Upon his return to Hamilton after 13 years in Wales, new Chiefs head coach Warren Gatland made clear his views on the need for the franchise to evolve its on-field approach:
“[T]he Chiefs have tended to go out there and play and expansive game, and we want to encourage them to do that, but we also want them to be smart…talking to the other coaches, they’ve felt that in the last couple of years they’ve tried to play a little bit too much rugby, and haven’t been smart about having the balance between playing a little bit of territory and putting pressure on other teams.”Super Rugby: Warren Gatland wants Chiefs to play smarter brand of footy
He clearly implemented a number of tactical changes in the team’s 6 games before the Super Rugby competition’s suspension, and this was accompanied with markedly improved performance relative to last year: the Chiefs are 4-0-2 with an average points margin of +11.0 per game, after finishing Colin Cooper’s final season with a mark of -1.1 and a record of 7-2-8.
The most obvious shift in on-field strategy – unsurprising, given his comments above – has been in the Chiefs’ use of possession inside their own half. There has been a clear emphasis on early-phase kicking in this area of the field, leading to their overall frequency of kicking increasing – and share of the ball decreasing – relative to prior years:
They set their stall out in this regard in the season’s opening minutes, twice winning set-piece platforms against the Blues by kicking long, chasing well and forcing turnovers.
Their ability to compete at the defensive breakdown has been one of the reasons why this approach has proven effective; they have turned over ball at 6.1% of their opponents’ rucks in their 6 2020 fixtures to date, up from 3.9% in 2019. Lachlan Boshier’s prowess in this area has been well documented (as an aside: look out for the flanker defending in the scrum-half position at some opposition scrums) but he is ably supported by new All Black captain Sam Cane in the back row; Quinn Tupaea has also provided a breakdown threat from the midfield when he’s been on the pitch this season.
In turn, this pressure on the ball has allowed the team’s defence to get off the line and stymie the phase attack of their opponents. To illustrate: they have allowed only 3.3m per carry on this side of the ball in 2020 – compared to 3.8m in 2019 – and conceded offloads on only 6.3% of opposition carries; this is significantly lower than the competition’s season-average offload rate of 6.9%, and a marked improvement on their performance in this area last season (7.7%).
The way that the team’s pressure defence operates in unison with their jackal threats – forcing opponents back infield towards the previous ruck by shutting down outside options – was clear against the Crusaders in Hamilton, as seasoned analyst Nicholas Bishop looked at in detail in a piece for The Roar on the game. Overall, the impact of Gatland’s change in approach has been clearly positive: they have cut down the average number of points they concede in a game by the equivalent of a converted try (7.3) from last season.
The head coach seems to have overseen a similar level of change to their attack: they are playing with much less width and offloading much less frequently – averaging 1.16 passes per carry and making offloads on 5.5% of carries – relative to last season under Cooper, when those figures sat at 1.32 and 9.9% respectively.
They have, however, shown a desire to play more expansively under penalty advantage. This is an aspect of attack on which Northern Hemisphere teams have clearly focused in recent years, with these scenarios representing little or no risk even to turnover-shy teams, and this emphasis may be something which Gatland has brought with him from Europe. In the example below, the urgency of scrum-half Brad Weber to release the ball from the ruck as soon as referee Angus Gardner calls the advantage is clear:
Two excellent wide passes and a good running line from Alex Nankivell – preserving the space for his winger on the outside – put Shaun Stevenson in in the corner.
The Chiefs have also identified their set piece as a key attacking platform: they have scored 1.5 tries per game within 1 phase of a lineout (best in the New Zealand conference by a significant margin), and another 1.0 within 3 phases of a lineout or scrum.
7 of those 9 scores directly from a lineout have involved their maul, and this renewed focus is something else that Gatland seems to have brought back from the north: the Chiefs’ maul rate (calculated by dividing a team’s total mauls won by their total number of lineouts won) is 37.7% in 2020, up from 17.9% in the season prior.
However, their primary use for the maul has not been as a scoring weapon in and of itself, in the manner of the Brumbies and Jaguares. While hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho has scored twice off the back of this platform, the other 5 tries in which the maul has been involved have come on plays where it has been used to tie in defenders – either by dummying its creation or holding the ball at the back for a period.
Their first try against the Crusaders is a good example of this. Taukei’aho is patient as they initially try and push forward, but when progress slows the ball is whipped away to the backline:
Cruden and McKenzie are able to find space beyond the Crusaders’ outside-in, ball-focused rush defence with a series of screen passes, and Solomon Alaimalo finishes in the corner.
Alaimalo – comfortable on the wing or at fullback – is one of a plethora of outside backs competing for a starting place, including returning sevens international Etene Nanai-Seturo:
Alongside Anton Lienert-Brown, there are a number of compelling options in the midfield: Gatland can partner the All Black with Nankivell on his inside if he wants an additional passing option, or with Tupaea on his outside as a power carrier (who still offers good ball skills). Tumua Manu at 13 also provides a solid all-round option, and his left boot – which Auckland have often used as a primary option on exits in the NPC – is a particular asset given the Chiefs’ kick-focused gameplan.
In the halfbacks, Cruden and Weber have controlled the game exceptionally, and are arguably the strongest 9-10 combination in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
Up front, Aidan Ross and Taukei’aho have been preferred at loosehead and hooker respectively, with Atunaisa Moli – converted to the left-hand side of the scrum a number of seasons ago – having covered tighthead for the injured Nepo Laulala earlier this year. Laulala is now back in contention for selection, but fellow All Black Angus Ta’avao has been ruled out for most of the competition with injury issues of his own.
Canadian Tyler Ardron will likely partner Michael Allardice in the first-choice second row, where they will be backed up by 2 exciting young locks: Wellington’s Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Taranaki’s Tupou Vaa’i. Ah Kuoi has featured this season and shown his strong defensive abilities, and Vaa’i was a standout in last year’s New Zealand U20s who is eligible again this year. Vaa’i – who trained with the team in preseason – was brought in to the squad after Laghlan McWhannell suffered an injury which required surgery; the Waikato player is one of the most mobile tight forwards to come through the national U20 programme in recent years, but is yet to debut for the Chiefs. (The franchise has another excellent prospect in this position: Vaa’i’s Taranaki teammate Josh Lord – who only turned 18 in January – stands over 2 metres tall and spent preseason with the senior team.)
Boshier and Cane are firmly ensconced in the team’s first-choice back row, but with the third slot Gatland can go in a number of different directions. Mitchell Karpik can slot in at 6 if he wants to go with 3 opensides, while Pita-Gus Sowakula offers a traditional ball-carrying presence at 8; however, Luke Jacobson – recovered from the concussion issues which blighted his World Cup – is a superb all-purpose forward, and should eventually establish himself as a nailed-on selection for the franchise.
St Peter’s, Cambridge product Simon Parker – like Vaa’i, still U20-eligible – has also been brought into the full squad, having spent preseason with Gatland’s team; the loose forward is a heavy ball-carrier with a solid frame. Parker is one of a crop of excellent young players currently in the franchise’s development system: along with the aforementioned Vaa’i and Lord in the forwards, Rivez Reihana at fly-half and contracted sevens player Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens in the backs, he should be one of the Chiefs’ core pieces in years to come.
The Chiefs begin their Super Rugby campaign away to the Highlanders on Saturday (kick-off: 8:05am UK time).