Tag: New Zealand

What to expect from Super Rugby Aotearoa

What to expect from Super Rugby Aotearoa

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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.

Whether you’re a Super Rugby regular who has risen ritualistically for years to watch the likes of Larkham, Carter and du Preez or a casual fan of the sport, the advent of Super Rugby Aotearoa is a heady prospect. The ten-week double-round-robin competition featuring the five New Zealand franchises – the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes – kicks off next Saturday at 6:05am (UK time), with a number of interesting rule variations.

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Going forward

Only a few months have passed since the end of the World Cup, but at the outset of the 2020 Super Rugby season – with some of the most familiar names of the last decade absent from the field of play, and without the long shadow cast by Steve Hansen as international head coach – there has already been significant change in the New Zealand rugby landscape.

After placing the national team’s performance over the last four years in its context, it is necessary to look in more detail at the specifics of their 2019 World Cup campaign and at lower levels of the game in the country. Where do the All Blacks go from here?

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Stepping back

Saturday’s epic World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand did not want for defining moments, but the tackle of Sam Underhill on Kieran Read – technically superlative, physically dominant – which sent the All Blacks’ captain into reverse in the 56th minute felt particularly symbolic. It is easy to construct a compelling narrative around such a moment: the world champions set up in the attacking shape which had given them so much success with ball in hand in the tournament to date, but their talisman was floored by his younger counterpart in the blink of an eye.

In many ways, it seems a fitting end to this entire World Cup cycle for New Zealand, with its emotionally salient moments to this point – at least to observers and advocates of Northern Hemisphere rugby – being a 2016 loss to Ireland in Chicago, a drawn series against the Lions in 2017 and a 2018 loss to Ireland in Dublin. All are new experiences for the Kiwi side in the professional era, and all contribute to a framing of this as a period in which “the chasing pack has reeled them in“.

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2019 Rugby World Cup preview: New Zealand

2019 Rugby World Cup preview: New Zealand

We all know who the favourites are for the Rugby World Cup, and it’s not us.

After Ireland’s 19-10 victory over Wales at the Aviva Stadium in their final warm-up before heading to Japan vaulted them to the top of the World Rugby rankings for the first time, head coach Joe Schmidt was quick to disavow their significance. However, in view of the clear narrative shift that has taken hold in the world of rugby over the last twelve months, it is undoubtedly appropriate that the 2019 Rugby World Cup will begin with New Zealand – who remain the best-performing team across the entirety of the four-year cycle – in a position other than number 1 in the world.

In an excellent post after Wales briefly took top spot at the end of August, Dave Thomas studied the historical value of pre-tournament rankings – and, significantly, of teams’ ranking points – in predicting the outcomes of head-to-head tournament match-ups. While other prediction models continue to back New Zealand as World Cup winners over the field, in light of Thomas’ research it is difficult to interpret the outcome of a tournament in which the top three teams by ranking are separated by 1.34 ranking points (and the top five by 2.15 points) as anything other than an open question.

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Grounding the Beauden Barrett debate in context

The debate around Beauden Barrett’s hold on the All Blacks’ fly-half shirt – and the challenges by Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga – is undoubtedly a valid one, with McKenzie having torn the French defence to pieces in their last test and Mo’unga putting together an exceptional string of postseason performances in Super Rugby.

However, two important factors are rarely noted in discussion of Barrett’s performance: the overall decline in performance of the Hurricanes in Super Rugby (particularly in defence), and the clear improvement in the areas of the fly-half’s game which were weakest when he assumed the starting jersey in 2016.

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Statistical analysis: New Zealand’s balanced attack

While there have been several hints that the All Blacks are planning an evolution of their attacking strategy as they begin their 2018 season, the underlying principles which have made their ball progression with ball in hand the most effective in international rugby during the current RWC cycle are unlikely to change. By examining data from New Zealand’s fixtures against Tier 1 opposition between 2016 and 2018 – and comparing it to the same data for the two other top teams in this period, England and Ireland – a picture emerges of the feature which sets the All Blacks apart when they attack with the ball.

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