Steinlager North v South preview

Steinlager North v South preview

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One of the most common refrains heard from commentators on rugby in New Zealand is that, for the nation’s governing body, it’s “always…all about the dollars“.

However, the relationship of New Zealand Rugby — a not-for-profit, Public Benefit Entity — to money is not often considered as a coherent whole. As an organisation existing “for the purpose of promoting amateur rugby for the recreation or entertainment of the general public“, that relationship is very different to Premier Rugby Limited’s in the UK, for instance, whose aim is “to promote and develop professional rugby by pursuing the collective interests of its shareholders“. (Prioritising those collective interests meant that £51.3m was distributed back to the Premiership clubs – themselves for-profit entities – in the twelve months to 30 June 2019.)

Rather than pursuing them for profit, NZR are given space by their Constitution to undertake professional competitions and seek sponsorship specifically “for the Advancement of the Amateur Game“. Making this clear in any analysis of their decision-making is fundamentally crucial to having a discussion about NZR and its role on an accurate and informed basis, and avoids the risk of defaulting to standard ‘corrupting-influence-of-money-in-sport’ tropes.

In this context, one of the clearest commercial decisions the union has made as professionalism has bedded down in the rugby world is to focus on the All Blacks as a global brand.

In theory, doing so drives revenues which filter back to the general public through increased investment in grassroots sport and — more controversially — increased investment in high-performance sport, with success on the field at the top level intended to maintain rugby’s “very special position in [their] country” as a significant component of that public’s sense of national identity.

Even before the impact of 2020’s pandemic, the union were transparent about the ways in which they generally sought a “combination of both high performance and commercial outcomes” in their decision-making. In effect, the executive has assessed that, without success on the world stage and an identifiable national “brand of rugby“, its ability to do what it was incorporated to do would wane.

It was this framework which NZR stuck to when COVID-19 stretched its resources close to breaking point — remember, staff overseeing “the community game” were expected to be hit hardest by the mass redundancies reported back in May — and forced the union to consider all possible revenue-generating options for viability.

And it was by this framework that NZR made the original decision to stage the North v South game in the manner that it did: at Eden Park, in order to drive upwards of NZ$1m of ticket revenue to reinvest in the game; and under selection criteria which would best balance competitive spectacle against local identity.

This second point is crucial. Redistributing playing resources between North and South was necessary, in their view, both to provide as compelling and marketable a product as possible — to attract fans to come to the ground and to tune in from across the world to take pride in, or marvel at, that “brand of rugby” — and to make the fixture a useful exercise in discovery and development for Ian Foster and his fellow All Blacks selectors and coaches as they begin their time in charge of NZR’s prestige product.

Despite the fact that the game is now going to be played behind closed doors in Wellington a week later than planned, the process followed to get to this point remains a paradigmatic example of the union’s organising principles and priorities at a time of crisis.

The squads selected for the game also give audiences at home and abroad an insight into the depth of quality talent that NZR were hoping to take around the world alongside the All Blacks this autumn — and that talent, as displayed throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa, appears to have been moulded in the same fashion as their world-champion predecessors.

To understand how stylistically distinct the All Blacks have been as an international team over the last decade or so — while also winning more games than anyone else in test rugby — consider the following chart:

Their otherworldly success as an attacking team — and, specifically, as an attacking team that runs the ball — has been one of the most important factors in the establishment of that ‘brand’. Steve Hansen said it himself last year: the All Blacks “love to play footy“.

This is a trend which has historically been observed at domestic level too. Kiwi derbies in Super Rugby have tended to see a much higher rate of clean breaks and offloads than their Australian and South African equivalents, and this has continued into 2020: teams in Super Rugby Aotearoa have made breaks on 9.1% of their carries and offloads on 7.7%, compared to overall rates of 6.8% and 5.3% respectively in Super Rugby AU at the conclusion of Round 8 of that competition. (For some additional context: across the 24 games that have been played since the August resumption of the Premiership and Pro14 at time of writing, clean breaks have been made on 6.2% of carries and offloads on 5.7%.)

However, in addition to the wealth of pure attacking talent that has been on display in New Zealand this year, there has also been evidence of Super Rugby sides looking for more tactical balance — a positive sign for Kiwi fans after their team’s shortcomings at last year’s World Cup.

The Chiefs moved further towards a kicking game and away from a running game in the early part of 2020, and the Blues were strong in Super Rugby Aotearoa as a consequence of a similar tactical shift — as well of a new level of physical dominance from their forward pack, something else the All Blacks were unable to impose consistently in 2019. The Auckland franchise provides 11 of the 28 men in the North squad, and the split of those players across positions — 7 forwards and 1 fly-half, along with 3 outside backs — means that coaches John Plumtree and Scott McLeod will be able to lean heavily on the organising principles of Leon MacDonald’s side.

On the South Island, the Crusaders took a decidely different tactical approach on their way to claiming the Super Rugby Aotearoa title this year, one which represented a bit of a departure from their tighter style of recent seasons. Given that Brad Mooar and Greg Feek will have 15 Crusaders to choose from, the South’s approach is also likely to take a considerable amount of inspiration from that of their island’s most successful team in domestic rugby.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether Foster’s coaching group make significant tactical alterations in order to bridge the players between club and test rugby. Akin to the Blues earlier this year, a sharper focus on the kicking game as a ball progression tool is likely: speaking on a recent episode of The Rugby Analyst Podcast, All Blacks Performance Analyst Jamie Hamilton identified a renewed focus on kicking — after a World Cup in which both finalists’ primary strategies were based around putting boot to ball — as a key trend in the game across the world.

In this vein, one specific tactical change from Super Rugby to look out for is the role that Aaron Smith plays for the North team. His elite box-kicking was a fundamental part of the All Blacks’ exit strategy under Steve Hansen, but the Highlanders deviated from their typical kick focus in Super Rugby Aotearoa and this part of Smith’s game wasn’t as prominent — expect it to return with greater frequency at an eternally blustery Sky Stadium next weekend.

With Dane Coles out injured and Brodie Retallick on sabbatical, Smith is one of only 3 starters from New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup final victory that have made the North v South squads; given the age profile of that exceptional vintage of players — which saw Owen Franks, Kieran Read, Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Smith move on at the end of 2019, joining the legends who had already departed the stage — 2020 was always going to be about the longer-term regeneration of New Zealand’s test playing group.

It is therefore unsurprising that younger talent has started to rise towards the top in their absence. Even taking into consideration those in the 2019 World Cup squad who were not named for North v South as a result of injury or sabbatical, the median age of players selected for the interisland clash is 25.6 as at 1 September 2020, and 25.8% of the group are under 24 years of age; in comparison, the group that went to Japan last year had a median age of 27.7 (as at 1 September 2019), and only 4 of the 32 — 12.5% — were under 24.

There has been little movement in the front row, however: none of the 8 players named at prop or hooker for the World Cup have gone offshore, and 6 of them have been named in the North v South squads. (Atu Moli joins the aforementioned Coles on the sidelines with injury.) But with another whole Super Rugby season’s worth of performances to consider, the depth chart may look markedly different — especially at tighthead prop, where the Blues’ Ofa Tuungafasi may have lept above Nepo Laulala on the strength of his 2020 play. (Laulala may not even start for Greg Feek’s South side, with Tyrel Lomax having been impressive for the Hurricanes in his first year at his hometown club.)

These 7 internationals — the 6 who went to Japan and Lomax, who made a single test appearance in 2018 — are supplemented by a number of younger prospects: the uncapped Ayden Johnstone, Alex Hodgman* and George Bower on the loosehead side, previous All Blacks tourist Asafo Aumua and Lomax’s deputy in Wellington, Alex Fidow.

*Hodgman was replaced in the South squad by Daniel Lienert-Brown on Friday 28 August.

Fidow’s ball-carrying has long been his point of difference, and, although he is unlikely to crack the matchday squad for the North, his inclusion is a sign that the selectors are keen on the attacking upside he brings. (The fundamentals of his forward play have also improved significantly at the Hurricanes.)

His age-grade teammate Aumua is another whose potential in attack is hard to look past:

However, bringing the hooker off the bench to spell Ash Dixon is more likely what Plumtree and McLeod will deem the best use of the North’s resources.

In the second row, the continued absence of Brodie Retallick — a complete offensive player — as a consequence of his sabbatical in Japan is obviously a massive loss to Kiwi rugby in the short term. No one else at the position comes close to replicating his skill set on the ball:

Nonetheless, this year — with Scott Barrett also out injured — presents a rare opportunity to develop depth at lock behind Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Patrick Tuipulotu, the North captain, should get an opportunity to play more top-level international rugby than ever before; since his debut in 2014, he has only twice started more than a single test in a season against Tier 1 opposition (3 in 2016 and 2 in 2019).

Alongside Tuipulotu in the North second row could be young Chiefs second row Tupou Vaa’i, one of the more surprising names — as a player called in late to Super Rugby Aotearoa and still U20-eligible — in either squad. Foster himself noted that while “he’s still developing physically…he’s got a good attitude and he gets through his work“.

Asked to do a lot of carrying off 9 in a struggling Chiefs attack, he performed admirably: his average of 1.8m per carry in 2020 is a better rate than either Whitelock (1.0m) or North teammate Scott Scrafton (0.9m) could manage. He also showed an ability to move the ball across the field in phase play, and as he continues to bed in to senior rugby he’ll be able to show off more and more of his range of skills:

(Outside the squads, Foster also name-checked Pari-Pari Parkinson and Quinten Strange — both ruled of contention for a place in the South team due to injury — in interviews after the initial announcement.)

In contrast to their relative lack of depth at lock, the All Blacks will have a wealth of talent to select from in the back row; even without Sam Cane, the North selectors have been able to leave Luke Jacobson, Du’Plessis Kirifi and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u at home. After a bittersweet year in 2019, Jacobson’s struggles with injury have unfortunately continued this season; as a consequence, Foster felt that the Waikato flanker was best “getting some consistent rugby under his belt” in the upcoming Mitre 10 Cup. On the South side, up-and-coming Crusader Cullen Grace — comfortable at 6 or 8, and a great lineout option — also wasn’t considered because of the injury that ruled him out of most of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

The picture behind Cane — who is missing due to a concussion he suffered against the Hurricanes — at openside will be particularly interesting for the All Blacks this year. With the Chief already installed as Ian Foster’s captain, the assumption is that Ardie Savea will take up either the 6 or 8 jersey; elsewhere in the North v South squads, Dillon Hunt, Dalton Papalii and the uncapped pair of Tom Christie and Lachlan Boshier all probably play their strongest rugby at 7, but are markedly different players to Cane.

When his teams are in possession, he makes his living carrying off 9 on excellent straight lines with the ball in two hands, and clearing rucks more effectively than any other Kiwi forward. While all 4 challengers — Christie and Papalii in particular — are proficient at the attacking breakdown, none of them can yet replicate Cane’s tight ball-running:

In the backline, Aaron Smith’s late-career renaissance this season means that there is not yet a pressing need to identify his long-term successor at scrum-half. However, given the age profile of the trio of 9s they took to Japan last year — come 2023, TJ Perenara will be the youngest of the 3 at 31 — the international selectors will likely be looking to develop some younger options at the position as 2020 progresses.

Both Mitchell Drummond and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi were capped in 2018, but — while Tahuriorangi impressed the All Blacks coaches, and Drummond has performed well in his role for the Crusaders this year — neither is yet the undisputed primary option for their franchise:

However, as the chart above shows, Richie Mo’unga’s ascension toward stardom means that the national team have found a fly-half who should be reaching his peak at the next World Cup in France. (Barrett turns 30 next year, putting him in the same rough bracket as his North teammates Smith and Perenara.)

In the midfield, with the departures of Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams and the injury-enforced absence of Ngani Laumape, the options on both sides of Te Moana-o-Raukawa are similarly youthful: having turned 25 in April, Anton Lienert-Brown is the oldest of the 6 players selected.

Lienert-Brown will likely be partnered at centre for the North Island by Rieko Ioane, who is being properly considered as a starting option at the position for the first time in his test career on the back of excellent performances for the Blues. Selector Grant Fox was particularly complimentary of his development:

“[He’s] a big strong man, very quick, and he’s tidied his running lines up the last few weeks, got a little bit squarer, and more abrasive into the contact area. He’s got a great set of hands, he’s able to set guys free outside him, and defensively he’s sound enough, though he’s still got a little bit of work to do there.”

Ian Foster lights the fuse: It’s Richie Mo’unga v Beauden Barrett for All Blacks at 10

However, it’s worth remembering that he’s not entirely new to the position this year. He played 37 minutes there off the bench as a teenager for the All Blacks in Paris, and has alternated between wing and the midfield at Super Rugby level — in fact, he’s been one of the country’s most effective attackers at centre:

Ioane’s likely selection at 13 for the North should allow Caleb Clarke — a real breakout star of Super Rugby Aotearoa — to come onto the left wing to start; his combination of skill, size and power is a particular plus for Foster, whose All Blacks backline last year was less effective for its homogeneity and lacked its usual diversity of threats. Ioane and Clarke’s left-edge chemistry (and, indeed, their growing relationship with Beauden Barrett at fly-half) will be important up against what shapes as a cohesive Crusaders backline from 10 to 14, plus Jordie Barrett — who played regularly with Mo’unga, George Bridge and Jack Goodhue during the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup — at fullback.

Mark Telea, Clarke’s counterpart on the Blues’ right wing this season, will likely be pipped by Sevu Reece for the North’s 14 shirt, but his ball-carrying this year has been excellent: no player in either squad can better his rate of a defender beaten every 1.5 carries in his Super Rugby career to date.

Reece has been an interesting case on the right wing for the Crusaders. He too is a phenomenal ball-carrier, but pops up regularly off his wing and links well with his teammates. Of the ‘strike runners’ in the outside backs across both sides, he has the lowest ratio of carries to passes:

The selection of Damian McKenzie and Jordie Barrett in the respective 15 jerseys would also generate an interesting subplot: which player on each side will be entrusted with goalkicking duties in the match next weekend?

The relative merits of the 4 potential kickers — the 2 fullbacks and their respective fly-halves, Beauden Barrett and Mo’unga — have previously been covered well by Tom Savage at Three Red Kings. From a purely analytical perspective, the most progressive approach would be to assign kicks at goal in a given zone of the field to either player based on their respective records from that zone; while this is vanishingly unlikely, it would be positive even to see the coaches trust the numbers and give McKenzie and Jordie primary responsibility ahead of their 10s, who — according to‘s ‘Value Added’ metric — have clearly been less effective kickers in their professional careers to date:

Despite the fact that the recurrence of community transmission of COVID-19 cast New Zealand Rugby’s original plans for the match into disarray, the union have persisted with this one-off, fantasy-rugby fixture — and, in their persistence, provided further evidence of their primary goals both off and on the field.

In an age where “televised rugby is its core product“, NZR thinks about marketing its primary product on a global scale — and it is a consequence of these commercial decisions that fans of the Kiwi brand from across the world will be tuning in to watch the exciting first steps into a new era of All Blacks rugby next Saturday.

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