Question: what do the Glasgow Warriors in Scotland, Leinster in Ireland, and the Hurricanes and Chiefs in New Zealand all have in common?
Answer: they are all driving rugby innovation forward at club level in their respective countries.
Gregor Townsend will be anointed the new head coach of Scotland when Kiwi Vern Cotter leaves for Montpellier and the Top 14 in June – reputedly on a contract that will make him the first coach to earn more than €1 million per annum.
Townsend is the brains behind the Glasgow Warriors, who were good enough to reach the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup for the first time in their history in 2017, and provided nine run-on starters for the first Scotland team to win more matches than it lost in the Six Nations since 2006.
Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen have reinvented Leinster in the afterglow of their winning European tradition, reversing two humiliating losses suffered against Wasps in last year’s European Champions Cup with a resounding victory over the same opponents in the ECC quarter-final two weekends ago.
It should be noted that none other than England coach Eddie Jones has recently been taking a keen interest in discovering just what makes Leinster so good over the past few weeks, which is a generally a sign that you are close to the cutting edge of innovation in the game as a whole.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs and Hurricanes show few signs of slowing down in the 2017 Super Rugby tournament, with both clubs having suffered only one defeat apiece over the six matches they’ve played so far.
All of these sides are programmed to keep the ball in hand and maximise their skills in unstructured situations – that is, in scenarios well way from the set-piece and in the more formal responses it engenders. Turnover and kick returns are their specialities.
Up until now, this is the area where the New Zealand provinces have been the undisputed kings of Super Rugby. Thankfully for Australia, at a time when off-field matters are casting such a pall over the rugby landscape Down Under, there were strong hints in Round 7 that some of the New Zealand magic was at long last beginning to rub off on their rivals from across the Tasman.
Exactly one year ago last weekend, the Brumbies were being thumped by 23 points to 48 by the Chiefs at home – a game I analysed in some depth here. This time around, the boot was on the other foot, as the Ponies took a rudderless Reds team apart in the second period, routing the Queenslanders by 43 points to 10.
The 2016 Chiefs scored four tries and 28 points in only nine phases from kick returns or turnovers, while the Brumbies failed consistently, going 0-7 in the same area where the Chiefs proved to be so potent. Although frequently dominant in ‘structure’ (at set-piece and breakdown), the Brumbies lacked the extended finishing power in ‘chaos’ (offloading, improvisation and support play) to make their superiority count.
What a difference a year makes! Against the Reds, the Brumbies scored four tries of their own (and 26 points) either directly from kick returns (in the 44th minute) or from positions close to the goal-line established by them (52nd, 71st and 79th minutes).
For those who have become attuned to, or deadened by the Brumbies’ emphasis on abrasive defence, winning penalties from scrum and driving the subsequent lineouts, the change of attitude came as a pleasant surprise. I am tempted to believe that the influence of ex-All Black coach Mick Byrne is being felt in a concrete way in Canberra.
The benefits that the new emphasis on unstructured attack is having on the self-belief of the team cannot be doubted. The Brumbies are not heavily talent-laden (except for the front five), but in their tradition of over-achievement they are finding a way to make the best of themselves. Their self-belief can be broken down into several mini-categories:
Empowerment to offload in contact – ten in total over the four sequences
The climax comes in the joyful basketball sequence of inter-passing between Scott Fardy, Dewet Roos and Henry Speight right at the end of the game.
Improvement of ‘forward hands’
Five of the offloads are authored by forwards, including two by props (Allan Alaalatoa and Ben Alexander) and another two by a forward (Scott Fardy) who is not primarily considered to be a off-loading back-rower. A little encouragement goes a long a way, in a department in which New Zealand retains its greatest advantage over the rest of the world. It will certainly help extend Fardy’s career at his new club Leinster next season!
Exercising the ‘support play muscles’
The principles of correct support play are best learnt in unstructured situations. In the sequence from 50:02-50:18, there is no real overlap as Aidan Toua goes to make the second pass at 50:08. What makes the true difference, is the way that the Brumbies in the ‘hot zone’ work back towards the ball and become available once Andrew Smith makes his inside cut and offload.
All of a sudden there are four Brumbies in the frame at 50:12 (Joe Powell at the top, Robbie Abel in the middle and Tom Banks at the bottom) with Toua demanding a second touch – and three of those players are closer to the ball than the nearest Red, #12 Duncan Paia’aua.
Raising the standard at 9 and 15
The new emphasis has two important ricochet effects – it develops more active, visionary halfbacks and it rewards more enterprising fullbacks. Toua has never looked like fulfilling his potential while all that was demanded of him was a rather mediocre left-footed kicking game towards the left sideline. Against the Reds, he looked like a man in the before and after adverts.
His ability to pass flat across the face of the defender (Scott Higginbotham at 43:29, Samu Kerevi at 50:09), and to pick a line to support the receiver (Allan Alaalatoa and Andrew Smith) after passing look world-class, and suddenly Toua looks like a potential Wallaby back-three candidate rather than a marginal Super Rugby starter.
Joe Powell’s great ‘engine’ at 9 will also be seen to its best when he is required to support the counter from halfback – I already suspect he gets to the base of more breakdowns than any other scrum-half in Australia.
All of this could perhaps be dismissed as a coincidence or a one-off, were it not for the fact that very much the same pattern occurred in the second half at Wellington, a period which the Waratahs ‘won’ 21-5 against the Hurricanes.
The desire to counter from initially unpromising positions is there, with both Bernard Foley at 41:46 and Bryce Hegarty at 62:42 coming on boldly from a situation as the ‘last man in the backfield’.
The positive pressure on quality forward hands is present from Tolu Latu and Ned Hanigan at 59:22, as is the pressure on work ethic to get back to the ball at 41:50 (#9 Jake Gordon and #14 Taqele Naiyaravoro) – even Hegarty contributes with a subtle block on #3 Toomaga-Allen well upfield!
The raising of the standard at 9 and 15 is notable, with both Hegarty and Gordon enjoying the aspects of decision-making, offloading and support play generated by the need to keep tempo high after a kick by the opposition at 41:52 and 66:18 (from a quick lineout).
There was some solid evidence in Round 7 of Super Rugby that Australia is starting to enter the modern professional era, the era ruled by New Zealand for the past six or seven years.
Like the emerging powers in the Northern Hemisphere (Glasgow and Leinster), Australian teams are beginning to see the light. If you want to elevate the level of your individual skills (particularly forwards), and empower the players to make on-field decisions, the boldest way forward is to insist on attacking in unstructured scenarios.
If you want to produce great 9s and 15s, focus on exploiting the opportunities presented by chaos.
The Brumbies look to have bitten down hard on that necessity, and finally appear to be moving away from the set-piece game that arrived with Jake White. They have entered the modern era.
In their courageous second half comeback against the Canes, the Waratahs may also have experienced their moment on the road to Damascus.
Whatever the strife and turmoil that Australian rugby is experiencing off the field, on the field the repeated humiliations doled out by their cousins on the far side of the Tasman Sea may finally be removing the bandages from its eyes.