean breaks much more regularly – with Kiwi derbies coming out on top in both metrics:
This difference in offloading rates is likely partly a result of differing defensive styles, and partly of different technical skills among New Zealand’s player base relative to the rest of the world – as this Twitter thread from last year explores.
It is consequently no surprise, as a result of these better attacking outcomes, that games between New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises ultimately see points and tries scored more regularly than the casual European observer is used to. However, the degree of difference – 6.4 points and 1.4 tries more per game than Men’s Six Nations fixtures – is not as extreme as you might expect given the competition’s occasional panning for its supposed ‘we score, you score’ mentality:
The nature of these on-field differences was summarised well by Joe Marchant, the Harlequins centre currently on secondment in Auckland with the Blues, in an interview during preseason:
“The games were tough…They were much quicker than I’m used to. The biggest adjustment is the speed of everything. I found…there was a lot more emphasis on ball in play, a lot more attack, a lot more playing from deep. It was about getting myself alive and keeping in the game the whole time.”An Englishman abroad: Blues recruit Joe Marchant living his Kiwi Super Rugby dream
There is, however, something beyond these technical and tactical subtleties which has always made the competition so alluring. Whether it is augmented by the viewing experience in this part of the world or not – the early Saturday morning alarm, in all other circumstances inexcusable, and the eerie stillness of the outside world as you situate yourself in front of the television – there is just something innately joyous about watching some of the most talented athletes in the sport go out there and simply love having the chance to give it a crack.
It’s one of the reasons why Marchant has always wanted to get amongst it, and it’s why – regardless of the competition’s shape or structure in the future – there will likely always be an audience for Southern Hemisphere rugby in this part of the world.
Super Rugby is back.