— The Chase (@thechasesport) May 24, 2018
Author: Ben Wylie
Leinster head into Saturday’s European Rugby Champions Cup final with an unbeaten tournament record, and comfortably the best per-game points difference (+14.5) and try difference (+2.0) of all teams in the competition. This average margin of victory dwarfs that of their opponents Racing 92 – who have averaged +4.9 points and +0.8 tries per 80 mins on their way to a 6-2 record – and was achieved despite drawing three very strong opponents in the pool stage. Exeter, Glasgow and Montpellier each top their respective domestic league tables at the end of the 2017-18 regular season, but were defeated home and away by the Irish province; only one of Leinster’s six pool victories (Round 4 at home to Exeter) came by fewer than 7 points.
Saracens and Scarlets – defending Champions Cup and Pro12 champions respectively – were no more successful in their visits to Dublin, and after 11- and 14-point victories at the quarter- and semi-final stages only Racing stand in the way of a perfect season for Leinster in Europe’s premier club competition.
Analysis of Luke Whitelock’s attacking contributions in the Highlanders’ R10 win over the Blues at Eden Park.
With Kieran Read yet to recover from back surgery, New Zealand face the prospect of starting the 2018 season as they began and ended 2017: without their talismanic captain and number 8. Ardie Savea was his replacement in last June’s opening test against Samoa, while Luke Whitelock was given the start in the final match of the year at the Millenium Stadium; the Highlanders forward appears to be an early front-runner for the jersey in 2018 along with the uncapped Akira Ioane, who made clear strides as part of the All Blacks’ touring squad last November and has brought an improved level of performance in Super Rugby so far this season.
Whitelock and Ioane will face off directly in Friday’s clash between the Blues and Highlanders at Eden Park, and the contrast between their respective styles of play will be evident. Examining the role that Read has fulfilled for New Zealand in the current World Cup cycle – and how this role has changed over the course of his international career – provides an insight into what may expected of his replacement, and may give an indication as to which back row combination Steve Hansen and his selectors will opt for in June.
In the 68th minute of this morning’s game in Hamilton, Bulls prop Conraad van Vuuren received a yellow card for a swinging arm directed at the head of a falling Damian McKenzie. The Chiefs were awarded another penalty 2 minutes later and elected for a scrum, forcing John Mitchell’s hand: starting tighthead Trevor Nyakane had to return to the field, and the away team’s head coach chose to sacrifice a midfielder – Burger Odendaal – rather than another member of the forward pack. This had important tactical consequences for the Bulls – they were now a man short in the backline when defending in set-piece situations – and the Chiefs exploited the decision expertly before the end of van Vuuren’s sin-binning to put themselves 6 points clear with 5 minutes to play.
The Highlanders established a distinctive tactical identity under former head coach Jamie Joseph: they ensured that games were played at pace, backed their defence to withstand a high volume of opposition possessions, and looked to strike quickly with efficient and inventive attacking play. Under Joseph’s former assistant Tony Brown during the 2017 season, the team did not alter this approach – Round 1 against the Chiefs aside. They averaged only 45.7% of the total carries made in their fixtures – 4% lower than any other New Zealand franchise – but generated cleak breaks with the second-highest frequency (11.2%) of all teams in the competition; on the other side of the ball, they allowed opponents to make clean breaks with the third-lowest frequency (7.3%) teams.
After a win over the Blues last weekend, it appears that – despite a third head coach in three seasons – the team’s tactical approach will not be significantly different in 2018. They made 44.9% of the game’s total carries in Aaron Mauger’s first game in charge, and scored points with quick, efficient attacking strikes.
The Super Rugby season kicks off for the New Zealand Conference tomorrow, as the Blues travel to Dunedin to take on the Highlanders. What are some of the questions that each franchise – and the All Blacks selectors – will be considering heading into their 2018 campaigns?
The 2018 Six Nations championship kicks off tomorrow with a match between Wales and Scotland in Cardiff that is highly anticipated, as a result of the tactical shift both sides appear to be undergoing. Scotland, in particular, are receiving a lot of media attention in the lead up to Gregor Townsend’s first tournament in charge, due to their new head coach’s attacking reputation and their strong November showing against Australia and New Zealand – aspects of which showed evidence of Townsend’s coaching focus.
Scotland’s record since the former Glasgow coach took over is impressive: a 4-2 record across the June and November internationals (including wins home and away against the Wallabies), along with averages of 32.3 points and 4.5 tries per game. Of the 27 tries they scored in this period, an impressive 5 resulted from opposition turnovers – a mark which suggests that Townsend is already moulding this side into the type of all-court team comfortable in transition not often seen in international rugby in the Northern Hemisphere.