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.
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.
Situated in the smallest of the 5 urban centres to support a Super Rugby franchise and over 300 kilometres to the south of their nearest competitor, the Highlanders are in an unenviable position relative to the other New Zealand clubs.
The Dunedin side has consistently been reliant on bringing in players from other provinces to supplement those from its own catchment area – aided by the fact that it is a student town with a strong university rugby club – and with a steady period of good recruitment and “continuity” in the later years of the Jamie Joseph-Tony Brown-Scott McLeod ticket, they were able to challenge consistently at the top end of the Super competition.
However, in the 3 years since Brown and McLeod departed – the former joining Joseph with Japan, having succeeded him as head coach for a season, and the latter moving into a position with the All Blacks – there has been significant turnover and disruption. Although Brown has returned to Dunedin for the 2020 season as an assistant – and brought some exciting ideas back with him from the Brave Blossoms – Aaron Mauger has had to watch on as the majority of their title-winning side of 2015 departs for overseas clubs.
With the end of 2019 came a changing of the guard in Christchurch. The departures of Kieran Read and Tim Bateman – whose time at the franchise was broken up by stints at the Hurricanes and in Japan – saw the final threads between the current Crusaders’ playing squad and the Robbie Deans era broken, both players having started the 2008 final victory over the Waratahs.
A number of other household names also moved on: between them, Owen Franks, Matt Todd, Ryan Crotty and Israel Dagg contributed a substantial proportion of the 380 All Blacks caps and 1,009 Crusaders appearances which left Rugby Park at the conclusion of last season.
As the only Kiwi franchise not to have won Super Rugby outright in the last 8 seasons, the Blues will have been more disappointed than most when the 2020 iteration of the competition was halted after 7 rounds as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sitting with a 5-0-2 record at its premature conclusion, their average scoring margin of +8.3 points per game over their 7 fixtures would have comfortably been their best single-season mark since 2012; their highest figure over this 8-year period is the +2.7 points per game they achieved in 2017.
The sun rises in spite of everything. After weeks of deprivation and uncertainty, hope has appeared on the horizon – or, at least, to those European rugby fans willing to set their alarms early on coming weekend mornings.
This morning’s win over the Highlanders in Dunedin was the Sharks’ 5th – to go with 1 draw – in their last 10 Super Rugby matches against Kiwi opponents (spanning the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons); 2 of those wins (and the single draw) have come away from home.
The Durban side have consistently matched up well with New Zealand franchises over the last few years: their average points margin in games on NZ soil over that period is +1.7 per 80 mins, with other overseas teams averaging -11.6 points per game across 2018-20. (They have also been significantly better than average at home against Kiwi teams. Their average margin in those games is +9.0; against all other touring franchises in Durban, it is +1.8.)
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.