Wayne Smith’s appearance on Sky Sport NZ’s The Breakdown this week was an eventful one.
As well as casting his discerning eye over the “robotic” shapes of modern professional rugby, he also provided some great insight into how he has approached his role as Director of Rugby at the Kobelco Steelers in Japan’s Top League since taking over — alongside Kiwi head coach Dave Dillon — in 2018.
“The game’s different over there. If you watch Kobe play at the moment and see Brodie Retallick, he’s down to 117kg because he’s got to be able to keep up with the play — and he’s magnificent, he’s absolutely magnificent. It’s a faster game. When I went there in 2018 I was given free rein to play the sort of game I always wanted a team to play, so we have a very attacking style: we put a lot of work into our support play, we don’t go behind players very often with our pass — we go in front of them so that those players then can get an offload and keep the ball alive. So it is different. It’s really quick, it’s highly skilled and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Smith and Dillon had an immediate impact at the club, winning a title with Dan Carter at 10 in their first season in charge, and have continued that successful run over the last couple of years: they have won all 11 of their Top League fixtures and 8 of their 9 Top League Cup fixtures since the start of 2019. (A restructuring of the competition because of the 2019 World Cup in Japan, its suspension in early 2020 because of a former Crusader’s arrest for the alleged use of illegal drugs and ultimate cancellation as a result of Covid-19 mean that no league campaign has been completed since.)
As they prepare to face Robbie Deans’ Panasonic Wild Knights — the only other unbeaten team in the White Conference so far this season — in a Round 6 fixture on Sunday, it’s worth emphasising just how distinctive the style that Smith has put in place at Kobe is.
Most obviously, there are more subtle elements of their phase-play shape that the Director of Rugby mentioned himself. This passing sequence shared by fellow Steelers enthusiast Murray Kinsella on Twitter a few weeks ago perfectly illustrates the concept of keeping all of the options in a pod of three forwards alive:
Kobe's interplay in their pods of three is consistently good.— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) February 25, 2021
In this instance, NEC's tighthead folds left, leaving space on right fringe.
38-year-old Kobe loosehead Hisateru Hirashima [ex-Japan international] shapes to tip-on, but then tips-in late for the linebreak. pic.twitter.com/Jfn2ggEQKD
As the chart below shows, playing to those principles has allowed them to offload more freely than any other Top League side so far this season — as well as being among the teams that pass the most frequently:
And, in turn, it has helped them to make more metres per carry (4.8) and more clean breaks (17.6% of carries) than any other club apart from Suntory Sungoliath through five rounds. (Milton Haig’s side have averaged 5.8m per carry and made clean breaks on 21.2% of their carries, proving that having Yutaka Nagare, Beauden Barrett, Ryoto Nakumura, Samu Kerevi and Tevita Li in one Top League backline is basically a cheat code.)
However, it’s their overall approach to the game — even more so than their tactical and technical nuances — that makes Smith and Dillon’s Steelers truly stand out.
Speaking to Peter Breen on the Rugby Bricks podcast in April of last year, former Crusaders and Kobe scrum-half Andy Ellis helped explain the radical approach to kicking Smith has implemented in Japan:
“Smithy’s brought in this real attacking mindset…kick when there’s space to kick, but only then…I sort of feel like as a club we redefine a little bit the way the game’s played. I haven’t done a box kick in 12 months! And if you watch a game of rugby now, that’s what an exit is – you take the ball off a kickoff, you set a ruck, you box-kick it and you have a fifty-fifty.”
For context, there is less open-play kicking in the Top League than in comparable professional competitions, but not by much: this year’s edition has seen teams kick once every 5.8 carries, compared to a rate of once every 5.4 carries in Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 and 5.0 in Super Rugby AU.
Smith’s Steelers, however, are kicking at a scarcely believable rate of once every 11.7 carries — approximately half as frequently as the average Top League side:
It’s worth emphasising that approaching the game this way isn’t the only way to be successful. For instance, Deans’ Panasonic team kicks the most in the Top League at a rate of once every 3.5 carries, making this weekend’s fixture a clash of two equally successful clubs with diametrically opposite styles.
However, it’s certainly interesting that — when given the opportunity to shape a team in his own image — arguably the most widely respected coach in the game has chosen to diverge so far from the tactical path which almost every other team in professional men’s rugby is taking.
There’s no single ‘right’ way to play rugby, but at this stage of his career — after decades playing and coaching in his native New Zealand, Italy, England and Japan — Smith has clearly developed a sharp mental picture of what he wants the sport to look like on the field, and over the last few years has had the opportunity to fully realise it in practice.
Why take such a distinctive approach? It’s best to give the final word to the man himself:
“It’s a hell of a complex job to create a winning and competitive environment. But what I do know is that following the herd doesn’t cut the mustard. Every team’s got the opportunity to be unique, whether it’s the language you use or the way you play. Following what everyone else does might get you mid-table. Being your own people and your own team is very important.”