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Without Beauden Barrett in their squad for the first time in a decade, head coach John Plumtree having left the franchise for Ian Foster’s All Blacks coaching team and with Ardie Savea injured on the sideline, the Hurricanes can almost be forgiven for starting 2020 with a whimper. An unedifying 27-0 loss to the Stormers at Newlands in which they weren’t able to fire a shot felt like an apt metaphor for a club still scrambling to find its feet as the season kicked off.
However, after sneaking a late victory over the Jaguares in Buenos Aires a week later – thanks in large part to Beauden’s younger brother Jordie, who finished the match with a 63m penalty kick and try-saving tackle to his name – they were away, and home wins over the Sharks and Sunwolves swiftly followed.
In the New Zealand conference, they lost narrowly to the Blues (having been on the wrong end of a high-tackle red card) before winning another finely-balanced game against the Chiefs in their last outing before the season was postponed, with Barrett kicking a game-winning penalty after 80 mins to clinch it.
Consequently, they enter Super Rugby Aotearoa in a more positive place than many would have thought after their opening 80 minutes in Cape Town, and now have the best player in the country fit and ready to make a comeback.
Their matches to date in 2020 have been open, end-to-end affairs: of the 5 Kiwi franchises, they have seen the fewest total carries (207.7), the highest ratio of carries to rucks – 1.47, indicating gameplay less structured around the breakdown – and have both made in attack (4.0m) and allowed in defence (4.2m) the highest rates of metres per carry in the country.
The latter is not the only defensive metric that has been slightly concerning: while their 2.8 tries per game conceded on average is middle-of-the-road, they have conceded comfortably the highest rate of clean breaks (11.7%) of any team in New Zealand so far this year.
The aggressive shape they deployed early in the season – with the outside centre or openside wing blitzing high and narrow, leaving lots of space for teams to attack on the outside – was found out against the Jaguares in particular; however, they seemed to temper this as the year progressed, and signed off the first part of the season by conceding only 6 clean breaks on 101 carries in Hamilton.
On attack in recent seasons, they have appeared to rely less on intricate phase-play structures than the other Kiwi sides, and more on individual superiority and skill; they have also used their set-piece platforms as opportunities to get their attacking talent into favourable match-ups.
This try from last year against the Highlanders is a good example of their focus on simple attack plans. On kick return, Beauden Barrett quickly gets the ball into the hands of Ben Lam – leading the catcher’s momentum forward with a great pass in front of the man – and the winger immediately breaks multiple tackles. Lam then has the awareness to transfer the ball back to two hands so that he can find Savea on his outside shoulder:
The rest is all Ardie: the vision to see the space no other player would, and the agility to beat the cover and finish spectacularly in the corner.
These same themes have been observed so far this season, even without Beauden Barrett and with Savea on the sidelines: they have scored more tries directly from set-pieces (1.1 per game; 31.8% of their total) than other Kiwi teams (who average 0.6 per game, or 17.3%), and have been a threat to score from all over the field. They have registered 1.0 tries per game on phases which begin beyond their opponent’s 10m line; this means that 27.3% of their scores come from these deep areas of the pitch. (In comparison, the 4 other New Zealand franchises score 14.2% of their tries – a per-team average of 0.5 per game – from this part of the pitch.)
In this example of a kick-return attack against the Sharks earlier this season, it is a different Barrett getting the ball in Lam’s hands – but the end result is the same:
Lam’s work to get back behind the ball and early communication to Barrett (as indicated by his outstretched arm) are superb, but it is the winger’s ball-handling skill that is most impressive. Having tucked it under his left as he swerves outside the first chaser, he has transferred it back to his right within a split second so that he can fend the outside cover and propel himself upfield toward the tryline.
It’s also worth noting the excellent instincts of the Hurricanes support players throughout this play. Both Du’Plessis Kirifi and Gareth Evans have also worked back to the open 15m channel and offer passing options for Lam; however, Kirifi points the winger in the direction of a mismatch with a forward before flooding through in support. TJ Perenara – who on his retreat after the Sharks kick barely makes it out of the opposition 22m, such is his nose for a potential walk-in try – is also on hand to offer an inside passing option after Lam breaks through.
Although he won’t be fit to take on his brother at Eden Park in Round 1 of Super Rugby Aotearoa, Jordie Barrett has made the 15 shirt his own this year after bouncing around a number of positions during 2019.
Barrett has taken a bit of time to settle after bursting onto the scene as a 19-year-old and making the All Blacks at 20. As his former international coach Steve Hansen often noted, he has tended to play the game with an almost frenetic pace and energy which doesn’t always work to his own team’s advantage.
With the departure of Beauden he has taken on additional responsibility for the Hurricanes in 2020. He is kicking at goal exclusively, having shared the role with his brother in recent years, and is now the team’s primary exit kicker: he is putting boot to ball in open play 9.5 times per 80 minutes this year – up from an average of 4.3 across the 2017-19 seasons – and he has maintained his kicking quality with this increased frequency. Per FOX Sports, his kicking error rate in 2020 is only 2.5%; for comparison, players from New Zealand franchises have an average kicking error rate of 5.6%.
(It is also worth noting that his goal-kicking is a real strength: among players currently at Kiwi franchises with more than 50 attempts at goal in the Super Rugby data compiled by goalkickers.co.za, he is the only player who adds value by professional standards. He has been above average during his Mitre 10 Cup career too.)
He has coped ably with this increased level of responsibility and the accompanying spotlight, and as a consequence the narrative around him and his “temperament” has started to shift subtly among members of the Kiwi press.
However, while there have been some salient examples of important turnovers he’s committed that have affected his reputation (for example, his quick lineout throw picked off by Willie Le Roux against the Springboks in Wellington in 2018), his characterisation as regularly error-prone is not fully supported by the available data.
Since he began his Super Rugby career in 2017, he has conceded turnovers less frequently than the average NZ starting fullback – and 2 of his rivals for the black 15 jersey:
It is interesting to compare Barrett’s playing style to those of Havili and McKenzie and consider the ways in which he adds value to the Hurricanes. As the chart above shows, his ability to offload in contact is exceptional relative to other players in his position. This ability is driven by his uncommon size and strength among outside backs, and these physical characteristics also help him at the attacking breakdown – where he is an effective cleaner of wide rucks – and when he is under the high ball in the backfield (where his fielding skills are brilliant).
While Havili and McKenzie are undoubtedly more elusive runners in the open field (beating defenders every 2.6 and 2.9 carries respectively in their starts at 15 since 2017, compared to Barrett’s mark of 3.8), Barrett’s physicality offers a different sort of carrying threat; additionally, he possesses the ability to pick excellent angles as a support runner from deep.
However, it is the fact that he marries this competence in traditional aspects of fullback play with an excellent passing game that makes him such a truly valuable asset. During Chris Boyd’s time at the franchise, he was particularly prominent as a second playmaker from 15 outside his brother Beauden: to illustrate, in 2017 and 2018 he completed more passes for the Hurricanes in his starts at fullback than he did carries.
Moreover, Barrett has contributed more try assists per 80 (0.5) from fullback over the last 4 seasons than either Havili (0.2) or McKenzie (0.4) have, and nearly matches McKenzie in his rate of try assists and line break assists: per FOX Sports, 8.5% of his passes have resulted in scores or breaks, compared to McKenzie’s 8.7%. (Havili’s rate of such assists sits at 11.2%, but passes much less frequently: he has completed 1.7 carries per pass over this period, compared to an approximately equal split between passes and carries for the other 2 players.)
Again, his size is an asset in this part of his game. He can generate incredible width on his passes, allowing his team to get the ball into the 15m channels quickly and effectively:
With his 1.96m frame, Jordie Barrett is able to generate freakish distance passing off both hands while maintaining accuracy and speed of release. His presence as a secondary distributor in the backline is so valuable to both the All Blacks and Hurricanes: pic.twitter.com/C1bbZdbXZc— The Chase Rugby (@thechaserugby) July 1, 2018
Barrett will be Holland’s clear first-choice at 15 when he returns from injury – Chase Tiatia, a dangerous ball-runner, is a fine replacement in the interim – and should be partnered in the backfield by Lam and Wes Goosen:
Lam is contracted to Bordeaux in the Top 14 from the end of this Super Rugby campaign, and will be sorely missed by head coach Jason Holland, but 23-year-old Salesi Rayasi – another outrageously gifted outside back who has been released from the All Blacks 7s programme for the rest of the campaign – should step up to fill his boots in the next couple of years.
Barrett’s impressive start at 10 for the All Blacks during the World Cup has led to suggestions that he might eventually move forward to partner Perenara in the halves, but Holland has kept him at the back so far. Neither Fletcher Smith nor Jackson Garden-Bachop has yet made the fly-half position their own, and if one-cap All Black Brett Cameron eventually tires of being stuck behind Richie Mo’unga at the Crusaders and looks to move elsewhere, the franchise could do worse than reuniting Barrett with his former Lincoln University teammate.
Ngani Laumape – whose all-round attacking game has continued to develop superbly under Holland’s tutelage, adding short kicking and passing options to his brutally effective carrying – and Vince Aso should form a strong midfield partnership to round out the backline.
The return of Savea is a huge boost for the pack, and he will likely start at 8 given Kirifi’s promising play at openside. There are a number of potential options to go with them in the back row: Vaea Fifita is another strong carrier – particularly in wider channels – and an excellent defensive lineout jumper, Evans is a very solid all-purpose forward and Devan Flanders is a young number 8 who is mobile and does stellar work at the breakdown.
Isaia Walker-Leawere is another example of the depth of attacking talent the Hurricanes possess all over the field, and should take one of their second-row slots. His potential partners are James Blackwell (an undersized but technically strong player), Scott Scrafton – a bigger body recruited from the Blues – and Liam Mitchell, who has shown potential as a ball-playing forward in the middle of the field.
Tighthead prop Tyrel Lomax has been excellent in his first season after coming in from the Highlanders, and has shown development in his passing and handling ability this year to go with his robustness at set piece and physicality around the park. On his current trajectory, he should challenge Nepo Laulala for All Blacks selection whenever international rugby resumes. (Such is the ball-carrying ability of his powerhouse back-up Alex Fidow, future international honours should not be ruled out for him either.)
Dane Coles will likely remain the team’s first-choice hooker for now, although Asafo Aumua – whose defensive work has been excellent this year – should eventually assume the starting role; Ricky Riccitelli will also push both players hard.
On the loosehead side, Xavier Numia’s mobility and open-field ability are unquestioned. However, whether he could withstand top-level scrummaging at his size was unclear after he conceded 10 penalties in only 217 Super Rugby minutes during 2019. To that end, his return of only a single penalty in 92 minutes this year is promising, and he has looked stronger at set-piece than in the past; if he’s not able to hold up in the long term, Pouri Rakete-Stones offers a more robust option while still bringing mobility and skill to the position.
The Hurricanes begin their Super Rugby campaign away to the Blues on Sunday (kick-off: 4:35am UK time).