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Opinion

What the Australian teams can learn from the Blues and Highlanders

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22nd June, 2021
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A gripping final wrapped up what has been an intriguing Super Rugby season for so many reasons.

Whether you think the Blues are the best team either side of the Tasman in 2021 or not is immaterial; they’re the best team of the last six weeks, and they now have a trophy to put into an otherwise dusty cabinet to prove it.

As much as the final deserved the Highlanders’ second half comeback, and as hard as they fought to get back into position to regain the lead for five minutes, there was always the feeling entering the closing stages that the Blues had more shots to fire.

The Highlanders had more shots to fire too, but their battle was always going to be getting into position to fire them.

For now, the Blues have won a title which, in itself, will ensure the age-old Auckland-Canterbury rivalry will live on into another generation as Blues-Crusaders.

Of course, what shape Super Rugby takes next season – and if indeed it’s still called Super Rugby – remains anyone’s guess.

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Rugby Australia gave themselves a deadline of the end of June, which seemed a long way off at the time but suddenly is only a week away. Decisions would have to be imminent, though it’s my understanding a 12-team trans-Tasman model including the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika is the overwhelmingly preferred option.

But formats for the future and preferred models are for another day, because watching the final evoked a number of themes worth of discussion – specifically in the context of the lessons the Australian sides should heed going into the off-season and 2022.

What we know is that the Australian teams, generally speaking, have different methods of going about their business.

The Western Force play a hard breakdown game that aims to pressure the opposition and force mistakes. Queensland backs their superior scrum to create opportunities for their strong ball carriers, and the Brumbies sit somewhere in between, with a strong set piece and breakdown game forming the backbone of everything they do from there.

The Melbourne Rebels and NSW Waratahs are still trying to properly install their playing identities. The Waratahs found the try line a more in Trans-Tasman, but that’s still an issue when they concede as many tries as they have in 2021. The Rebels are still in a period of coaching transition, though it’s notable they’re playing a lot more rugby and playing differently with young Carter Gordon at 10.

There are common threads through the five teams, but none so distinct that you could point to it and say, ‘that’s the Australian way of playing’. This has been something of ongoing thing within Australian rugby, in that everyone talks about wanting to play the Australian way, but no-one can definitively say what it is.

Michael Cheika was a huge advocate of the Australian way, and even dedicated his Wallabies coaching tenure to it, yet it wasn’t ever particularly clear what that ‘way’ was.

Michael Cheika

(Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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Of the five New Zealand sides and even the provincial sides below Super Rugby, however, there are clear linkages that trace all the way to the All Blacks. Strong set piece and breakdown, and an attack based on speed and skill. They all do it, and they all do it because there’s a concerted, almost coordinated way about educating coaches on the way through. Everyone is on the same page because the page is effectively laid out in a curriculum.

Beyond the central theme, there are local variations which give each team their identity and it’s the extremes of these variations that we saw in the final on Saturday night, and that our sides in Australia can learn from.

For one thing, patience is a virtue. The Highlanders have consistently shown that you can win games without the ball, and they even regained the lead in the back-end of the game despite having less than 40per cent of possession for the match. With the majority of the game played on their side of halfway, the men from the south still deployed an excellent exit strategy. Nearly 70 per cent of the game was played in their half, but it didn’t feel like the Highlanders were ever pinned to their line for long periods of time.

Their exit strategy is part of it, but that exit strategy isn’t just for their own 22. By a decent margin, the Highlanders kicked the most in general play through Trans-Tasman, and of the five Kiwi sides, they carried and offloaded the least and made the fewest metres with the ball.

They show time and time again that you don’t need to hold possession for long periods to build pressure, certainly not in your own half, and this is something the Wallabies and the Australian sides can easily adopt. The Highlanders didn’t do anything of any great not for the half an hour or so from just before halftime, yet they outscored the Blues 12-3 and even had the lead before the Blues similarly realised that points by any method was crucial to close out the match.

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On the other side of the contest, the Blues dominated second phase by busting a tackle every fourth carry, and looking to offload at any opportunity. They created 12 clean breaks to the Highlanders’ none, and that played a major role both in getting out to their early lead and in resetting to regain the lead and lock in their first title since the days of baggy jerseys.

Much like the Highlanders’ kicking game, the Blues only trailed the madcap Chiefs in the offload stakes, and are comfortably ahead of the best Australian side in terms of carries per offload (which is the Waratahs, for whatever that’s worth).

Laurie Fisher told me a few weeks ago after the Brumbies were left disappointed after their tour of New Zealand, that the Australian sides don’t need to re-jig their games to better compete with the Kiwis, but instead just needed a few little tweaks here and there. Half a metre more with the ball under the arm; half a second quicker to the breakdown. Nothing drastic and certainly nothing earth-shattering or requiring urgent remedial action.

Be prepared to defend more. Kick more, for sure, but more importantly, kick smarter.

Look for offloads more regularly, but definitely make more effort to present as an offload option.

These aren’t huge changes than any team couldn’t make, and certainly one currently in camp preparing for an upcoming series of matches.

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Slight adjustments and tiny improvements could have massive and lasting effects. We’d be mad if we didn’t try and make them.

Don’t overhaul, just heed the lesson.

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