Super Rugby Aotearoa preview: analysing Clayton McMillan’s style of play

On Monday 22nd February, I’ll be co-hosting a webinar with Brian Fitzpatrick of BF Sports Analysis previewing the upcoming Super Rugby Aotearoa season. If you’re interested in attending this event, you can sign up to receive more details here.

We’ll be collaborating to dive into the detail of some of the tactical and technical trends that are likely to be prominent in the 2021 edition of the competition, taking a look at each of the 5 teams in the process.

One of the questions we’ll be addressing is what to expect from the Chiefs, who went winless during Super Rugby Aotearoa 2020 and have appointed Clayton McMillan as their interim head coach for the year in Warren Gatland’s absence.

McMillan has been the head coach of the Maori All Blacks since 2017, and led the Bay of Plenty Steamers in the Mitre 10 Cup between 2015 and 2020.

In this article, we’ll briefly discuss what his 2020 Steamers side (who made it to the Premiership semi-finals) looked like on the field — but be sure to sign up for our webinar on the 22nd to discover how this tactical approach might play out on the field in Hamilton in 2021.

In their first season back in the top division of the NPC, Clayton McMillan’s Bay of Plenty made it all the way to the playoffs with a clear tactical plan — and a selection strategy that complemented it nicely.

Similar to the situation he’ll find himself in at the Chiefs, at the Steamers in 2020 McMillan had natural footballers at both 10 and 15 for most of the season: Kaleb Trask started 9 of their 11 games at fullback, and Otere Black started 9 at fly-half. (Dan Hollinshead started the other 2 games at 10 and 1 at 15, with Emoni Narawa the other player to start at fullback — in their first game of the season.)

With that profile of skills in the backline, they pursued a kick-heavy approach and were happy to cede possession to their opponents. No team across either division played with less of the ball on average, or kicked more frequently:

Vertical axis: team’s share of total carries made in their matches; horizontal axis: average number of carries per open-play kick

However, when they did have the ball they looked to play expansively.

For every 100 carries they made as a team, they passed the ball 145 times; Mitre 10 Cup sides across both divisions averaged 136 in 2020. They were also comfortably the most frequent offloaders in the Premiership division, keeping the ball alive on 10% of their carries:

Vertical axis: number of passes completed by a team for every carry; horizontal axis: offloads completed as a percentage of total team carries

And giving the ball this much air was a largely successful strategy: they made clean breaks on 12.2% of their carries — again, the highest rate in the Premiership.

This was best exemplified in their riotous 44-8 victory over Canterbury in Tauranga during Round 7 of the competition. The home side kicked the ball 31 times out of hand and only made 73 carries, but completed 130 passes and 9 offloads, registering a scarcely believable 26 clean breaks in a 6-try masterclass.

Black and Trask together contributed 28 of those passes, and they popped up in combination at first and second receiver to put Joe Webber away in the second half:

Trask is already installed as one of the Chiefs’ playmakers, and given his relationship with McMillan (and status as the longest-tenured Chiefs player in the position) may be the frontrunner to start at 10 with another dangerous playmaker — Damian McKenzie — in the 15 jersey.

While McKenzie is unlikely (as a returning All Black) to appear in the franchise’s preseason hit-out in Upper Hutt in a couple of weeks’ time, McMillan’s selection approach in that game — and how he uses his fly-halves and fullbacks on the field — may give us an indication of whether he is planning to continue with the tactics that brought him success in his final year in charge of the Steamers.

If you’re interested in attending the Super Rugby Aotearoa webinar on 22nd February, you can sign up to receive more details here.

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