Like George Washington famously fessing up to his father about chopping down a cherry tree, Chiefs’ halfback and captain, Brad Weber is always great value for his frank and honest post-match assessments. Like all good halfbacks, he couldn’t tell a lie if he tried.
Speaking immediately after his side’s impressive 40-19 win over the Brumbies, Weber was careful not to disrespect his Australian opponents but gave the game away about where expectations are set, admitting that his side was focused not only on winning, but adding bonus points for tries scored.
After two completed rounds it is apparent that an unbeaten run of five wins on its own, won’t be sufficient to make the final. Accumulation of bonus points is critical, and all five New Zealand franchises are not only hellbent on maximising their points output, they’re for the most part, succeeding.
In the box seat at the moment are the Blues and Hurricanes, but all five franchises remain in contention, and will be hunting for the maximum five points per match over the next three weeks.
That’s bad news for the besieged Australian franchises, all flat out trying to figure out how to slow things down to their pace, let alone how they might go about conjuring up a win or two.
It sounds easy; execute at set piece, retain possession when you get it; exit cleanly from defence, well over the sideline, somewhere near halfway; win the collision, and compete hard enough at the breakdown to slow down the oppositions’ recycle.
In practice, things couldn’t be more different. Matches are being played on the New Zealand sides’ terms, resulting in stressed defences struggling to get properly set, and put shoulders into places where arms alone aren’t enough to get the job done.
At the risk of over-simplifying the situation, there are three main factors feeding into the current disparity; all of them related.
The first was nicely summarized yesterday in an article by Highlander, with respect to how the breakdown is being dominated by the New Zealand sides. This area is being refereed in line with World Rugby’s 2020 guidelines designed to ‘clean up’ the breakdown, which was adopted in the UK and New Zealand, albeit at the cost of high penalty counts and a multitude of complaints from fans and broadcasters at the time.
This was in stark contrast to Super Rugby AU, which barely saw out one week of the same crackdown, before reverting to more of a ‘free for all’ approach.
Now, a year or so later, Australian sides are faced with the realisation that the game has shifted somewhat, to where referees are encouraging fast recycle, and that they do not have (in many cases) the type of halfback to take advantage of it on their ball, nor the capacity to reset quickly enough in defence, on opposition ball.
This isn’t to say that Australian halfbacks all need to emulate Aaron Smith to ensure success. Nic White, for example has particular set of strengths and it would make no sense to try to turn him into something he isn’t.
But of Australia’s current crop of halfbacks, only Jake Gordon and Brumbies’ replacement half Isaak Fines-Leleiwasa cover the ground from breakdown to breakdown with the pace and intent needed to take advantage of quick ball, and to stress defences.
Which flows nicely into the second key point of difference, being speed. Not in any ‘point to point’ sense, although Richie Mounga’s ability to ghost away from defenders from a standing start is priceless.
Rather it is the ability of the New Zealand sides to transition from defence to attack at lightning speed, that this weekend, crippled the Waratahs and Rebels in particular. There is nothing new in this; ex-Wallabies captain Stephen Moore was one who made an art form of the losing captain’s speech, where he would talk about how his side had competed well for most of the game, only to be punished in a few instances of unstructured play.
Everyone understands how New Zealand rugby DNA demands of their players the forethought and creativity to seek out such opportunities. Sure, there are days when this isn’t enough, and England, Argentina and Australia have all found a way to limit those opportunities in Test matches over the last eighteen months.
But at franchise level, where the relative playing depth of the two nations is more starkly exposed, the rapidity of transition often has the effect of making defenders appear as if they are standing still. They’re not, and it’s not a fitness issue either, but the relentless pressure flows into increased physical and mental fatigue, which in turn manifests itself via small gaps in the defensive line that allow for arms to be freed to feed hard-running supporting players, which in turn flows into points.
This all doesn’t have to be one-way; for example Reds halfback Tate McDermott flashed under the posts for his try before the Crusaders’ defence was able to retire to the try-line.
But a combined 59 tries to 30, in ten completed matches, tells us all we need to know about how quickly half-opportunities are being turned into tries, by the New Zealand franchises.
The third factor is a clear difference in intensity; again, related to the first two aspects, but also an indicator of what is ‘normal’ for players on either side of the Tasman.
If anyone was expecting the Chiefs to be out of sorts following their long trip to and from Perth, up against a usually well-drilled Brumbies side coming off a heartening near-miss in Christchurch, they were sadly mistaken.
The Brumbies conceded three first half tries to the Chiefs’ set piece, and their ball runners, back and forward, consistently punched through contact, to provide Weber and Damian McKenzie with fast, front-foot ball.
It was sobering to watch the Brumbies half a yard behind all night, and failing to come close to matching the aggression and intensity of the Chiefs, for whom Luke Jacobsen was outstanding.
Perhaps the best illustration came at the end of the match, when Chiefs’ centre Alex Nankiville smashed Tom Banks over the side-line with a furious rib-rattler. Banks’ reaction was to meekly appeal to the referee for a penalty for a ‘no-arms’ tackle, which it clearly wasn’t.
Complaining about being tackled too hard is very un-Dan McKellar-like, and if the Brumbies do anything this week, it will be to work at restoring their physicality and intensity at the contest.
In Perth, the Highlanders also demonstrated a clear strategy and focus, with three first-half tries coming from attacking lineout variations. While the home side hung in with customary grit and perseverance, and denied the Highlanders their precious bonus point, the result was never in doubt.
It was a similar story in Brisbane, the opening half-hour a wave of white and red, the Crusaders intent on playing the match on their terms, not letting the Reds settle into the match at all. Most impressive was their ability to stretch and create space in between defenders, which bought their back-row into the game with telling effect.
Harry Wilson tried manfully to return serve, but he was outnumbered by a hard-running loose forward trio, including Cullen Grace and Ethan Blackadder, who are forming a compelling combination.
With Jacobsen, Dalton Papalii and Shannon Frizell also continuing to perform strongly, the All Blacks’ selectors have some interesting discussions ahead of them.
So, where to from here for Super Rugby trans-Tasman? The Force are now on the road, and while the Hurricanes do blow hot and cold, and the Force will almost certainly continue to be competitive, it is hard to see where they will find enough points.
The Rebels were the most improved Australian side on the weekend, although that’s predominantly a factor of coming off such a low base. Again, it’s hard to see them scoring enough points to hurt the Highlanders, but with another week to adjust to the different pace and a reasonably settled line-up likely, expect to see a further advance this week.
The Brumbies put in their worst performance of the season and are typically a side that goes about recognising and addressing deficiencies from week to week. They’ll be another improver against the Blues – providing there is no repeat of their passive play at the advantage line.
Whatever the Waratahs do, it’s hard to imagine it making a shred of difference; they simply aren’t in the same league as the Crusaders.
Which leaves us with the Reds, who host the Chiefs, in Townsville. Coach Brad Thorn captured things perfectly after Saturday night’s hiding, stating, “Tonight you get a punch in the face, but you sit in the locker room afterwards and think, ‘that’s it, that’s where we want to be.”
With the Chiefs’ starting front row of Aiden Ross, Sione Mafileo and Samisoni Taukei’aho currently humming, there’s no better time than this week for the Reds to attempt to restore the scrum platform that has provided the base for so much of their play this year.
Thorn’s comments also serve as a sensible – and essential – blueprint for Australian rugby’s short and medium-term future. The predictable response of some media commentators and fans is that exposure to superior New Zealand teams is hurtful for the game.
Too many losses piled on top of each other and fans will simply turn away from the game, is the narrative. That may well be the case for many, but it fails to address the obvious point.
At some stage, you have to get better. Rugby at the professional level is a global sport, not a domestic one. Australian rugby can’t hide under the doona and one day in the future, pop its head out, at a World Cup or in a potential champion’s league franchise competition, and somehow hope to be competitive.
The same argument applies to those who would scale back Australia’s professional franchises to two or three, because that matches the number of players up to performing at this level.
We are seeing now what happens when Australian rugby resides in a different space to the rest of the world with respect to the breakdown. And when it comes up against sides who consistently play at higher speeds and with greater intensity.
The only way to adjust and measure up to that is to embrace the challenge, to the point where the unfamiliar eventually becomes familiar. If there is more pain along the way – and with the opposition hell bent on scoring tries to gain bonus points, there probably will be – then so be it.
That’s the game, professional rugby isn’t easy, and it isn’t easy to turn around a generation of underdevelopment on the run.
The need to sheet blame and express frustration are understandable, but they are easy things to do. Super Rugby trans-Tasman is truth serum for Australian rugby. It needs to be swallowed, not avoided.