In March last year, a player welfare symposium in Paris organised by World Rugby looked at ways of creating a greater contest for the ball at the ruck.
The intent was to limit incidences of jackalling players standing over the ball being easy targets for the flying shoulders of players cleaning them out, thus exposing themselves to the risk of serious injury and early retirement.
Delegates were encouraged to consider the outlawing of jackalling and returning to the ruck being a contest between two sets of players bound together (hence depowered), using their feet: ironic given that rucking was outlawed primarily because of the perception that it was dangerous and creating negative publicity for the game.
As is typically the way with talkfests, nothing material eventuated, although general frustration still exists with the way in which the odds are stacked in favour of the attacking side at the breakdown. Notably, last year’s Six Nations recorded a 94 per cent recycle success rate for the attacking side at the breakdown.
One way to tip the odds back in favour of a greater contest for possession – and less predictable outcomes in the run of play – is for referees to shift their interpretations, with respect to how much leeway they provide the tackled player (to release the ball immediately) and the defensive players (to release the tackled player, to support their own body weight, and the amount of time they allow to forage for the ball before calling them out of it).
Another way is for the teams themselves to place more emphasis on the breakdown, and to use it as a point of difference at which to attack opponents who may be expecting to go through the motions and duly receive 94 per cent of their ball back as a matter of course.
Accordingly, the standout feature of what was a highly enjoyable Round 1 of Super Rugby was the impact of the breakdown and the manner in which it was policed. The lesson seems clear. Sides in possession who do not support the ball carrier in numbers, and at speed, are in for a long season.
The Chiefs, Sunwolves and Crusaders – winning sides – were all successful by a ratio of near to or better than two to one in winning breakdown turnovers. Furthermore, in the case of the Sunwolves particularly, the stats only told part of the tale.
Their success was magnified by the number of times they, even without winning a turnover, slowed the Rebels’ ball down so much that they neutered any attacking threat.
The breakdown turnover is no longer the domain of a few specialist jackals – Richie McCaw, David Pocock, Malcolm Marx and others – but an opportunity for any player, no matter the number on their back, to contribute to their side’s defensive effort.
The impact of specialist coaching is apparent in the way all players now enter the area with a low centre of gravity and a wide base, and time their entry for maximum effect (not too early, not too late).
Furthermore, improvements in the strength and conditioning has allowed them to grasp hold of the ball and hold fast, without their arms being brushed off by the arriving clean-out players.
Combine that with a willingness by a number of the weekend’s referees to allow defenders to compete hard for the ball with their hands (providing they were on their feet), and to warn them off before opting to penalise them, no side can take the ball into contact and take any recycle – let alone a quick recycle – for granted.
The unheralded (or should that be unknown?) Sunwolves entered their match in Fukuoka with a clear plan to attack the breakdown, and with Ben O’Keeffe’s imprimatur, frustrated the Rebels out of the match, with halves Frank Lomani and Matt Toomua receiving very little quick ball with which to work.
Glimpses from Matt Philip and Isi Naisarani aside, the Rebels pack lacked the presence and punch needed to overcome what was their main issue in the latter half of last season: winning the gain line collision and generating front-foot ball.
If their second-half comeback was blunted by an unfortunate, against-the-flow try to the tip-toeing James Dargaville, they only had themselves to blame for the poor defensive connection that conceded a try to Garth April: the score that put the Sunwolves out of reach, final score 36-27.
The Sunwolves fed off their breakdown success and translated that energy into a number of sweeping attacks where unlikely passes were thrown and stuck.
It was an impressive performance in front of what was an excellent, enthusiastic crowd, and while a number of their regular drawcards are now missing, and there is very little to play for in the long term, they are clearly going to be a handful for many sides over the course of the season.
All of which serves to highlight the folly of SANZAAR’s position with respect to the Sunwolves.
It is true that rugby fans have been bleating long and hard for a return to a 14-team round-robin competition, that the South African Rugby Union is not interested in having their teams travel to Japan to play, and the Japanese Rugby Football Union is more concerned about developing their domestic competition than committing resources and players to Super Rugby.
But in an era where all sports (not just rugby) battle to draw fans to live matches, and to engage those fans with their competitions, it seems unfathomably incongruous that a franchise that has organically developed a sizeable, vocal and passionate supporter base in a country where interest in rugby is at an all-time high – and that continues to play an exhilarating brand of rugby – should be cast aside.
If it is the case that NZ Rugby and Rugby Australia have acceded to the wishes of South Africa by not working harder with the JRFU to keep the Sunwolves in Super Rugby, then surely the quid pro quo must be that they have received South Africa’s re-commitment to honour their word to stay true to the SANZAAR alliance until 2030 at least?
Another side well beaten at the breakdown, despite the efforts of Michael Hooper, was the Waratahs. Theirs was a puzzling performance – very good in parts, but lacking urgency in other areas, allowing chasing Crusaders to sweep forward and regather kicks without any real contest.
In the second half, they inexplicably allowed Codie Taylor two attempts to drop kick a 22 restart to himself to trigger a try at the other end of Trafalgar Park.
Winger Mark Nawaqanitawase enjoyed a memorable two-try debut, although he won’t be so pleased about sewing up the award for the worst kick of the 2020 Super Rugby season in the very first round.
As for the Crusaders, their 43-25 win contained their hallmark transition from defence to attack, and while their forward depth will be tested this year, they remain the competition’s benchmark.
The Brumbies went missing for the second quarter of their match in Canberra, but the Reds don’t yet have the assuredness or experience to capitalise on what was a solid position at half-time, falling 27-24. Their scrum is a formidable weapon, with a very fit-looking Taniela Tupou serving it up to Scott Sio, as well as ranging wide with ball in hand.
The Brumbies turned the tide in the second half through a lift in intensity and work-rate, led by the excellent Pete Samu. And in Tom Wright and Solomone Kata – both ex-NRL players but two totally different types of winger – they look to have superior strike power on the wings.
In Auckland, the Blues did what they usually do at this time of year: start promisingly but without the class or experience to follow through. Again, the Chiefs spanked them at the breakdown, and with the addition of the experience of Anton Lienert-Brown and Aaron Cruden in the second half and the adoption of a more direct approach, there was an inevitability about the 37-29 final result.
In South Africa we learnt that the Bulls’ Morne Steyn can still kick (not enough to stave off a 23-15 loss to the Sharks), and that Bongi Mbonambi still can’t throw (not enough to prevent a 27-0 win against the Hurricanes).
Referee for the Cape Town fixture Jaco Peyper was another to champion the jackal, blowing no less than six penalties in favour of the defending player on the ball at the turnover in the first half alone.
The final match was in Buenos Aires, where last season’s runners-up minus a couple of familiar faces showed that they will once again be contenders with a strong second-half shut out of the Lions, completing a 38-8 victory.
Particularly impressive was replacement flyhalf Domingo Motti, called into action early, who not for the first time showed skill, calm assurance and a probing boot.
Flyhalf was an extreme point of interest too for Australian fans, with the hope that at least one or more of the new contenders will develop into an international class player.
All of Noah Lolesio, Isaac Lucas and Will Harrison acquitted themselves well, and if the Super Rugby table has a familiar look to it with only one Australian side winning, at least fans can feel reasonably optimistic about longer term prospects in what has been a troublesome position for Australia in recent years.
It is far too early to be passing meaningful judgment, but Lolesio claimed Round 1 honours. His decisive injection into the back line and pinpoint cut-out pass to create space for Wright to score was the type of play more usually associated with playmakers like Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga.
Fans of the losing sides will naturally feel disappointed, but with such an early start to the season it would be folly to be sharpening any knives this soon. Many sides suffered the usual first round handling errors and lineout misfires, and will be focused this week on being more precise and accurate in their work.
Even a ten per cent improvement in ball retention will have the potential to drastically change outcomes for the sides who get this right the fastest.
SANZAAR’s Super Rugby game manager (that’s code for referee’s boss) Lyndon Bray must be delighted with the way his referees performed, there being no obvious moments of controversy and no issues around high tackles or TMO interaction.
It seems also that he provided his charges with a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal to read during the off-season. Based on what we saw in Round 1, Super Rugby coaches who ignore this emphasis do so at their peril.