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.
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.)
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?
Tactical analysis: what rugby can learn from football
Technical and tactical analysis has come to flourish in rugby over the past few seasons, but is still far behind many leading team sports in terms of its detail and clarity. This is partly due to the tactical complexity of rugby relative to sports such as basketball and football: its multiple methods of scoring points bring with them numerous possible strategies to attempt to ‘optimise’ performance, and this adds layers of noise for an analyst trying to establish the signal.
Football’s single mode of scoring allows an analyst to establish a clear framework through which each player’s actions and decisions can be judged: an action’s worth can be determined by the extent to which it has increased its own team’s chances of creating a shot on goal in a high quality location, or decreased the opposition’s chances of doing so. The basis of football strategy is essentially shot creation and shot prevention, but rugby strategy cannot be condensed in the same fashion; rugby’s multiple modes of scoring – and multiple methods of achieving the same scoring action – bring with them more strategic options. One coach may decide that the most efficient way of optimising his team’s performance is by gaining territorial advantage through their open-play kicking game, while another will opt to try and break through the opposition’s defensive line with passing skills and good spacing; a player’s actions and decisions must be judged with reference to this tactical framework to a greater degree than in other sports.
Statistical analysis in rugby is struggling to get past the stage of ‘Player X played well because he carried the ball Y times & made Z tackles’, but potential is there at a team-tactical level: Murray Kinsella’s detailed try analyses show this, as they attempt to take the key elements of a team’s attack and use data to assess them. At a tactical level, there are very few occasions on which we state definitively ‘Team A’s gameplan was to do X and Y in order to cause outcome Z’, using visual evidence to support the thesis, in the manner that sites such as Spielverlagerung can with football.
The New Zealand franchises dominate the overall standings as the Super Rugby season approaches its June break, holding three of the four Australasian wildcard spots. There have been some outstanding intra-conference clashes in the competition so far, with the South Island Derby between the Highlanders and Crusaders in Round 12 a particular highlight for its intensity and quality on both sides of the ball. As we will see by examining some basic statistics, it is not only their success but their distinctive styles of play which make these two teams among the most interesting to watch in the competition.