Aaron Mauger has quickly stamped his authority on this Highlanders side. He promised tweaks to the traditional southern gameplan as both attack and head coach, and started off by providing a structure that the Blues midfield simply could not get to grips with.
Item one against Tana Umaga’s side is how do you keep a midfield that consists of two big pieces of humanity, Sonny Bill Williams and George Moala – internationals who have 102 Super Rugby appearances between them – quiet for 80 minutes?
First, you drop Matt Faddes, who ran at centre and scored three tries against a strong Crusaders side in the Farmlands Cup win preseason, and you select two sound but still relative novices in Tei Walden and Rob Thompson.
These two closed down the middle of the park and restricted the Blues’ international midfielders to a grand total of 24 run metres for the game, along with only a single clean break and a solitary defender beaten – a great day’s work for the young men.
This suffocation was manifested as SBW threw a lazy forward pass in the midfield on the hour, trying to make something happen, and the Highlanders went ahead from a try off the resulting scrum feed, not be headed again – game over.
It was at this stage Williams was dragged, and thanks to some kind sponsors I was sitting close enough to the Blues bench to know he didn’t look happy with his work.
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But the real Mauger masterclass was in the midfield attack, running in a series of switch-back behind the ruck plays all day, which not only completely baffled the Blues’ defensive pattern, but delivered four of the Highlanders’ five tries to the two young midfielders.
It should also be noted that if you are going to run a series of midfield behind-the-ruck switches, it helps if the world’s best halfback is directing the traffic.
First try (39 seconds on the first clip)
The Highlanders go two phases left, committing SBW to a poor tackle attempt. As he runs back into the line, with his back turned, we see him wave his fellow backline defenders inside him, not only leaving a huge hole on the open side post, but getting his defensive numbers wrong. The Highlanders then switch quickly right for an easy score.
The Highlanders have 10, 12, 13 and 14 in the picture up against the Blues defenders numbered 1, 3 and 4 – there was only going to be one outcome. You can see Moala arriving in cover but miles too late.
Second try (1.36 on the first clip)
The Highlanders again go left into the middle of the park, a great line seeing all the Blues defenders commit in the 10 channel.
At the top of the screen you can see Rob Thompson on the left with SBW numbered off against him on the right, both the nearest backs to the ruck for their respective sides.
Thompson runs the switch in behind the ruck, SBW reacts too late to his man moving and that, as they say, is all she wrote. Magnificent try – same concept as the first.
Third try (22 minutes on the second clip)
At the Blues scrum put in, Moala is packing at blindside after the yellow card, and the Highlanders split their midfield either side of the scrum as the forwards attack and deliver the tighthead.
The first phase is quick to the left, with Thompson doing the hit-up this time, committing SBW to the tackle. Aaron Smith rifles back behind the ruck to the right, hitting Walden on the chest as Moala has been to too slow to reset after his scrum duties.
Well thought out, awesomely executed.
(For those wanting to see the unnecessary forward pass thrown by SBW that led to the Highlanders’ go-ahead try, it’s a 25.55 on the clip.)
Fourth try (27.15 on the second clip)
The Highlanders get just enough movement on the scrum for it to be an advantage. Aaron Smith runs from the base, which means the Blues’ midfield is held well behind the gainline, Thompson takes the ball to the line, executes a clever chip, the Highlanders midfield has all the momentum and Walden scores his second.
In recent years, this largely underpowered Highlander side has reaped the benefits of the inventiveness of Tony Brown as the attack coach. While it’s too early for any definitive declarations, Mauger has made a good start and his young midfield delivered in spades.